Wisconsin: Clergy Covenant is a Practice not a Punishment


A Wisconsin clergy group commissioned with reviewing and recommending what a “clergy covenant” means and should mean has released their recommendations…and it concludes that LGBT exclusion is itself a violation of the practice of the clergy covenant and ought not be upheld.

Amy DeLong was part of our most recent church trial (another one is pending) for being a lesbian and officiating at a same-sex wedding. She was convicted in a church trial of the latter and part of her sentence was to participate in a study process on what a clergy covenant might better look like in coordination with other church bodies in Wisconsin.

Their joint recommendation came out earlier this week, seeking to be ratified at Wisconsin’s Annual Conference in June. While the bulk of the recommendation deals with the clergy covenant, it also has a closing section on discrimination against LGBT persons.

Their six recommendations are essentially:

  1. The Orders meetings is the primary place for clergy covenant-building.
  2. Commit intentional effort to strengthen the Orders meetings.
  3. Commit the Annual Conference leadership to implement the recommendations of this document.
  4. Create another day apart in Orders groups to write a new clergy covenant practice.
  5. After their new covenant practice is created, dissolve the leadership of the day apart.
  6. Remove LGBT exclusion from consideration of the clergy covenant.

While the last recommendation seems out-of-place, here’s my interpretation of their basic argument:

The doctrine of the clergy covenant is secondary to the communal practice of the covenant.

While we hear a lot about the clergy covenant and about how everyone should uphold it, the problem is that the clergy do not seem to really know what it means to live out a covenant beyond assent to commandments. The Wisconsin clergy are pushing back that “unless the practice of the covenant is made evident, then the consequences of violating the covenant are null and void.”

I think this articulation of the Covenant as a practice and not merely a set of beliefs is important because it seems that the people who want to uphold the Covenant as a set of Commandments don’t practice the covenant themselves.

  • I’ve personally seen a prominent signatory to the FaithfulUMC document, a document which demands Bishops uphold the clergy covenant and punish offenders, leaving halfway through a mandatory clergy meeting. Not to go visit a hospital or a pastoral emergency, but to eat lunch and then go home. I’ve gotten a letter from the Bishop for missing a mandatory meeting, so I know such accountability is enforced.
  • Clergy regularly do not call for the required six special offerings a year, as noted in their Charge Conference reports, a practice that benefits connectional entities such as UMCOR, which has been most helpful this week.  A clergy friend noted on Facebook that in one Oklahoma district, only 11 out of 41 did the UMCOR special offering.
  • Megachurch pastors often do not expect to participate in the itinerant process, and have a strong arm in retaining and recruiting the best clergy to their churches…a reversal of the covenant connectional expectation that “Bishops appoint and we accept.”

The Clergy Covenant is only as strong and accountable-worthy as the clergy’s practice of covenanting together.

So what Wisconsin seems to want to do is press a reset button and get everyone into the practice of covenanting together. Only then would the Commandments have a full and unanimous expectation. I’m not saying I agree, I’m just summarizing their work. And while I have worries about what this sort of process means for other violations of polity, it will be interesting come June to see what they come up with.

Finally, the consequence of Wisconsin deciding to renew the practice of their clergy covenant is that they see LGBT exclusion as a violation to the practice of covenanting together and they call for it to be excluded from their collective understanding of what the covenant means. The text of their recommendations is this:

The Wisconsin Annual Conference will no longer participate in the categorical discrimination of people. Understanding that sexual orientation and partnered status create no barrier to effective and faithful leadership, those whose gifts and call are otherwise affirmed shall not be denied candidacy, ordination or appointment based on sexual orientation, gender identity or partnered status.

In short, Wisconsin is recommending that the clergy covenant, because it is a practice not merely a set of commandments, be made open to those whom a majority of Wisconsin clergy say it should be open to. If the clergy covenant bounds those members of an annual conference together, then that annual conference has an obligation to refuse to enforce doctrines that a majority of its clergy find to be discriminatory.

Interesting times in Wisconsin!

My response is this: the practice of covenanting together has fallen by the wayside ever since the teenage years of Methodism. The loss of the class meetings and other regular accountability groups meant that accountability became assent to a list of commandments rather than a practice of living together. Unless the pastors of the largest churches (who are the leading signatories to the FaithfulUMC petition) that lean towards congregationalism are willing to be in regular practices with the pastors of the smallest of churches that rely on connectionalism, then their use of the covenant-as-punishment ought not be upheld. You can’t preach what you choose to not practice, although charitably, perhaps the conference leadership isn’t offering opportunities for practice either.


(Photo: personal photo of the fence outside of the Reconciling Ministries Tabernacle at GC2012)
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  1. Gary Bebop says

    Bottom line is as you said…”the practice of covenanting together has fallen by the wayside ever since the teenage years of Methodism.”

  2. says

    While I’m thinking if it — Jeremy, regarding your discussion of “holding the church ransom”, I haven’t seen any reference to Judicial Council Decision 986. It’s relevant.

    Regarding the document out of Wisconsin: if it survives parliamentary maneuvering, it’s almost certainly going to end up before the Judicial Council this Fall. Judicial Council Memorandum 1236 provides one clue as to how it might get there, the 2012 Discipline notwithstanding. (Decision 1201 can’t be ignored either.)

    Sorry for the cryptic comment — I don’t see an upside here to explicitly spelling out legal strategies.

  3. Gary Bebop says

    DOUBLESPEAK…”Language that seeks to avoid, shift, or deny responsibility, and ultimately prevents or limits thought.” That’s what’s happening in Wisconsin…Cal-Nevada, PNW, New England. Well, pretty much the whole system.


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