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Legislation is coming to General Conference, The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly, that if passed would require a definitive timeline for processing complaints against bishops under church law. General Conference will convene in May 2016 in Portland, Ore. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

Legislation is coming to General Conference, The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly, that if passed would require a definitive timeline for processing complaints against bishops under church law.

Proposals aim to increase bishop accountability

By Heather Hahn
Aug. 12, 2015 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

What does it look like to hold bishops accountable?

Over the past four years, a number of United Methodists have debated that question ─ including bishops themselves.

Now, legislation that seeks to increase bishop accountability is heading to General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, when it meets May 10-20, 2016, in Portland, Oregon.

The discussion has gained momentum following two highly public, but very different complaints against two United Methodist bishops.

  • At the request of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert faced a complaint in March 2014 after he officiated at the union of two men — Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince — in defiance of church law. The complaint ended in January 2015 with a resolution agreed to by all parties involved in the case. The resolution has both supporters and detractors.
  • In a separate situation, the board of the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration filed a complaint in March 2013 against East Africa Area Bishop Daniel Wandabula, who faces longstanding questions of whether his episcopal area misused more than $757,000 in church funds. That complaint is still pending, and to date, the Council of Bishops has offered no public statements on the matter.

Meanwhile, the bishops also have been discussing how to increase their accountability to each other. Their discussion results from their decision on the eve of the 2012 General Conference to find a mechanism to hold each other accountable, especially in fulfilling their commitment to foster congregational vitality.

However, the bishops’ public conversations on this goal have not touched at all on the complaint process.

“Complaints, charges, any of those kinds of things, that’s defined in the Book of Discipline (the denomination’s law book), and that’s beyond our control and our power,” said Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, who leads the bishops’ accountability task force. He spoke to United Methodist News Service during the Council of Bishops meeting in May.

“What we can do is hold each other accountable for our ministry and our work together. So that’s what we’re trying to do,” Goodpaster said.

Moses Kumar, top executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration. 2012 file photo by Ronny Perry, UMNS

Moses Kumar, top executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration. 2012 file photo by Ronny Perry, UMNS

Legislation coming forward

General Conference has the authority to amend the complaint process, and various groups plan to send legislation that, if passed, would do just that.

Currently, a complaint against a bishop is handled mainly within that bishop’s geographical area — namely, the jurisdiction if the bishop is in the United States, or the central conference if the bishop is in Africa, Europe or the Philippines.

As the Council of Bishops noted in its request for a complaint against Talbert, the full council has limited authority in such matters.

“There is no mechanism to take it to another level, and they don’t have financial support,” said Moses Kumar, top executive of the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency.

The Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders, which includes lay leaders from around the globe, voted to submit legislation that would set a definitive timeline of 180 days (roughly six months) to try to resolve the matter in the denomination’s supervisory process.

If those 180 days expire without resolution or without referral of the matter as a formal administrative or judicial complaint, the association’s legislation would send the dispute to the full Council of Bishops.

The General Council on Finance and Administration board in July approved a petition that uses the association’s legislation as a template but adds some more details.

That proposal says that once the 180 days elapse, Council of Bishops must select:

  • A panel of three bishops, one each from Africa, Asia and Europe, if the bishop under complaint is in a central conference, or
  • A panel of five bishops, one from each U.S. jurisdiction, if the bishop under complaint is in the United States.

Under the finance agency’s legislation, the panel would then have the responsibility of adjudicating the matter within 180 days before either dismissing it or referring it as a formal administrative or judicial complaint.

The agency’s legislation also specifies that all costs associated with a panel’s work must come out of the Episcopal Fund. The fund, paid for by congregational giving, mainly supports the salaries, housing, travel and other expenses of active bishops as well as the salaries and benefits of some of their support staff.

Charlie Moore, a finance agency board member, said the board hopes smaller panels selected by the Council of Bishops might reach a resolution with greater ease and in a more cost-effective manner than the full council. Moore is the chair of the board’s committee on general agency and episcopal matters.

In addition to these legislative proposals, the directors of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry have voted to submit legislation that adds “fiscal malfeasance” as a chargeable offense for clergy and lay members under church law.

Bishop reactions

Wandabula told UMNS in May that he would not comment on the complaint until it reached its conclusion. He also declined on Aug. 12 to discuss the proposed legislation.

However, Talbert did share his misgivings with the proposals coming from the lay leaders’ association and the denomination’s finance agency. “I think the legislation suggests that they want to have their cake and eat it too,” he said.

He noted that the whole system of U.S. jurisdictions to elect and oversee bishops originated with the 1939 Methodist Church merger as an “appeasement for the southern church,” which was still racially segregated at the time. He said he would prefer eliminating jurisdictional borders altogether and having bishops elected and held accountable under one U.S. Central Conference.

“In the U.S., bishops are accountable to the jurisdictions in which they are elected,” Talbert said. “Until that structure is changed, it doesn't make sense to set in motion a process to override the decision of a particular jurisdictional conference simply because other jurisdictions disagree with a particular decision.”

More legislation coming

Other legislation aimed at bolstering bishop accountability is expected in addition to these three proposals.

The denomination’s general boards and agencies have a deadline of Sept. 1 to submit legislation for the 2016 General Conference, and other United Methodists have until Oct. 13 to turn in their proposals.

The full list of legislative proposals will be published early next year.

The 2016 General Conference will have 864 delegates, divided evenly between lay and clergy. Bishops do not vote at General Conference.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org