I’ve just received a ruling from the United Methodist Bishop of Kentucky, and it’s very interesting. It involves one of the oldest and largest Methodist churches in the Commonwealth, a downtown Lexington fixture since 1789.
A popular staff member at Lexington’s First United Methodist Church was fired by the Staff Parish Relations Committee in September. Angered by the decision, many church members demanded that the church hold a special church conference was scheduled to discuss the removal of members of the Staff Parish Relations Committee, and to fill vacancies on the committee.
The meeting was scheduled pursuant to church law and was advertised in the church’s Sep. 28, 2008 and Oct. 5, 2008 bulletins. Both notices stated that the meeting had been called to discuss the removal of committee members. So people flocked to the church for the Oct. 11 meeting, which had been authorized by District Superintendent Paige Williams.
Under the church’s Book of Discipline, committee members can be removed if they are “unable or unwilling to perform the duties reasonably expected of” them.
But church leadership had a surprise awaiting the membership. At the start of the meeting, Williams informed church members that they would not be allowed to discuss or vote upon the central item on the agenda — the removal of committee members. They would only be able to fill vacancies. And when church members insisted that they had a right to conduct the business for which the meeting had been called, including voting to remove committee members, Williams adjourned the meeting without any votes taking place.
Williams’ decision to unilaterally cancel a validly called church conference didn’t end matters. Those in attendance went ahead and voted to remove members of the committee. But the validity of that vote was in dispute. So an appeal was filed with Bishop Lindsey Davis.
On Nov. 6, Davis issued his ruling. In it, he states that superintendents have the authority to state and approve the purpose of a church conference. Superintendents also have the authority to adjourn church conferences at will, regardless of the wishes of the church membership.
Superintendents can also ignore Robert’s Rules of Order and the will of a church’s majority. “The United Methodist Church is an ecclesiastical body not a legislative or legalistic one,” Davis wrote. Majority votes cast after a superintendent unilaterally adjourns a meeting are void.
A new church conference has been scheduled for Nov. 23, but Davis told church members they cannot remove any of their committee members because “no continuing officer of the church elected to a three year term can be removed.” This ruling, which is final, appears to directly contradict the United Methodist Church’s 1996 Book of Discipline which states:
“¶ 252. Removal of Officers and Filling of Vacancies–If a leader or officer who has been elected by the charge conference is unable or unwilling to perform the duties reasonably expected of such a leader or officer, the district superintendent may call a special session of the charge conference in accordance with ¶ 248.7. The purpose of such special session shall be stated as “Consideration for the removal of person(s) from office and the election of person(s) to fill vacancy(ies).” The committee on nominations and personnel (¶¶ 262.1, 249.16) shall meet as soon as possible after the special session of the charge conference has been announced and shall propose person(s) who may be elected if vacancy(ies) occur at the charge conference. If the charge conference votes to remove a person or persons from office, the vacancy(ies) shall be filled in the manner prescribed for elections in accordance with ¶ 251. When a local church trustee is under consideration for removal and the pastoral charge consists of two or more churches, a church local conference shall be called instead of a charge conference, in accordance with ¶ 2525.
[If the church has the 2008 Book of Discipline on line, I can't find it. If anyone has a link to the 2008 version, please let me know.]
Davis didn’t explain why the Book of Discipline would outline the procedure for removing officers if those officers are exempt, under church law, from removal.
“My rulings on these matters are final,” Bishop Davis wrote. But church members they can appeal Davis’ decision – to him –, in the summer of 2009, he writes. After receiving their appeal, he’ll issue a ruling of law, which can eventually be appealed to the national church.
Realistically, in between now and then, there’s going to be a church split. Odds are, by the time this dispute winds its way to the national church’s supreme court — the Judicial Council — a year or more from now, most of the dissenters will have left.
The bishop’s ruling doesn’t cast any light on whether the committee members deserve to be retained or rejected, but it speaks volumes about the difference between church governance in a congregational body versus church governance in a hierarchical denomination.
If this were happening in a Baptist church, there’d probably still be a church split. But the majority, not the bishop, would ultimately rule.