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Dakotas Area Bishop Make Case For Accountability In Light Of Current Episcopal Disobedience

From: John Miles smiles@ipa.net
To: smiles@ipa.net
Sent: Monday, March 13, 2000 3:41 PM

Dear Friends,

Phil Hathcock forwarded a letter to me by Bishop Michael Coyner of the Dakotas Area. The letter was part of a periodic report called "Life in the Dakotas". This particular report deals with the recent actions in the Cal/Nevada Conference. In this letter Bishop Coyner makes an excellent case for accountablity.


To whom are you accountable? That is not a simple question to answer for most of us. To the employee on the job, it appears that one is accountable simply to one's supervisor or "boss." Yet even in those situations, there are other lines and levels of accountability. One is accountable to one's peers or fellow-workers. One is accountable to customers, perhaps to stock-holders, or to the public interest. Sure, it seems that one is simply accountable to the "boss" (and that may be the person who expresses the interests of those other groups), but it is not that simple.

How about ministry? To whom is a pastor accountable? Certainly there is some accountability to the bishop and the district superintendents who are extensions of the bishop's supervisory role. A pastor is also accountable to the congregation, primarily through the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee of the church who give the pastor feedback, recommend the pastor's salary, and recommend to the bishop whether or not the pastor should move or stay. A pastor in our United Methodist system is not "hired" by the church, but most pastors are aware of their accountability to those they serve.

A pastor is also accountable to the Board of Ordained Ministry who certify a pastor's credentials in our United Methodist Church. Many people misunderstand this point, and they seem to think that the bishop can declare that a pastor is "incompetent" or should be removed from ministry -- but that is the role of the Board of Ordained Ministry. Even those decisions by the Board are subject to the approval of the Clergy Session at Annual Conference, so a pastor is accountable to one's peers in ministry who can vote to have credentials removed.

Certainly a pastor is also accountable to God, to one's own conscience, and to one's understanding of the Gospel. Such accountability can be quite subjective, however, and that is why these other levels of accountability (to the bishop, the congregation, and one's peers) are necessary.

Indeed, recently I received an email with a rather frightening story of a pastor in another denomination with a totally "independent" polity with no "connectional accountability" beyond the local congregation. That pastor actually was a murderer, and his new, unsuspecting congregation was horrified to watch him bully, harrass, and finally steal their building, assets, and reputation before anyone on the local scene could react and do anything about this supposed "minister of the Gospel" who was actually a con man and convict. My only consolation to the person who told me that story was to say, "At least in our United Methodist Church there is a connectional system which could have helped the local congregation to deal with such an extreme case."

But now comes the tough part ... what happens when we allow this accountability to become lax? That appears to be the case in the recent decision of the California-Nevada Conference's Committee on Investigation. They determined not to press charges against any of the United Methodist pastors who participated in the ceremony in January of 1999 which celebrated the union of two women -- even though the facts of that case were never in dispute, and even though our Judicial Council (Supreme Court) has ruled that pastors who participate in such ceremonies are to be charged with violation of our Discipline.

Really, I cannot understand how the Committee on Investigation could make such a decision. To not even charge those pastors (which would have resulted in a trial in front of a jury of their peers) was to totally neglect the concept of accountability. A trial could have determined the level of disobedience and the appropriate level of consequence (everthing from a letter of reprimand to removal of ministerial credentials are options to the jury in such a trial). But not charging the pastors is like saying "It never happened" even when everyone agreed that it did happen.

Our United Methodist connnectional system is not perfect. Our United Methodist Church is not in full agreement on the issue of homosexuality in general, and the issue of ceremonies to celebrate same-gender unions in particular. But when we allow our system of accountability to be ignored, we are in grave danger of losing the high standards for our clergy which we seek and which our congregations deserve.

We must hold each other accountable -- in love -- but in honesty.

And so I pray:

Lord, hold us accountable, and judge us by the same standards with which we judge others. That is the only true justice we need. Amen.

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