Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
In the invitation to holy communion, we are invited to partake in God's grace if we love Christ, truly repent of our sins, and seek to live in peace with one another. This threefold invitation reflects the discipline of our own General Rules, doing no harm (repenting of sin), doing good (seeking to live in peace), and loving Christ (attending the ordinances of God). It is in the spirit of this invitation and pledge that I write you today, that we may honor Christ and do good rather than harm.
Recently, your association submitted to General Conference a proposal to amend the UMC Constitution. The intent of this legislation is to abolish what you consider to be a principle of "guaranteed appointment" or "a guarantee of lifetime employment for any minister." To resolve this concern, you propose radically expanding the power of the episcopacy.
By granting the episcopal office sole, arbitrary, and secret discretion over the continuance of UMC clergy, this proposal undermines the democratic, open character of peer review, something we call "fair process" or "trial." This process is a responsibility of the annual conference, the basic organizational unit of the UMC. The proposed expansion from a limited to infallible episcopacy would also change what the Constitution calls the "plan of our itinerant general superintendency." These aspects of United Methodist polity are protected by the Restrictive Rules, as you are aware.
I suspect that this proposal may arise from actual experiences with ministers who have fallen short of your expectations and those of Christ.
Perhaps you have experienced pastors who were lazy and complacent. Perhaps you have experienced bias on the basis of race, gender, class, or political ideology. Perhaps your churches have suffered with ministers who failed to uphold the doctrine and Discipline of the UMC, those interested only in money, those who led a double life, those whose secular hobbies seem to consume more time than ministry duties, and those who betray their covenant through scandalous immorality. Perhaps the problem has been an abuse of authority.
Sadly, such abuses do take place, and worse. When they have taken place, they have caused great harm to you and to your communities and have harmed the credibility of our ministry. No church should have to suffer under an abusive, corrupt, or incompetent pastor.
Those of us serving in the rank and file itinerant ministry have a similar concern.
Our bishops and superintendents are also members of the clergy. The power, position, and privilege associated with those offices necessitate an even greater vigilance against the temptations of clericalism.
My conference was painfully reminded of this with the recent resignation of our bishop in response to a complaint.
Imagine for a moment that security of appointment had not been restored by the Judicial Council. An individual who later resigned under complaint of sexual misconduct would have had sole authority over the status of every pastor in my conference including those historically subjected to employment bias (women, ethnic minorities).
It is precisely the human character of the clergy that led Francis Asbury and others to develop a plan for a limited episcopacy, establishing the process of trial by jury (for admission and expulsion) and democratic elections.
Our polity embodies the values of the democracy in which it was founded. Our bishops are not monarchs. They are not infallible. They are consecrated, apostolic, executive, and exemplary Christian servants with responsibilities to travel throughout the context of ministry, preside at conferences, lead general agencies, rule on the Discipline, and make appointments. This is a holy calling, worthy of obedience and respect.
When toxic clergy have received appointments, it was not due to a lifetime guarantee of appointment. It was due to the failure of their local and conference leaders to bring an appropriate complaint process.
This being the case, your proposal will not have the outcome you seek. The corrupting influence of power without responsibility cannot be addressed by granting more power and less responsibility to our most powerful clergy. In some cases, it might result in a more expedient dismissal of an ineffective, immoral, or incompetent pastor (with little to no record kept to protect others in the future.) In other cases, it will deprive you, your churches, and the mission field the leadership of diverse ministers with the courage to speak Biblical truth to power. Worst of all, it will irreparably harm the integrity and balance of our polity essential to healthy relationships.
Most clergy welcome accountability as a means of bearing historical testimony to the work of God in our ministry. When applied with equity and on a routine, on-site observation and evaluation improves competence, helps identify areas for growth, strengthens relationships through honest conferencing, identifies and shares best practices, and assists all of us on the journey to Christian perfection. Such an approach also provides objective evidence when discontinuance is warranted.
An arbitrary decision to expel or suspend made in the secrecy of a cabinet room will never provide this level of quality.
We can improve accountability while honoring the values of fair process, democratic (conference) authority, and the separation and balance of powers. To do so, we must place expectations upon each of the various democratic bodies charged with accountability of clergy to fulfill their responsibilities.
Please receive these remarks and suggestions in a genuine spirit of Christian charity.
By God's grace, I am...
Your servant in Christ,
Rev. John P. Feagins
Pastor, La Trinidad United Methodist Church
San Antonio, TX