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Decision No. 982

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April 28 2004
In Re: IN Re: Request from the California-Pacific Annual Conference for a Declaratory Decision on the Meaning, Application, and Effect of ¶¶ 346 and 359.1 of the 2000 Discipline as to Whether a Local Pastor Has the Right to Trial after Being Discontinued from Appointment.

Digest of Case

A local pastor under appointment, who receives a notice in writing from his/her bishop or district superintendent informing him/her that she/he is being discontinued from that appointment and that his/her license for pastoral ministry is being discontinued for the reason that said local pastor is accused of violating specifically one or more cited chargeable offenses (¶ 2702.1), does not have a right to the supervisory response mandated in ¶ 359.1 unless the notice clearly states that it is a written and signed complaint claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties, in which case the notice must also inform the local pastor of the process for filing the complaint and its purpose. If the notice clearly states that it is a written complaint and it is properly signed, the local pastor has a right to the supervisory process. If the supervisory process results in a judicial complaint, the local pastor has the right to trial as provided in ¶¶ 2702.1, 2703.2, 2704.2, 2706.2c and 2713. The termination of an appointment does not negate a local pastor’s right to trial.

Statement of Facts

On October 31, 2002, a local pastor serving under appointment as pastor of a charge in the California-Pacific Annual Conference received a letter from this local pastor’s district superintendent, dated October 30, 2002, which read, in part: After consultation with the chairperson of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee of (name of church) and with Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the Los Angeles Area of the (sic) United Methodist Church, I must inform you that your appointment to serve as the pastor of (name of church) has been terminated as of October 30, 2002. You are given until November 15, 2002, to have all of your personal belongings removed from the church and parsonage and to vacate the premises. Since you no longer have an appointment to serve as local pastor of (name of church), your clergy status in the (sic) UMC is terminated. This decision is made because of your actions in repeatedly speaking against the (sic) United Methodist Church, its teachings and doctrine of the Christian faith, its Bishop and its superintendent, as reported by members of the congregation, including the members of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. What you have been doing is a chargeable offense for pastors, including local pastors, under paragraph 2702.1 (e) and (f) of the Book of Discipline of the (sic) United Methodist Church. This is also a chargeable offense for laypersons, under paragraph 2702.3 (c) and (d). Specifically, when one is given the privilege and responsibility to serve in a United Methodist Church, one is expected to uphold the Order and Discipline of the (sic) United Methodist Church, and to refrain from the dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established doctrine of the (sic) United Methodist Church. The local pastor asked a clergy member of the conference to serve as the local pastor’s advocate under the provision of ¶ 359.2c. Based on the fact that chargeable offenses were cited by the superintendent in this letter, the advocate understood the letter to be a formal complaint, as defined in ¶ 359.1a: “A complaint is a written and signed statement claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties.” With this understanding, the advocate requested a meeting with the bishop to begin the disciplinary process of supervision (¶ 359.1). A few days later, the advocate had a meeting with the bishop and the superintendent involved. Because the local pastor was geographically distant, the local pastor authorized the advocate, in writing, to meet with the bishop on the local pastor’s behalf, in the local pastor’s absence. At this meeting the superintendent said that the letter was simply a notice of termination of appointment of a local pastor under the provision of ¶¶ 341.8 and 346.1. The bishop was not sure whether the letter did or did not constitute a formal complaint as defined in ¶ 359.1a, and took the matter under advisement. The matter was subsequently resolved in a manner acceptable to the bishop, the district superintendent, and the local pastor involved. However, the advocate and another clergy member of the conference asked the California-Pacific Annual Conference (Plenary Session) to send the following request for a declaratory decision under ¶ 2610 to the Judicial Council: It is clear that a Local Pastor has no guarantee of an appointment, and that a license for pastoral ministry “shall remain valid only so long as the appointment continues…”(¶ 341.3). In the fourth restrictive rule to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church, at ¶ 18, all clergy and lay members of the church (including Local Pastors) are granted the privilege of a right to trial if accused of a chargeable offense. This constitutional right is acknowledged at ¶¶ 2702.1, 2703.2, 2704.2, 2706.2c and 2713. If a person serving under appointment as a local pastor receives a notice in writing, from his/her bishop or district superintendent, informing him/her that s/he is being discontinued from that appointment and that his/her license for pastoral ministry is being discontinued for the stated reason that said local pastor is accused of violating specifically one or more cited chargeable offense(s) (¶ 2702.1), does that local pastor have a right to the supervisory process ¶ 359.1) and, if this results in a judicial complaint, the right to trial? Or does the termination of the appointment end the local pastor’s right to trial? Jurisdiction The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under the provisions of ¶ 2610.2(j). Analysis and Rationale In determining the application, meaning and effect of the questions posed by the California-Pacific Annual Conference, two questions of church law must be examined. 1) What constitutes a complaint against a clergy member of an annual conference? The answer to this question is found in ¶ 359.1a: A complaint is a written and signed statement claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties. The person filing the complaint and the clergyperson shall be informed by the district superintendent or bishop of the process for filing the complaint and its purpose. 2) Does a local pastor have a right to the supervisory process and, if this results in a judicial complaint, the right to trial? Par. 18 in the Constitution, the “Fourth Restrictive Rule,” reads: The General Conference shall not do away with the privileges of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of an appeal; neither shall it do away with the privileges of our members of right to trial before the church, or by a committee, and of an appeal. The right to trial was a part of the original Constitution of The Methodist Episcopal Church and has continued unchanged, even as to wording. When this provision was passed, the majority of Methodist clergy were local pastors. There was no question that this provision applied to them. The only question raised was whether a local pastor would be defined as clergy or laity if complaints or charges were to be brought against him. The General Conference defined a chargeable offense committed by a local pastor, in the course of his/her actions as a local pastor, to be one addressed under the judicial procedures for clergy. This discussion was still occurring as recently as 1980, when the General Conference requested the Judicial Council to rule on whether it was constitutional for a bishop to suspend a clergy or local pastor under complaints or charges, pending trial. In Decision 486, the Judicial Council ruled that while the matter relating to clergy membership in the annual conference was not in the purview of the bishop under then ¶ 37 of the 1980 Discipline (2000 Discipline ¶ 31), local pastors were not members of the annual conference, so they might be suspended by the bishop. Subsequent to this decision the General Conference has named local pastors under full-time and part-time appointment (¶ 342) to clergy membership in the Annual Conference (¶ 602) as long as they remain under appointment. Once a complaint is filed, the right to fair process attaches and is not affected by any change in the appointment. Therefore, if a complaint is filed against a local pastor claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties and if the complaint is properly signed and informs the local pastor of the process for filing the complaint and its purpose, it is clear that she/he is entitled to all the constitutional protections of the judicial process of the church.

Decision

A local pastor under appointment, who receives a notice in writing from his/her bishop or district superintendent informing him/her that she/he is being discontinued from that appointment and that his/her license for pastoral ministry is being discontinued for the reason that said local pastor is accused of violating specifically one or more cited chargeable offenses (¶ 2702.1), does not have a right to the supervisory response mandated in ¶ 359.1 unless the notice clearly states that it is a written and signed complaint claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties, in which case the notice must also inform the local pastor of the process for filing the complaint and its purpose. If the notice clearly states that it is a written complaint and it is properly signed, the local pastor has a right to the supervisory process. If the supervisory process results in a judicial complaint, the local pastor has the right to trial as provided in ¶¶ 2702.1, 2703.2, 2704.2, 2706.2c and 2713. The termination of an appointment does not negate a local pastor’s right to trial.

We disagree with the ruling in this opinion. The discontinuance of the appointment of a local pastor severs the conference ministerial relationship and the attendant fair process rights because that individual is no longer a local pastor. The Discipline in Par. 346.1 does not impose upon the bishop any criteria, constraint or guideline for the discontinuance of a local pastor’s appointment. If the bishops’s authority of appointment or discontinuance of local pastors is to be diminished or curtailed, it must be accomplished by the General Conference and not by the Judicial Council. Sally Curtis AsKew Mary A. Daffin Sally Brown Geis Larry Pickens

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