Below is a submission by a clergyperson in the Virginia Annual Conference who is under complaint regarding LGBTQ+ inclusion. It’s a bit long, but it is hopefully helpful to reveal just how damaging this season of some bishops “holding complaints in abeyance” and some moving forward with actively harming clergy who are gay or who officiate same-gender weddings. We need clarity and courage from our leaders to lead with integrity.
Drew’s story is one such story, sourced from multiple people. If you have a similar story in your annual conference, please submit yours here.
A Broken Process
Rev. Drew Ensz
Elder in Full Connection
Virginia Annual Conference
The following is my experience being under complaint for officiating a wedding in September 2019. This process has been deeply personal, painful, and difficult. I am writing and sharing my story because I believe in transparency and a Biblical model for dealing with conflict. What follows is my experience, and I welcome the complainants and Bishop Lewis to speak with transparency and openness to the greater Church about my case because these values are needed in our society and our Church.
I want to be clear that I have guarded information closely to do everything in my power to reach a satisfactory resolution between myself and both complainants, which minimizes harm to our LGBTQ+ siblings and our conference. I cannot share everything; however, everything that follows is outside of the parameters of confidentiality as proscribed in The Book of Discipline, and thus I am free to share this information without violating anything other than Bishop Lewis’ desire to impose an expansive blanket of confidentiality over anything and everything related to this process.
I also want to acknowledge the harm that continues to be caused to our LGBTQ+ clergy and laity in The United Methodist Church. This article speaks specifically to my lived experience during this process of offering a pastoral act to a couple I deeply love. Sharing this story is not meant to lift this particular harm done to my ministry, family, and myself above the more significant continued harm experienced by our LGBTQ+ siblings. I can only speak to my experiences and would be happy to lift anyone else’s experiences up to bring about justice, inclusion, and affirmation in The United Methodist Church.
I pray that through this story, where I have experienced broken trust, a lack of transparency, and a lack of integrity through my process, this might highlight the continued harm that often happens in secret. If I offend those in the LGBTQ+ community or their allies, it is unintentional, and please let me know.
A Promise to Be Fair
Bishop Sharma D. Lewis, resident bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, stood in front of the Virginia Annual Conference’s clergy in October 2019 at an event called “Re-Callibrate.” Bishop Lewis had encouraged all clergy to attend this event to reconnect with the clergy after returning from medical leave. During this event, she made it a point to mention that she would follow the Book of Discipline and would process all complaints related to LGBTQ+ inclusion in Virginia. I believe this was explicitly stated because the Virginia Annual Conference had recently elected all-inclusive and affirming delegates to both the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. The Virginia Annual Conference additionally passed a resolution requesting the bishop of Virginia not prosecute any complaint that came before her nor use any conference funds for legal assistance toward such complaint processes. At this event, she rejected that resolution, which had passed in her absence, but promised the gathered clergy that she would remain fair.
I remember these statements because I was already experiencing a broken process. At the time of this event, I had already been under complaint for over a month for officiating a same-gender wedding for a former student and their spouse.
A Second Complaint Received and Privileged
In early September, I had alerted the bishop’s office that I might be officiating a wedding and had talked with Bishop Peter Weaver. He was the interim bishop during Bishop Lewis’s absence (due to medical leave). I did not know that Bishop Lewis was not back and requested Bishop Lewis to call me as soon as she returned. I never received a call.
The day of the wedding arrived. Having been their pastor for over a decade, I was honored to celebrate their expression of love and commitment that day. It also was an opportunity to fulfill my baptismal vows, standing against “evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” even when those things present themselves in The United Methodist Church, which I love so much.
A complaint was filed against me by a friend. She decided to be the one to offer the complaint because I didn’t want to hide for a multitude of reasons. I tried to abide by The Book of Discipline and knew there would be consequences for this pastoral act. She knew the pain of this process because Rev. Amanda Garber had been through this process before and sought a resolution for me that focused on restorative justice, unlike what she had received. She described her punishment for officiating at a same-gender wedding as only being punitive.
Rev. Garber turned in her complaint the evening of the wedding. The bishop had scheduled the first supervisory response meeting for October 3, 2019. Twenty-four hours before we were to meet, I received an email that a second complainant had also submitted a complaint. I was not given a copy of the complaints until I asked for them, even though, under our church law, they are required to be provided to respondents. I was shocked at what I saw. This new complainant had the couple’s legal names. To my knowledge, these names were not publicly available, and I believe they could only have been gotten via Rev. Garber’s letter, which would have meant either Bishop Lewis or someone affiliated with her office shared that detail. There were no social media posts, and even my advocate did not have the couple’s legal names.
There is no other scenario I can think of other than Bishop Lewis or her representative gave the information to a now-former District Superintendent and requested they make the complaint on her behalf. This new complaint offered nothing new, and the only reason given during the supervisory response meeting was this person was the representative of the Virginia Cabinet against me. However, I would guess that the other Cabinet members would not have known this fact, nor signed off on this complaint or had a discussion to decide which one of them would represent their collective desires in this case.
“Fair Process” as Pretense
If the above is the case, making a proxy represent a bishop’s interests while the bishop pretends to be working towards a resolution is a fundamental violation of any conception of fair process. It makes the “fair process” requirement under our church law nothing more than a pretense. Further, it adds to the harm, and it is a critical part of what has caused me to question the “fairness” promised during the bishop’s return to Virginia.
The second complainant being the bishop’s representative was evident during the Supervisory Response process. Throughout those meetings, the bishop often ignored and sidelined the first complainant, and the then DS/second complainant was given priority/privilege in the conversations.
By way of example, at a particular point, I asked for a reference from The Book of Discipline that would support and help me understand the bishop’s demand for complete confidentiality, which I stated to the bishop was an overreach beyond the boundaries of confidentiality provided for in the Discipline (which protects supervisory response conversations from recordings or transcripts; it does not cloak in darkness everything involved in a complaint process). Bishop Lewis’s demeanor suddenly changed, and she abruptly ended the meeting. She called the DS/second complainant and her assistant into her office, where the Conference Chancellor was waiting. They excluded the first complainant from their conversation. This sidebar meeting is but one example of the bishop’s problematic behavior of marginalizing the first complainant, privileging the second complainant, and seeking to orchestrate these supervisory meetings rather than her proper role of facilitating them. It makes the hostility I have experienced during this process appear orchestrated, unnecessary, unbecoming of the episcopal office, and contrary to The Book of Discipline.
Towards the end of the 120 days and the end of the supervisory response period, Bishop Lewis posted on social media that she would not honor the “Protocol on Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring” (the plan for a conservative Methodist denomination to form as a separate entity from the UMC). I found out I would not receive abeyance via Facebook first. The next day (January 18, 2020), I received an email from the bishop stating that she would be referring my case to counsel for the Church. Learning the first time that she would not follow the abeyance, via a public social media post, rather than it first from her directly, was hurtful, disrespectful, and a continuation of Bishop Lewis’s hostile behavior. When I asked when counsel for the Church would be named, I simply was told, “I would know.”
In response to my case and the public statement of no abeyance in Virginia, members from all over the Virginia Conference traveled to deliver over 350 cards and letters asking the bishop to reconsider her position on abeyance. They had set up a scheduled meeting with the bishop to give these cards and letters. When they arrived, the bishop refused to meet with them and did not honor their appointment. Shortly after, members reported seeing Bishop Lewis walk out of the Conference Center’s side door while the members were still in the parking lot.
A New Inquiry
After one year since the supervisory response time had expired, I wrote a letter to Bishop Lewis to appeal to her pastoral sensibilities. In this letter, I explained the harm that this place of unknowing has had on me mentally and emotionally and the damage to my family and the students I serve as the Ministry Director at Arise Campus Ministry. In this letter, I explained to the bishop the mental health impacts of this never-ending process. Further, I cannot plan and vision with the Committee on Investigation proceedings’ threat always looming over my family and ministry, just on the horizon but never actually beginning. I shared my shock in learning that if my immediate and extended family became sick, I would be unable to take voluntary leave to care for them due to the Discipline’s restriction on those under active complaint.
Bishop Lewis’s administrator and assistant acknowledged receipt of my email requesting clarification on whether we would wait until GC or proceed on the judicial path on January 27, 2021, but I heard nothing from the bishop. We had an unrelated conversation in February 2021 that included the bishop’s scrutinizing my social media posts about a different wedding I officiated, but still nothing about my letter.
In March, I learned that another colleague in Virginia is receiving a new appointment for merely attending a same-gender wedding and being photographed being present. If this is true, I am deeply concerned that this means Bishop Lewis keeps track of persons who demonstrate a desire for inclusivity in our denomination and subjects these persons to scrutiny, harm, and reprisal as well, even if they do not violate The Book of Discipline.
What Is Next
With all of these data points–privileging the second complainant, mishandling the process, and being disinterested in engaging in a timely response to my communications–I believe the evidence demonstrates that Bishop Lewis is not following The Book of Discipline in its entirety, nor is she authentic about desiring to comply with it. Instead, she is picking and choosing what she follows. She has failed to follow the call from the overwhelming majority of the Church to hold complaints related to LGBTQ+ inclusion in abeyance, and Bishop Lewis has chosen not to follow The Book of Discipline’s directive that a resolution is to be “pastoral and administrative and directed toward a just resolution among all parties.”
My goal in sharing my story is not to allow harm to be done to myself or others in silence, and I want to hold Bishop Lewis accountable to the fullness of The Book of Discipline and the betterment of the greater UMC connection.
If Bishop Lewis wants to hold my case in abeyance, then I welcome and encourage that response. It would do less harm to the LGBTQ+ community, to our Church, my campus ministry, and my family. If she feels she cannot and must go forward, I encourage her to fulfill her promise to uphold The Book of Discipline in its entirety and be bold in her conviction, but please do not pick and choose which parts to follow. I would encourage her to be a courageous leader. It takes courage to live into abeyance. If she cannot live into abeyance, then I am asking that she allow me the opportunity to defend myself and to bring resolution to this case. Otherwise, Bishop Lewis’s words are empty.
Suppose she continues to fail to honor her promise to be fair and misuse the power afforded to her by The Book of Discipline. In that case, I believe she will continue to lose the respect of those she serves from all different theological perspectives, as many have called for an abeyance on charges, including our Virginia Annual Conference. Her multiple demands for complete confidentiality beyond what The Book of Discipline requires are harmful and have been used as a threat numerous times. Those of us who can; need to speak up and call for an end to the harm done in secrecy. My sincere hope is that the bishop sees the harm being done and can live into abeyance. If not, I hope Bishop Lewis enters this process with sincerity, fairness, and good faith. If not, then I believe it is our responsibility to tell the truth and hold her accountable to the standards she has promised the Virginia Annual Conference.
About the Author: The Rev. Drew Ensz is the ministry director at Arise Campus Ministry in Fairfax, Virginia. You can follow updates to this complaint process on his public Facebook page.
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