From time to time we get questions as to what the Book of Discipline (BOD) actually says and means.
This week we focus on the question What happens when someone has a complaint? This is sometimes also referred to as “charges brought against them”. The process for complaint procedures can be found in paragraph 363 pages 305-309 in the 2012 BOD.
Who may be the subject of a complaint?
Ordained United Methodist Clergy and licensed local pastors who are also members of an annual conference or a confessing lay member of a local church can have a complaint filed against them.
According to paragraph 363 of the 2012 BOD, “Ordination and membership in an Annual Conference in The United Methodist Church is considered a sacred trust. Therefore, complaints may be filed against any local pastor, associate member, provisional member or full member of the Annual Conference. This also includes those on leave of all types, (honorable or administrative location), or retirement.”
From time to time we do have clergy ordained in another denomination serving among us. The provisions for this service and process for serving under appointment in the UMC, while retaining ordination in another denomination, can be found in paragraph 346.1 on page 279 of the 2012 BOD. It follows that a pastor who is ordained in another denomination and who is not a member of the Annual Conference may not come under the review process outlined in paragraphs 363 of 2012 BOD.
A confessing lay member of a local church can also be charged with a formal complaint and specific chargeable offenses are outlined in the 2012 BOD in paragraph 2702.3 and found on page 777.
What constitutes grounds for a complaint?
Complaints must be a signed statement, filed in writing, claiming misconduct as defined in the Book of Discipline paragraph. 2702.1.or paragraph 2702.3 ( for lay persons) In addition, the BOD outlines what is considered “unauthorized conduct” for licensed and ordained clergy in paragraph 341 on page 270 of the 2012 BOD. When the Bishop receives a written, signed complaint in accordance with the charges outlined in paragraph 2702.1 or paragraph 2701.3, it is considered a formal complaint.
Does a complaint automatically go to trial?
No. There is a review process outlined in paragraph 363 of the BOD that happens first. The primary purpose of the review process is a just resolution of any violations of sacred trust. The hope is that God’s work of justice, reconciliation, and healing may be realized in the Body of Christ. The BOD states in paragraph 363, “A just resolution is one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties.” When a complaint is received by the Bishop, both the person making the complaint, called the complainant and the person against whom the complaint is made, called the respondent are informed in writing that the complaint has been received.
What happens next?
When the Bishop receives a complaint and complainant and respondent have been notified of the complaint, the next step is that the Bishop may initiate a supervisory response process. This supervisory response is pastoral and administrative. It is not judicial. This process is directed toward achieving a just resolution, defined above, among all the parties involved in the complaint. Once the Bishop initiates a supervisory response, she also informs the Chairperson of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry that a complaint has been filed. In sharing this information with the Board of Ordained Ministry chair, the clergy person is named along with the general nature of the complaint. The Bishop has 90 days to carry out the supervisory response process. Upon consent of the complainant and the respondent , the Bishop can extend the supervisory response time by an additional 30 days beyond the 90 day limit.
What if the respondent has been falsely accused?
All charges are considered allegations during the supervisory response process. When a complaint is received, the Bishop may decide there is not sufficient cause to initiate the supervisory response process. However, in order to formally dismiss a complaint, the Bishop must get consent of the cabinet and must share with the cabinet, in writing, her reasons for dismissal. If the Cabinet concurs the complaint may be dismissed. A copy of the reasons for dismissal is placed in the clergyperson’s file and the fact that the complaint has been dismissed by the Bishop is shared with the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry.
What happens if the parties in the Supervisory Response are not able to reach a just resolution?
There are two possible outcomes if the supervisory process does not result in a just resolution: 1) The Bishop may dismiss the complaint using the process outlined above or 2) the Bishop may refer the complaint to The Counsel for the Church. The Counsel for the Church is appointed by the Bishop, one member shall be a clergy person in full connection and they shall have the right to choose one assistant counsel, without voice, who may be an attorney. (See BOD Para. 2704.21, page 780)
Is there a meeting with the Bishop?
Yes. The Bishop invites both complainant and respondent to meet with her, sometimes in the same meeting and sometimes separately. Sometimes there are multiple meetings held during the supervisory response process time frame. Both the complainant and the respondent are encouraged to bring a support person with them to the supervisory response meetings with the Bishop. Since this process is administrative and pastoral, the support persons attending, may not be an attorney..
A just resolution is reached … what then?
When there is an agreement reached which is satisfactory to all parties, a written statement of resolution, including any terms or conditions, is signed by all concerned. The just resolution also includes an agreement on what matters are to be disclosed to third parties. The disposition of the complaint is shared with the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry.
Why are details not shared publicly?
When a complaint is filed, it does not automatically mean that a clergyperson will surrender his or her ordination or licensing credentials and annual conference membership. The supervisory process and the just resolution, not the complaint, determine whether there will be a change in the status of one’s clergy credentials.
The supervisory process is not intended to be secretive but by nature it cannot be transparent. The supervisory process is a serious matter, as are all matters relating to personnel. Throughout the supervisory process, all complaints are treated as allegations (assertions of wrong-doing rather than proven facts). The Bishop’s Office does not comment on the complaint nor the supervisory process surrounding the complaint for reasons of confidentiality and the potential for harm. With a clergyperson’s credentials and character in the balance, it is inappropriate for the Bishop’s Office to make supervisory information public.
Both complainants and respondents and their support persons are also asked by the Bishop to keep the matters confidential for the aforementioned reasons.
Those wishing to read about complaint procedures in greater detail may click here to find Para. 363 of the Book of Discipline.