Annual Conference on Thursday, June 29, adopted a recommendation from the denomination’s Leadership Team and Council of District Executives (CODE) during consideration of the report, “The Authority of Annual Conference and Districts regarding the Accountability of Ministers, Congregations, and Districts.” The action receives the report as a response to the concerns of “Query: Same Sex Weddings” and sets in motion a new vision effort in the church.
The recommendation read: “That this statement of clarification about our current polity and standard practice be received as the answer to our assignment and that the church turn its attention to the framing of a compelling vision for how we will continue the work of Jesus together.” The recommendation was presented on the floor, and does not appear in the report (see www.brethren.org/ac/2017/business/UB-4-Authority-and-Accountability-final.pdf ; find a FAQ sheet about the report at www.brethren.org/ac/2017/business/qa-regarding-ub4.pdf ).
Presenting the report and recommendation were general secretary David Steele, who serves on the Leadership Team with the Annual Conference officers and a representative of CODE, and CODE chair Colleen Michael along with several other district executives. They presented the report to the business session, at two hearings, and also to the Standing Committee of district delegates.
Saying that the district executives represent the breadth of the denomination yet are able to work together congenially with a good connection to people in the pews, Steele and Michael focused their presentations on CODE’s qualifications for emphasizing a commitment to community. They acknowledged, however, that the report has generated some disagreement.
The Church of the Brethren structure relies on voluntary covenantal relationships, Steele said, yet Brethren over the years have made decisions of conscience contrary to Annual Conference decisions. He cited examples such as joining secret societies like the Masons, and even carrying concealed weapons--which he said is being done by some pastors.
Michael emphasized the districts’ authority over ministerial credentials, and the autonomy of districts to respect each other’s credentialing decisions but also their ability to respect the minister’s individual conscience.
Presenters expressed hope that with guidance from the Leadership Team and CODE, and through focused work over the next few years, the denomination may be able to formulate a “compelling vision” for how to move beyond its disagreements. As a vision is formulated, the Leadership Team will explore how to develop a process for departure from the denomination for congregations that cannot accept the vision.
Changes made to the report
Steele introduced changes that the Leadership Team and CODE made to a section of the report titled “Accountability of Ministers,” and to the endnotes.
The word “expel” was replaced with the word “disorganize” in a sentence that originally read: “We will not take lightly decisions that will terminate an individual’s ministerial credentials or expel a congregation from the body.” In addition, the phrase “from the body” was deleted from the end of that sentence.
An endnote 16 reading, “Some districts have begun to speak out about expelling member congregations but current polity and standard practice provide only for the disorganizing of congregations,” was added at the conclusion of the sentence referred to above.
An endnote 17 reading, “This is a standard practice established by the Council of District Executives,” was added in the next paragraph. It was placed at the end of a sentence that reads, “The officiating of same sex weddings by credentialed clergy shall be handled in the same way as any other report of ministerial conduct: if a district executive minister receives a report based on direct knowledge that a minister has performed a same gender marriage, the information shall be reported to the district’s credentialing body as a matter of ministerial conduct.”
Questions focus on ‘Accountability of Ministers’ section
The Leadership Team and CODE fielded numerous questions, from the delegate body and at hearings. Many had to do with the section “Accountability of Ministers.”
Asked about the implication and intent of using the word “disorganize” with regard to congregations, at the Wednesday hearing, Steele shared his understanding of what disorganizing a congregation means and how it occurs. The disorganization of a congregation is carried out by a district when the congregation is no longer viable, he said, and usually at the congregation’s own request. One other reason for disorganization is if there are legal issues with the congregation, he said. Disorganization is not a tool to dismiss a congregation from the district or denomination, he told the hearing.
He said the report was changed to use the word “disorganize” because the Leadership Team and CODE have seen a movement toward punishment, and districts wanting to take punitive action against congregations. They sought out wording that exists in polity, and found that “expel” was not correct.
Some asked for clarification of the difference between “conduct” and “misconduct” in the “Accountability of Ministers” section, saying there should be disclosure of what types of ministerial conduct are referenced. Although responses given by the presenters differed somewhat, the FAQ sheet for the report says, “Reports of ministerial misconduct must be processed by the district ethics committee, whereas reports of ministerial conduct are to be processed through the district’s credentialing body.”
When asked how and when district executives established a practice of sharing information about ministers who perform same-sex marriages, Michael corrected a statement she had made at the Wednesday hearing. She told the delegates that the practice was first discussed about a year and a half ago, in the fall of 2015. It is simply an agreement among the district executives and not found in any denominational polity.
The last sentence of the “Accountability of Ministers” section, stating that districts respect the ministry credentialing decisions of other districts, also was discussed. Questioners wanted to know if all credentials given by one district will be respected by every other district, and whether the word “respect” implies acceptance of all the decisions of other districts. Michael told the delegate body, “We’ll respect the decision but we’re not obligated to follow.”
Developing a process for congregations to leave the denomination raised concerns for at least one questioner at the Wednesday hearing, who pointed out some individual members in those congregations may not want to leave the denomination. Any process would need to care for those members who are in the minority, she said.
During the Wednesday hearing, Steele characterized the compelling vision that will be sought as something that is needed to move the denomination forward, but also as something that may result in a split. “How do we move beyond the conversation about same-gender marriage?” he asked. He answered the question by saying that the church needs to find something to gather around. He quoted one of the district executives as saying that if the church is going to split, it would be better to split over beliefs and values and vision.
For more onsite coverage of Annual Conference go to www.brethren.org/ac/2017/coverage .
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