Within the last few years, a common pattern among liberal United Methodists has been rather broad rhetoric and sloganeering denouncing ANY use of church trials, and claiming to be very concerned about avoiding harm to people in the church. Under the United Methodist Church’s Constitution, clergy as well as laity have a right to a church trial if they are accused of wrongdoing.
It would seem that one key for testing the true meaning of those engaging in such rhetoric would be to examine how they approach accountability matters not directly related to hot-button concerns like homosexuality.
Some recent denominational news has put a spotlight on the leadership of Bishop John Schol of the Greater New Jersey Conference, who was recently adamantly against church trials and is now reported to be pursuing one.
A couple of cases in the UMC Judicial Council’s recently concluded Fall 2017 session, which included oral arguments, have highlighted some of Bishop Schol’s punitive treatment of a pastor by the name of Jisun Kwak, PhD. See Memorandum #1350 and Decision #1355.
Rev. Dr. Kwak was reportedly the first Asian-American woman to ever be appointed District Superintendent anywhere within the Northeastern Jurisdiction. She was elected by her clergy peers to represent them at the 2016 General Conference. As a candidate for bishop last year, she was endorsed by both the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference and the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. Like most of the UMC in the United States, the Greater New Jersey Conference is rather overwhelmingly white and non-Hispanic (79 percent, according to the latest General Council on Finance and Administration [GCFA] statistics).
I do not personally know Pastor Kwak, and have never spoken to her. I understand that she and I may have some very significant disagreements on important issues. The information that Bishop Schol and others involved in the case have shared publicly has been rather limited. So please do not look to me for any kind of comprehensive or detailed account of all important factors in this still-ongoing case, let alone for any definitive statement about how this particular judicial matter should be finalized.
But several of the details that have now publicly emerged are rather noteworthy.
First of all, there was the rather curious timing of how Bishop Schol chose to have a complaint filed against Kwak and chose to suspend her from all ministerial responsibilities. This move was announced less than a month before the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, at which Kwak may have otherwise been a strong candidate for bishop.
While the exact nature of the complaint has been kept confidential, it has been publicly shared that Pastor Kwak “is not accused of abuse, harassment, sexual misconduct or conviction of crimes” and that the complaint also has nothing to do with standards related to ministry with self-identified members of the LGBTQ community.
Ironically, this punitive process is being pursued by the very same John Schol who a few years ago released an emotional video decrying a specific, then-recent church trial. Bishop Schol used very broad language to decry the use of ANY church trials, with a very incomplete and historically revisionist argument about how trials are no good and very bad, because Jesus.
When a particular 2013 church trial did not fit with his personal political biases, Bishop Schol used such completely unqualified language as categorically declaring, “Trials are not helpful, and I would like to see trials within the United Methodist Church stop,” and that “I will do everything I can to prevent trials from happening in the church.” Even more broadly, he pledged:
- “I will do everything I can to work to see that people are not hurt by what the church does”;
- “I will do everything I can to ensure that no one gets hurt by our views or the things that we do within the life of the church”; and
- “my hope is that people will look at the United Methodist Church and not only say, ‘Look how they love each other,’ but, ‘Look how the love of Jesus Christ shines through them!’”
In that same video, he also promised to “be a bishop of the whole church,” to honor and respect those with whom he disagrees, “to work with all people and honor all views.”
But it seems that that was then, and this is now.
In the report linked to above, those directly involved in the case declined to share details about Kwak’s case, as is typical when such things remain in progress. But several noteworthy details have now been made public by the Judicial Council’s recent rulings.
Now that Bishop Schol has found a matter in which a church trial could serve his purposes, the record from the Judicial Council shows that, in the words of Memorandum #1350, “it is a matter of time until this case goes to trial since all attempts at a just resolution have failed.” Despite Bishop Schol’s earlier rhetoric about trials being bad, unhelpful, and something he was committed to avoiding. This same Judicial Council ruling includes a record of allegations (which I must stress are simply allegations at this point) of Bishop Schol earlier proposing a just resolution with Kwak in the context of an unfairly “coercive influence on her.”
In the meantime, Bishop Schol, a rich and powerful man, has been doing a lot against this vulnerable woman that seems hard to square with Bishop Schol’s earlier professed commitments to “ensur[ing] that no one gets hurt by … the things that we do within the life of the church.”
We must remember that this has all been done WITHOUT any step in the process from this complaint duly proving that the Kwak has actually done anything wrong.
Under Bishop Schol’s leadership of the Greater New Jersey Conference, it seems that merely being accused of wrongdoing can be enough to effectively result in being punished as guilty. (On a side note, United Methodists advocating for criminal-justice reform in secular courts would do well to also examine how we are modeling justice to a watching world, with such guilty-until-proven-innocent practices within our church.
In Decision #1355, the Judicial Council did affirm the bishop in his ruling in response to a legal challenge that, based on some technicalities, Kwak was retroactively entitled to receive “compensation which includes salary, housing, pension and health benefits” for the period that began on October 22, 2016 and lasted for at least eight months when Bishop Schol had Kwak placed on “interim involuntary leave of absence.”
For most people I know, being deprived of such basic support would absolutely qualify as “getting hurt”!
But before the Judicial Council rulings, apparently such deprivation was not enough punishment for the innocent-until-proven-guilty Pastor Kwak. The clergy session at the 2017 annual conference were asked to continue Kwak on unpaid involuntary leave of absence for another year. Technically, according to Discipline ¶354.4, this recommendation came from the remaining district superintendents. But given the fact that these individuals serve at the pleasure of the bishop, and they had all seen how Schol was making an example of Kwak, it is understandable that they would be hesitant to make any recommendation contrary to the bishop’s wishes.
This required a two-thirds vote of the clergy session. Amazingly, the push to continue punishing Kwak failed to even get a simple majority. Given the dependence of most clergy on their own bishop and district superintendents for their appointments, it is striking to see the clergy session defy its own leadership in such a way.
However, the Judicial Council decision made clear that retroactive back pay Kwak is now being provided for all these missing months of her life are NOT at the compensation level which she would have received if she had remained a district superintendent rather than being punitively removed from that office. Rather, the payment level for these missing months was set at “equitable minimum compensation.”
The 2017 Greater New Jersey Annual Conference Journal (pages 113, 190, 334, 335) reports several relevant facts:
- beginning on July 1, Kwak was appointed pastor of Christ UMC in Fair Haven, NJ (congregation #5019)
- this congregation has had an average weekly worship attendance of 14 (making this as about extreme a demotion as Bishop Schol could have possibly imposed without unilaterally defrocking her)
- the conference’s aforementioned minimum salary for full-time elders is less than half of the salary of district superintendents, albeit still much less than Bishop Schol’s own six-figure salary (meaning that even with the mandate for Kwak’s retroactive compensation, she has lost over half of her income for over nine months)
Again, remember, all this punishment is being inflicted and sought against Ms. Kwak WITHOUT any process from the complaint Bishop Schol has chosen to pursue for nearly a year and a half having actually proven that Kwak is guilty of anything!
While I repeat that I do not know every details, all of the above is now a matter of public record.
And this seems sadly consistent with some other things I have previously observed from Bishop Schol in other contexts. In one matter, Bishop Schol chose to go out of his way to present a distorted view of the facts about a pastor who was victimized by a like-minded bishop in another conference, thus painting this pastor in a much more negative light than was justified. Doing so bolstered the public demonization campaign that had sought to punish this vulnerable, small-town pastor and drive him out of our denomination. (The Judicial Council later found that this pastor had done nothing wrong.) And when Bishop Schol was bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, a former district superintendent publicly complained of how “Bishop Schol chose a unilateral process that has the effect of allowing a single bishop to establish church law” on a another key matter.
Those who cheered Bishop Schol’s actions at those times solely because they liked the position he took on particular hot-button issues would do well to consider problems with how he used his office to promote his favored results, and the dangerous precedents he set for himself for potential future abuse and over-reach of his power as bishop.
As for Bishop Schol’s current pursuit of a punitive church trial, the process remains ongoing. I pray that it will be resolved in some way that brings appropriate justice, restitution, and public clarification.
In the meantime, sagas like this should be kept in mind when we consider proposals to adjust our denomination’s itinerant appointment system or proposals to give bishops like Schol the unilateral, unappealable right to remove from ministry any clergyperson they may dislike.