How Do We Keep the Fox Out of the Henhouse? Thoughts on the Passage of Amendment 14-A
Last month I mentioned an amendment to the Book of Order that was more “far-reaching” than 14-F’s permission to conduct or host same-sex marriages. Amendment 14-A (“Renunciation of Jurisdiction”) proposes to amend G-2.0509 of the Form of Government by adding the following words:
“Whenever a former teaching elder has renounced jurisdiction in the midst of a disciplinary proceeding as the accused, that former teaching elder shall not be permitted to perform any work, paid or volunteer, in any congregation or entity under the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
A Hypothetical Context
The “Background and Rationale” statement does not describe the particular circumstances that led the Presbytery of Western Reserve to bring the amendment. I would not be surprised, however, if it originated in a case of embezzlement.
Consider a hypothetical scenario: a pastor is caught nibbling from the cookie jar. The presbytery investigates and brings disciplinary charges. Rather than face trial, the pastor renounces jurisdiction.
To the presbytery, the matter is closed. The pastor is no longer under the presbytery’s authority. Further, the most severe ecclesiastical consequence has occurred: the pastor is no longer a pastor.
But suppose the former pastor joined a new church and signed up to be an usher in order to help count the offering. Suppose that usher once again pocketed some cash—this time not as a pastor, but as a volunteer. Such a scenario is clearly worth preventing; to the apparent majority of presbyteries (including Los Ranchos), Amendment 14-A is good preventive medicine.
Implementation: Questions for Churches to Sort Out
But I am curious about the implementation. At least to my mind, the language raises at least two questions that will affect conscientious congregations.
First: how extensively is “volunteer work” to be understood?
Forbidding volunteer service as an offering counter makes sense when the pastor was on trial for embezzlement. Forbidding continued service as a volunteer youth leader makes complete sense when the trial pertained to sexual misconduct toward a minor.
But the language is expansive. It does not index the prohibited volunteer work to the disciplinary proceeding. Whenever a former pastor has renounced, that former pastor is now barred from any further volunteer work in a PC(USA) church.
But what is “volunteer work”? Leading youth group or counting the offering certainly is. What about singing in the choir? What about doing dishes in the kitchen after a Wednesday evening dinner? Making coffee before fellowship hour?
I expect that the national church will eventually narrow the understanding of the provision, either through an Authoritative Interpretation or a ruling of the GA Permanent Judicial Commission. But in the meantime, I recommend that Sessions establish policies that clarify what is and is not “volunteer work.”
The language raises a second question that a conscientious church will ask: What do we need to do to comply?
Most of your churches already conduct criminal background checks on prospective employees and children’s ministry volunteers. The amendment suggests that it will be important to conduct one additional check: to determine whether a prospective volunteer once was a pastor and has renounced jurisdiction. My office can help you with that when the time comes.
Just as none of us follow the Bible perfectly, I doubt that any of the churches in Los Ranchos follow the Book of Order perfectly. But in questions of risk management, to do something, however imperfectly, is better than to do nothing. This new provision encourages you to implement new procedures to prevent great dangers. Begin with those great dangers, and take steps to protect your congregation.
Implementation: Questions for Presbyteries
My questions go beyond the provision’s impact on the local church. Some wrinkles will fall to people like me to sort out. For instance:
Will the rule apply to former pastors who renounced jurisdiction prior to the establishment of the rule?
Would a former pastor be allowed to renounce his or her renunciation and stand trial now, in order to obtain a potentially more lenient result?
Should the rule include the rarer cases in which a former ruling elder has renounced the jurisdiction of the church?
For now, my best answers are: “Probably so”; “We’ll have to see”; and “That would require another amendment.” But I do expect that I’ll be looking to the good folks in Constitutional Services for guidance before too long.
The passage of 14-F (“Marriage”) will only affect for a short time those churches or pastors that opposed its passage. Sessions will set policies governing the use of their facilities. Pastors will work out statements guiding their decisions. Over and done.
But implementation of 14-A (“Renunciation of Jurisdiction”) will require conscientious churches to rethink, on a long-term basis, how they engage new church volunteers. Who are the people you invite to serve alongside you? How can you draw new people into the work and worship of your church community while keeping the fox out of the henhouse? Will the passage of 14-A encourage you in that effort or create impediments?
While the eyes of the whole church—and the world outside, for that matter—have fixed their gaze resolutely on the PC(USA)’s view of same-sex marriage, an amendment with profound implications for the future of the church has slipped into the Constitution with almost no fanfare at all.
Somewhere along the Way—