Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 1228
October 26 2012
In Re: Review of a Bishop’s Decision of Law in the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference Regarding Annual Conference Policy on Sexual Relations Between Clergy and Members in Light of ¶ 335
Digest of Case
The bishop’s ruling of law is reversed, and the action of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference is void and of no effect.
Statement of Facts
During the 2012 session of The Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, on June 1, 2012, the conference adopted an updated policy and procedure regarding sexual misconduct, abuse or harassment. The policy as adopted contains the following paragraph:
“Sexual misconduct includes a range of behaviors used to obtain sexual contact against a person’s will, including but not limited to any sexualconduct between an adult and a minor. In the UMC/BWC, sexual misconduct also includes any dating, romantic or sexual relationship between 1) church staff members (clergy or lay) and any other staff member, parishioner, or ministry participant, 2) a church leader (actualor perceived) and a ministry participant; and/or 3) a church volunteer and a ministry participant. Exceptions to this may include consensual relationships that have been reported to church officials and approved in advance, pursuant to the following procedures: 1) Any church staff person (clergy or lay) who desires to have a dating, romantic or sexual relationship with any other staff member, parishioner or ministry participant, shall consult the senior pastor, or lead pastor and the Staff-Parish Relations Committee chair. If the person is the lead pastor, he or she shall consult with his or her district superintendent. 2) Church leaders or volunteers who desire to have a dating, romantic or sexual relationship with a ministry participant shall consult with the pastor. No sexual abuse, misconduct or harassment will be allowed or tolerated on church premises or during any ministry activity, regardless of the location. “(emphasis added, original)
During the course of the debate on the plenary floor, it was determined that the policy refers only to relationships between persons who are not legally married to each other. There was an amendment proposed that would have removed the words “or sexual” from the policy; it was defeated when brought to a vote by the plenary. After further discussion and proposed amendments passed, the same person who attempted to amend the policy to remove “or sexual” from the policy submitted a question of law to the bishop. The question of law asked whether the words “or sexual” were in conflict with Book of Discipline’s requirements that clergy abide by “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.” The bishop’s ruling of law, which was issued on June 27, 2012, states:
The Policy and Procedure Regarding Sexual Misconduct, Abuse or Harassment for the Baltimore-Washington Conference is in compliance with The Book of Discipline as approved by the annual conference and is further strengthened to avoid any confusion with the addition by the Discipleship Council. This policy is developed with the intent to help clergy and congregations to engage in healthy relationships. Everything in this policy is to be understood and carried out in accordance with the most current laws and teachings of The United Methodist Book of Discipline regarding the practice and procedures for handling potential or actual sexual misconduct. The language added by the Discipleship Council must be affirmed by the annual conference at its next session.
The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2609.6 of the 2008 Discipline.
The Policy and Procedure Regarding Sexual Misconduct, Abuse, or Harassment for the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference appeared to have as its intent the prevention and addressing of sexual misconduct, abuse, and harassment, which is explained in such a way that confusion is avoided. The bishop states that the policy is based on Scripture, United Methodist theology of sexual ethics, and the Discipline. Having a “sexual relationship” with another staff member, parishioner, or ministry participant is “sexual misconduct”, and the opportunity to request an exception for such a relationship would allow for the possibility that this misconduct will be approved. The United Methodist Church in ¶ 161F states “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.” Clergy are required to “make a complete dedication of themselves to the highest ideals of the Christian life. Clergy agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to bodily health, mental and emotional maturity, integrity in all personal relationships, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and in the knowledge and love of God.” (¶¶ 304.2, 311.2d, 324.9 (o), 330.5(a) (6), 335a)(6) A violation of this standard is a chargeable offense for clergy members, local pastors, and diaconal ministers (¶ 2702.1a) and by implication for professing members of a local church (¶ 2702.3a). The statement before us refers to “the practice and procedures for handling potential or actual sexual misconduct,” but does not commit to enforcing the Discipline’s position that a sexual relationship outside of heterosexual marriage is misconduct. The Conference Discipleship Council added the following statement, after the question of law was requested, and the wording was not approved by the annual conference:
This policy is developed with the intent to help clergy and congregations to engage in healthy relationships. Everything in this policy is to be understood and carried out in accordance with the most current laws and teachings of The United Methodist Book of Discipline regarding the practice and procedures for handling potential or actual sexual misconduct.
The bishop’s words of assurances and the above-listed statement that the intent of the policy is to act in compliance with the Discipline do not override the conflict of the words “or sexual” in the policy itself. This conflict gives the impression that if an individual applies for an exception to have a “sexual relationship” with a prohibited individual the conduct is permissible. The insertion of the words “or sexual” in the policy contradicts the requirements of the Discipline and the stated intention of the policy, which is to be in compliance with the Discipline. Further, the Judicial Council in Decision 736 articulated specific guidelines for the development of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, or sexual abuse policies.
The bishop’s ruling of law is reversed and the action of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference is void and of no effect. Beth Capen was absent. Sandra Lutz, first lay alternate, participated in this decision.
We concur with the decision of the Judicial Council that the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference policy is null, void, and of no effect. Further, we recommend that the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference consider the efficacy of the whole paragraph of the policy that grants exceptions for consensual relationships. Consensual relationships between staff persons, congregational leaders, and ministry participants are never appropriate because of imbalance of power. We suggest that as the annual conference rework its sexual misconduct, abuse, and harassment policy they consult with the General Commission on Status and Role of Women for further guidelines. Katherine Austin Mahle Sandra Lutz F. Belton Joyner, Jr. Angela Brown J. Kabamba Kiboko N. Oswald Tweh William B. Lawrence Ruben T. Reyes Dennis L. Blackwell