What happens when a person is accused of breaking church law?
Before we dive into the judicial process, let’s take a look at the responsibilities and duties of a pastor and licensed pastor.
What is a chargeable offense according to church law?
Book of Discipline: ¶ 2702 Chargeable Offenses and the Statute of Limitations
- A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference (¶ 370), local pastor,9 clergy on honorable or administrative location, or diaconal minister may be tried when charged (subject to the statute of limitations in (¶ 2702.4)10 with one or more of the following offenses: (a) immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage;11 (b) practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be incompatible with Christian teachings,12 including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies;13 (c) crime; (d) disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church; (e) dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church; (f) relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor;14 (g) child abuse;15 (h) sexual abuse;16 i) sexual misconduct15 including the use or possession of pornography, (j) harassment, including, but not limited to racial and/or sexual harassment; (k) racial or gender discrimination; or (l) fiscal malfeasance.
- A bishop, clergy member of an annual conference, or diaconal minister may be brought to trial when the appropriate body recommends involuntary termination.
What are complaint procedures?
Book of Discipline: ¶ 362 Complaint Procedures
Ordination and membership in an annual conference in The United Methodist Church is a sacred trust. The qualifications and duties of local pastors, associate members, provisional members, and full members are set forth in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, and we believe they flow from the gospel as taught by Jesus the Christ and proclaimed by his apostles. Whenever a person in any of the above categories, including those on leaves of all types, honorable or administrative location, or retirement, is accused of violating this trust, the membership of his or her ministerial office shall be subject to review.
This review shall have as its primary purpose a just resolution of any violations of this sacred trust, in the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Christ.
A just resolution is one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties. In appropriate situations, processes seeking a just resolution as defined in ¶ 362.1c may be pursued. Special attention should be given to ensuring that cultural, racial, ethnic and gender contexts are valued throughout the process in terms of their understandings of fairness, justice, and restoration.
A complaint is a written and signed statement claiming misconduct as defined in ¶ 2702.1. When a complaint is received by the bishop, both the person making the complaint and the person against whom the complaint is made will be informed in writing of the process to be followed at that stage. When and if the stage changes, those persons will continue to be informed in writing of the new process in a timely fashion. All original time limitations may be extended for one 30-day period upon the consent of the complainant and the respondent.
- Supervision — In the course of the ordinary fulfillment of the superintending role, the bishop or district superintendent may receive or initiate complaints about the performance or character of a clergyperson. A complaint is a written and signed statement claiming misconduct or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties. The person filing the complaint and the clergyperson shall be informed by the district superintendent or bishop of the process for filing the complaint and its purpose.
- Supervisory Response — The supervisory response of the bishop shall begin upon receipt of a formal complaint. The response is pastoral and administrative and shall be directed toward a just resolution among all parties. It is not part of any judicial process. The complaint shall be treated as an allegation or allegations during the supervisory process. At all supervisory meetings no verbatim record shall be made and no legal counsel shall be present. The person against whom the complaint was made may choose another person to accompany him or her with the right to voice; the person making the complaint shall have the right to choose a person to accompany him or her with the right to voice.
The supervisory response shall be carried out by the bishop or the bishop’s designee in a timely manner, with attention to communication to all parties regarding the complaint and the process. At the determination of the bishop, persons with qualifications and experience in assessment, intervention, or healing may be selected to assist in the supervisory response. The bishop also may consult with the committee on pastor-parish relations for pastors, the district committee on superintendency for the district superintendents, appropriate personnel committee, or other persons who may be helpful.
When the supervisory response is initiated, the bishop shall notify the chairperson of the Board of Ordained Ministry that a complaint has been filed, of the clergyperson named, of the general nature of the complaint, and, when concluded, of the disposition of the complaint.
- Just Resolution — The supervisory response may include a process that seeks 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. If the bishop chooses to initiate a mediated attempt to produce a just resolution, then the bishop, the person filing the complaint, the respondent, and other appropriate persons shall enter into a written agreement outlining the process, including any agreements on confidentiality. A process seeking a just resolution may begin at any time in the supervisory, complaint, or trial process. If resolution is achieved, a written statement of resolution, including any terms and conditions, shall be signed by the parties and the parties shall agree on any matters to be disclosed to third parties. A just resolution agreed to by all parties shall be a final disposition of the related complaint.
A process seeking a just resolution may begin at any time in the supervisory or complaint process. This is a not an administrative or judicial proceeding.
- Suspension — When deemed appropriate, to protect the well-being of the person making the complaint, the congregation, annual conference, other context for ministry, and/or clergy, the bishop, with the recommendation of the executive committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry, may suspend the person from all clergy responsibilities, but not from an appointment, for a period not to exceed ninety days. With the agreement of the executive committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry, the bishop may extend the suspension for only one additional period not to exceed thirty days. During the suspension, salary, housing, and benefits provided by a pastoral charge will continue at a level no less than on the date of suspension. The person so suspended shall retain all rights and privileges as stated in. The cost of supply of a pastor during the suspension will be borne by the annual conference.
What is a church trial?
Trials have been part of the judicial process for years. They continue to be 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. (See Par. 2707, 2016Book of Discipline for more information).
What's the difference between 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: The trial shall be open. (See ¶2708.12, BOD 2016 for more information and exceptions).
- Secular trial: Generally open
- Church trial: Judicial Council
- Secular trial: U.S. Supreme Court
Status of Current Complaints
From time to time we receive “formal complaints” about the ministry of one of the clergy members of the Annual Conference. All the way through the complaint process there is a presumption of innocence for the person against whom the complaint is filed. The goal is always to resolve the complaint and repair harm and facilitate healing for all the parties involved.
Complaint against Reverend Donald Heckman
Complaints against the Reverend Donald Heckman were referred to Counsel for the Church and after a hearing before the Committee on Investigation, the Committee on Investigation issued a Bill of Charges and Specifications regarding Reverend Heckman, which means that the Committee believes there are reasonable grounds for a church trial. The Committee also recommended that Rev. Heckman be suspended from active ministry. A Bill of Charges does not establish guilt. There is still a presumption of innocence. Guilt or innocence will be determined by Rev. Heckman’s peers at a trial if there is no just resolution agreed to by the parties. Reverend Heckman has been suspended from the practice of ministry until the completion of the judicial process.
I have requested another bishop of the church to serve as Presiding Officer as it appears that there is a strong likelihood that there will be a trial in the next few months.
As this process continues, please keep in mind the following:
- A Just Resolution can be reached at any time even if a trial has begun
- I ask that you would hold in prayer the complainants and respondents even as you pray for the whole church and conference
Status Update on Complaint against Reverend David Wayne Meredith
Following the decision of the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals andThe United Methodist Church Judicial Council, the case against Reverend David Wayne Meredith has been remanded to the West Ohio Conference Committee on Investigation (COI). The COI is expected to review the matter by the end of the year.
Your servant in Christ Jesus,
† Gregory V. Palmer