United Methodists on Trial
"United Methodist pastor to face church trial."
When they see this headline, church members may wonder: Are more clergy getting in trouble? Are more being charged with serious offenses?
In reality, trials have been part of the church's judicial process for years. What has changed is that when people facing trial request that the process be open, the charges and outcomes are more often drawing media attention.
What has not changed is that such trials remain the church's last resort in resolving the issue when a complaint is made against a church member - clergy or lay. A trial occurs only after mediation, a supervisory process or other steps outlined in The Book of Discipline fail to provide "a just resolution of judicial complaints in the hope that God's work of justice, reconciliation and healing, may be realized in the body of Jesus Christ" (Par. 2701, 2000 Book of Discipline).
United Methodist laity, clergy, diaconal ministers, local pastors and bishops may face a trial court. The charges can be any of a dozen offenses ranging from different kinds of harassment to child abuse or any of the "practices declared by the United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teaching" (Par. 2702, 2004 Book of Discipline).
Among the chargeable offenses for clergy are being a self-avowed practicing homosexual and performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.
The list of possible charges against laity is shorter. It also includes harassment as well as "relationships and/or behaviors that undermine the ministry of persons serving within an appointment."
There are separate trial procedures for bishops, clergy, diaconal ministers and laypersons, but in all cases the accuser and the accused have an opportunity to appear before a committee on investigation.
These standing committees of annual, jurisdictional and central conferences function as grand juries. They decide whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a trial. The person bringing the original complaint (complainant) and the person whom the complaint is against (respondent) may be present during testimony, but not during deliberations.
If the committee on investigation decides there is insufficient evidence for a trial, the matter is considered settled unless the Judicial Council rules otherwise. The investigating committee might also refer concerns to church officials for administrative or other action.
When an investigating committee decides there is sufficient basis for the accusations, it prepares a bill of charges and cites alleged occurrences to support the charges.
A trial court is convened after all parties have made every reasonable effort to resolve the matter.
Counsel may represent the respondent. A clergy respondent may select a clergyperson in full connection as counsel. A lay respondent may select either a lay or clergy member to serve as counsel. Church officials appoint a clergyperson as counsel to represent the claims of the person making the complaint.
The 13 members of the trial court and two alternates are selected from a pool of 35 people.
Trial procedures generally follow those of secular U.S. courts. Counsels enter pleas, make opening statements, question witnesses, present documents and offer closing arguments. However, witnesses do not take oaths.
All deliberations of the trial court are closed. All other sessions of the trial are closed unless the counsel for the respondent requests otherwise.
A conviction requires at least nine votes; fewer than nine votes results in an acquittal. The trial court makes a decision on each charge. If the respondent is found guilty, the findings may be appealed to a committee on appeals. The church or complainant cannot appeal an acquittal.
If the trial results in a conviction, further testimony may be presented before the trial court determines the penalty, on which at least seven members must agree.
Penalties can be as severe as expelling the respondent from the church or terminating the conference membership and/or revoking a clergyperson's or diaconal minister's credentials of ordination or consecration. The trial courts may affix a lesser penalty. The penalty usually takes effect immediately. Convicted clergy may, with the unanimous consent of the district superintendents, be suspended from all clergy responsibilities, but not from financial compensation and benefits pending the outcome of appeals.
The Committee on Investigation
For a Complaint against a Bishop: A jurisdictional or central conference committee made up of seven clergy in full connection, two lay observers and six alternates (five clergy and one lay).
For a Complaint against a Clergy Member or Local Pastor: An annual conference committee of seven clergy in full connection, two lay observers and six alternates (five clergy and one lay).
For a Complaint against a Diaconal Minister: An annual conference committee of least three diaconal ministers or members of the church and two alternates.
For a Complaint against a Lay Member: Pastor or co-pastors of the church, in consultation with the district superintendent and district lay leader, appoint a committee of seven lay members from other congregations.
United Methodist Church Trials and Secular Trials in the United States
Church trial: Complainant
Secular trial: Plaintiff
Church trial: Respondent
Secular trial: Defendant
Church trial: Not required
Secular trial: Required
Church trial-bishop, clergyperson or diaconal minister: Clergyperson in full connection
Church trial-layperson: Clergyperson or lay member of the church
Secular trial: Attorney
Church trial: Trial Court of 13
Secular trial: Jury of 12
Church trial: Closed
Secular trial: Closed
Church trial: Requires at least nine of 13 votes
Secular trial: Requires unanimous decision
Church trial: Respondent may appeal to Committee on Appeals; church may not appeal
Secular trial: Defendant may appeal to a higher court; state may not appeal
Open or Closed?
Church trial: Closed unless the counsel for the respondent requests that it be open
Secular trial: Generally open
Church trial: Judicial Council
Secular trial: U.S. Supreme Court
In a May 2004 ruling, the nine-member Judicial Council declared it had no authority to review the findings of a case in which a clergywoman was found innocent of practices declared by the denomination to be incompatible with Christian teaching. However, the court also declared that a bishop may not appoint one who has been found by a trial court to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual (Decision 985).
The Rev. J. Richard Peck is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference, three-time editor of the
Daily Christian Advocate of General Conference and editor of the 2000 Book of Resolutions.
This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Interpreter.