Commissioners tighten discipline on those avoiding it

DETROIT, June 20, 2014 – After provoking such heavy debate on Wednesday that the whole report had to be tabled till Friday, the commissioners to the 221st General Assembly plugged a loophole in the way presbyteries follow through in their discipline of misbehaving teaching elders (ministers).

The presenting issue is the question of the status of those who have renounced jurisdiction after being charged with an offense – usually one of sexual misconduct.

The Committee on Polity and Ordered Ministry recommended to plenary a slightly edited version of an overture prepared by the Presbytery of Western Reserve (Cleveland, area):  “Whenever a former teaching elder has renounced jurisdiction in the midst of a disciplinary proceeding as the accused, that former teaching elder shall not be permitted to perform any work, paid or volunteer, in any congregation or entity under the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

On the counsel of the Advisory Council on the Constitution (ACC), an amendment came before the body which would change the recommendation to, “The former teaching elder may be restored as a member of any presbytery pending the completion of a new disciplinary proceeding dealing with the original allegation or charges pursuant to the current Book of Order.”

But the commissioners would have none of that.  The reason?  One commissioner offered, “We cannot have jurisdiction over someone who renounces jurisdiction.” The process of restoration through discipline has always been the responsibility of the same presbytery where the charges were filed in the first place.  The prospect that a teaching elder who had dodged that discipline might be able to relocate to another part of the country and there re-engage in ministry, even as a church volunteer, was not going to be allowed.  They voted down that alternative.

They returned to the original proposal from Western Reserve and approved it by a vote of 309-207.

In other related business, a proposal to amend the Book of Order by adding a mandate that presbyteries do thorough background checks for all teaching elder applicants was set aside for a less obligatory option.  The ACC pointed out that the recently revised Book of Order “purposefully avoids procedures and details better included in operating manuals, standing rules, or guidelines. Since the revision of the Form of Government, proscriptive language has been avoided in favor of more flexible language. The language of the overture would be better included in a manual of operations or personnel policies.”

Reflecting that counsel, the commissioners approved  by a vote of 475-92: “We strongly urge presbyteries to mandate criminal background checks for all presbytery staff, all teaching elders in validated ministries, all commissioned ruling elders, and others as deemed necessary.”

MiheeMihee Kim-Kort is a teaching elder and staff for campus ministry UKIRK @ IU in Bloomington, Indiana.