By Heather Hahn, United Methodist News Service
Members of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference, who met June 6-9 in Corpus Christi, faced the question of whether a lesbian can be a certified candidate for ordained United Methodist ministry.
More than 200 United Methodists and other Christians took to Twitter on the afternoon of Friday, June 7, to protest Mary Ann Kaiser’s removal from the ordination process. Kaiser is the youth director and justice associate at University United Methodist Church in Austin and has been pursuing ordination as a United Methodist deacon.
The Tweets followed the prompting of Reconciling Ministries Network, an unofficial caucus that advocates for the denomination’s greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. Kaiser occasionally blogs for the group.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, says all people are of sacred worth but states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The book bans “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from “being certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.”
Kaiser and her supporters contend that church leaders failed to follow the due process also outlined in the Book of Discipline when reversing her certification. Others argue her candidacy should have ceased as soon as she identified herself as gay.
Now attention has turned to Bishop James E. Dorff, who leads the Southwest Texas Conference. He has been asked to make a ruling of law on whether the conference’s board of ordained ministry followed the proper procedure.
He told the conference on Friday, June 7, he would consult with the conference’s chancellor — that is, his legal counsel — and post his ruling on the conference website within the next 30 days, the time-span allowed under church law.
His ruling automatically goes for review to the United Methodist Judicial Council, the denomination’s equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. The church court next meets in the fall.
In a response to email inquiries, Dorff notes that the Judicial Council either will reject or affirm his ruling, and the court’s ruling is final.
“I will prayerfully and carefully make a decision on the issue requested,” his email message says. “My decision will be based on my understanding of the Book of Discipline, which I have pledged to uphold.
“I want to give thanks for Ms. Kaiser and her willingness to share her gifts with the church. I pray that the Spirit will guide us through this and all things.”
Kaiser, 27, said she is seeking to serve out “God’s call on my life” in the church she has been part of throughout her life.
“I have a deep connection to the theology and the history of The United Methodist Church,” she said. “I was actually in the (ordination) process before I came out. So it was not a matter of choosing to enter this process as an out person so much as staying faithful to the church I claim as my own once I was out.”
The Rev. Suzanne Isaacs, the chair of the conference’s board of ordained ministry and senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in El Campo, declined to comment on the situation because the request for a ruling of church law is pending.
The United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which works with boards of ordained ministry, likewise declined to comment on this case.
Kaiser was certified in 2008 as a candidate for deacon by the Pensacola District Committee on Ordained Ministry in the Alabama-West Florida Annual (regional) Conference. At the time, she said, “I was not even out to myself yet.”
Since then, she has moved to the Southwest Texas Conference, completed a Master of Divinity at United Methodist-approved Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and now works with the Austin District Committee on Ordained Ministry.
At a district committee meeting in April this year, she told the body she is gay. The district committee, nevertheless, voted to recommend to the board of ordained ministry that she continue in the ordination process.
However, during the closed clergy session June 6, the board of ordained ministry recommended — and the clergy voted 124 to 119 to accept the recommendation — to revoke her certification. The board cited her sexual orientation as the reason.
Reconciling Ministries Network argues that the board of ordained ministry does not have the jurisdiction to move against her candidacy.
Paragraph 314 in the Book of Discipline says certified candidates may be discontinued “on their own request, upon severing their relationship with The United Methodist Church, or upon action to discontinue by the district committee on ordained ministry.”
Kaiser and her supporters also argue the board has not followed due process.
Paragraph 635.2 (h) of the church law book requires boards of ordained ministry “to examine all applicants as to their fitness for the ordained ministry… .” Paragraph 635.2 (j) also mandates that the boards “interview and report recommendation concerning … certified candidates for ordination as deacon.”
Kaiser’s first interview with the board of ordained ministry was scheduled for January 2014. She said she had not expected her name even to come up at this annual conference meeting. If all had gone as planned, she would have been commissioned as a deacon next year at the earliest.
The Rev. John Elford, senior pastor of University United Methodist Church where Kaiser works, brought the question of law to the floor of the annual conference on Kaiser’s behalf. He said that the board had not met the requirements in Paragraph 635.2.
“This is not a publicity stunt,” he told those gathered. “Nor is it a question of whether or not we, as a church, are ordaining LGBTQ folks. This is about whether we will follow disciplinary procedures as we support those like Mary Ann whom God is calling into ministry. If we cannot promise to treat our future leaders with respect, compassion and in a spirit of relationship as they enter the process of ordination, we have little hope of ensuring a future for our church.”
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, who has argued multiple cases before the Judicial Council, sees the case differently. He is the vice president and general manager of Good News, an unofficial evangelical United Methodist caucus that advocates maintaining the Book of Discipline’s current stance on homosexuality.
He noted that Kaiser “did not meet the qualifications for candidacy,” so the district committee should not have continued her certification.
He agreed that normally, under Paragraph 314, the district committee would be the group to rescind a person’s candidacy. However, he noted that church law also says the district committee is amenable to the annual conference.
“The clergy session is a session of the annual conference,” he said. “I take this to mean that the (board of ordained ministry) and the clergy session can reverse an action by a district committee that they believe is incorrect,” Lambrecht said. “They can certainly reverse (I believe) an egregious error, such as certifying a person who did not meet the requirements for candidacy.”
The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, the author of the frequently used textbook Polity, Practice, and the Mission of The United Methodist Church, said the Book of Discipline could be clearer on the process. On the one hand, he said, church law identifies district committees as “subcommittees” of the board of ordained ministry. On the other hand, he said, the Book of Discipline “clearly” delegates to the district committee certain duties including the powers "to supervise all matters dealing with candidacy.”
Historically, a district committee in The United Methodist Church and in predecessor bodies in the UMC “has always held a significant place in the (ordination) process, as the first step toward set-apart ministry and the locus of the initial ‘license to preach,’ (in the old language),” said Frank, a historian of Methodism and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “The wisdom in this arrangement is that candidacy can begin locally, among the people who know a candidate best. Keeping it local also reduces the stakes considerably. If a person decides not to pursue candidacy or things just don't work out, larger bodies don't have to be involved.
“The action taken in the Texas case ramps up the significance of (district committee on ministry) decisions considerably,” he added, “and truncates those valuable, gradual steps from local to increasingly connectional ministry.”
Matthew M. Berryman, the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, said he hopes his group’s Twitter blast not only helps reinstate Kaiser but also reminds the conference and board of ordained ministry of their responsibility to treat everyone fairly.
He said he wants the board of ordained ministry “to understand the gravity of their misstep here.”
“In refusing to interview Mary Ann, the board of ordained ministry is complicit in structures of sin that cause deep injury,” he said. “Following the call of biblical obedience, RMN hopes Bishop Dorff will correct this mistake by making a fair and just ruling.”
Lambrecht said he hopes the Judicial Council does take up the case, “so that we can clarify the extent to which district committee decisions can be reviewed and/or reversed by the (Board of Ordained Ministry) and clergy session.”
For her part, Kaiser said the Tweets in her support have given her reason to smile and likely have provided hope to others who are gay.
“The struggle for me in all of this is that it is really easy for people to think, ‘Oh, Mary Ann, she’s just doing this for attention or she’s doing this to make people uncomfortable,’” she said. “To me, this is a spiritual issue. … Why I am on this path is that I am trying to be authentic and trying to be faithful. Publicity for being gay is not an enjoyable experience.”