Memorandum Number 810

October 24, 1997

Review of Decision of Law of Bishop Donald A. Ott Relating to Fair Process and Surrender of Ministerial Credentials


Hypothetical questions are not the proper method of resolving procedural errors or changing specific actions taken by the clergy session. The ruling of Bishop Ott is affirmed.

This copy subject to final editing and correction.

Statement of Facts

This matter is before the council concerning the status of a former full member of the West Michigan Annual Conference.

The member voluntarily surrendered his Ministerial Office under the 1992 Discipline, Pars. 453.3 and 453.5.

The action was confirmed by the 1996 executive session of the clergy members.

There was no action taken relative to this former member at the executive session of the clergy members of the 1997 Annual Conference. The following questions of law were asked of the Presiding Bishop Donald A. Ott. We quote from the clergy session minutes:

1. When an oral accusation has been made against a minister and the spouse of a minister physically hands the credentials to the District Superintendent, but no written charge or complaint has been provided, is the surrender of credentials effective under Paragraphs 453.4 and 2628.2?

2. When a District Superintendent has received an oral accusation against a minister, and in arranging for a meeting advises the minister to bring his credentials with him, has the presumption of innocence guaranteed in Paragraph 2622 been maintained?

3. When the District Superintendent observes that a minister is "in deep depression" and "should be in the hospital," and further demands that the minister's spouse sign employment related documents due to the minister's condition, is not a Disability Leave (Paragraph 451) appropriate?

4. When a District Superintendent tells a minister that surrendering of credentials "is the shortest way out and the shortest way back into ministry," has he fulfilled his duties in Paragraph 519(a) and (b), and has he fairly represented the re-admission process in Paragraph 457?

5. When the spouse of a minister physically hands the credentials to the District Superintendent and no letter of withdrawal is provided, does a note written by the District Superintendent and placed before the minister for his signature serve as a "letter of withdrawal" under Paragraph 453.5?

6. When a minister provides a written request to the District Superintendent on May 10 to examine any and all records about his employment, explaining time is of the essence, and receives a written response on June 5 that he can arrange to see the files after the annual conference scheduled for June 10, 11, 12, and 13, has the minister been denied access to his file under Paragraphs 706.9 and/or 2622.6?

7. Under all of the foregoing circumstances, is not the minister entitled to the return of his credentials, an immediate appointment, and full remuneration for lost salary, housing, and benefits?
Bishop Ott ruled as follows:

The questions of law are moot and/or improper.

Merritt Bongard was a full member of the West Michigan Annual Conference from 1986 until his August 17, 1995 Voluntary Surrender of the Ministerial Office under the 1992 Book of Discipline Paragraphs 453.3, 453.5. This action was confirmed by the 1996 executive session of clergy members and reported in the 1996 Annual Conference Journal, Disciplinary Question 4466, page 72. There was no action relative to Merritt Bongard presented at the executive session of clergy members of the 1997 Annual Conference.

Based on the guidelines of Judicial Council Decisions 799, 33, and others, the questions of law submitted by the Reverend Bobby Dale Whitlock relative to Merritt Bongard are moot and/or improper. Decision 799 states: "The so called "questions of law" though presented properly, which do not relate to business, consideration or discussion of the conference session, are improper and should be so ruled and do not require a substantive answer Questions involving the supervisory function of the district superintendent under the Discipline under Paragraph 510 (paragraph 421 1996 Discipline) are improper and should be so ruled" (Judicial Council Decision 799-9, -10).
We have reviewed very carefully the scholarly presentation made by counsel for Mr. Bongard. In the body of that material, page nine, counsel states:

In Judicial Council Decision 762 (1995), six questions of law were presented and are stated in the decision. On their face, the questions are not in reference to a specific situation although the Judicial Council notes that the minutes of the session did name the clergy person referred to. The Judicial Council found the questions to be "hypothetical in the present form. The proponent failed to state the relationship of the facts of a specific case to the questions presented."

The council further notes:
Questions of law must set forth specific action taken or to be taken under stated facts of a particular situation or circumstances. Otherwise, the answers would be either moot or merely informational.
It would seem that the matter submitted is very similar to our Decision 762 for the questions do not, in fact, set forth a specific action. The questions are actually worded in a hypothetical fashion.

It may well be that the questions asked, if presented in the form of an appeal in the broadest sense of the word, might have merit. This matter was actually presented to the bishop in the form of hypothetical questions.

If Mr. Bongard were unhappy with specific actions (which are not properly before us), then specific action should have been taken by Mr. Bongard through others in the clergy session to appeal or ask for a modification in accord with the Discipline. It should be noted that even if Bishop Ott had ruled differently, or if we overruled Bishop Ott, that this would not result in a legal situation to the benefit of Mr. Bongard. Either response would not have been helpful at all.

It is obvious, from a reading of Mr. Bongard's counsel's material that there could very well be some procedural errors in the way that the matter was handled. However, the asking of hypothetical questions is not the proper way to get at the matter. If that is true, there could clearly be matters in violation of the Constitution and Discipline.

We agree with counsel's statement (page 19):

Clearly every supervisory function does not rise to the level of a question of law as a supervisor must have some reasonable latitude in which to carry on his/her daily function. However, suppose the District Superintendent fails to consult at all with a pastor and/or pastor-parish relation committee (Paragraph 421.3) and a pastor is adversely effected. Is the pastor without recourse? We think not. No church official is above the law of the church and each is responsible for the duties set forth in the Constitution and Discipline. Fortunately 99.9 percent of the time, the law of the church is followed, but in the rare cases where it is not, a procedure review is available.

Therefore, because of the method used, we affirm the ruling of the presiding bishop.

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