By Thomas Lambrecht –
Several weeks ago, I shared the story of the Rev. James Lee, a pastor in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference at Bethany Korean UM Church.
His district superintendent notified him that Bishop John Schol was appointing him to a different, much smaller congregation. (Bethany is the largest congregation in the Greater New Jersey Conference.)
This notification came on the heels of the congregation joining the Wesleyan Covenant Association, and the appointment was made without any warning or advance consultation with either Lee or the church. In response, over 1,000 people signed a petition opposing Schol’s decision.
Bishop Schol in a public statement disputes our characterization of his appointment decision regarding Lee, calling it “false accusations” and “false information.” He took the virtually unprecedented step of outlining in a public statement the process used and his perception of how and why he decided to handle the Lee appointment in the way he did.
Schol alleges, “Good News or the WCA and its New Jersey affiliate never reached out to me about what occurred, even though I had sent the above information to them” (referring to the numbered points printed below). Just to be clear, he did not send information to us before we published our story, only in response to it. We checked the information Schol shared with us and found it mostly corroborated our story, with the exception of some disputed facts. We did not do a follow-up story until now.
We take seriously our responsibility to accurately report what is taking place in the church. People can and do take issue with our analysis and the conclusions we draw, but labeling our reporting as “false information” is irresponsible and untrue. Making room for the fact that different people can have different recollections or perceptions of how events have transpired, we have attempted to accurately report what took place regarding the appointment decision of the Rev. Lee. Since Bishop Schol has publicly shared about his appointment process, we invited the Rev. Lee to respond to Schol’s allegations. Lee’s responses and our analysis will correspond to the numbered points of Schol’s statement.
1. The central allegation in our story is that Schol made the appointment change without consulting with Lee or with Bethany UMC, as required by the Book of Discipline. The district superintendent simply notified Lee that his appointment would change.
Schol responded that “The initiating of an appointment change was the result of a four-year long process surrounding concerns of [Lee’s] leadership.”
Lee states, “I have been appointed to Bethany Church as a lead pastor since 2015. The concerns were brought before me and our church in March 2019, [when] at that time, the Bishop attempted to appoint me to another church. When the concerns were brought before us during our meeting with the Bishop and the superintendent in 2019, the bishop noted, ‘Pastor James is a great pastor with a great leadership, but just not UMC pastor.’”
There was no advance warning that Lee’s appointment was in danger, nor was there consultation with Lee and the church specifically about the proposed new appointment. As will be evident below, there was no ongoing dialog regarding any concerns surrounding Lee’s leadership.
2. Schol asserts, “Over the years, [Lee] was asked to move more than once, and on each occasion, the former pastor said he would not leave the church he was presently serving and that he would only serve his current church and no other church in GNJ. This is a clear violation of The Book of Discipline and the practices of itineracy.”
Lee responds, “The first time Bishop brought up a possibility of a new appointment was in March 2019. I was asked to be moved once.” Due to a request for reconsideration by Lee and the congregation, Lee was not moved in 2019.
Lee indicated his willingness to accept another appointment on the annual appointment report form. If Lee had made the statement attributed to him that he would “only serve his current church and no other church in GNJ,” Schol’s proper course of action would have been to file a complaint against Lee. A unilateral decision to move Lee to another church in response to his alleged unwillingness to move would be a punitive use of the appointment process and contrary to the Discipline.
3. Schol states, “I met with the congregation’s leadership and SPRC committee on more than six different occasions over the years about [Lee’s] leadership. The superintendent met with [Lee] and the congregation’s leaders even more than this.”
Lee responds, “I can’t really recall how many times we’ve met, but other than our meetings back in March 2019 (the Bishop came by only once, and the district superintendent met with our leadership twice during this time) when the possibility of my appointment was discussed (later rescinded), our meetings were cordial. Our meetings with the superintendent were usually over meals, and we talked about various aspects of ministries and apportionment. The discussions were not about my leadership.”
4. Schol states, “I supported [Lee’s] return to the congregation with certain stipulations.”
Lee responds, “[Schol] said that the stipulations would need to be in place ‘in order to even consider the possibility of rescinding the appointment.’ Bishop said even if these stipulations are in place, he would not be able to make this decision on his own, but would need to discuss with his cabinet of superintendents.”
5. Schol states, “We have a consultation process that includes an opportunity for a pastor to indicate any limitations (limited itineracy) that a pastor may share with the cabinet about being moved, and [Lee] did not indicate that he had limited itineracy.”
This statement actually contradicts point 2 above. How could Lee have stated he would serve no other church in GNJ, but at the same time have indicated that he was open to a new appointment?
Lee responds, “It was true that I had no need to indicate any limitations (limited itinerancy) about being moved, for I understood that as a UMC pastor, if I am called upon to receive an appointment, I should always be ready. I didn’t realize that such attitude and preparedness would be misinterpreted.”
The issue here is not that Lee failed to indicate he had limited itineracy, but that there was no prior consultation, only a notification about an appointment that appeared to be punitive in nature.
6. Schol states, “[Lee] was disrespectful to the district superintendent, and on one occasion indicated to the congregation that the bishop was to be forbidden to enter the church.”
All churches in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference were allowed a four-month apportionment “holiday,” during which they were not required to pay apportionments due to the pandemic hardship. Lee explains, “However, the superintendent asked Bethany church to pay in full (100 percent), setting an example for other churches to follow, and the superintendent asked me to speak to the congregation to give more by going the extra miles. To that directive, I told her that I would not ask our congregation to do so during this pandemic, but to allow Bethany the same grace of four months’ exemption. I told her that we have members who have lost their loved ones, and they are grieving. We have members who lost their jobs and their businesses, and they are in financial hardship. We have members who were considering relocating to other states to find work to support their family. So, in the midst of all these hardships, I could not stand before our members and ask them to give more offering so that we can submit 100 percent apportionment. Because of this refusal, the superintendent apparently reported to the cabinet and the bishop that I disrespected her.”
Furthermore, Lee asserts, “The bishop was never ‘forbidden to enter our church’ as noted. However, I did share with our congregation that the bishop decided to stand against the decision of the General Conference and would continue to lead our GNJ Conference towards the One Church Plan conference. It was at this point I told our congregation that I cannot, in good conscience, open this pulpit to a bishop who does not abide by the Book of Discipline by which he/she should be governed and set an example, and above all, clearly stands against the truth of God’s Word and His eternal mandate.”
7. Schol states, “This year when a move was discussed in early March, the cabinet followed its prayerful discernment process and indicated a move should go forward.”
The issue is not whether the cabinet followed its prayerful discernment process. The issue is that there was no consultation with the pastor or the congregation, as mandated by the Book of Discipline.
8. Schol states, “Recently, following a sermon preached by [Lee], members of the congregation voiced their concerns. For instance, [Lee] used the story of Moses and Pharaoh, and compared himself to Moses and said, ‘I am Moses appointed by God to this congregation not by a man or an organization.’ He went on to say that he had let the leaders of the church have too much authority and that he would be taking back authority.”
Lee responds, “It is unfortunate that someone mistranslated the Korean sermon I have shared that Saturday (April 17th). That particular sermon the bishop is referring to is still online. By the way, our sermon theme and texts are pre-determined by our Quiet Time resource called the ‘Daily Bible’ which we have been using for many years. I never said I was Moses, but as God’s servants, we have all received ‘the call of Moses.’ I did say, however, that upon meditating on the passage carefully, I noted that Moses was appointed by God when he was sent to lead Israelites out of Egypt, and I said as God’s servants, we are not ‘appointed by men or manmade organization,’ but ultimately, God’s servants are appointed by Him. During the supervisory meeting, the Bishop confronted me with this same question. I replied to him that when he claimed to have made this appointment decision ‘prayerfully,’ I would assume that he prayed to God seeking His direction, so in one sense, isn’t it true that it was ultimately ‘God’ who makes the appointment?”
Lee continues, “I never said that I ‘had let the leaders (lay elders at our church) of the church have too much authority and that I would be taking back authority.’ Again, someone who translated the sermon has really taken this out of context.”
When the bishop notified Lee of his intention to appoint him to a different church, Lee consulted the lay elders. They recommended that Lee take a leave of absence, rather than contest the appointment. However, when some congregation members heard about this, “they became very upset, and started to blame the elders for lack of strong leadership and unwillingness to take a united stand against the decision by the Bishop and the cabinet,” Lee reports. “When I witnessed our lay elders getting the heat and the blame from the congregation members, I realized that I was wrong to delegate this decision upon the elders, placing this burden, and felt responsible for the elders being attacked and for the division of the church. I shared with our lay elders that rather than delegating this important decision, I should’ve been a better spiritual leader and be responsible to make decisions as shepherd of the flock.”
9. Schol states, “I offered the opportunity for [Lee] to continue to serve at his present appointment if he would apologize for his disrespect to the superintendent and acknowledge that he did not follow through on matters he agreed to. He indicated he could not do this, and without being asked, surrendered his credentials.”
Lee responds, “Bishop Schol noted that with recent articles and news that have been written and circulated through various sources (including the website and news article), harms have occurred to the denomination, conference, and Bishop and superintendent. He wanted me to take personal responsibility and to repair these damages by: (1) During Sunday worship, publicly acknowledge that I made a grave mistake ‘by undermining the authority of the Bishop and the superintendent,’ and to seek forgiveness publically, (2) to make this apology public by allowing the conference to upload my statement online on the UMC Website and, if necessary, print and circulate it ‘to correct any misunderstanding.’ And (3) he wanted me to apologize to him and the superintendent for publicly undermining their authority and their position by disregarding their appointment order within the UMC. Also, (4) I was to denounce what was written about this appointment in the Good News article, ‘Turmoil in New Jersey’ by Rev. Lambrecht. My statement for Bethany Church would have been used against other traditional church pastors in conferences outside of GNJ. Again, even if I were to make all these public statements, there was no promise of rescinding my appointment, but only the promise of ‘consideration’ and ‘discussion’ with the cabinet. The bishop stated that ‘it would be a start.’ In the end, I responded that I cannot make such statements with good conscience before God and cannot face my wife and my daughters if I agreed to these unjust stipulations, and therefore, I had no choice but to surrender my credentials.”
10. Schol states, “There are accusations that the appointment was because of [Lee’s] participation in the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and his stance against any change in The Book of Discipline about ministry with and by the LGBTQ. This is false. Our work over the past four years with [Lee] had nothing to do with his affiliation with the WCA or ministry with and by LGBTQ persons. The cabinet and I act with integrity in assessing and appointing pastors.”
To set the record straight, Good News did not make that accusation. We simply reported that was the perception of the lay elder in the congregation and the president of the WCA chapter in New Jersey. The lay elder, Mr. Sang Chul Shin, believes the action was taken “to separate the pastor from the church to weaken the congregation, so it decides not to leave The United Methodist Church for the Global Methodist Church.” Shin also believes the conference “wants to push out Pastor Lee because he has taken a vocal stance against the bishop’s position about homosexuality.” The WCA President, Rev. Beth Caulfield, said, “We are deeply saddened that one of our Greater New Jersey member churches would be targeted, especially after Bishop Schol has made statements that there would be no mistreatment of traditional churches or pastors through appointments or other actions by the Conference during this time of great division in our denomination.”
Lee responds, “At that time, I had a strong urgency to join WCA in order to venture into an uncertain future and prepare Bethany Church for possible decisions our GNJ Conference would make prior to the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation being implemented. It was at this point all our lay elders agreed that it would be a wise and an appropriate timing to join WCA as a church, so Bethany Church joined WCA. I still remember, a few days after we joined WCA, I received a text message from the superintendent asking if it was true that the Bethany Church had joined the WCA, and I confirmed it as a fact. She was definitely not pleased with our decision. Even though they (the Bishop and the superintendent) continue to deny that this has been a factor in making this appointment, I have to strongly disagree, because the tension and the conflict have stemmed surrounding these events that related to these issues.”
Bishop Schol names “two caucuses that seek to divide United Methodists based on theological understandings, Good News and the Wesleyan Covenant Association and its New Jersey affiliate.” We respectfully disagree. Our purpose is not to divide United Methodists, but to inform them. For over 50 years, Good News has worked for the renewal and reform of The United Methodist Church, persuading countless individuals and congregations to remain in the church, rather than depart from it. We have steadfastly supported the United Methodist position on marriage and sexuality.
It is only now, when many bishops and annual conferences in the U.S. have made it clear they do not intend to live by the decisions of General Conference and our Book of Discipline, that Good News and the WCA have reluctantly acknowledged that two diametrically opposed understandings of the faith can no longer live together within the same denomination.
Even now, our purpose is to prepare faithfully for whatever comes next and to keep the grass roots of the church informed of what is happening. When people understand the situation and their options, they are better equipped to make an informed, prayerful decision as to their own future with the church.
During this time of delay, we continue to advocate for a de-escalation of conflict between the various groups of our church. Unfortunately, Bishop Schol chose, through his decision to abruptly move Rev. Lee, to cause division in Bethany Korean UMC and exacerbate the tension, mistrust, and hostility in the denomination. There was no urgent reason this appointment needed to happen this year. With General Conference less than 18 months away, it would be wise to avoid provocative actions that end up further alienating people from one another. We are committed to working for an amicable separation based on mutual respect and consideration. We hope others will operate in that same spirit.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.