In split decision, church’s top court rules on Western Pennsylvania/East Africa dispute

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A 10-year financial dispute between the Western Pennsylvania Annual (Regional) Conference and the East Africa Annual Conference that wound up before The United Methodist Church’s top court has ended with a split decision that likely will not please everyone.

The Judicial Council agreed with only one of Western Pennsylvania’s three questions — an item concerning $3,000 owed to a pastor in South Sudan, a fraction of the more than $100,000 involved in the overall dispute.

In Decision 1238, the council said that a question about the outcome of a complaint filed against East Africa Bishop Daniel Wandabula still was hypothetical “because there is no evidence in the record that the complaint process has concluded.”

Bishop Wandabula told the council in October that the complaint has been dismissed and promised to provide documentation to prove his contention. But the council said no documentation has been received nor was provided during a second oral hearing April 17. “The Judicial Council, therefore, understands that the complaint process is continuing,” the ruling says.

‘Projects not managed through connectional system’

In the larger question — whether designated funds donated to the East Africa Conference have been used as intended —the decision offered a message of donor beware.

History of East Africa dispute

In August 2011, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries suspended funding through the Advance, the denomination’s designated-giving program, to the East Africa Conference. The move followed the recommendation of the agency’s independent audit committee. The audits began in April 2011.

Bishop Daniel Wandabula, who leads the East Africa Conference, subsequently wasre-elected for life on Aug. 17 when the Africa Central Conference met in Nairobi, Kenya. Unlike in the United States, the Africa Central Conference bishops are not elected for life at their first election.

On Sept. 27, the board of the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency, advised all United Methodist bodies to withhold funds from the East Africa Conference office until the resolution of the auditing issues and said it was filing a formal complaint against Wandabula. On Dec. 1, the finance agencyannounced it would set Wandabula’s salary at $1,000 a month in 2013 until the conference provides a satisfactory accounting of how its money is spent.

Wandabula in an October email blamed the actions of the denomination’s mission and finance agencies on a campaign “of malice, mudslinging, character lynching and insurrection.” He contended the agencies were siding with a blackmail attempt by an anonymous emailer who used the name “Journey Jonah.”

“The projects were not managed through the connectional system in the General Board of Global Ministries or authorized as an ‘Advance’ of the denomination,” the decision states. “Members of the Western Pennsylvania raised the funds, transmitted the funds to the East Africa Annual Conference, visited locations in Uganda, and negotiated the terms with church leaders in East Africa. … (It is not clear) from the record whether any specific officers within the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference had the authority to adjust expenditure plans in cases where the property had become too expensive or too cumbersome, where construction proved to be too inferior, or where the water well was to be bored.

“The record indicates that the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference now seeks supervisory action by the General Board of Global Ministries to help remedy errors that the annual conference finds in the management of this mission,” the Judicial Council added.

The ruling did direct that the $3,000 in funds intended as compensation for Pastor Isaac Sebit should be paid to him by Jan. 1, 2014, or returned to the Western Pennsylvania Conference.

An oral hearing on the matter was April 17, primarily so that Nancy Denardo of the Pittsburgh East District of the Western Pennsylvania Conference could speak to the Judicial Council. Denardo, who supervised the mission project and filed the original complaint against Bishop Wandabula, was ill during the October meeting and could not attend.

Testimony from both conferences

Denardo spoke of her shock in going to Uganda expecting to see a new church and seeing only a foundation constructed. “Our plans have never been realized,” she said. “No receipts were ever made available and no explanation given by Bishop Wandabula. … Because of the consistent corruption in Uganda and South Sudan, I felt compelled to write a complaint against the bishop.”

In his own comments, Bishop Wandabula said that it was “important to note that my office did not misuse any ‘designated’ funds offered for particular ministries, nor have I mismanaged any funds given for mission and ministry. Believe it or not, we have many Christians both within and without the East Africa Annual Conference praying for accountability with a ‘human face’ balanced with transparency.

“Terrible mistakes are being made in dealing with East Africa,” he added. “Please note that both the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and GBGM were told about their mistakes even as the mistakes were being made. It is so enraging that they refused to listen! … GBGM is misguided, and I have been framed for whatever reason.”

The Rev. Robert Zilhaver, a clergy member of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, also spoke at the oral hearing. “This dispute has crippled our work in Uganda and our work fighting malaria,” Zilhaver said.

Council upholds decision in Bishop Kim case

In another case, the council upheld a 2012 decision of law by Bishop Thomas Bickerton that rejected arguments by the Rev. Hae-Jong Kim that sought to reverse his 2005 resignation as a bishop.

Kim resigned Sept. 1, 2005, in the midst of a complaint against him.

In January 2007, he wrote the Council of Bishops asking that his resignation be rescinded. The Council of Bishops, citing no provisions in the Book of Discipline to deal with such a situation, decided they had no jurisdiction to consider his request. Kim then appealed to the Northeast Jurisdiction Committee on the Episcopacy for help, but the committee did not act on his request.

During the 2012 Northeast Jurisdictional Conference, a clergy delegate offered a five-point appeal for a decision of law based on whether Kim received fair process. Bickerton was presiding when the request was made. The Judicial Council affirmed Bickerton’s responses to all five points.

The council said that its ruling was only in regard to the fair process question and would not be drawn into other areas “where the Judicial Council has no disciplinary authority.” That included Kim’s appeal to the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race for an investigation into his treatment, a request that was made 10 weeks after his resignation.

After his resignation, Kim was returned to status as a retired elder in good standing in his home Greater New Jersey Conference.

“The Judicial Council acknowledges that this matter has caused much pain and suffering among those involved, the community and the entire church,” Decision 1239 read.

An oral hearing on this matter also was April 17.

Kim, making a brief comment before the Judicial Council, remembered that he was first ordained 50 years ago this year and asked “that the church I love, and gave my life for, treat me fairly.”

Kim became The United Methodist Church’s first Korean bishop when he was elected in 1992.  He led the Western New York and Western Pennsylvania areas, and taught at Drew University.

In other rulings

  • Remanded a question of law made during the Western Jurisdictional Conference back to the bishop for a decision after the bishop had rejected the question as moot because it had a typographical error. The Judicial Council has ruled several times in previous decisions that such an error in a question does “not necessarily negate the legitimacy of the questions.”
  • Deferred a decision on a question from the Congo Central Conference until it receives the minutes of the relevant session of the election process.
  • Refused jurisdiction in an episcopal election dispute between annual conferences in Nigeria because the group submitting the request was without the proper disciplinary standing to do so.
  • Said it lacked jurisdiction in a question of an inclusiveness resolution in the Desert Southwest Conference because the request for a bishop’s decision of law was not properly presented during the business session of annual conference.
  • Rejected, for the fifth time, jurisdiction to review a parliamentary decision by a bishop regarding the closing of a local church in San Francisco. The ruling additionally said that the council would no longer entertain these “serial appeals” from the petitioner.
  • Denied a request to reconsider Decision 1230, the decision on reinstating Bishop Earl Bledsoe, along with Memorandums 1213 (Western Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals) and 1217 (North Alabama and the Coalition for Reproductive Choice.)

Two lay alternate Judicial Council members participated in the spring meeting, Sandra Lutz from Ohio and Warren Plowden from South Georgia, because members Beth Capen and Ruben Reyes were unable to attend.

The Judicial Council is next scheduled to meet Oct. 23-26 in Boston.

Neill Caldwell is the editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate and is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service.

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