Bishop issues pastoral letter following council meeting


Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. has issued the following letter to clergy and laity in the Great Plains Conference following the recent meeting of the Council of Bishops. Download a printable copy of the letter.

Members of the Great Plains Conference,                                                                                         
Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ, the One we all belong to and whose will it is for us as His people to give thanks to God in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

There was a hope among many clergy and laity that the United Methodist Council of Bishops would come forth with a pastoral statement after our autumn meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C., supporting a call for a moratorium until General Conference 2020 on all complaints, charges, and trials of LGBTQ clergy, clergy performing LGBTQ weddings, and bishops who choose not to administer the Book of Discipline. The urgency for such a moratorium was prompted by the implementation of new restrictions strengthening the denomination’s ban on the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons that are set to take effect Jan. 1, as passed in our special session of General Conference in 2019. The Council of Bishops could not reach consensus on a pastoral statement supporting a moratorium. Bishops did agree that we should continue to pursue our specified role as stated in the Book of Discipline. That is, as shepherds of the whole flock of Jesus Christ, we should provide leadership toward the goal of understanding, reconciliation and unity within The United Methodist Church and the church universal (¶ 403.1.e).

I have and will continue to passionately seek the unity of the United Methodist Church despite the divisive forces and tensions pulling us apart because of our varying understandings of scripture, divergent theologies, harmful and disparaging rhetoric from people on both sides of the issue of human sexuality, and an ongoing unresolved disagreement about the United Methodist Church’s proper stance on marriage and ordination of LGBTQ clergy and laity that are already part of our families, congregations, communities, and our world.

There is much anxiety and misunderstanding about the practicalities and realities associated with The United Methodist Church’s complaint and trial process. For the sake of clarity, I will explain below briefly the process for complaints as outlined in our Book of Discipline. I share this information with you so that you can better understand our Church’s process and prayerfully take into account the intended and unintended impact of filing a complaint based on allegations of clergy celebrating a same-gender wedding or of filing a written and signed complaint as a means of removing from their ministerial office an LGBTQ clergyperson.

Just as I do not share this information to encourage persons opposed to same-gender marriage or the ordination of LGBTQ persons to file complaints, I also do not share this information as a means of encouraging our clergy to prematurely celebrate same-gender weddings prior to the upcoming 2020 General Conference. In fact, I strongly encourage all my Great Plains clergy with genuine and profound pastoral concerns for their LGBTQ church members and friends to wait with hope until after General Conference to celebrate same-gender marriages. I do not encourage you to do so lightly. I have traveled from the east to the west and the north to the south within Kansas and Nebraska to be present with you, to listen to your voices and concerns and to encourage you and our congregations with the hope that you will flourish in ministry with all God’s people wherever you are planted. As your bishop, I hold your hopes, fears, and pain in my mind, my heart, and my soul. I fully realize that an appeal to delay marrying same-gender couples sounds unreasonable to clergy and lay allies of the LGBTQ community. It sounds lacking in pastoral care, lacking in justice for the marginalized among us, and lacking in support for your local church’s mission to all of God’s people. I know that our theologically progressive clergy and laity believe that the time of waiting for the end to discrimination against LGBTQ persons of sacred worth is long past due. You sincerely believe that actions of disobedience will fulfill a prophetic duty that we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, must accept God’s freedom and power to resist the evil, injustice, and oppression of discrimination in whatever form it presents itself and, therefore, keep with Christ’s inclusive love and gospel.

As your bishop, I appeal to you as ordained and licensed clergy who vowed before God and the Church to uphold the doctrines, Church discipline and polity of The United Methodist Church (¶ 336.9-12) to trust in God with perseverant and resilient hope that God is leading us, sorting things out while we eagerly and patiently wait for the new church that is emerging before us. In the interim, I am inviting all of us, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin prays, “to trust in the slow work of God, guarding against our impatient nature to reach the end without delay, skipping intermediate stages on the way to something unknown, something new that God is doing.”

As mature Christians and disciples of Jesus Christ, I pray that we continue dialoguing and praying with and for each other, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Let us suspend our fear about each other and act as wise and mature Christians in service to the whole and for the good of our conference, our denomination, and in service and for the good of emergent future expressions of Wesleyan Christianity.

For those of you unfamiliar with our Church’s legal process, here is a brief overview. This is the process I have vowed to follow as part of my consecration.

A Complaint: Submission and Episcopal Response 

Allegations and charges of clergy misconduct come from the clergy and laity to a bishop, not from bishops. Clergy and laity who believe that a clergyperson has violated Church law, the Discipline, must submit a written and signed statement of complaint, noting the alleged violation and citing the paragraph in the Book of Discipline that they assert has been violated.

In my role as bishop, it is my responsibility to respond to a written and signed statement claiming clergy misconduct as defined in ¶341 and ¶2702.1, or unsatisfactory performance of ministerial duties. I have and will continue to respond to all complaints that are submitted in writing and signed alleging a violation of church law, as I am bound to by The Book of Discipline as a bishop of The United Methodist Church. Unfortunately, complaints are not extremely rare, as I have responded to several during my tenure here in the Great Plains on a variety of matters. If a bishop does not respond to a properly submitted written and signed complaint, a complaint could be issued against a bishop for failure to uphold the duties and responsibilities of the office of a United Methodist bishop. Such a complaint would initiate a different but similar response from the Jurisdictional College of Bishops that would occupy resident bishops’ attention away from their focus and regard for the missional needs and objectives of their respective annual conferences.

Process and Considerations for Suspension of Clergy

To protect the well-being of the person making the complaint, the congregation, annual conference, other context for ministry, and/or clergy, I have the authority to request the Executive Committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry to recommend a suspension of a clergy from all ministerial responsibilities for a period of up to 120 days. During the suspension, the pastor’s salary, housing, and benefits will continue at a level no less than on the date of suspension. The accused clergy is presumed innocent until the culmination of the judicial process finds otherwise.

Seeking a Just Resolution

 As your bishop, I do all in my power to find just resolutions to complaints through what is called a supervisory response. This part of the process is administrative in nature; it is not a judicial proceeding. My first and foremost intention with any complaint is to prevent harm. My second intention is to achieve a just resolution in the hope that God’s work of justice, reconciliation and healing may be realized in the body of Christ. My third intention is to do all in my capacity within the guidelines set forth in the Book of Discipline to avoid escalating a complaint from an administrative response to a judicial process. I believe this goal is exceedingly important for us in this tender time in the life of our denomination while we wait for the outcome of the May 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, where LGBTQ marriage and ordination doctrine and standards will be a focus.

Referral of Complaint by Bishop to Conference Committee on Investigation (CCOI)

 It may be surprising for some, but by Discipline, bishops do not refer complaints alleging clergy misconduct to trial. Unresolved complaints that do not reach a just resolution and exhaust a 120-day maximum period for an administrative response are referred by the bishop to a Conference Committee on Investigation (CCOI). This committee consists of four clergy members in full connection, three professing members, three alternate clergy members in full connection, and six alternate lay members. Like a grand jury that examines the validity of charges before a trial, the CCOI investigates the allegations made in the complaint and determines if reasonable grounds exist to bring charges against a clergyperson to trial. It is not the committee’s duty to determine guilt or innocence, only to determine if there are reasonable grounds for further action.

Dismissal or Referral of Complaint by Conference Committee on Investigation

If the CCOI determines that there are no reasonable grounds to support the complaint, it can dismiss the complaint or refer the complaint back to the bishop for the continuation of a process that seeks a just resolution. The bishop may use the assistance of trained, impartial third-party facilitators or mediators. If the just resolution process fails after an indeterminate amount of time, the matter is returned to the CCOI for further consideration. If the CCOI then determines that there are reasonable grounds for further action, a trial court is instituted.

Church Trials

Church trials are to be considered an expedient of last resort. If a trial is convened, a presiding bishop — different from the resident bishop of the episcopal area — charged with convening the trial will allow “sufficient time” to fix the time and place for trial as she or he decides, but in no case shall a trial be held within less than 20 days (¶ 2711). Each trial requires that 13 persons and two alternates be selected as a body similar to a jury out of a pool of 35 diverse clergy in full connection. Under the new legislation passed in the special session of General Conference 2019, a conviction on matters related to human sexuality means a clergy person would incur a penalty for the first offense of one year’s suspension without pay. A conviction a second time means a clergy person would lose his or her credentials for ministry. Fewer than nine votes for a conviction would be considered an acquittal.

Option to Refer Matter Back to Resident Bishop to Seek a Just Resolution

A presiding bishop at a trial may refer the matter as deemed appropriate for another process seeking a just resolution to the resident bishop upon consultation with the counsel for the Church and counsel for the respondent. If a resolution is achieved, the case is disposed. If no resolution results, the matter is returned to the presiding officer for further action.

As you can see, the system is complex, with many steps along the way put in place to help avoid trials. And I have not even shared the appeals process that brings in the jurisdiction and, ultimately, the denomination’s Judicial Council.

Why I Am Asking Patience From All Sides

Each written and signed complaint I receive alleging a violation of the Discipline impacts our conference’s sense of community and our valuable missional resources. A complaint requires serious attention and a serious commitment of time and energy to initiate and sustain the matter through successive stages in the process. Depending on each individual complaint’s level of escalation along the process, upwards of 50 to 80 persons could be directly involved in the resolution proceedings, not to mention all the other conference clergy, laity, and congregations indirectly involved in emotional, relational, and spiritual ways.
Complaints and ensuing processes to seek a just resolution generate expensive soft and hard costs to the conference (such as number of hours dedicated to seeking a just resolution multiplied by the respective hourly wage multiplied by the number of people attending to the matter, attorney consultation fees, mediator and facilitator costs, pulpit supply in the event of a temporary suspension, travel, lodging, meals, etc.). Multiple and simultaneous ongoing complaint processes would adversely impact our human and material resources, would further divide and wound our conference’s people and mission, and, most importantly, would markedly draw our collective attention away from our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
In closing, let me express how profoundly grateful and thankful I am for the privilege to serve Christ by serving you and walking along side of you as your bishop in this transitioning and emergent season of our denomination’s life. I am hopeful, by faith, for the future of our Christian witness rooted in our Wesleyan heritage and grounded in our general rules to do no harm, do all the good we can, and to stay in love with God. Your ministry in the world pleases Christ and fulfills the mission of the church through all the ways you are leading people to love and stay in love with God, through all the ways you are proclaiming new life in Christ to those in your mission fields, through all the ways you are serving others — especially the poor — and through all the ways you are seeking justice for the vulnerable, the invisible, and the voiceless in our communities.

As we enter into a season of Thanksgiving and Advent, we are called as people of faith to give thanks to God and hope in God, even when life is difficult, even when things are uncertain, even when the world we live in seems dark.
And now, may the pastoral encouragement of St. Peter guide our beloved community’s life in the months to come:
“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called — that you might inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:8-9)
With thanksgiving and hope,

Rev. Dr. Ruben Saenz Jr.
Bishop, Great Plains Conference

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