Beginning the Journey

[1] “Beginning the Journey” was the title given by the students at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg this spring as a request to the faculty for gathering information. The information they wanted to know specifically dealt with topics that concerned homosexuality and human sexuality. They believed they needed to know this information to prepare themselves for rostered ministry in this church.

The suggested topics were ones to be expected. They ranged from the “Biblical Perspective on Sexuality as a Whole,” to “What Does the Bible Say about Homosexuality,” to “What Is the ELCA’s view on Hermeneutic Authority,” to “Understanding the Nature of Sin.” These topics seemed to me to be very appropriate, timely, and currently under discussion in our church. As the seminary’s visiting professor for New Testament and a former bishop, the topic (which placed last among their requests) which caught my eye was titled: “Under What Circumstances Should Sins by Rostered Leaders in the Church Be Subject to Discipline.” Having dealt with upwards of twenty-five to thirty different boundary issues requiring a response that led to discipline during my fourteen years as bishop, I offered to present information about this topic to the students.

[2] During my presentation I discovered that the students were familiar with the “Vision and Expectations” document of the ELCA because candidacy committees would ask them if they subscribed to it. Most had read it. On the other hand, the students were unaware of the juridical document used by bishops for the discipline of rostered leaders “sins,” titled “Definition and Guidelines for Discipline,” and they were equally unfamiliar with Chapter 20 of the ELCA

[3] Constitution titled “Consultation and Discipline.” Both of these documents, which I shared with them, state the four “circumstances” or “grounds” for discipline of rostered leaders: 1) Preaching or teaching in conflict with the faith confessed by the church; 2) Conduct incompatible with the character of the ministerial office; 3) Willfully disregarding the functions and standards by this church for the office of Word and Sacrament; 4) Willful disregard of the constitution or bylaws of this church.

[4] Since it is the second “ground,” “Conduct incompatible with the character of the ministerial office” that has engaged and consumed the most time and attention of bishops, this is where I offered specific information in regard to the topic. Here the document on discipline enumerates the areas of the so-called “sins” of the ministerial office: Maintaining Confidentiality, Professional Attention to Duties, Family Relationships, Sexual Matters, Substance Abuse, Fiscal Responsibilities, Membership in Certain Organizations, and Conviction of a Felony. Each one of these subtitles in the document offers an explanation that describes specific abuses which may lead to discipline. However, the document also makes it clear that its primary purpose is to assist in the “processes of consultation, discipline, and appeals.” It goes on: “This church embraces disciplinary processes of counseling, admonition, and correction, with the objective of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.” This last sentence provides an important guideline for bishops who become involved in the discipline process. (It does not, however, state the standard for Restoration to Office, which I will address later in this paper).

[5] I told the students that this means the discipline process of the church is to follow fair procedures. This process is laid out in Chapter 20 of our ELCA Constitution. This chapter maintains that care and protection is to be offered to persons claiming to have suffered abuse as well as the congregation. This fairness applies to the person accused as well. The adjudication process requires that the bishop deal with written charges and that a rostered person who disagrees with the allegations is entitled to a hearing process. An appeal process is also in place and rostered persons accused of misconduct may choose to resign from the official roster of the church at any time, thus forestalling any further discipline process. My presentation ended with an opportunity for questions from the students and they left with a better understanding of the circumstances under which rostered persons could be disciplined for their “sins.”

[6] My preparation for this presentation brought back memories of my own “Beginning of the Journey” as a bishop fourteen years ago with the merger of the predecessor bodies of the ELCA and specifically with issues involving discipline of rostered leaders. Frankly, it was one area of my ensuing ministry about which I had no advance warning. It was a task that would consume an unbelievable amount of time and energy over the years. It was a task however, which each bishop and our church took seriously, and processes and procedures were quickly put into place that would assist us in this difficult but necessary task. Let me share some of the learnings that have become commonplace for bishops and others in the ELCA who are and have been involved in dealing with issues leading to discipline. Unfortunately, most of them have occurred around issues of sexual misconduct by rostered persons. The current spotlight that has centered on the Roman Catholic Church and the misconduct of their clergy has brought the issue to the forefront for the public, but it is not something new for anyone who has served as a bishop in the ELCA and who has had responsibility for maintaining the high standards of this church in regard to boundary issues. What is important is that the church and its leadership have worked hard to make the church a safe place.

[7] 1. To begin, I believe the partnership that has existed between the synods and the churchwide office in dealing with issues of sexual misconduct has been an exemplary model of how two expressions of our church can work together. From the very beginning days of our church, steps were taken to provide workshops, education, and counsel for bishops and their staff for mutual sharing and participating in dealing with cases of sexual misconduct. The beneficial support and advice from the general counsel of the ELCA for bishops cannot be overstated, and the same support from synodical lawyers and other professionals helped to lay the groundwork for synods to put in place processes within their territories to respond to all allegations and complaints from victims of sexual abuse;

[8] 2. This careful attention to boundary issues involving sexual misconduct resulted in synods putting together task forces consisting of laity and clergy, who would assist the synodical bishop in processing allegations and complaints. A task force normally consisted of persons who were available to respond to someone making an initial attempt to be heard. These were persons able to listen carefully and compassionately to victims and encourage them to take the next step and make their complaints known to the bishop;

[9] 3. Once a complaint was made known to the bishop, we learned to respond as quickly as possible to the victim. After a face-to-face meeting, the victim was encouraged to put the complaint in writing. Additionally, someone would be appointed from the task force to provide support for the victim;

[10] 4. The next step by the bishop was to investigate the allegations carefully. Often other victims stepped forward to substantiate the first victim and the complaint. I even had one situation where I was provided pictures taken of the pastor and the victim in flagrante delicto, which enabled the investigation to go forward at a faster pace than usual. Once the investigation was completed, the rostered person would then be confronted by the bishop. Following this meeting, the rostered person could chose to resign his or her call, or to enter a discipline process which is set out in chapter 20 of our constitution. The discipline panel could recommend “Suspension,” “Removal from the Roster,” or find the charges unsubstantiated.

[11] 5. If charges are substantiated and a resignation takes place, disclosure to congregations is always a given before the process is concluded. As Bishop Peter Rogness writes in the June issue of The Lutheran, “we make such disclosure for three reasons: A) Congregations need to know of matters that affect their life so directly. Cover-ups are like toxic dumps, with poison seeping out for years afterward, making healing very difficult; B) Only through disclosure can the church invite healing-from victims both known and unknown, and from members of the congregation who experience the pain of betrayal; C) Legally we want to make it clear to all that the church does not stand behind the misconduct of its clergy…”

[12] 6. Disclosure also becomes important if a rostered person removed for misconduct seeks re-instatement to the roster of the church after a five-year waiting period. It is information that needs to be made available to any synod or congregation that might consider such a person for call. Several synods have prepared very fine policies intended to guide them when it comes to the question of restoration to office. Here the relationship of forgiveness and repentance is among the most difficult concepts in Christian theology and one that relates specifically to the issue of restoration. The argument usually is carried out along the lines of whether repentance is required for forgiveness to be granted, or whether forgiveness is (or should be) granted unconditionally, with repentance required in order to recognize and accept the unconditional forgiveness. The assumption is that if rostered persons found guilty of sexual misconduct have repented and sought amendment of life, and have received the necessary counseling and therapy, they should once again be candidates for a call to ministry in the church.

[13] However, the results of an appeal process concerning a pastor found guilty of charges of sexual misconduct by a discipline panel advise a more careful approach. The Committee on Appeals offered this report to the Churchwide Assembly at its 1993 assembly in regard to the issue of restoration to office. I would suggest that their recommendations provide an excellent theological base and standard for thoughtful reflection on this issue: “This church’s interest is for the healing and forgiveness of all persons involved in a disciplinary case and should not be confused with determination of fitness for ministry and restoration to office. Although we may enjoy forgiveness by the grace of God, acts of sin may have consequences that cannot be undone in spite of forgiveness. Absolution should not be confused with continuance of the accused on the clergy roster of this church.” Trust once broken is difficult to restore, and furthermore the church is best advised not to place its members in circumstances where risk of victimization could once more be at stake.

[14] In conclusion, I was able to provide a group of seminary students some important information for their Beginning of a Journey that will lead them to rostered ministry in our church. My own particular journey substantiates that we have been and are a church that has worked diligently and earnestly in dealing with ethical issues involving “sins” of rostered leaders so that our church can be a safe place for each and every member.