Written by Rachel Hackenberg
Dear Committee on Ministry colleagues,
I wonder if this situation is familiar to you: “Our Committee on Ministry is preparing to meet with a Member in Discernment; our committee members include the MID's pastor and also an instructor from the MID's regional theological education program. Should the pastor and the instructor excuse themselves from the meeting, and should they recuse themselves from all committee discussions regarding the MID?”
The questions of recusal and conflict of interest are not uncommon for Committees on Ministry. After all, committee members are often active participants in the life of the local church, association and conference, so it's quite likely that committee members know their association's Members in Discernment and authorized ministers in more than one context.
When a Committee on Ministry member wears two hats (that is, has two or more roles) in relation to a person who is meeting with the committee, the balancing of those roles requires thoughtfulness and care. Committee members cannot leave one “hat” at the door – cannot pretend, for example, not to be a pastor or an instructor during the committee meeting. Committee members bring their full selves and their full knowledge of a MID or a minister into the COM's discernment work, prayerfully sorting through what is useful and relevant knowledge to the Committee and what is not.
When a committee member – or a MID/minister who is meeting with the COM – raises the question of recusal, the committee member along with the whole COM should consider: “What are the roles I have in relation to the person meeting with the COM, and what are the dynamics of those roles? What stake do I have in the Committee's discussions and decisions regarding this person? Am I able to participate in this meeting with integrity? Am I willing to be honest with my COM colleagues about my biases and experiences with this person in other contexts, and do my COM colleagues trust that I am open to hearing other perspectives and am able to make decisions for the good of the United Church of Christ?”
The Manual on Ministry identifies four occasions when Committee on Ministry members should not participate in proceedings that are specifically related to matters of oversight (Section 8 page 14):
2. When a Committee member's family member is involved in an oversight proceeding (for example, the Committee member's clergy spouse requests a Situational Support Consultation with the COM);
3. When a parishioner from the Committee member's church meets with the COM for oversight (for example, a Committee member's parishioner who is a retired minister meets one-on-one with the COM for a Periodic Support Consultation);
4. When a staff person from the Committee member's church is meeting with the COM (for example, the Committee member's boss or subordinate or, in the case of a lay Committee member, their own pastor).
In these four circumstances, a conflict of interest exists: the Committee member has a direct stake in and/or is directly impacted by the oversight proceedings by the committee, necessitating that the COM member withdraw from those discussions and decisions.
In other circumstances, a Committee member may be perceived by an outsider or by a COM colleague to have a conflict of interest or a bias, creating the impression that the Committee's work is compromised. Although an actual conflict of interest may not exist, the impression of a conflict of interest warrants the Committee's prayerful consideration of a COM member's recusal. When an actual or perceived conflict of interest exists, recusal may be initiated by a Committee member volunteering to step away from a particular proceeding or by the COM as a whole requiring a Committee member to relinquish their Committee role for the course of a particular proceeding.
At the heart of the question of recusal lies a concern for fairness and integrity in the Committee on Ministry's work – for the sake of the person meeting with the COM and, always, for the sake of the United Church of Christ. Committee on Ministry members are trusted to have wisdom in navigating the multiple roles they may hold while sitting at the COM table and to hold one another accountable to performing with integrity the COM's responsibilities of authorization and oversight. Whether a particular COM proceeding clearly requires recusal or simply presents the question of recusal, the Committee's time is well-spent in discernment before excusing one of its members from a proceeding.
Because there is always more to be said, and certainly many nuances to circumstances surrounding recusal, Committees on Ministry are welcomed and encouraged to contact the MESA Ministry Team and/or the Office of General Counsel with questions.
Blessings and prayers for your work,
The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
Minister for Committee on Ministry Resources & Conference Support
Ministerial Excellence, Support & Authorization (MESA) Team
Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ