Faceless accountability is not the way to “save” the UMC clergy covenant–indeed, it may do more damage to it than anything involving gay people.
The United Methodist Church is big on accountability. Drawn from our founder John Wesley’s obsessiveness with circles of accountability and circuits of connection, Methodists are connected in intimate ways. We have a whole Book of Discipline that outlines the proper polity and practices of the people called Methodists, and what to do when those processes are not followed. When local church laity do not follow practices, the local church holds them accountable. When a pastor does not follow the practices, the annual conference holds them accountable. And so on.
Recently, however, there’s been an uptick in rhetoric calling for a new type of accountability. Faceless accountability is accountability to people whose faces are unknown to you, or who are not within your appropriate, defined circle of accountability. Anytime our Methodist-defined concentric spheres of accountability are undermined or outright overruled by outside parties, we allow faceless accountability to take place.
As we get closer to General Conference in May 2016, there are concerted efforts for this type of accountability to replace our established system of accountability in The United Methodist Church. Whenever violations of LGBT exclusive policies take place and and it doesn’t end in defrocking, then the call for “more” accountability is made, even when the Discipline was followed to the letter. The argument is that because a disconnected party or a wider circle didn’t have a say, that must be why the resolution ended up not being the highest punishment possible.
The following is an examination of this troubling phenomenon in one exemplary case study, and one scary proposal for General Conference in May 2016. In short, faceless accountability is not the way to “save” the UMC clergy covenant–indeed, it may do more damage to it than anything involving gay people.
Case Study: Ginny Mikita
Last year, we considered the case of Ginny Mikita, a United Methodist laywoman who was on the ordination track in West Michigan. What brought her to national scrutiny was her presiding over the wedding of Benjamin Hutchison, a gay clergyman who was forced out of ministry a few days before his wedding. She was able to preside as a laywoman by receiving marriage credentials through the Universal Life Church, an online credentialing service.
What happened next stretched the bounds of accountability by any reasonable definition. A trio of clergy from outside West Michigan region (the region charged with accountability for their regions’ clergy and laity) wrote a demand letter (PDF) that not only was Mikita to be removed from the ordination process, but reasoned that she had already removed herself from church membership as well. The resulting uproar by the online disclosure of that letter (see our coverage here) led to many warring narratives as to what had actually happened and should happen–and whether the ULC is even a church.
Now, six months later, a thorough review of the facts and followups by UM Insight yielded clarity on the process, showing how after the demand letter and a subsequent error by Mikita’s District Superintendent, Mikita has remained in the ordination process. What happened is that the actual people charged with evaluating Mikita’s ordination and membership status followed The United Methodist Church’s prescribed processes, and came to a different conclusion than the disaffiliated letter-writers.
After an initial violation of process by the district superintendent, the Discipline was followed, the people charged with accountability were included and participated, and the result is that Ginny Mikita is still a candidate for ministry, despite the outcry by people outside the circle of accountability.
What would cause three clergy from outside Mikita’s sphere of accountability to write a demand letter? Simply put: a lack of trust that the West Michigan leadership would “uphold the Covenant” in the way the trio thought was right without their input.
One of the most important reports about The United Methodist Church in recent memory came before the 2012 General Conference. The APEX report concluded was that there is a lack of trust in the United Methodist Church:
Trust was often mentioned as a leadership issue–particularly in the context of power and authority…often mentioned as the observation that leaders themselves frequently do not demonstrate trust behaviors.
General distrust is a significant cultural issue for the Church. Distrust is both a symptom and a causal factor in frustrating the Church’s ability to function more effectively.
A lack of trust, combined with a perceived need to “defend the faith,” leads to efforts to escalate accountability beyond its defined boundaries to give power to those ever more distant than the current practices.
And unfortunately, there’s one popular proposal for General Conference that supports these escalations--and indeed, takes them further than anyone may suspect.
A CUP of Faceless Accountability
Faceless accountability is part and parcel of a major proposal before General Conference in May, and could very well become part of our polity unless more reasonable heads prevail.
The Covenantal Unity Plan (CUP Plan) has three elements that add faceless accountability to The United Methodist Church:
- The CUP plan adds binding arbitration to our judicial processes by forcing any just resolutions to include the complainant. That means the complainant, and they can be literally anyone who is United Methodist, can force a complaint to go to trial because any just resolution would require their consent. This level of forcible “take it or trial” is currently unheard of in The UMC–and gives far too much power to a person who may have never laid eyes upon the accused.
- Secondly, the CUP plan violates peer accountability by giving the power to handle complaints about bishops to the Interjurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy. Practically, this means laity or non-Bishop clergy (as chairs of ICE) would be in charge of handling complaints against Bishops–a sharp violation of our practice of peer accountability in the UMC (clergy are accountable to other regional clergy, bishops are accountable to other bishops, etc).
- Finally, the CUP plan calls for mandatory minimum sentences for clergy accused of LGBT-related offenses, such as being actively gay or officiating a same-gender wedding. This removes the ability of a trial court or just resolution process from considering the full range of options–and removing options is one way that faceless accountability influences a process. Not even the Holy Spirit can overcome a Book of Discipline minimum sentence–are we sure that’s what we want?
Little wonder the supporters of the clergy trio support the CUP plan–it fits their narrative that accountability must be achieved by any means necessary. But do we want in our church?
When the powers are scared of losing control, the morbid systems arise.
The Unity sought by faceless accountability makes a mockery of true Wesleyan accountability and weakens our connectional system. The call for “we need more accountability” should be heard but our standard of face-to-face accountability should not be thrown out in the process. The CUP proposal should be voted down at General Conference 2016, as well as any other proposals that make accountability more faceless and less graceful.
Be sure to share this with your delegation.
Excellent analysis, Jeremy. Thanks for the shout-out to United Methodist Insight. I’d also like to recommend your readers see a previous analysis by Insight contributor Thomas Griffith, “Epic Fail,” published on Sept. 19, 2015. http://um-insight.net/perspectives/epic-fail-the-case-of-ginny-mikita-and-the-umc/f
The other Wesley
Your article does not appear to offs an alternative to the called for accountability. Truth is that the system as it is now is not trustworthy. We are frustrated by those who follow the letter of the law while violating its spirit. The “punishment” phase has become a Joke. How do you propose that be addressed??
Real accountability within the conference the clergy/candidate is located within to would be a start. No need for people in other conferences to file charges or complaints against people they’re not in covenant with and have never met. This would certainly help the current impasse over full inclusion of LGBT/Q persons in the life of the church in conferences where, one way or the other, this is settled. In Cal-Pac, for example, this could be handled locally without trial. Let’s change the BoD to reflect this reality.
Jeremy, as a former UM Elder I understand your concerns. Here’s one that you might want to consider, however: the practice of “peer accountability” breaks down when bishops wield the power to retaliate against clergy who step out of line. I don’t know what the facts on the ground in the West Michigan Conference are, but I can imagine that it is at least possible that there are clergy (perhaps even members of the Board of Ordained Ministry) who were appalled at her getting what amounts to a fake ordination so that she could do something that the Book of Discipline prohibits to actual UM ministers. They might well have wanted to prevent her ordination as a UM deacon. But if (and I don’t claim to know one way or the other) the West Michigan bishop supports UM clergy conducting gay marriages in violation of the Discipline, those who object might say that opposing him/her would result in bad consequences for them, their careers, and their families. Given what has recently happened in New York, I can see an argument for allowing others from outside the conference where a violation takes place to lodge a complaint. Of course, there’s always a chance for abuse of that, as well. What do you think?
As a lay member of the UMC, I am tired of the gamesmanship played by clergy at all levels to protect their authority and their status. Over 40 years of nonsense coming from those who would force the denomination to accept unbiblical sexual expression wears us down. When will it end? Perhaps when all the money runs out and the faithful have flown to a haven provided by the Holy Spirit outside the tyranny of the secularized clergy who reign in the Council due to phony Guidelines of Christian conversation where the word “sin” has been eliminated. Intimidation is very present in such places and collegiality has produced those suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
In 1982 charges were filed against Bishop Melvin Wheatley for “appointing a self-avowed practicing homosexual.” As I recall, the charges came from a clergyperson who was not a member of one of the annual conferences that Bishop Wheatley was assigned to as Bishop. I witnessed the trial in Westchester (Los Angeles) and it seemed that the pastor who had brought the charges was doing exactly what you have described. In the end, it was decided that Bishop Wheatley had exactly followed the letter of the Book of Discipline in making the appointment. It’s too bad we haven’t come very far in nearly 35 years.
Having all accountability be within each annual conference is fine with me if no money from each church goes to anything outside the annual conference, and each annual conference gets to select its own Bishop and set its own rules.
The enemy hates clarity
In a denomination where some Bishops say that they will prosecute any clergy who practice same sex ceremonies while others say that they will prosecute no one, I am not surprised that some in our denomination wish to apply such a lachrymose solution. I say this because it causes me to weep that we try to use the mechanics of our church to beat down the spirit of our church. I have seen the UMC bureaucracy stifle good, spirit filled people striving to do God’s will. Wesley gave us process, “method,” but not everything the good and gracious man did wears well in the 21st century. This “accountability” proposal should be tabled as it will only add weight to an already ponderous load.
7-11 September, 2015, we the Bishops of the Central Conferences of Africa at the Elephant Hills Resort, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe part of our Annual business meeting, “Over the past four decades, from 1972 until the present, we have watched with shock and dismay the rapid drift of our denomination from this Holy call to a warm embrace of practices that have become sources of conflict that now threatens to rip the Church apart and distract her from the mission of leading persons to faith and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. One of such practices is the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender).
We are deeply saddened that the Holy Bible, our primary authority for faith and the practice of Christian living, and our Book of Discipline are being grossly ignored by some members and leaders of our Church in favor of social and cultural practices that have no scriptural basis for acceptance in Christian worship and conduct. Yet they continue to attempt to persuade members of the Church to incorporate these practices as an accepted code of conduct within global United Methodism.
As leaders of the church in Africa, we call upon all United Methodists, Bishops, clergy and Laity to an unreserved commitment to the Holy Bible as the primary authority for faith and practice in the church. We call upon all members throughout the connection to adopt practices consistent with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. We submit to the teachings of Scripture that God designed marriage to be between man and woman, and the procreation of children is a blessing from God (Gen. 2:24-25; Psalm 127:3-5). Scripture also teaches that all persons are sexual beings, whether or not they are married. However, sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant bond of a faithful monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and not within same-sex unions or polygamy. The Christian marriage covenant is holy, sacred, and consecrated by God and is expressed in shared fidelity between one man and one woman for life. In this vein, we denounce all forms of sexual exploitation, including fornication, adultery, sexual commercialization, slavery, abuse, polygamy, etc.
As shepherds of God’s flock, we covenant to be in ministry with those of our members who adopt practices that are inconsistent with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures
One of the functions of the Bishops of the church is to “maintain the unity of the church”. As leaders of the church, we believe that there are far more important issues that unite us than issues of sexual orientation. As a church, we are called to be in solidarity with people who suffer as a result of unjust political systems, wars, famine, poverty, natural disasters, diseases, illiteracy etc. etc. We believe that we can be united around these issues rather than allow ourselves to be ripped apart by issues of sexual orientation.”
Like England we have two years to reach agreement or a lot of ¶ 363 Complaint Procedures and in 2020 a hard break based on a church wide accountability alliance between African members and allies
Please contact me.. I and my family were Methodist but were kicked out because of non biblical actions of clergy who favored the rich over the poor- and I spoke against using the rules of the outlined in the Book of Discipline…which they refused to follow… I was under the understanding the membership was a contract between members as UM and the body of Christ…I presumed the bible and rules of the discipline were paramount… Hope you are still around. I am near Carrollton Texas United States of America.
Please contact me..