When United Methodist clergy are formally accused of breaking the trust the church has placed in them, we have a process in our governing Book of Discipline that seeks to first resolve such matters through what is called a “just resolution.” This is the equivalent to an “out-of-court settlement” in the secular legal system. In theory, it allows most such complaints to be resolved in ways that are broadly acceptable, if not ideal, to all involved. And only if the offending minister refuses reasonable offers of a just resolution, while significant evidence is found of wrongdoing, do things move to the “last resort” of a church trial.
But the problem is that this is one of many areas in which our denomination gives a rather extraordinary amount of discretionary power to our bishops, and simply trusts, but does not mandate, that bishops will always act with forthrightness and integrity in upholding our standards.
These gaps in church law combined with the way in which some renegade clergy have shown a willingness to use bishops’ knee-jerk unwillingness to go through all the time, emotional energy, and thousands of offering plate dollars to hold a trial is a recipe for letting unfaithful clergy dictate the terms of if and how they are held accountable for their own wrongdoing in many cases, and letting the question of whether or not there is true accountability depend too much on whether or not a particular bishop is interested in accountability.
Some of our bishops have taken their responsibilities seriously in upholding our covenantal standards, but this paints quite a contrast to other bishops.
Several recent cases illustrate this problem.
In the Wisconsin Conference, the Rev. Janet Ellinger faced a complaint over her having performed two pastorally harmful same-sex union ceremonies, in open defiance of her own choice to vow to uphold church rules against doing this.
But the biases of that conference’s bishop, Hee-Soo Jung, made all the difference. In June, he announced a “just resolution” that suggested that our denomination needs to abandon its adherence to biblical teaching on sexual self-control, supposedly sought “conversation and understanding,” and used what amounted to a fluffy, shallow rhetoric about “mercy, grace, justice and an affirmation of the years of faithful service by” Ellinger.
It included no real consequences for Ellinger, no promises from her to avoid doing another same-sex union, and no deterrent against other Wisconsin clergy from following her bad example. Nor was there any evidence of Ellinger or Bishop Jung considering the pastoral harm being done to the four misled individuals most directly involved in these ceremonies.
As part of the just resolution, Bishop Jung stated that Ellinger should offer “an admission and apology to our clergy for the negative impact such actions may have upon our covenantal relationship,” in addition to explaining herself.
There’s obviously a big difference between a genuinely repentant apology and saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Good luck even finding that much regret in Ellinger’s statement given to the Wisconsin Conference clergy session on June 10.
Instead, she slyly redefined the meaning of her “apology,” explaining, “My apology is in the spirit of Christian apologetics, offering an explanation or defense of my faith that grounded my actions.” She went on to defend her covenant-breaking and the theology in which it was grounded, including her belief that she basically sees herself as solely accountable to her personal, subjectively felt understanding of God, to the exclusion of accountability to the church community or even to her own ordination vows.
As Ellinger defiantly explained to United Methodist News Service, “I did not state regret for harming anyone.”
So under Bishop Jung, the accountability offered for very blatant, unrepentant violation of the trust we place in our clergy was to have a “just resolution” that (1) avoided any penalty or deterrent, (2) asked for no real apology nor any promise to honor the covenant in the future from the offender, (3) actually rewarded the offender with a platform to attack the morality and underlying theology of the denominational covenant into which she chose to be ordained, and (4) conveyed a message to encourage other unorthodox clergy in Wisconsin in similarly breaking our covenant.
And Bishop Jung set the terms for this “just resolution” without involving the retired minister who filed the complaint.
In Iowa, Bishop Julius Trimble’s actions were even more dramatic.
As noted, our governing Discipline has long forbidden “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” from being United Methodist ministers. But over the years, specious questions raised by liberal activists charged with enforcing this standard while seeking excuses to ignore it has led to some revisionist-dominated regions treating homosexually active clergy as the Mr. Mxyzptlk of the UMC, who can only be disciplined if they say the precise magic words, “I am a self-avowed, practicing homosexual.” Otherwise, even if a minister openly admits being in a civil union or legal marriage with a member of the same sex, liberals have argued that that is “not enough evidence” to say they are in violation of this United Methodist standard, as presently worded.
But in 2016 session of the long liberal-leaning Iowa Conference, campus minister Anna Blaedel delivered an extensive “point of personal privilege” in which she said those very magic words, followed by a lengthy diatribe attacking the UMC for adhering to biblical disapproval of homosexual practice.
When three faithful clergy filed a complaint against her, Bishop Trimble allowed Blaedel to publicly identify and viciously attack the character of the complainants on social media, which led to them to be deluged with harassment by Blaedel’s supporters. The bishop also allowed Blaedel to publicly encourage activists to disrupt the worship services of these pastors’ congregations (language warning).
Such behavior alone should have raised questions of whether or not Ms. Blaedel has the basic fruits of the Spirit, or even the world’s standards of compassion and civility for folk outside of her ideological camp, to be entrusted with spiritual guidance of vulnerable young students.
Blaedel’s social-media vitriol against the complainants was a rather extraordinary break from the normal protocol of treating the initial reviews of such complaints as confidential. And “relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor” is a separate chargeable offense for UMC clergy.
Church law could hardly have been more crystal-clear on the necessity of removing Blaedel’s ordination status. Furthermore, she made clear that any “just resolution” negotiations would get nowhere with her, as she publicly stated her terms as suspending the pay of all bishops, “personal letters of apology to every LGBTQ who is currently or has been United Methodist” from those who had ever upheld our biblical standards, and other unserious demands.
And yet despite all this, Bishop Trimble chose to entirely dismiss the complaint, and to wait until his final day in Iowa, before transferring to Indiana, to do this. Blaedel immediately went public to express her gratefulness to him.
This meant that Blaedel was protected from all accountability, the vulnerable were left exposed and vulnerable, and Bishop Trimble strategically dropped this bombshell at just the time when the complaint-filers had no opportunity for further discussion with their now-former bishop. This left quite a mess of pain, brokenness, and dysfunctionality for Bishop Trimble’s successor in Iowa to inherit on her very first day—but it was apparently no longer his problem at that point.
Except it may still be, given that a complaint has been filed against Bishop Trimble himself over this matter.
Then there was Western North Carolina.
In April, the Rev. Val Rosenquist got a lot of media attention by doing a publicity-stunt same-sex union in the building of the dying, lily-white, liberal congregation in the growing, diverse city of Charlotte, North Carolina, to which she had relatively recently been appointed as pastor. Some time before the ceremony, she had reportedly shared her intentions with Bishop Goodpaster, who asked her not to do it. Rosenquist did it anyway, and was joined in her defiance by retired Bishop Melvin Talbert of San Francisco (about whom we have reported earlier).
The three distinct grounds for the complaints were her committing the chargeable offenses of “conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions,” “disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church,” and “relationship and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor.”
The last of these was rather practical. In preparing this article, I spoke directly to a couple of the complainants (the church law term for individuals who filed formal complaints) about how Rosenquist’s publicity stunt had directly caused such disruptions in the ministries of other pastors as, in the words of one, “dismayed church members, persons leaving the United Methodist Church, disruption of regular giving patterns,” and administrative boards “wanting to withhold apportionments.”
There had been some reason to think that Bishop Goodpaster might handle this process with more integrity than some other bishops. Indeed, well into the complaint process, the bishop and his cabinet issued an open letter affirming their commitment to upholding the UMC’s Discipline and re-affirming the Southeastern Jurisdiction bishops’ statement against violating its standards on sexuality.
Yes, there were also perhaps a couple minor warning signs. While the bishop arranged to have two meetings with all the complainants, in May and July, for some reason not all the complainants were informed about the second meeting or an aborted third meeting. The bishop appointed as counsel for the church (the one charged with seeking discipline for offending clergy in the later stages of such processes) the Rev. Bill Jeffries, who is not known as an evangelical leader in the conference, was trained at the notoriously revisionist Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, and was part of the radicalized New York Conference before transferring into Western North Carolina.
In any case, Bishop Goodpaster waited until the very end of his time as leader of the Western North Carolina Conference (before his retirement began on September 1) to announce an abrupt end to this accountability process.
As summarized by a September 6 Charlotte Observer article, the resolution means that Rosenquist “will not face a church trial or lose her job,” and any other provisions the resolution may or may not have will be kept strictly sealed until at least 2018.
Not only did Bishop Goodpaster choose to ultimately exclude the complainants from this just resolution agreement (while getting the agreements of Rosenquist and Jeffries), but the first the complainants I spoke with even learned about the resolution was when they read the aforementioned newspaper article.
Thus Bishop Goodpaster arranged things so that complainants did not find out about his move until a point when they would have no way to even contact him, as by that point he had been out of the bishop’s office for several days.
Some, but not all, of the complainants received a letter from the bishop dated August 30 informing them of the resolution. But for at least some of the sub-group of complainants who got this letter, it did not arrive in their mailboxes until after the newspaper report appeared. And bizarrely, a source identified in an earlier version of the article as Amy Coles, the bishop’s assistant (who doubtless would not have taken such steps without Goodpaster’s direction), did not wait to make sure all the complainants were first informed of the resolution before sharing details with the Observer. A vague announcement was later posted on the conference website.
Do Bishop Goodpaster and those closest to him really believe that sharing sensitive matters about church business with the secular media is a greater priority than communicating directly with those within the church who are most directly involved and hurt?
The “just shut up and trust us” flavor of this frustratingly secretive resolution seems to flow out of the “I don’t answer to you rabble” attitude I have witnessed too many of our bishops and general agency leaders adopt towards those occupying the lower castes of our denominational hierarchy.
1 Timothy 5:20 makes clear the need of rebuking elders who sin to be rebuked in a public way that serves as an effective, deterrent warning to others. This biblical value is echoed in Article 22 of the Methodist Articles of Religion – part of the core UMC doctrine that Rosenquist, Goodpaster, and everyone else named in this article vowed at their ordinations to “preach and maintain.”
But where is that in this resolution?
(This is not the first time Bishop Goodpaster has dropped the ball by failing to teach and uphold the Methodist Articles.)
Rather than offer further commentary, I will pass on the words of the complainants with whom I spoke:
One shared that he is “disappointed that the process was handled in a less than forthright and open way,” as this result “undermines any authority and accountability to the Book of Discipline.” It is “disheartening” for this to happen in “the church that I grew up in, the church I was baptized in, the church I raised my kids in.”
Another complainant shared the following:
“The offense was confessed and owned by Val [Rosenquist]. So this was not a he-said, she-said issue. It was absolutely known that it was done. Val called the bishop before the offense was done and said she was going to do it, and he asked her not to. The pictures were in the paper. And the writer of the article quoted her as admitting to self-admission.
“And yet what disturbs me most is that there’s no accountability in the United Methodist Church for breaking covenant and committing a chargeable offense.
“So what recourse does a faithful clergy or United Methodist layperson have once they have exhausted the process and found it wanting, but to withhold apportionments to a bureaucracy that does not hold chargeable offenses accountable?”
Better results would likely have been seen in at least some of these accountability matters if there were some basic reforms to how the UMC Discipline defines the acceptable boundaries for “just resolutions.” One petition to the last General Conference would have required that “every effort shall be made to have the complainant(s) agree to the resolution before it may take effect,” while another petition would have required that in all cases where the offender admits to violating a standard of our denominational covenant, “a just resolution shall include, but not be limited to, a commitment not to repeat the action(s) that were a violation.”
Both petitions were overwhelmingly passed in their legislative committee, but then the Agenda Committee decided to table these petitions because of the motion passed to refer all petitions related to “human sexuality” to a special commission.
So these two petitions should obviously be a part of whatever else the Way Forward Commission brings for a vote at a specially called 2019 General Conference.
But it’s not clear how much patience our bishops can count on church members having in the meantime.