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Decision No. 1216

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October 26 2012
In Re: Request From The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference Clergy Session For A Declaratory Decision On The Effect And Application Of The Annual Conference’s 2010 Policy Statement And Protocol On Appointment Making, In Light Of ¶¶ 337,354 And 355 In The Case Of Elder In Full Connection

Digest of Case

The supervisory and administrative processes contained in the Discipline are carefully and specifically designed to protect the rights of the individual and of the Church. The steps set forth therein must be followed carefully and concisely. To apply the provisions of the Discipline in an inconsistent and unfair manner can have an adverse effect on the conference relations of a clergy member. Important rights are in play and the clergy person, as well as those who have grievance against them, must be treated with the utmost fairness. Voluntary leave of absence has to be made voluntarily, without coercion. The possibility of involuntary leave should not be used to coerce and intimidate a clergy member into requesting voluntary leave of absence. So long as the clergy member otherwise remains in good standing, she is entitled to an appointment and to full restoration of all of her previous status, rights and privileges to which she was entitled. The action of the 2010 Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference that resulted in the elder requesting voluntary leave of absence was improper. In view of the fact that the elder was intimidated and coerced into making the request for voluntary leave of absence, she is entitled to received equitable compensation as required for clergy members in full connection, insurance, housing, pension and other benefits according to annual conference policy and procedures for the period beginning July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011. As she had requested to remain on leave of absence for 2011 and 2012, which requests were approved by the executive sessions, she is not entitled to compensation for these periods. She may request to end her voluntary leave of absence to the Board of Ordained Ministry, who will have the right to grant or deny the request in accordance with the provisions of ¶ 354.

Statement of Facts

In the clergy executive session of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, the members present and voting adopted a resolution that made a request for a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council. The text of the request for a declaratory judgment as culled from the minutes of the Clergy Executive Session and balloting is as follows:

Request for a Declaratory Decision from the Judicial Council on the effect and application of the 2010 Policy Statement and Protocol on appointment making of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church as well as ¶354, ¶355 and ¶337 (2008 Book of Discipline) in the case of (an elder in full connection). Specifically, in 2010 did the Bishop, Cabinet, Board of Ordained Ministry and Conference Relations Committee appropriately follow the protocol for appointment making of the Baltimore-Washington Conference as well as ¶337 (2008 Book of Discipline) in the case of (an elder in full connection)? Did the Bishop, Cabinet, Board of Ordained Ministry and Conference Relations Committee appropriately apply ¶354 and ¶355 in lieu of an appointment for (the elder)? Did the Bishop, Cabinet, Board of Ordained Ministry and Conference Relations Committee appropriately follow the protocol for request of Leave of Absence (¶354 and ¶355 of the Book of Discipline)? Could the Conference Relations Committee and/or Executive Committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry have cancelled the request from (the elder) for Voluntary Leave of Absence in the midst of the process?

The circumstances leading to the request for the declaratory decision are as follows: An elder in full connection served as pastor of a local church in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference for eight years (January 1, 2002, to June 30, 2010). In the 2009 SPRC Advisory the Staff Parish Relations Committee raised the concern that the church would not be able to finance full-time ministry. The church, at this point was averaging 24 worshipers, paid 21.48% of its apportionments in 2008, and was not meeting other expenses. In her 2009 pastoral advisory form, the elder stated that “it has been determined that the church is no longer able to sustain full-time ministry and needs to go part-time status.” In January 2010, the elder was declared to be in good standing by the district superintendent and the bishop. The church was subsequently placed on part-time status. However, the elder desired a full time appointment. Therefore, as the elder desired a full time appointment, she needed a different appointment. When the appointment season began in January 2010, the cabinet began to look for an appropriate full-time appointment for her. On March 15, 2010, after the cabinet could not identify an appropriate full-time appointment for the elder, other options were discussed with her. These included voluntary leave of absence, extension ministry, honorable location, or less than full-time appointment. On March 16, 2010, she asked for an appointment less than full-time. An appointment at a local charge was offered, but because it did not provide sufficient benefits, she asked the cabinet to reconsider this appointment. The elder was subsequently offered a ¾ time appointment at another local charge which she accepted. She met with the SPRC of the local charge on May 5, 2010. After this meeting with the SPRC of this local charge, the SPRC requested reconsideration. The appointment was reconsidered by the cabinet. On May 13, 2010, the reasons for not moving ahead with an appointment were discussed with the elder, and she was informed that there was not an appropriate appointment available. Other options were again shared with her. She was also informed that if she failed to request for one of the options the cabinet would begin the process of placing her in an involuntary leave status. The elder’s effectiveness was at this point raised. There were alleged concerns over the areas of leadership development, stewardship development, evangelism, engaging the broader community, pastoral care and visitation, among others. The cabinet subsequently agreed that a formal complaint should be filed and that an involuntary leave of absence should be sought. The District Superintendent wrote the elder informing her that the cabinet was preparing to a file a complaint and to seek involuntary leave of absence, based on ineffectiveness. On May 15, 2010, the elder sought and was given instructions on the steps for voluntary leave. The cabinet did not file a complaint nor did it seek involuntary leave of absence for the elder. On May 19, 2010, the elder wrote requesting voluntary leave of absence noting in the letter of request that her request for leave of absence was more personal than professional and the voluntary leave would allow her time for “self-care, discernment, other ministry opportunities and healing.” The request was approved by the Conference Relations Committee. The official form for Change of Status, containing the elder’s reasons for the request and a statement of concern about the pastor effectiveness, was signed by the District Superintendent but not the elder. Subsequently, the elder expressed misgivings about the appointment process and going on voluntary leave of absence. She was told by the Chair of the Conference Relations Committee that if she was unsure about that being what she wanted or if it was not what she wanted she should not sign the form. She signed the form and she was included in the Board of Ordained Ministry report for voluntary leave of absence and the executive session upheld the recommendation. She was at the session but did not speak against the motion. Based on the pastor’s continuing request to remain on leave of absence, the executive session approved that status at both the 2011 and the 2012 sessions.

JURISDICTION

Pursuant to ¶2610 of the 2008 Discipline, the Judicial Council has jurisdiction in part and lacks jurisdiction in part.

ANALYSIS AND RATIONALE
Our decision is made against the background of three guiding principles. The operative principles of The United Methodist Church polity include the authority of the Annual Conference, the separation of powers and due process. The Constitution provides that the Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church and shall reserved to it the right to vote on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members. See ¶ 33, Article II of the Constitution. It is the responsibility of the bishop to make and fix appointments. The superintendents oversee the ministry of pastors and churches under their supervision and the needs both of the parish and the pastors for witness and service. The Board of Ordained Ministry reviews the change of status of candidates for and persons in ordained ministry to the end that ordained ministry’s distinctive functions are to be devoted wholly to the work of the church and the up-building of the general ministry. See Decision 1156. From the onset we must state that this case contains some troubling and disturbing facts and trends. It is replete with omissions, missteps, and flaws that never should have occurred or should have been corrected at a much earlier stage. The supervisory and administrative processes contained in the Discipline are carefully and specifically designed to protect the rights of the individual and of the Church. The steps set forth therein must be followed carefully or injustice results. Lack of diligence, integrity, care or compassion in dealing with a case almost always results in irreparable harm to both the individual and the church. Such harm has usually taken place by the time a case of this nature gets to the Judicial Council. See Decision 1156. The request for a declaratory decision asks four questions: Question 1
In 2010 did the Bishop, Cabinet, Board of Ordained Ministry and Conference Relations Committee appropriately follow the protocol for appointment making of the Baltimore-Washington Conference as well as ¶337 (2008 Book of Discipline) in the case of (an elder in full connection)?
¶ 337 of the Discipline states that “…all elders in full connection who are in good standing in an annual conference shall be continued under appointment by the bishop unless they are granted a sabbatical leave, an incapacity leave (¶357), family leave, leave of absence, retirement, or have failed to meet the requirements for continued eligibility (¶334.2,.3)….” In 2010 the member was an elder in full connection with the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. In January 2010 she was declared to be in good standing by the District Superintendent of the Baltimore Metropolitan District of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference and the bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference. A clergyperson who remained in good standing in an Annual Conference is required to be continued under appointment. A clergyperson in good standing cannot be terminated without administrative or judicial action having occurred and all fair process afforded. See Decision 1105. Once admitted as a clergy member in full connection, the member may only be deprived an appointment after fair process as prescribed in the Discipline. So long as the clergy member otherwise remains in good standing, he or she is entitled to an appointment and to full restoration of all of his or her previous status, rights, and privileges to which he was entitled. See Decision 1105. Therefore, unless the elder fell within one of the exceptions for a bishop not continuing an elder in full connection under appointment, she was entitled to an appointment. The exceptions include, according to ¶ 337 “...a sabbatical leave, an incapacity leave (¶357), family leave, leave of absence, retirement, or have failed to meet the requirements for continued eligibility (¶334.2,.3)….” The fact that when the appointment season began in January 2010, the bishop, through the cabinet, began looking for an appropriate full-time appointment for the elder, is evidence that the elder was in good standing and had met the requirements for continuing eligibility. Only after an appropriate full-time appointment was not available for the elder, were other options considered and discussed with the elder. However, there was no basis for the threat of the filing of a formal compliant and the contemplated seeking of an involuntary leave of absence. This threatened action was contradictory to the declaration of the Annual Conference that she was in good standing. The Bishop, Cabinet, Board of Ordained Ministry and Conference Relations Committee did not appropriately follow the protocol for appointment making of the Baltimore-Washington Conference as well as ¶ 337 of the Discipline in the case of the elder. Question 2:
Did the Bishop, Cabinet, Board of Ordained Ministry and Conference Relations Committee appropriately apply ¶ 354 and ¶ 355 in lieu of an appointment for (the elder)?
The records reflect that only after an appropriate full-time appointment was not available for the elder, were other options considered and discussed with her. These included voluntary leave of absence, extension ministry, honorable location, or less than full-time appointment. Under ¶ 354 of the Discipline a provisional, associate, or members in full connection of the annual conference who for sufficient reason choose to temporarily take leave from their ministerial appointment may request in writing with a copy to the bishop and their district superintendent a voluntary leave through the Board of Ordained Ministry. This leave is granted or renewed by vote of the clergy members in full connection upon recommendation of the Board of Ordained Ministry. Under ¶ 355 of the Discipline, the bishop and the district superintendents may request an involuntary leave of absence without the consent of the provisional, associate, or full member by giving to the clergy member and the Board of Ordained ministry in writing specific reasons for the request. Involuntary leave of absence may be requested by the bishop and district superintendents when a written or signed complaint is not resolved through the supervisory response within 120 days and is referred as an administrative complaint; when remedial action is required to address allegations of incompetence, ineffectiveness, or unwillingness or inability to perform ministerial duties which becomes an administrative complaint; or when an administrative or judicial complaint requires more than a ninety day suspension. In the instant case, none of three requisite conditions stipulated in ¶355.2 for the bishop and the district superintendent to request involuntary leave of absence existed. The elder had been declared to be in good standing. Deviations from disciplinary process, even when undertaken in good faith or for the sake of convenience or efficiency fall below acceptable standards of fair process. See Decision 1189. Using the possibility of involuntary leave to coerce and intimidate an elder in full connection is inconsistent with the Discipline. Question 3:
Did the Bishop, Cabinet, Board of Ordained Ministry and Conference Relations Committee appropriately follow the protocol for request of Leave of Absence (¶354 and ¶355 of the Book of Discipline)?
A request for voluntary leave of absence is to be initiated by the member and not directed by the bishop or district superintendents. In the instant case, on the facts, it cannot be said that the clergy member’s request for a voluntary leave of absence was truly voluntary. The member chose to seek voluntary leave of absence rather than face threatened involuntary action. The possibility of involuntary leave should not be used to coerce and intimidate a clergy member. To apply the provisions of the Discipline in an inconsistent and unfair manner can have an adverse effect on the conference relations of a clergy member. Important rights are in play and the clergy person, as well as those who have grievance against them, must be treated with the utmost fairness. Question 4:
Could the Conference Relations Committee and/or Executive Committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry have cancelled the request from (the elder) for Voluntary Leave of Absence in the midst of the process?
This question is posed as a hypothetical question. The long standing jurisprudence under which the Judicial Council works is that “moot and hypothetical questions shall not be decided.” See Decision 33.

Decision

The supervisory and administrative processes contained in the Discipline are carefully and specifically designed to protect the rights of the individual and of the Church. The steps set forth therein must be followed carefully and concisely. To apply the provisions of the Discipline in an inconsistent and unfair manner can have an adverse effect on the conference relations of a clergy member. Important rights are in play and the clergy person, as well as those who have grievance against them, must be treated with the utmost fairness. Voluntary leave of absences have to be made voluntarily, without coercion. The possibility of involuntary leave should not be used to coerced and intimidate a clergy member into requesting voluntary leave of absence. So long as the clergy member otherwise remains in good standing, she is entitled to an appointment and to full restoration of all of her previous status, rights and privileges to which she was entitled. The action of the 2010 Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference that resulted in the elder requesting voluntary leave of absence was improper. In view of the fact that the elder was intimidated and coerced into making the request for voluntary leave of absence, she is entitled to receive equitable compensation as required for clergy members in full connection, insurance, housing, pension and other benefits according to annual conference policy and procedures for the period beginning July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011. As she had requested to remain on leave of absence for 2011 and 2012, which requests were approved by the executive sessions, she is not entitled to compensation for those periods. She may request to end her voluntary leave of absence to the Board of Ordained Ministry, who will have the right to grant or deny the request in accordance with the provisions of ¶ 354. Beth Capen was absent. Sandra Lutz, first lay alternate, participated in this decision.

DISSENTING OPINION

My conclusion is that the member in full connection has appropriately asked for and received the status of Voluntary Leave of Absence. She has been improperly denied the privilege of preaching, teaching, performing marriages and administering the sacraments outside the charge where her membership is held and, in my view, is eligible to seek those privileges again under the provisions of ¶ 354.8. Paragraph 354.8 delineates the circumstances under which a clergyperson on leave of absence “may preach, teach, perform marriages, and, if holding sacramental privileges, administer the sacraments outside of the charge where membership is held.” In keeping with this paragraph, the elder sought the permission of the bishop for the exercise of ministerial functions beyond the charge conference where the elder’s membership was held. The bishop referred the matter for the recommendation of a district superintendent. In a brief filed by the elder, she reports that the superintendent wrote that it was the policy of the Cabinet to “not grant such privileges to those who had remedial requirements.” No documentation has been provided to indicate whether subsequently the bishop did or did not grant the requested permission. The elder has not exercised such ministry. Decision 1156 is clear that the Board of Ordained Ministry has “the prerogative to set remedial requirements for individuals granted a voluntary leave of absence.” What is murky is the question as to whether or not the bishop can rely on these remedial requirements in determining whether or not to grant ministerial privileges to a clergy member on leave of absence. It is the disciplinary role of the Board of Ordained Ministry “to interview applicants and make recommendations concerning: (1) changes from the effective relation to a leave of absence…” (¶ 635.2(k). Further, it is the disciplinary role of the Board of Ordained Ministry “to ensure confidentiality in relation to the interview and reporting process…” (¶ 635.2(l). When the bishop and cabinet, in their decision-making, use remedial requirements set by the Board of Ordained Ministry, they violate the separation of authority and decision-making that is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. See Decision 1156. The bishop’s determination as to whether or not to grant permission for the elder on voluntary leave of absence to perform ministerial functions beyond her charge conference should not be based on the remedial requirements set by the Board of Ordained Ministry. The decision of the majority has been influenced by the allegations of duress under which the elder made her decisions to seek voluntary leave of absence. The record shows that after being advised of the probability of a complaint that could lead to an involuntary leave of absence, the elder chose to seek voluntary leave of absence status. There is a tension in this circumstance: the elder perceived that she made that decision “under duress”; on the other hand, there is value in a transparency that let the elder understand all the possibilities. I am disturbed that Decision 1216 ignores the principle established in Decision 1055: “…in the absence of a record that can only be developed in the context of an administrative or judicial process, duress cannot be established merely because it is included in or suggested by a question asked of a bishop.” In the matter at hand, there is no administrative or judicial process to provide such a record. F. Belton Joyner, Jr.

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