On Saturday morning about 40 Moderators’ Conference attendees received a detailed judicial process overview from Laurie Griffith, Associate Director for Constitutional Interpretation in the Office of the General Assembly.
The workshop, “Repairers of the Breach: Conflict and the Constitution,” focused on ways moderators and other mid council leaders can respond to the inevitable conflicts church groups experience, including allegations of impropriety by groups or individuals. Throughout the presentation Griffith differentiated specific types of conflict and urged moderators to use denomination, council and local church guidelines and other resources — including presbytery members — to work through disputes.
The Book of Order is an authoritative denominational resource Griffith literally lifted up at the beginning of the workshop, showing its latest version to all gathered in the Presbyterian Center or on Zoom. Weeks before she had led another group of mid council leaders through a review of proposed changes to the Book of Order by the 225th General Assembly, including the 33 amendments presbyteries must vote to approve or disapprove by July 9, 2023.
Late in the workshop Griffith encouraged moderators to also consult the Annotated Book of Order as well as a list of recent General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission cases, both available through the Constitutional Interpretation page of pcusa.org.
Griffith characterized the church’s approach to conflict resolution this way: “We’re not in the business of punishing anyone. What we do is help people correct their behavior” and be better positioned for their work and lives going forward. “It’s all about making sure the community is healthy and able to move forward in mission and ministry.”
“What kind of conflicts arise?” Griffith asked before discussing two main types: leadership ethical issues and issues of congregation or council disagreement. When those occur, moderators are called on to initiate and assist processes that investigate charges. Moderators help establish committees and commissions, including judicial or administrative commissions, that look into allegations against individuals or groups. Appointing persons who have specific insights — such as finance, computing or pastoral care — can help a commission or committees move effectively through an investigation.
“If you’re in the midst of appointing an administrative commission, it’s important that any motion to the synod or presbytery is very specific about what powers are delegated to that commission,” Griffith said.
In cases where administrative commissions are challenged, the fairness of the process is often scrutinized.
“Did the folks who the decision is going to affect have notice about when the decision was going to be made?” Griffith encouraged workshop attendees to ask themselves as they planned for the work of any administrative commission. “Was the person or group investigated given an opportunity to be heard? An opportunity to be heard is very important.”
Whatever the proceeding, information shared with ministers of Word and sacrament (teaching elders) during pastoral care conversations should be kept confidential. Later, Griffith pointed out exceptions, including allegations involving future harm to individuals, such as child abuse.
Griffith said that OGA anticipates there being a lot of discussion at mid councils in the coming months regarding policies toward racism, harassment and other misconduct — all focuses of GA225. “The reason for these policies is not to burden congregations, but to help them with their ministries moving forward — especially working through particular kinds of conflict when they arise,” she said.
Not every conflict needs to be adjudicated through the Book of Order, Griffith said. Councils can establish their own guidelines for ethical behavior as a shared resource, and use those to specify expectations of behavior for members.
Griffith broke the workshop into small groups that discussed a hypothetical situation where a church session takes an action that it doesn’t have standing to take. “What would you do with that information? Who would you partner with?”
One breakout participant said the presbytery’s stated clerk and committee on ministry could reach out to the session to discuss the facts of what happened. “Excellent idea!” Griffith said.
After looking at differences between remedial and disciplinary judicial processes, including the shorter timeframe for filing remedial actions, Griffith urged moderators to remain neutral arbiters. Whatever the outcome of a proceeding, the most severe action the church can take “is to tell someone they are no longer a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” For a faith community, that is of course a significant step.
After covering scenarios involving an individual renouncing jurisdiction and “the presumption of renunciation” (when a person’s behavior crosses proscribed boundaries), Griffith entertained the workshop’s own hypotheticals:
- What about any allegation of misconduct at a mid council office? (Griffith: Often a good first place to look for guidance is your council’s own policies.)
- How should a council publicly report decisions and investigations? (Griffith: If there is state statute requiring reporting for specific types of misconduct you have to do that. With other underway investigations, confidentiality should generally be maintained throughout a council.)
- What about allegations against a non-PC(USA) pastor preaching with a PC(USA) congregation? (Griffith: We don’t have jurisdiction over ministers who are not members of the PC(USA). Their denomination of origin has jurisdiction.)
- Does a presbytery have to approve a congregation’s name change? (Griffith: Maybe … especially in cases where there is state licensing of church-connected institutions, such as schools.)
Griffith closed the workshop by sharing contact information for herself and Flor Vélez-Díaz, Manager of Judicial Process in OGA. She encouraged moderators to be in touch with any future questions whenever they arise.