Episcopal Accountability in the UMC

I’ve thought for some time that, while we have significant theological and ethical disagreements in the UMC, a large part of our difficulty with ecclesial disobedience at present is structural. Every tradition has internal disputes, but how we deal with these will come to bear in important ways on our life together–and whether life together is really even possible. To come to the point, it is a significant matter that there is no real accountability for the bishops in the UMC. If a bishop chooses to look the other way when acts of ecclesial disobedience take place, there seem to be no consequences to his or her doing so. Therefore, an elder violates the discipline, the bishop does not act, and our internal structure of governance breaks down bit by bit. What we have, then, is a power play. De facto, who has authority on these matters: the bishops or the General Conference?

“Wait,” you say. “Surely the UMC has a process for dealing with such matters.” Indeed we do, and we should examine it closely. Warning: the following will be rather like reading the owner’s manual for a household appliance. I encourage you, though, to work your way through it.

¶ 413. Complaints Against Bishops

2. Any complaint concerning the effectiveness, competence, or one or more of the offenses listed in ¶ 2702 shall be submitted to the president of the College of Bishops in that jurisdictional or central conference. If the complaint concerns the president, it shall be submitted to the secretary of the College of Bishops. A complaint is a written statement claiming misconduct, unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties, or one or more of the offenses listed in ¶ 2702.9

3. After receiving a complaint as provided in ¶ 413.2, the president and the secretary of the College of Bishops, or the secretary and another member of the college if the complaint concerns the president (or the president and another member of the college if the complaint concerns the secretary), shall, within 10 days, consult the chair of the jurisdictional or central conference committee on episcopacy who shall appoint from the committee one professing member and one clergy member who are not from the same episcopal area; who are not from the episcopal area that the bishop under complaint was elected from or has been assigned to; and who are not of the same gender.10

A few points are worth noting here. If a bishop such as Melvin Talbert violates the discipline, the College of Bishops in the same jurisdiction as the bishop against whom the complaint was filed are to oversee the complaint resolution process. The two people who are assigned to direct the supervisory response may not be from the bishop’s episcopal area, but are appointed by the chair of the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy and may be from the same jurisdiction.

Moving on….

b) The supervisory response is pastoral and administrative and shall be directed toward a just resolution. It is not a part of any judicial process. 

At this point, then, there will be no church trial for the bishop against whom the complaint has been filed.

c) The supervisory response may include a process seeking a just resolution in which the parties are assisted by a trained, impartial third party facilitator(s) or mediator(s) in reaching an agreement satisfactory to all parties. (See ¶ 363.1b, c.) The appropriate persons, including the president of the College of Bishops, or the secretary if the complaint concerns the president, should enter into a written agreement outlining such process, including an agreement as to confidentiality. If resolution is achieved, a written statement of resolution, including terms and conditions, shall be signed by the parties and the parties shall agree on any matters to be disclosed to third parties. Such written statement of resolution shall be given to the person in charge of that stage of the process for further action consistent with the agreement.

The process is intended to work toward a “just resolution,” which will include the input of the president (or secretary) of the jurisdictional College of Bishops. You and I, however, may never find out what that “just resolution” involves. There seems to be little concern here for transparency in the resolution process. Confidentiality is of course appropriate at times and with reference to particularly sensitive issues, but to allow the parties involved in the complaint to decide which information may be disclosed goes beyond the normal constraints of confidentiality.

If the supervisory response does not result in resolution of the matter, the president or secretary of the College of Bishops may refer the matter as an Administrative Complaint (¶ 413.3e) or a Judicial Complaint (¶ 2704.1). 

The president or secretary of the College of Bishops does not have to refer the matter, but he or she may do so. If this occurs and it is referred as an administrative complaint, the process is bounced back to the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy. If the matter is serious enough, then the committee on episcopacy may refer the matter back to the president or secretary of the College of Bishops for referral as a judicial complaint.

Only if the matter escalates to a judicial complaint does a bishop from another jurisdiction get involved. Here’s the rub: jurisdictions often elect bishops who fit the jurisdiction’s broad theological and ethical perspectives. Therefore, referring an errant bishop back to his or her own jurisdiction for supervisory action may be like sending a reckless driver back to the demolition derby. If the chair of the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy and/or the president of the College of Bishops (a) agree in principle with the actions of the offending bishop and (b) feel that the circumstances of the offense warranted a violation of the Disciplinethere may be almost no accountability for the offense. This is a breakdown in our system of accountability, and it has helped to push us toward division at an alarming rate.

What might help this matter is if the first levels of accountability were moved out of the bishop’s own jurisdiction. Another, more complicated, solution could involve the creation of a committee for episcopal review to which complaints could be directed. This committee could include one member from each jurisdiction. Additionally, if there is a United Methodist Church after 2016, we should consider doing away with the jurisdictional system of episcopal election.

I’m interested in reading your suggestions regarding how best to move forward.


42 thoughts on “Episcopal Accountability in the UMC

  1. Over the last few years I have developed the opinion that we continually suffer from the dispute between Martin Luther and Pope Leo X. Together they preordained continuous schism. The situation we are now in begs for additional church hierarchy.

  2. Just as clergy are expected to set the example, by their conduct, of Christian life, accountability, and responsibility, so ought their bishops. Too often, however, regarding both clergy and bishops (yes, I know bishops are clergy, but I am using this to distinguish between the supervised and the supervisors), there is both an unreasonable level of secrecy as well as too much politics. Even within the clergy covenant, too many times when there is an offence or complaint, there is so much secrecy that few in the covenant have any idea what is going on. Likewise with our bishops. These layers of “confidentiality” do more to hide what is going on and build up a “good old boy” system that gives a wink and a slap on the wrist, when what is desperately needed is either discipline or dismissal. As well, these layers of confidentiality serve more to insulate offenders, particularly those well connected in the political climes of their jurisdictions, than to actually correct the behaviors and wrongs committed.

    When our bishops blatantly disregard the Book of Discipline and seek ways to condone behavior that remains clearly against the Book of Discipline, then they have broken their covenant, and have stepped outside of the bounds they are sworn to uphold. They, the ones who upon ordaining elders and deacons, ask the following (the same question they themselves answered in the affirmative when they were ordained), “Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?” (Services for the Ordering of Ministry in The United Methodist Church, 2013-2016 as Approved by and Further Revised in Accordance with Actions of the 2012 General Conference), ought they not also to remain bound by the same said oath?

    When anyone partnered by that covenant no longer feels he or she can abide by the same, it is my opinion that they should, and must, surrender their credentials in good conscience. Let them not seek to wriggle through loopholes in order to suit their whims.

  3. David, as you can read from the cacophony and despair on this topic, United Methodism has reached that unhappy age where NO PLAN will be accepted that involves real modification of its habits. We are set in our dysfunctionalism, without effective leverage to bind the episcopacy to accountability. But from a tactical perspective, you have done worthy service by exposing this rot to the light of day. Paul said “expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).

    • Gary, thank you. I’m not where you are on this, at least not yet. I’m not sure this thing can be salvaged, either. I am not clear where things will end up.

  4. Very insightful perhaps a lens borrowed from the philosophic underpinnings of court design may help to test your proposal. Any court is designed according to some key insights that legal theorists defined through history, among them is – will the court being designed have both the gravitas and the authority to function? We impeach presidents because no court has the gravitas to enforce such a trial. The power necessary to do the work is far greater in terms of governance than we would want any court to have. The second underpinning is that every court derives its authority from the particular population that invests it. Traffic court can’t extradite because my town lacks the gravitas and/or resources to do this therefore matters needing that function do not go before it. This drawing authority from the population that invests each court goes on up to the Supreme Court. Therefore I question who would stand behind such a tribunal? I feel the time has come to create a judicial branch. Bishops function as both executive and judiciary and even they can’t quite navigate these muddy waters. Too often our conferences function as local courts forced by a lack of clarity and rigor to use unofficial or non traditional pathways to enforce discipline such as honorable location and retirement. I thnk we need a fully functioning judicial branch not tinkering.

  5. Excellent analysis but not encouraging. It looks like we have sown the seeds of our own destruction within our BoD. If we cannot hold bishops accountable then we are going to accelerate down our current path. How likely is it that we could find a way to ensure accountability before we implode? We are talking about some significant changes that would have to pass GC and judicial review. I do not think we have the time.

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