Church Court Upholds Transgender Pastor's Appointment
- See also:
Transgender man can keep post as pastor
Methodist council rules after local clergy questioned his appointment
NPR Story and Video
Church court upholds transgender pastor's appointment
October 30, 2007
By Neill Caldwell*
SAN FRANCISCO (UMNS) - The United Methodist Church's supreme court has
upheld a bishop's decision that a pastor who changed gender from
female to male remains eligible to serve the church.
In combining two separate docket items related to the Rev. Drew
Phoenix, pastor at St. John's United Methodist Church in Baltimore,
the Judicial Council stated that it was not ruling on whether changing
gender is a chargeable offense or violates minimum standards set by
the church's legislative body, the General Conference. Rather, the
court said "a clergyperson's standing cannot be terminated without
administrative or juridical action having occurred and all fair
process being accorded."
"The adjective (in this case, 'transgender') placed in front of the
noun 'clergyperson' does not matter," the court states in Decision
1074. "What matters is that clergypersons, once ordained and admitted
to membership in full connection, cannot have that standing changed
without being accorded fair process."
Because Phoenix is a clergy member in good standing, the ruling means
Phoenix will continue to serve his church. But the subject of whether
transgender clergy are eligible for appointment is likely to be among
issues debated when the church's General Conference convenes next
April in Fort Worth, Texas. The United Methodist Church bars
practicing homosexuals from being ordained but has nothing in its
polity about transgender persons.
In other decisions related to sexuality issues, the council ruled that
a Minnesota Annual Conference plan for providing health benefits for
domestic partners does not violate the church's Book of Discipline.
The council would not take jurisdiction in challenges to three
Northern Illinois Annual Conference resolutions affirming
inclusiveness in the church. The council also remanded a case
questioning whether Western North Carolina Annual Conference funds
were being used to promote homosexuality. It upheld a bishop's
decision in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference that two campus
ministry groups receiving conference funds were not part of any
network that promotes homosexuality.
The Judicial Council meeting also was notable for the absence of its
president, Dr. Jim Holsinger. As President George W. Bush's nominee
for U.S. surgeon general, Holsinger said his participation could
become an "unnecessary and unproductive distraction" to the court's
Holsinger is awaiting confirmation as the country's top doctor as the
U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee awaits
answers to follow-up questions posed to him in August on his views on
homosexuality. His nomination has drawn opposition from gay rights
groups, among others.
In a statement issued just before the start of the meeting, Holsinger
said the "work of the council is too important in the life of The
United Methodist Church to have its work distracted. While I remain
dedicated to fulfilling the role to which I was elected, I believe
this is a time in which my service to the Council can best be
demonstrated by my absence."
During the 2007 executive clergy session of the Baltimore-Washington
Annual Conference, a change of name was recorded for Phoenix, from the
Rev. Ann Gordon, who was ordained in 1989 and had led the St. John's
congregation for five years. Bishop John R. Schol confirmed that,
following surgery and hormone therapy, the pastor had changed gender
and adopted a new name.
Two requests were made for a bishop's decision of law: one on a
technical question about how to categorize the pastor's name change
for the conference's Board of Ordained Ministry, and the other on
whether a transgender person is eligible for appointment in The United
Methodist Church. Schol said there is nothing in the church's polity
that prevents a transgender person from serving as a pastor, and that
the name change was handled correctly.
All decisions of law made by a bishop are automatically sent to the
Judicial Council for review, as required by the Book of Discipline.
While combining the two questions into one ruling, the Judicial
Council affirmed both of Schol's decisions. A clergyperson in good
standing is "required to be continued under appointment," the council
ruled. In regard to the name change, the council said all name changes
"regardless of the reason . . . are to be placed in minute question 91."
In the Minnesota domestic partner benefits case, the council ruled the
plan did not violate Discipline paragraphs listed in the request for a
decision because no United Methodist Church funds were being used to
supply the benefits. The plan offers benefits to lay employees of the
conference and their families, including domestic partners, and the
cost of the health care coverage is borne by the employee.
In the question on whether money from the Western North Carolina
Conference budget was being used to promote homosexuality through the
North Carolina Council of Churches and by the campus ministry at the
University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the council ruled that it
is up to the individual conferences to determine whether money is
being used in violation of Paragraph 612.19 of the Book of Discipline,
which blocks funds from being spent in such a manner. The decision
directs the conference's Council for Finance and Administration to
perform its own investigation and report to the council within 60 days.
In the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference decision, the council
upheld the bishop's decision that the conference's Council for Finance
and Administration had properly investigated two ministries at the
University of Washington and the University of Puget Sound and
determined that they were not affiliated with groups promoting
In the Northern Illinois Annual Conference item, the council said it
did not have jurisdiction because the three resolutions were not
debated separately but were handled together as part of the consent
calendar. All three were related to the inclusiveness of the church
and in response to the Judicial Council's earlier Decision 1032, which
supported the actions of a pastor who blocked an openly gay man from
joining the church.
The council ruled that candidates for the church's General Conference
and jurisdictional conferences cannot be compelled to disclose their
view on controversial issues.
In Decision 1083, the council declared a motion adopted by the Memphis
Annual Conference unconstitutional because it directed the annual
conference to create a survey for prospective candidates. "Any attempt
on the part of an Annual Conference to add to or change the procedures
for the election of clergy or lay members to General or Jurisdictional
conference is unconstitutional," the council ruled. The decision noted
that candidates can choose to ignore or respond to surveys from
various caucus groups.
The council also rejected as unconstitutional a new policy from the
Memphis Annual Conference titled "Identifying and Strengthening
Effective Clergy Leadership." The strongly worded ruling lists seven
points in which the policy does not conform with the Book of
Discipline, including that the "twelve-month whirlwind process . . .
suggests that the real purpose of the proposal is to weed out
ineffective clergy rather than developing the skills and abilities
which would enable them to become effective."
In a review of a bishop's decision of law in the Western Pennsylvania
Conference on a report titled "Faithful, Effective and Fruitful
Clergy: A Working Definition" - and the relation of that report to a
proposed discontinuance of a probationary member - the Judicial
Council ruled that the questions were hypothetical because the
conference did not adopt such a report in final form. The questions
related to the effort to discontinue the pastor were moot once the
clergy person requests and is granted a voluntary leave of absence,
the council said.
In other rulings, the Judicial Council:
* Affirmed a bishop's decision of law that the plan of
organization for the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference is
* Determined there is no conflict in the voting requirements of
Disciplinary Paragraphs 319.2 and 663.6, saying a simple majority vote
is all that is required for a conference board of ordained ministry or
clergy session in approving the continuance or discontinuance of a
local pastor's license. Paragraph 663.6, which requires a
three-fourths majority vote, applies only to district committees on
ordained ministry. The case stemmed from the West Michigan Annual
* Ruled that questions of law put to the bishop in the Western
Pennsylvania Conference were moot and hypothetical because they
concerned a first draft of a report that had not yet been approved by
the conference. The case also involved actions taken by the conference
on the discontinuance of a probationary member, and the council said
that such questions are "moot once the clergy person requests and is
granted a voluntary leave of absence";
* Said that a bishop's decision of law in the Iowa Conference
regarding a legislative question during the annual conference session
was "moot and of no effect because subsequent action deleted the
provision that was the subject of the question and decision of law."
The final action of the Iowa Annual Conference on a substitute motion
was in compliance with the Discipline, the council said;
* Affirmed a bishop's decision of law in the Illinois-Great Rivers
Conference that a question was improper because it did not relate to
the business of the annual conference;
* Said that the standing rule of the South Carolina Annual
Conference - which delegates the nomination of the conference
secretary exclusively to the bishop and cabinet without any input of
the annual conference - conflicts with Paragraph 603.7 of the Book of
Discipline. The court directed the conference to correct the rule;
* Did not affirm a bishop's decision of law in the New England
Annual Conference since questions were submitted on which a decision
of law could not be rendered;
* Would not take jurisdiction in a question regarding a petition
from 11 members of the Committee on Nominations of the 2005
Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference because "the record does not
indicate that a duly called meeting of the Committee on Nominations
was held to authorize the petition."
* Continued a docket item from the California-Nevada Conference on
an involuntary leave of absence question because the minutes were not
provided in the materials sent to the council.
The council will meet next during the 2008 General Conference, set for
April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth. The Judicial Council meets twice a year
and is in session throughout each General Conference to respond to
requests for rulings that may come from the floor.
During the council's meeting, clergy and laypeople from across the Bay
Area gathered at the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf
area - where the council convened - for prayer vigils and worship and
held a candlelight march. The activities were organized by local
participants in the Reconciling Ministries Network, an independent
organization favoring participation of people of all sexual
orientations and gender identities in The United Methodist Church.
In addition to Holsinger, Judicial Council members Jon Gray and the
Rev. Paul Shamwange were absent. Participating instead were the first
clergy alternate, the Rev. C. Rex Bevins from the Nebraska Conference,
and first lay alternate, Dr. Solomon Christian from the Memphis
*Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate magazine
and covers the Judicial Council for United Methodist News Service.