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Three Bishops Stir Controversy

By Walter Fenton

May 11, 2021

The United Methodist Church’s Episcopal shield. UM Church Council of Bishops.

Perhaps it is a bit of an exaggeration, but we think it is fair to say that 99.9 percent of clergy appointments in The United Methodist Church are made with little or no controversy. And this is so because they tend to break down as follows: a local church wants a pastoral change, a pastor wants a new appointment, or a pastor retires that often results in a bishop and a cabinet shuffling clergy around to fill a vacancy that then creates a cascade of other vacancies.

Bishops and their cabinets initiate a relatively small percentage of appointment changes in any given year. They long ago recognized the value of trying to make the best clergy–church matches possible in order to foster long-term stability. Their strong inclination is to leave pastors and churches alone if things are going tolerably well. And especially in this season when the UM Church is on the cusp of a plan of separation, most bishops have refrained from separating pastors from local churches where there is strong theological alignment and agreement regarding their future plans.

Clergy friends who are current or former district superintendents assure us that bishops and cabinets do not relish appointment season. Done right, it requires a great deal of consultation, creativity, conversation, and prayer. And all the while they try to accommodate the needs of clergy families and the desires of local churches. All of which require significant investments of their time and extensive travel. The process is Methodism’s time honored and tested way for deploying clergy to local churches.

To be sure, the appointment process has dramatically changed over the centuries, and generally for the better. Clergy are no longer informed on the final day of annual conference where they will be serving in a few weeks. They are not moved from church to church every two or three years. And most local churches are not simply told who their next pastor will be without some advance notice.

Today, the UM Church’s Book of Discipline calls for a consultative process that includes the bishop, district superintendents, the local church, and clergy. It is not a perfect system that always makes everyone happy, but it is designed to meet the basic needs of the parties involved, and most importantly, the greater good of the general church’s mission. Despite its imperfections, it generally works year-in and year-out with little or no controversy. Even when clergy are asked to move on very short notice due to extenuating circumstances – a clergy death, a clergy voluntary or involuntary leave of absence – clergy almost invariably do so because they know they made a vow to itinerate.

However, when appointments appear to be capricious or punitive (as in Georgia, New Jersey and California) there is likely to be controversy. And when they are made in a denomination on the brink of separation, they invite controversy.

In the case of the Rev. Dr. Jody Ray at Mt. Bethel Church in Marietta, Georgia, some United Methodists are, with justification, mystified by Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson’s decision to move him at this juncture. Ray did not request a move. Mt. Bethel’s staff parish relations committee did not request a change. And Ray’s move was not necessitated by another clergy person’s extenuating circumstances. Instead, Ray was informed on April 5 that he was to assume an evolving position on the conference staff by May 6.

Mt. Bethel UM Church in Marietta, Georgia, celebrates Confirmation Sunday during a 2020 worship service in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Mt. Bethel Church.

Haupert-Johnson surely knew the move would court controversy for a number of reasons. First, she did not personally consult with Ray regarding the evolving conference position she had in mind for him. It is reported that the position had to do with racial reconciliation, which raises the question, wouldn’t a bishop want to carefully consult with the pastor she had in mind for such an important post on the North Georgia Annual Conference’s staff? In fact, wouldn’t a bishop want to meet several times with such a candidate to talk about the new role and how it could enhance racial reconciliation in church and society? Second, since Mt. Bethel is a large, multi-campus church with a K-12 school and over 300 employees, some United Methodists wonder why she did not begin preparing the church for such a major change months ago. Appointment changes at large congregations like Mt. Bethel are typically announced in December or January so everyone can begin preparing for as smooth a transition as possible. And finally, it has been widely known that Mt. Bethel Church and Ray hope to join the Global Methodist Church after the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation is adopted.

Whether Haupert-Johnson intended it or not, her failure to consult personally with Ray and Mt. Bethel’s lay leaders well ahead of time has created a very public controversy that has gained widespread media attention. And whether it is fair or not, some United Methodists believe the precipitous move was an attempt to divide a traditionalist congregation from a traditionalist pastor with plans to join to the Global Methodist Church. At a minimum, one would have expected the bishop to have anticipated the controversy and to have done everything in her power to have defused it beforehand.

Some have claimed Ray and Mt. Bethel are just receiving the kind of treatment small- to mid-size churches routinely experience when dealing with bishops and their cabinets. We certainly hope not. And in truth, it is not how bishops and cabinets typically treat pastors and local churches. It is precisely why there is generally a lack of major controversies across the connection during most appointment cycles.

Others have charged that Ray either did not understand the itinerate system he signed-up for or was unwilling to abide by it. And they further maintain the Mt. Bethel congregation is seeking to usurp the bishop’s prerogative to make appointments. Both charges do not stand-up to scrutiny. Ray understood his vow to itinerate, and he willingly did so in the past (Ray has sense surrendered his ordination credentials in the UM Church and Mt. Bethel has hired him as its CEO and Lead Preacher). Mt. Bethel lay leaders are fully acquainted with the appointment process, and for many decades they have accepted episcopal appointments without complaint. What created the controversy was the bishop’s decision to have a district superintendent simply notify Ray that he was to be moved. And to compound the matter, she did so very late in the appointment cycle without any sustained and meaningful consultation with him or Mt. Bethel Church’s staff parish relations committee previous to the notification of his new assignment. As the UM Church’s Book of Discipline states, “Consultation is not merely notification.” Trying to engage in consultation after notification typically does not go well.

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In another recent situation Bishop Grant Hagiya has abruptly removed three Korean pastors in the California-Pacific Annual Conference from their local churches. Their congregations are resisting Hagiya’s actions.

The Rev. Jae Duk Lew receives a young family into church membership at Valley Korean United Methodist Church in Granada Hills, California. Photo by Valley Korean UM Church.

According to one of the pastors, the Rev. Jae Duk Lew, lead pastor at Valley Korean UM Church in Granada Hills, California, he was informed by his district superintendent that he was being moved from the church he has served for the past 10 years because the bishop was, “hearing news from people . . . that [he] was participating in the recruitment of local UM churches considering joining the WCA.” It is also reported that Hagiya removed Lew and the pastors because of “character and integrity” issues. Both Valley Korean UM Church and Rev. Lew had requested the continuation of their relationship.

If these allegations are true, they pose serious problems for all clergy in the annual conference. First, bishops are not to use the appointment process as means to discipline or punish pastors. Second, the charges against Lew are hearsay. Before taking any action, Hagiya should have given Lew an opportunity to respond to claims that likely do not even rise to a chargeable offense (clergy, laity and bishops all across the connection have been engaging in open and robust conversations about their options after the restructuring of the UM Church). Finally, according to Lew, neither the bishop nor his district superintendent apprised him of any “character and integrity” deficiencies in the performance of his duties. He reports that he has never received any written or verbal communications detailing any concerns they might have had about his performance.

As the matter now stands, Hagiya says confidentiality requirements regarding personnel matters forbid him from commenting on Lew’s situation or the removal of the other pastors (Revs. Jonathan Lee and Nak-in Kim). However, Lew has said he would wave his confidentiality rights and would welcome an opening of his clergy file. He is confident there will be no written reports or records of any verbal conversations regarding specific instances of character and integrity deficiencies on his part. And if there are, it would be the first time he was made aware that the bishop or a district superintendent had placed such reports in his file. He would welcome the opportunity to review and refute them, and believes it is his right to do so.

UM clergy are guaranteed due process rights. And we trust Hagiya has not used the appointment process to punish a colleague based on hearsay evidence without giving him the opportunity to defend himself. Lew’s congregation, the WCA’s Cal-Pac Regional Chapter, and many others across the UM connection are now calling on Hagiya to be more forthcoming regarding his treatment of Lew, Lee, and Kim.

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Over the past five to six months thousands of appointments have been made across the UM Church in the U.S. Only three bishops have stirred-up controversy over just five clergy appointments. The congregations and pastors involved have found the bishops’ actions in these cases to be arbitrary, capricious, and punitive. And in one way or another, they all embarked upon very public attempts to resist appointments that appear far outside the norm to many United Methodists.

Whether the bishops involved were justified in their actions will continue to be debated over the weeks and months to come. But what does not seem to be in dispute is that these bishops could have found better, less controversial, and more amicable ways of dealing with the pastors and local churches involved.

For its part, the Wesleyan Covenant Association looks forward to a new church where bishops and their representatives will be held accountable to going the second or even third mile in consulting and working collaboratively with local churches and clergy. Since the Global Methodist Church will not have a trust clause, a bishop and her or his cabinet will have to demonstrate value to and investment in local churches as they seek to find pastors for their particular settings. The very nature of the system will require close consultation and collaboration for the health and well-being of local churches, pastors, annual conferences, and the mission of the whole church.


The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.

 

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