- September/October 2000 -
In the height of the 1960s civil rights era, the Rev. Melvin Talbert was locked in a jail cell in Atlanta for three days with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two men were joined by 30 other student radicals who had been arrested during a demonstration against segregation. The captive audience of students found themselves listening to the lessons of one of the greatest civil rights leaders of our time.
King spoke to them about Jesus, and about God’s mandate to love our enemies. He shared about the ethic of Gandhi, who toppled an empire through non-violent protest. And he implored the small group of protesters, that white people – even those who are oppressors – should be loved and treated as brothers and sisters.
“No way!” said Talbert, to King’s statement that even George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, was his brother. “We got into a big debate,” Talbert said, recalling the story during an interview for an article in the Fresno Bee. “I was one of those black people who said, ‘White folks aren’t my brothers and sisters.”’
“Whether you like it or not,” King replied firmly, “George Wallace is your brother.”
It’s been more than several decades since Dr. King spoke those words to Talbert. Bishop Talbert, now 66, whose retirement begins at the end of August from his 12-year tenure as the ecclesiastical leader of the California/ Nevada Annual Conference, believes that he has lived those decades since in a lifestyle of nonviolent protest in the name of brotherhood and sisterhood for all. When King spoke those words to him, Talbert said, in fact, those principles “ceased to be a strategy and became a way of life.”
The civil rights rhetoric, however, rings hollow for a long list of evangelicals whose ministries within United Methodism have been derailed in the wake of Talbert’s ideologically-driven episcopacy. Within the last several years, Talbert and his district superintendents have made one thing very clear: If you agree with United Methodism’s policy on homosexuality you will become increasingly ostracized in the California/ Nevada Annual Conference. Talbert has fortified himself with conference leaders who fully support his opposition to United Methodism’s stance toward homosexuality.
When asked in 1998 about the seeming lack of commitment to tolerance and diversity in the conference leadership, Talbert told religious journalist Ed Plowman, “look, I need to appoint people whom I can trust implicitly, because they represent me.”
Since the 2000 General Conference held in May, four evangelical pastors – for various reasons – have left the denomination to pioneer other local church ministries. The Revs. Kyle Phillips, Luiz Lemos, John Sheppard, and John Motz have all turned in their United Methodist credentials as an act of conscience.
Two years ago, the Revs. Ed Ezaki, Kevin Clancey, John Christie, Rich Harrell, and Andy Yom Steeg left the denomination to minister in other congregations.
The current wave of dissatisfaction and controversy in northern California began in February when Bishop Talbert defended the decision of the Cal/Nevada Committee on Investigation for Clergy Members, which voted not to press charges against 67 clergy persons who explicitly disobeyed the Book of Discipline’s prohibition on performing same-sex unions.
Seated as the presiding chair of the final evening of the 2000 General Conference, Talbert took advantage of the privileged opportunity to chastise his detractors and defend his “much-maligned” leadership. “I have done my very best to be faithful,” Talbert said. “I have upheld every law of the church. What I have refused to do is allow my mind and my freedom to speak, to be chained. I think that is the official position of the church.”
When Bishop Talbert returned from General Conference in Cleveland, having been rebuked by the Judicial Council, he began to implement a devastating agenda of punitive appointments to punish evangelicals. The “scorched earth” legacy of his episcopal oversight of the annual conference causes many observers to believe that he has violated the very ethic of nonviolent brotherhood taught by Dr. King.
The case of Kyle Phillips
When Rev. Kyle Phillips arrived for his meeting with Bishop Talbert on May 18 – just one week after General Conference – he brought someone with him. He did not know what the meeting was about and although his request to be accompanied to the meeting by counsel was rejected twice prior to May 18, Phillips brought along support anyway. When the meeting, in Talbert’s West Sacramento office got under way, Talbert immediately excused Phillips’ counsel. Just he, District Superintendent Vicky Healy and Kyle Phillips were left in the room.
Talbert began by reprimanding Phillips for his “arrogance and condescension,” asking how someone as arrogant as Phillips could possibly have a successful ministry. Then, without the opportunity for discussion, or conferencing with others on the matter, Phillips was told that he was being reappointed to a smaller congregation some five hours from where he now lives. Phillips asked if there was anything he could say to change his mind and Talbert said no.
The sudden reappointment came just over two months after Phillips and five other evangelical pastors and their congregations in the California-Nevada conference voted to redirect apportionment payments to an escrow fund in response to the Committee on Investigation for Clergy Members’ decision and Talbert’s ensuing support, that clearly defied the church law set forth in the Book of Discipline.
“With a deep sense of the sacred trust that is ours as elders in the United Methodist Church, we have opened an escrow account,” wrote the pastors, who have become known as the “California Six” in an open letter dated March 8, 2000. “This escrow account will receive the apportionment payments of those congregations who seek to remain loyal to the United Methodist Church, and yet repudiate the rebellion of our Annual Conference leadership in their recent actions.”
Phillips somehow became the unofficial leader of the group, and was told by an unnamed district superintendent that he would, in fact, be “targeted.” It seemed clear to Phillips, after the May 18 encounter with Talbert, that indeed it was payback time.
But that is not the problem here. Whether or not Talbert’s sudden reappointment of Phillips, despite his 10-year tenure at Tehachapi Valley UM Church that increased the weekly worship attendance from 20 to 200, was punitive or not, the manner in which Talbert went about the reappointment violated the church law he said he was trying to uphold.
First, Paragraph 358.1.b in the Book of Discipline clearly states “the person against whom the complaint was made may choose another person to accompany him or her with the right to voice.” Phillips was denied this right according to church law even after repeatedly requesting that counsel accompany him to the May 18 meeting. If Phillips was summoned as a matter of “complaint,” he had a guaranteed right of counsel.
Second, Paragraph 431.1 in the Book of Discipline states that “The process of consultation shall be mandatory in every annual conference.” No consultation process was allowed Rev. Phillips, as he was told, in fact, the decision was final before he had the opportunity to give input.
Third, Paragraph 432 in the Book of Discipline states: “To assist bishops, cabinets, pastors, and congregations to achieve an effective match of charge and pastors, criteria must be developed and analyzed in each instance and then shared with pastors and congregations.” Once again, neither the church to which Phillips was appointed nor Rev. Phillips himself was provided with such criteria.
The list of violations continues. The Pastor-Parish Relationship Committee, who on March 3, 2000 were “very pleased” with Phillips ministry, said they were not consulted as is required in Paragraph 433.3 of the Book of Discipline. And again, Paragraph 433.5a says the district superintendent “shall confer with the pastor about a specific possible appointment (charge) …” No consultation of the kind took place with Rev. Phillips. If he was summoned by the bishop to be told of a move, the Discipline’s mandate for consultation was not followed. Whether for reasons of a complaint or an announced move, proper Disciplinary procedures were not followed.
On June 7, more than 80 percent of Rev. Phillips’ church voted to leave the United Methodist denomination and form a new church under Phillips leadership.
The case of Luiz Lemos
On May 26, the Rev. Luiz S. Lemos was told that he would be reappointed to another church more than five hours away. This is not startling news to a pastor under the appointment process. Lemos, however, had only been pastor of Foothills United Methodist Church in northern California for ten months. The church, located in the town of Rescue, had more than 650 members and more than 200 in attendance each week.
This kind of an abrupt move was a startling response to a man with a spotless 34-year record in ministry. Lemos was an unlikely candidate to be on the receiving end of a punitive appointment. He was not a member of the “California Six.” As a matter of fact, he had convinced the Foothills UM Church Administrative Board not to withhold apportionments in protest of the dismissal of the complaint against the clergy involved in a same-sex wedding ceremony.
Lemos’ lengthy pastoral ministry was marked with an impeccable record of success and faithfulness. The membership at his previous ministry in San Jose had doubled in four years and the apportionments and askings were being paid in full for the first time in 16 years. The church he served prior to San Jose was no longer in need of equitable compensation from the Conference after his four year stint as pastor. Furthermore, his ministry at Foothills was widely received and appreciated.
Lemos was accused by his district superintendent of alienating “a significant number of people” and silently standing by while others “took actions which have produced a deep split and profound pain in the congregation.” In a letter responding to the allegations, Lemos made it clear that the division in the church was there before he arrived. Furthermore, the divisiveness largely centered around the widely-publicized same-sex wedding ceremony in Sacramento. “Nevertheless,” wrote Lemos, “I strove continuously from the day of my arrival at Foothills to promote peace and harmony among our congregation. Attendance increased steadily. I diligently tried to communicate a message of inclusiveness and love for everyone while remaining within the teachings of the Bible and our Book of Discipline.”
For the first time in his ministry, Lemos was summoned to appear before the cabinet of the California-Nevada Annual Conference. The district superintendent never asked to have a meeting with Lemos to discuss the Foothills church prior to the cabinet meeting. Instead, he was subjected to the intimidating experience of appearing before the cabinet without being allowed to take anyone with him. Ray Leonard, chair of the Staff Parish Relations Committee, and Susan Sutherland, the chair of the Administrative Board, both wanted to accompany Lemos to the meeting. The cabinet refused their request and even forbade his wife from joining him.
After the meeting, Lemos was under the impression that matters had been explained and resolved. Then he got the call on May 26 telling him that he would be moved. Lemos asked that the move be reconsidered. In a letter to his district superintendent, Lemos wrote, “For the first time in 31 years of marriage, my wife refused to move with me to a new assignment.” Furthermore, Lemos wrote, “you were aware that a notice of such short duration did not provide time for me to prepare my family emotionally, sell my house, or obtain court permission to relocate my foster children.”
When a pastor is moved, the Book of Discipline stipulates that there be a consultation with the pastor and with the Staff Parish Committee in order to gauge the “conviction of the congregation.” Both of these procedures were ignored by the conference leadership.
After the announcement had been made that Lemos was being moved, a survey was initiated and distributed by several church members. Nearly 200 adults responded anonymously to the questionnaire and 85 percent supported the continued ministry of Lemos, 5 percent supported his reassignment, and 10 percent were undecided. Additionally, 67 percent indicated that they would not remain at the church if Lemos were reassigned. This was a stunning testimony to Lemos, a pastor who had been accused of attempting “to alienate a significant number of people within the congregation.”
On June 8, a group of lay people from Foothills UM Church met in order to form a new congregation. The Shepherd of the Hills Church held its first service ten days later.
On June 26, Luiz Lemos was forced to ask that his ministerial credentials be transferred to the Wesleyan Church. In a final act of disregard, Bishop Talbert refused to transfer the credentials. On June 30, Lemos surrendered his credentials to the annual conference.
The new congregation waited to officially ask Lemos to be their pastor until July 1, after his commitment to the Foothills UM Church had been complete. Pastor Lemos preached his first sermon at the Shepherd of the Hills Church on July 2. More than 140 people were in attendance at the Rescue Community Center – most of them former United Methodists. On that day, Luiz Lemos closed one sad chapter in his ministry and opened a new one with hope and promise for the future – outside United Methodism.
A True Non-Violent Ethic of Brotherhood
“Rivers of blood may have to flow in order to gain our freedom,” Gandhi once said. “But it must be our blood.”
True non-violent protest takes into utter consideration the value of “the enemy.” It does not do harm to the one who is seen as the enemy – because it holds in high regard the value of every person. Harm, therefore, of the opposition, must be prevented in any form: physical, emotional, or spiritual. These are the basic tenets of true non-violence and true love for the one who is the “other.” We presume that this is what Dr. King was talking about in the jail cell in Atlanta more than thirty years ago. It is clear, however, by the emotional and spiritual violence done to Phillips, Lemos, and other evangelicals in the California-Nevada conference, through the violation of rights, that the nonviolent ethic of brotherhood has not indeed prevailed.
Discipline regarding the appointment process are not merely principles to be considered, but church law to be obeyed. Therefore when a bishop, empowered by the church, violates the rights of those pastors with whom he has made covenant, he violates the church. Observers of the northern California situation are left wondering how it is possible that one who has paid the price for the oppression of others, and who has seen, first hand, the pain caused when another human being wields power as a mighty sword of dominance against another, could then turn and do the same, albeit several decades later.
The United Methodist Church cannot afford to lose faithful pastors such as Kyle Phillips, Luiz Lemos, Rich Harrell, John Christie, Kevin Clancey, John Sheppard, Andy Yom Steeg, John Motz, and Ed Ezaki. Several more churches in northern California are engaged in on-going discussion, as to whether they, too, should remain within the denomination. It has been a long, painful struggle. And many are ready to shed the denominational skin, and breathe freely as believers again. Who can blame them?
- Good News editorial team - September/October 2000 -