Bishop Jim Dorff has issued a ruling upholding (by default) the decision by the clergy session of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference to remove Ms. Mary Ann Kaiser from candidacy for ordained ministry. Ms. Kaiser is an avowed lesbian living in a partnered relationship with another woman, and with the public intention of “marrying” the woman at the fall Reconciling Ministries Network Convocation in Maryland, where such weddings are legal.
There are two issues posed by this decision: a question about the process used, and the rightness of the decision itself under the Book of Discipline.
A clergy member questioned whether the Board of Ordained Ministry could recommend Ms. Kaiser’s discontinuation from candidacy without having an interview with the Board. Bishop Dorff declined to rule on that appeal because he considered it hypothetical, not germane to the annual conference business.
It appears that Bishop Dorff ruled in this way because the wording of the appeal did not specifically mention Ms. Kaiser or her discontinuance, but was worded in a more general way.
If this analysis is correct, one can understand why the bishop ruled, based on a technicality. However, the church would have been better served by the bishop ignoring the technicality and ruling on the substance of the question. Very few United Methodists, clergy or lay, are trained lawyers. Those concerned about the integrity of the process are trying to do the best they can to use the procedure provided by our global denomination in the Book of Discipline. Sometimes mistakes are made. Where the intent of the questioner is clear, it would serve United Methodism better for the bishop involved to honor the question and issue a ruling, rather than standing on the finer points of the law.
This is not a criticism of Bishop Dorff. Instead, this is a critique of our whole system of church accountability. An error or oversight that materially affects the outcome of the issue should not be excused. But we should give one another a measure of grace in the process of trying to be faithful to our accountability procedure as we seek to “go on to perfection.”
Was the action of the SW Texas conference correct under the Discipline? Stepping away from the circle of publicity and the social media campaign, and judging from the facts surrounding this case, the action of the conference was correct under the Discipline.
Ms. Kaiser did receive an interview. That interview was conducted by the district committee on ministry that recommended her. The Board received a full report of that interview along with the committee’s recommendation to continue Ms. Kaiser as a certified candidate for ordained ministry.
The district committee acts as an extension of the Board, with most of the responsibility for decisions about candidates delegated to the committee and its interview process. The committee’s members are appointed in consultation with the Board and must include at least one Board member. The committee, however, is accountable to the Board. The Board has the final authority to recommend actions concerning candidates, even if that means overruling the committee.
In this situation, the issue was clear. The committee determined from its interview that Ms. Kaiser is what the Book of Discipline defines as a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.” They said so in their report to the Board. However, even after acknowledging that the Discipline prohibits self-avowed practicing homosexuals from being certified as candidates for ministry, the committee violated our agreed upon standards in the Discipline by recommending her certification anyway.
The Board had no choice in the matter, if it was going to honor the Discipline and maintain the covenant by which all United Methodist clergy vow to function. The issue was clear from the committee’s report, and there needed to be no further interview to establish the facts.
This is where Bishop Dorff served the church well. In a pastoral letter that bent over backwards to acknowledge the pain and strong feelings on both sides and the deep divisions that beset our church, he once again affirmed that only the General Conference can set or change the qualifications for candidacy and ordained ministry. Responding to the protest move by the district committee, he called on all involved to “administer the requirements of the General Conference” and to “hold each other mutually accountable through the processes outlined in the Book of Discipline.” That is how our covenant relationship works within United Methodism. I am grateful for Bishop Dorff’s clear articulation and support for our covenant.
*Thomas A. Lambrecht is Vice President and General Manager of Good News, the oldest and largest renewal group within The United Methodist Church. Rev. Lambrecht is an ordained elder, member of the Wisconsin Annual Conference, and served for 29 years in pastoral ministry before joining Good News. Lambrecht served as the counsel for the church in a church trial and has argued cases before the Judicial Council.