Presbyteries are being asked to vote on a sensitive polity question involving teaching elders who renounce the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – and it’s not necessarily easy to understand what’s at stake from the language of the proposed amendments.
The proposal involves the issue of how the PC(USA) should respond when a teaching elder renounces the denomination’s jurisdiction (essentially leaving the church) in the middle of a disciplinary proceeding – a proceeding that sometimes involves allegations of sexual abuse or impropriety – and then later seeks to rejoin the church.
A General Assembly committee struggled last summer with what the right approach should be – in part, how to strike a balance between accountability and showing grace. “Jut as our committee struggled, I believe presbyteries are going to struggle as well,” said Yzette Swazy-Lipton, a ruling elder from New York who served as moderator of the 2016 assembly’s Church Polity and Ordered Ministry Committee.
As a result of action taken by that assembly, presbyteries are being asked to vote on this proposed amendment to the PC(USA) constitution (with the proposed new language in italics):
“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.) unless and until the person rejoins the church, comes forward and resubmits to the disciplinary process.”
This is the second time in two years that presbyteries have been asked to vote on a proposed amendment related to this issue. The 2014 assembly proposed the language in the first part of that paragraph (before the italics) – and the presbyteries voted 113-56 to add that language to the PC(USA) constitution.
Now, the 2016 assembly is proposing modifying that language – to provide a entry point back into the church for a minister who has renounced jurisdiction, as long as that person resubmits to the disciplinary process which was cut short by the original renunciation.
The presbyteries also are being asked to add this new language in a second, related proposed amendment:
“For instances where a former teaching elder comes forward in self-accusation to undergo a disciplinary process to regain permission to perform work under the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (G-2.0509), no time limit from the time of the commission of the alleged offense to the filing of charges shall apply. Charges based on all accusations that had been made by the time that the former teaching elder had renounced jurisdiction may be brought regardless of the date on which any such offense is alleged to have occurred.”
The overtures that brought the issue to the 2014 General Assembly came from the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and The Presbytery of the Western Reserve – both of which were caught up in disciplinary proceedings involving a former PC(USA) minister who renounced jurisdiction in 2012 when facing trial in a church court involving allegations by several young men that he had sexually abused them.
The issue was revived again in 2016 in response to two additional overtures.
As the 2016 assembly tried to find the right wording and approach, commissioners who debated the matter caught glimpses of the long-lasting pain that sexual abuse and impropriety can inflict.
The assembly also voted to approve a policy to protect children, teenagers and vulnerable adults from abuse. And the commissioners heard a public apology on behalf of the PC(USA) from Gradye Parsons, who at the time was the denomination’s stated clerk, to Kris Schondelmeyer, a Presbyterian minister from Ohio who shared his story of being sexually assaulted at age 17 by a commissioned lay pastor (now known as a commissioned ruling elder) at a national Presbyterian youth conference.
The polity committee heard other accounts of abuse as well.
“We heard from overture advocates who had personal experiences of being violated,” Swazy-Lipton said. “That in and of itself was very difficult. For some people on our committee, it brought up some of their own issues. What folks also were concerned with was folks who are accused – and we are the church. Are we not our brothers’ keeper? So how do we minister to that population as well, and not just have people who have been victims feel as though the church has turned its back on them?”
How many cases are there where Presbyterian ministers have renounced jurisdiction in the midst of a disciplinary hearing? And what were the circumstances?
That’s not something the PC(USA) tracks at the national level.
“We have no idea in how many situations this might occur,” said Laurie Griffith, manager of judicial process and social witness with the Office of the General Assembly. “This is a really very, very narrow” set of circumstances, to which these proposed amendments would apply.
No all cases in which Presbyterian ministers leave involve allegations of wrongdoing. There are a number of ways in which PC(USA) teaching elders can be removed from ministry – either by their own request or involuntarily.
For example, a teaching elder against whom no inquiry has been initiated and who is in good standing can simply ask to be removed from the ordered ministry of teaching elder – perhaps they no longer feel a call to that work. That happened 14 times in 2014 and 17 times in 2015, according to denominational statistics. Those persons don’t renounce the jurisdiction of the PC(USA) – they could continue to be a member of a Presbyterian congregation, but no longer serve in the function of a teaching elder, Griffith said.
Ministers can deleted from a presbytery’s membership rolls if the presbytery determines the person is not engaged in a validated ministry; doesn’t meet the criteria for membership at large; and isn’t honorably retired – as long as the presbytery provides proper notice. That was done four times in 2014 and 25 times in 2015, according to denominational records.
Teaching elders can also renounce the PC(USA)’s jurisdiction – as was done 35 times in 2014 and 65 times in 2015, according to denominational records.
That renunciation can be initiated by the teaching elder (in writing or through their actions), and there’s also a provision by which the council of membership can determine that a teaching elder has effectively renounced jurisdiction when that minister persists in engaging in actions that the council has formally informed that person of that it disapproves, Griffith said.
Renunciation of jurisdiction doesn’t necessarily involve pending disciplinary action – for example, some teaching elders have renounced the PC(USA)’s jurisdiction when their congregations have left the PC(USA) to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a more conservative denomination.
But in some cases, ministers have renounced the PC(USA)’s jurisdiction when facing disciplinary charges — which could involve allegations involving sexual abuse or other allegations of wrongdoing, such a embezzlement. That renunciation, under the denomination’s polity, brings those disciplinary proceedings to a halt.
One of those who spoke about the issue on the floor of the 2016 General Assembly was John Monroe, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Rumson, New Jersey, and a commissioner from Monmouth Presbytery.
Monroe sounded a note of caution about the potential consequences of welcoming back someone accused of wrongdoing – saying he’d encountered that situation in his congregation, and that “out of a sense of mercy and forgiveness, we set ourselves up for painful division.”
In an interview, Monroe said a former teaching elder who had faced accusations involving abuse and who left later came back years later, presenting himself as a “retired minister. He was retired. He had been a minister. But he was not a retired minister” in good standing – the man had left the ministry following allegations of wrongdoing.
“He shows up in worship and even makes an appointment to talk to me,” Monroe said. “Tells me what happened from his perspective – seeking grace, forgiveness, all the rest … . There’s a sort of false narrative around who he is. That opened up a sense of trust. And then when there was a difficult moment in our church, instead of helping us go through that, he used it as a way of driving a wedge,” creating factions within the congregation. “He was a master at getting people to side with him. He was a genius. That was his darkness too.”
Eventually, the presbytery got involved – including people with knowledge of the original allegations – and the former minister did stop attending Monroe’s church.
“It really was a horrible situation in our church,” Monroe said. “It was just a painful learning on my part. Yes, we want to be gracious. We all make mistakes,” yet “it’s very important for the church to draw boundaries. Because if they haven’t followed a path of real rehabilitation and real healing, then you’re really setting that person up and the church up for future suffering. … The instinct was to be gracious, but I consider it to be perhaps the biggest mistake of my 32 years of ministry. For all the right motives of my decisions, the repercussions were very painful for us a church.”
The plenary debate at the assembly in Portland showed that commissioners were trying to find a balance between showing grace and forgiveness, and requiring accountability – particularly in protecting children from sexual abuse.
The new changes were proposed, beyond what the church adopted in 2015, because some “folks felt like it was too broad as it was, and essentially blackballed someone who had renounced jurisdiction” during a disciplinary case, Griffith said. “They could no longer come back to the PC(USA)” in any volunteer capacity.
Under the proposed revisions, “if someone rejoins the PC(USA), they can’t just get out of the disciplinary process,” she said. “They can’t avoid it by renouncing jurisdiction and then joining a congregation. … You are certainly welcome to join, but then you are under the disciplinary process.”
Some questioned, however, whether the proposed process would work as well as intended. Some General Assembly commissioners spoke, for example, of the potential impact on sexual abuse victims of approving the proposed change. Renouncing jurisdiction is sometimes used as a way of silencing those who bring allegations of sexual abuse, some commissioners said.
The committee also was concerned that it might be easier for someone accused of wrongdoing to return if considerable time had passed, Swazy-Lipton said.
If charges of sexual abuse were brought years ago, “people have died” who might have been witnesses, said David Simmons, a ruling elder from Central Florida Presbytery, speaking during the plenary discussion. “Victims have moved on,” and to bring up the inquiry again at a time of the alleged perpetrator’s choosing – and not at the request of the alleged victims – would be “very painful and unjust.”
In the PC(USA) “there is always room for grace and forgiveness, but we need to be very careful” about giving someone a role in leadership or in volunteering with children or teenagers if they’ve renounced jurisdiction after being accused of an offense, said Amy House, a teaching elder from Scioto Valley presbytery. “We need to find a way for forgiveness and repentance and love,” but also for accountability.
For the proposed amendments to the PC(USA) Book of Order to pass, the proposals need approval from a majority of the 170 presbyteries – meaning at least 86 presbyteries would need to vote in favor.