General Conference Day Four
On Monday, I sat in an Academic Affairs Committee of the board of trustees of an university where we were authorizing tenure for professors. Around the table there were people from other fields who were trying to understand tenure, and what were the implications for the university in terms of a long term financial commitment to a person. The practice of tenure in university life is long standing and the primary purpose was to guarantee academic freedom, so that professors could not be dismissed capriciously for their opinions and ideas. It was to create a robust academic environment. And yet, the upside of anything has a downside, in that in the case of an ineffective teacher, there is now an arduous process to terminate them, and in essence a life long employment contract.
On Friday, I am sitting in the judicial administration committee of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church where they are working on overhauling the complaint process for clergy. This process is modeled on the justice system of the United States. In essence to remove a credential from a clergy, if they do not choose to act voluntarily it could require a church trial. It is expensive, lengthy and complicated. Again the intent of such a process was good. It was to protect freedom in the pulpit so clergy could preach and teach out of their convictions. At times in our history, this protection has been important as clergy have been engaged in working toward civil rights or preaching against military involvement. But now, I wonder about what we have done for a variety of reasons.
First of all, is the US justice system the best model for us to work our life as a church? Should be using more discernment and holy conversations versus committee on investigations and counsel for the church and clergy? Secondly, it just amazes me again and again, when we have such pressing issues as a church about how we are going to remake ourselves to be relevant to new generations, that good people are giving three days of their life to talk about the role of the committee of investigations. Aren’t there better things we should be doing? And in creating a process for chargeable offenses and church trials, does it just foster an adversarial relationship?
The church is having a major conversation right now about homosexuality. Many faithful people disagree about how we live out our Christian beliefs. For some clergy, to act in what they believe are faithful ways to the gospel, is categorized a chargeable offense. So do we really have the freedom to preach, teach and lead that the complaint process was set up to ensure, or is it being used to punish and remove from our midst those with whom we have disagreement? As more and more clergy are feeling called to act in ways as they name as faithful civil disobedience, there could well be a significant uptick in the number of trials. And from experience, every complaint process takes a huge amount of hours and energy on the part of district superintendents and bishops. Is this really where we want to spend our time? Don’t we have better things we need to be doing as a church? It seems to me that the system is already broken and trying to fine tune it makes little sense.
So what if we got rid of the complaint and trial process all together? I understand that healthy organizations have grievance processes so that the rights of the individuals are protected. We need something in place that hold clergy mutually accountable to a standard of practice as well as protecting any person by the abuse of power by a supervisor. But there has to be a simpler way…and a way that allows the clergy and church to work for change and justice in the world without being in fear of losing their credentials.
General Conference Day Four