Furor over block to gay clergy candidate

Mary Ann Kaiser
Photo courtesy of Reconciling Ministries Network.

Updated on 6/11/2013

Members of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference, who met June 6-9 in Corpus Christi, faced the question of whether a lesbian can be a certified candidate for ordained United Methodist ministry.

More than 200 United Methodists and other Christians took to Twitter on the afternoon of Friday, June 7, to protest Mary Ann Kaiser’s removal from the ordination process. Kaiser is the youth director and justice associate at University United Methodist Church in Austin and has been pursuing ordination as a United Methodist deacon.

#OutOfOrderSWTX Stand with @ladygadfly. Her #UMC conference did harm by removing her from ordination track bc of her orientation. #StandWithMaryAnn,” was a suggested and oft-repeated Tweet.

The Tweets followed the prompting of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus that advocates for the denomination’s greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. Kaiser occasionally blogs for the group.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, says all people are of sacred worth but states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The book bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from “being certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”

Kaiser and her supporters contend that church leaders failed to follow the due process also outlined in the Book of Discipline when reversing her certification. Others argue her candidacy should have ceased as soon as she identified herself as gay.

Now attention has turned to Bishop James E. Dorff, who leads the Southwest Texas Conference. He has been asked to make a ruling of law on whether the conference’s board of ordained ministry followed the proper procedure.

He told the conference on Friday, June 7, he would consult with the conference’s chancellor — that is, his legal counsel — and post his ruling on the conference website within the next 30 days, the time-span allowed under church law.

His ruling automatically goes for review to the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. The church court next meets in the fall.

In a response to email inquiries, Dorff notes that the Judicial Council either will reject or affirm his ruling, and the court’s ruling is final.

“I will prayerfully and carefully make a decision on the issue requested,” his email message says. “My decision will be based on my understanding of the Book of Discipline, which I have pledged to uphold.

“I want to give thanks for Ms. Kaiser and her willingness to share her gifts with the church.  I pray that the Spirit will guide us through this and all things.”

Kaiser, 27, said she is seeking to serve out “God’s call on my life” in the church she has been part of throughout her life.

“I have a deep connection to the theology and the history of The United Methodist Church,” she said. “I was actually in the (ordination) process before I came out. So it was not a matter of choosing to enter this process as an out person so much as staying faithful to the church I claim as my own once I was out.”

The Rev. Suzanne Isaacs, the chair of the conference’s board of ordained ministry and senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in El Campo, declined to comment on the situation because the request for a ruling of church law is pending.

The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which works with boards of ordained ministry, likewise declined to comment on this case.

What happened

Kaiser was certified in 2008 as a candidate for deacon by the Pensacola District Committee on Ordained Ministry in the Alabama-West Florida Annual (regional) Conference. At the time, she said, “I was not even out to myself yet.”

Since then, she has moved to the Southwest Texas Conference, completed a Master of Divinity at United Methodist-approved Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and now works with the Austin District Committee on Ordained Ministry.

At a district committee meeting in April this year, she told the body she is gay. The district committee, nevertheless, voted to recommend to the board of ordained ministry that she continue in the ordination process.

However, during the closed clergy session June 6, the board of ordained ministry recommended — and the clergy voted 124 to 119 to accept the recommendation — to revoke her certification. The board cited her sexual orientation as the reason.

What is in dispute

Reconciling Ministries Network argues that the board of ordained ministry does not have the jurisdiction to move against her candidacy.

Paragraph 314 in the Book of Discipline says certified candidates may be discontinued “on their own request, upon severing their relationship with The United Methodist Church, or upon action to discontinue by the district committee on ordained ministry.”

Kaiser and her supporters also argue the board has not followed due process.

Paragraph 635.2 (h) of the church law book requires boards of ordained ministry “to examine all applicants as to their fitness for the ordained ministry… .” Paragraph 635.2 (j) also mandates that the boards “interview and report recommendation concerning … certified candidates for ordination as deacon.”

Kaiser’s first interview with the board of ordained ministry was scheduled for January 2014. She said she had not expected her name even to come up at this annual conference meeting. If all had gone as planned, she would have been commissioned as a deacon next year at the earliest.

What is happening now

The Rev. John Elford, senior pastor of University United Methodist Church where Kaiser works, brought the question of law to the floor of the annual conference on Kaiser’s behalf. He said that the board had not met the requirements in Paragraph 635.2.

“This is not a publicity stunt,” he told those gathered. “Nor is it a question of whether or not we, as a church, are ordaining LGBTQ folks. This is about whether we will follow disciplinary procedures as we support those like Mary Ann whom God is calling into ministry. If we cannot promise to treat our future leaders with respect, compassion and in a spirit of relationship as they enter the process of ordination, we have little hope of ensuring a future for our church.”

The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, who has argued multiple cases before the Judicial Council, sees the case differently. He is the vice president and general manager of Good News, an unofficial evangelical United Methodist caucus that advocates maintaining the Book of Discipline’s current stance on homosexuality.

He noted that Kaiser “did not meet the qualifications for candidacy,” so the district committee should not have continued her certification.

He agreed that normally, under Paragraph 314, the district committee would be the group to rescind a person’s candidacy. However, he noted that church law also says the district committee is amenable to the annual conference.

“The clergy session is a session of the annual conference,” he said. “I take this to mean that the (board of ordained ministry) and the clergy session can reverse an action by a district committee that they believe is incorrect,” Lambrecht said. “They can certainly reverse (I believe) an egregious error, such as certifying a person who did not meet the requirements for candidacy.”

The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, the author of the frequently used textbook Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church, said the Book of Discipline could be clearer on the process. On the one hand, he said, church law identifies district committees as “subcommittees” of the board of ordained ministry. On the other hand, he said, the Book of Discipline “clearly” delegates to the district committee certain duties including the powers “to supervise all matters dealing with candidacy.”

Historically, a district committee in The United Methodist Church and in predecessor bodies in the UMC “has always held a significant place in the (ordination) process, as the first step toward set-apart ministry and the locus of the initial  ‘license to preach,’ (in the old language),” said Frank, a historian of Methodism and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The wisdom in this arrangement is that candidacy can begin locally, among the people who know a candidate best. Keeping it local also reduces the stakes considerably. If a person decides not to pursue candidacy or things just don’t work out, larger bodies don’t have to be involved.

“The action taken in the Texas case ramps up the significance of (district committee on ministry) decisions considerably,” he added, “and truncates those valuable, gradual steps from local to increasingly connectional ministry.”

Matthew M. Berryman, the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, said he hopes his group’s Twitter blast not only helps reinstate Kaiser but also reminds the conference and board of ordained ministry of their responsibility to treat everyone fairly.

He said he wants the board of ordained ministry “to understand the gravity of their misstep here.”

“In refusing to interview Mary Ann, the board of ordained ministry is complicit in structures of sin that cause deep injury,” he said. “Following the call of biblical obedience, RMN hopes Bishop Dorff will correct this mistake by making a fair and just ruling.”

Lambrecht said he hopes the Judicial Council does take up the case, “so that we can clarify the extent to which district committee decisions can be reviewed and/or reversed by the (Board of Ordained Ministry) and clergy session.”

For her part, Kaiser said the Tweets in her support have given her reason to smile and likely have provided hope to others who are gay.

“The struggle for me in all of this is that it is really easy for people to think, ‘Oh, Mary Ann, she’s just doing this for attention or she’s doing this to make people uncomfortable,’” she said. “To me, this is a spiritual issue. … Why I am on this path is that I am trying to be authentic and trying to be faithful. Publicity for being gay is not an enjoyable experience.”

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. The Rev. Jay Voorhees, executive editor of United Methodist Reporter, contributed to this story.

Join the conversation....

  1. It is a shame that people within our Church feel the need to start trouble. This is a settled matter. If you can't abide by the Book of Discipline then worship in whatever denomination makes you feel comfortable. But don't stay to throw stones.

    • Actually, in our church it is settled until it isn't.

    • mainerain says:

      Great point. There are some in the gay community that will not rest until every church, organization, club, business, etc. accepts their lifestyle and their agenda. All one needs to do is to look at what has happened in the Episcopal church over the last decade.

  2. student094 says:

    If the rules say you can't be gay and be a candidate, you can't be a candidate. If you want this, change the book of discipline.

    • pastor sally says:

      I don't know this young woman's specific situation but according to the Discipline as it is now written, as long as she is single and celibate she should not be treated any differently than I am as a single, celibate heterosexual pastor. The key word in the 2012 BOD is "practicing".

  3. s1935@yahoo.com says:

    I am a straight 77 year old lady who was a certified/licensed local pastor. I love the United Methodist Church and always thought it was a progressive church but I am beginning to wonder. I wonder at the pain we cause in our your girls and boys who are already beginning to deal with their sexuality. I deeply wonder at the pain those dedicated Christian young people who are being constantly called to minister to the needs of others. Does your conference ever consider the magnificent talent we are killing and losing? My church is a Reconciling United Methodist Church. Our lay leader is gay. Our church is so filled with love and service that sometimes I think the walls will explode with the Holy Spirit. I will pray that your conference will realize your killing attitudes and make amends.

    • mainerain says:

      What is a Reconciling UMC??? There are many UMC members that still believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God. The Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, are crystal clear on the issue of homosexuality as it is on other social issues like divorce, adultery, etc. If a leader of your church is actively engaging in this type of behavior, then your church has become apostate and cannot be pleasing in the eyes of almighty God. If there are killing attitudes, I am afraid they are on your side of the fence. You unknowingly lead people astray and lead them to believe that which is called sinful in the Bible is acceptable now. I will pray that your eyes are opened to the truth of the Holy Bible.

  4. mikelindstrom says:

    The issue, as I read it, would be like the Finance committee saying the Administrative Council cannot make a decision without their approval. That is a common misconception. The Finance Committee acts at the discretion of the Administrative Council. They fulfill what the Council asks of them. Now, if the Council acts too often to make decisions apart from the Finance committee, then those people will no longer see a need to meet and offer any leadership in the process. So, it is not in the best interest of the Council to go forward too often without them or in opposition to their recommendation. However, it is not a violation of any authority.

    The Clergy session is not simply a rubber stamp approval of the sub-committee, district committee, or BOM. The Clergy session is the body that makes the decision after considering the work of the other bodies. They are within their rights and authority to make a decision in opposition to the recommendations without having to consult them in that decision.To do so too often might not be wise, but it is legal.

  5. pastorsteve1955 says:

    Some said that the conference did harm by not not letting her be a candidate for ministry…I say that she and the District Board of Ordained Ministry did harm by trying to get her through and recommend her when she clearly does not meet the standard as a practicing homosexual…those who continue this effort to force their way in regardless of what the scriptures and book of discipline clearly state are the harm doers. The Clergy Session was clearly not only within their rights to do this they were acting within the authority given them at ordination as elders. It is the way our system works. It is why one is supposed to take care to meet the standard if one truly wants to be in candidacy process for ordination. The Bishop and DS of that District need to clean house and adjust who is on that BOM so as not to put forward candidates who would require a church trial immediately upon completing ordination.

  6. methodistpie says:

    If she's getting married to her partner, as indicated in news accounts, that sounds like "practicing" to me.

  7. mainerain says:

    If she wants to serve as a deacon or as a minister, etc. she should consider going to the Episcopal church. The militant gay movement has pretty much destroyed that denomination and they have sexually active, openly avowed homosexuals serving in all sort of leadership roles in that "church". We are indeed called to love the sinner, as we all are sinners. However, the word of God and Jesus Christ calls us to be transformed and shun sinful behavior. My prayer is that the UMC will not end up going down the same destructive road that the episcopals did. The UMC runs the risk of becoming just like the world and devoid of light and salt; an apostate church.

  8. Until the Discipline is changed, practicing homosexual behavior is not acceptable behavior for any clergy.

  9. Why does the Reporter even cover this story and use my apportionment money when they know the book of discipline of the UMC says she in wasting her time and need to find another church that allows such foolery.

    • Jay Voorhees, Execut says:

      Scott, for the record no apportionment money is directed toward the United Methodist Reporter. We are an independent, privately owned LLC composed of dedicated United Methodists who are working to share information about our church. While there is room for disagreement regarding this situation, it's our belief that sharing information helps people make better decisions about our church, which is why we share stories on a broad range of topics.

  10. methodistjeffry says:

    I am deeply saddened by many of the comments that are posted in regards to this article. I am 28 years old and I am gay. I am a member of the United Methodist Church. What grieves me very much is that appears that most of the rhetoric that is being plastered on here on this issue, appears to be based on nothing short of complete ignorance. What many of the people commenting here seem to not realize is that regardless of whatever policy the Book of Discipline has, there will *always* be gay and lesbian people in our church. I was once a 15 year old teenager and I was gay then, just as I have always been gay. I was being raised in a church then. We are doing extreme harm to children in our denomination now and children in our denomination into the future by the policy that we currently have. We I read things such as an insistence that the Book of Discipline has settled this matter once and for all, I can only think of the story of Jesus Christ that is presented in the Gospels. The pharisees were constantly trying to rebuke him for not following the rigidness of the law. Yet, Jesus broke the law. He healed on the Sabbath. He and the disciples picked grain on the Sabbath. The Book of Discipline has not settled this issue. It represents the current thinking of 61% of the voting delegation of the United Methodist denomination. It is not reflective of the entire denomination as a whole. I am not even sure if it is reflective of where the majority of United Methodists are at in just the United States. The Methodists once fought over an issue many years ago; slavery. It split the church and caused a lot of "furor". Decades and over a century later, we can all look back at that and realize just how terribly wrong the church was. This issue of gay and lesbian people is no different. You may preach all you want about this being settled in the Book of Discipline, but it is not, at least not forever. Years from now, our United Methodist denomination is going to invalidate this negative position, which in my humble opinion, goes against the message of Christ; one of love and embracing all people as children of God. At the end of the day, I think of other 15 year old boys and girls who are gay or lesbian, sitting in church pews of the church. I think about what the condemnation of gay and lesbian people in the name of church does to them. I think about what it does to their relationship with God. If we have any sense of wanting to be relevant into the future, we must get our heads out of the sand and realize that the current position is wrong and unsustainable.

Trackbacks

  1. […] James E. Dorff of the San Antonio Episcopal Area released a statement today regarding the request for a ruling of law regarding the decision by the Southwest Texas Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry […]

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