Abusers of Confidentiality and Ambiguity in the #UMC

prayerwallIn a denomination with strong values of confidentiality and accountability, there are certain individuals who game the system and abuse its values and processes and methods to the detriment of the whole United Methodist Church.

The Problem of the title “Pastor”

All over certain areas of religious news is the tale of Teresa MacBain, an Duke grad who was a former UM clergy. Actually, the news is that only one section of that antecedent is accurate: her name is Teresa MacBain (we think). MacBain has said in multiple places that she was ordained clergy in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church–turns out she was not. She has claimed to have received a Masters degree from Duke–turns out she did not. And all these came to a head this week when she was relieved of her position of leading a humanist cause because of falsifying her credentials.

Whew! The full story is better examined at both Andrew Thompson and Get Religion. Andrew, in fact, has some comments from the presiding Bishop during her tenure in his conference.

The primary issue that MacBain abused is that the designation “minister” in the United Methodist Church has different academic and ecclesial standards.

  • An ordained Elder or Deacon has to have a seminary degree or equivalent.
  • A commissioned Elder or Deacon should have a seminary degree or equivalent but some are commissioned in their second year of seminary and thus may not have the degree yet.
  • A Local Pastor who has completed the course of study has the equivalent of a seminary degree.
  • A Licensed Local Pastor or a Part-Time Local Pastor has no seminary degree required.

So the “pastor” or “minister” of your local United Methodist Church may or may not be ordained, commissioned, or even have a seminary degree.

But it is worse than that.

If you turn to the “directory” of any Annual Conference Journal, you will see a long list of different designations for clergy serving churches. We can pick on the Florida Annual Conference’s 2011 Journal. There are 25 different designations for the pastors: FE, FL, OP, PL, PE, RO, SP, etc. Each one means something different. For example, commenter on the blog Rev. Jorge Acevado is a FE: Full Elder. That designates the above level of education and certification by the church. Teresa MacBain is listed as a PL: Part Time Local Pastor on page 118. That designates that education is not required and certification is only at the lowest level (not in value but in hierarchy).

So one can understand with 25 different categories and at least four different education levels, the ambiguity of the term “pastor” or “minister” can be abused by people who know it is convoluted to understand what that term means in the United Methodist Church. A lax background check or references check by just one person could cement that ambiguity for a long time–as MacBain discovered and abused.

The Problem of Confidentiality

A second issue is confidentiality on both academic and ordination standards in the UMC and its affiliated institutions. What this means is that a clergy’s academic and ordination record is not for public disclosure.

This leads to abuse by some individuals because they can say bad things about the system (either after they’ve left the system or are being challenged within it) without any response from the Institution.

Here’s some personal stories of mine to testify to this issue…I will only share these because I know they are true and I’m sharing sanitized versions to show how certain individuals exploit confidentiality for personal gain:

  • I’m part of many Facebook groups for clergy and in fact I administer the United Methodist Clergy Facebook group (and administrating 2700 UM pastors is like herding cats…I never want to be a Bishop). One clergyperson a year or so back posted terrible rants about one of our 13 UM institutions, saying it is a terrible place and the Pit of Despair. The reality is that I know that this clergyperson flunked out of that seminary because of academic dishonesty and had to get their degree from another seminary. But can that seminary refute the ranting clergyperson’s words? No, because of confidentiality and the academic record. So a false tale is being told by a wayward clergyperson and the UMC cannot refute it.
  • When people write about their horrific ordination process or tales of abusive behavior during their interviews, we never know the other side’s case. Case in point: I could rant about the seminary one went to impacts how you are treated in the ordination process by certain people. As a Boston University grad, I have spoken to friends and colleagues of my own troubles and trials in my ordination process in the South but not in print (except vaguely) because I know my interviewees couldn’t comment–even if I gave them permission. On the other hand, I could talk about my colleague whose lead interviewer got sick and they talked about sports for a few minutes and then passed him to be ordained (he obviously went to a more supported local seminary). And no one could refute these allegations of favoritism because of confidentiality in the ordination process.
  • When pastors are dismissed from service, people sometimes don’t know why and the ex-pastor can say whatever they want. One online contact of mine has really mean things to say about a District Superintendent and that the DS dismissed the ex-pastor because the DS “just didn’t like them” and forced them out. But a fellow DS says that is not the case: the ex-pastor was removed for  impropriety. It’s not public information but it isn’t secret either. Still, this individual is free to lambast the ecclesial authorities on and on and the authorities are not able to comment in response because of ecclesial standards.

Because of confidentiality in the academic, ordination, and ecclesial records, the outsiders rarely get a clear picture of exactly what a pastor’s academic or ordination experience was like–other than their status as grads or passed–and the abusers of this confidentiality are free to run willy-nilly with false testimonies that the UMC is not allowed to refute.

What to do?

Both of these topics are difficult, with legal definitions swirling around the confidentiality piece and 25 designations of “minister” in the ambiguity piece. I’m not willing to give up confidentiality in academic and ordination records, or the freedom to talk about our certifying institutions, so the above abuses may be the flies in the ointment that we have to tolerate for the good of the whole.

It just irritates me when our values of confidentiality are abused and our varied levels of internal processes are abused and we force others to have to do the translation of Methodist-speak when it should be clearer.

But I don’t have an answer that makes me happy. I don’t like the idea of “breach of contract” clauses whereby if you talk smack about one of your certifying institutions that you give them permission to set the record straight. I don’t like the idea of squashing free speech.  I do wish for some shields for bloggers and real journalists where if they somehow have data that has been kept from the public eye that they could disclose it without fear of reciprocity. But then how to verify the blogger’s Cheetos-stained rants? Slippery slope. Sigh.

In short, why do I care? Because abusers like MacBain and the examples above are people I wish were addressed earlier in the process or in more public forms before they cause damage to the Church that I share my name, status, and identity with. In other words, damage to me.


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  1. says

    We need to do a great deal of work around our theology of ministry, and the various terms with all their ambiguities is a testament to that. The category of local pastor is historic to Methodism but is not biblical. Our separation of deacons from elders in 1996 is biblical but not historic to Methodism. Then there are the terms like minister and pastor that are ambiguous by their very nature (referring to pastoral roles more than ecclesiastical offices). It is, as you point out, Jeremy, a mess that has spillover consequences for other expectations and regulations. I’m convinced it is work that is best done theologically with the inevitable disciplinary changes to arise out of that. To start making changes at the General Conference level without substantive theological work beforehand is likely to just end up creating more problems.

    • Karen L. Munson says

      General Conference attempts to reform our orders of ministry have surfaced our lack of a shared theology of ordination. I highly recommend Thomas Frank’s Study on Ministry remarks during the preparations for GC 2008. http://www.gbhem.org/sites/default/files/studyofministryFrankaddress_web.pdf come to the position that cultural, geographic, and demographic differences call require regional freedom to develop and deploy ministry within broad categories enodresed by the global connection. In the Northeast we rely on our our Licensed Local Pastors as a permanent ministry strategy yet hisotric expectations limit their resourcing and deployment.

  2. Dylan Ward says

    This article brings to mind a certain person but I can’t quite think of the name. If memory serves me it was an umc pastor who had an affair, didn’t want to own up to it, was quietly dismissed by the church to keep away shame, started their own megachurch, then publicly writes in books how they left the church because it wasn’t relevant enough to let them do what they wanted to knowing that the Church can’t come out and call them on their BS… I don’t know, name escapes me.

    But interesting read.

    • Brett says

      “This article brings to mind a certain person but I can’t quite think of the name… I don’t know, name escapes me.”

      Then it would have been better if you had not posted what can, without a name, only be unprovable innuendo.

  3. Pubilius says

    Thank you Jeremy– Thinking of your last, and Dylan’s example, I know a similar situation that was mishandled due to the bounds confidentiality, it actually made the church, not the individual, look bad. As for the credentialing, I agree it should be made clearer, but I think of a local youth minister who has an MDiv, high christology, and theology on the essentials that is more conservative than many in the UMC… but they cannot be ordained due to their sexual orientation. The least I can do is call them a youth minister, versus a youth director, owe them that much.

  4. Wayne Cook says

    To add to the complexity of all of this, I must point out that a part-time local pastor does not mean that there is no educational component involved. I am a full time Licensed Local Pastor who will complete the Course of Study next year. I know plenty of part time local pastors who have completed the basic COS and are serving faithfully. Many of these persons are bi-vocational and some even hold terminal degrees in their field. Their commitment to ministry is as strong or, in some cases, stronger than several full Elders that I am acquainted with.

    As Andrew, and others, have pointed out, our theology of ministry in the UMC is, at best, discombobulated. We have studied it to death over the years and it seems that things just get more jumbled. I don’t know what the answer to all of this is, but I despair over the fact that the blatant lies of this woman will be used by some to taint the reputations of many local pastors who are serving faithfully in our denomination.

  5. Jack Wainwright says

    I was a parishioner at Teresa’s first church and the United Methodist Church cannot say they were not warned. Is there any plan to address this chink in the churches armor so that more time is not wasted with poor or damaging leadership, I wonder?


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