A fitness review is a disciplinary action that results when information surfaces that calls into question an authorized minister’s continued fitness for ministry in and on behalf of the United Church of Christ. An association Committee on Ministry (or, in some places, a conference-wide Fitness Review Board) receives the concern, votes to begin a review, and gathers information from affected parties before making a decision as to the minister’s fitness. Fitness reviews are challenging, time-consuming and emotionally difficult experiences for everyone involved. They are also a vital part of the oversight ministry to which our Committees on Ministry (COMs) have been entrusted, and it is within their authority to determine an authorized minister’s continued fitness for ministry. Our COMs take on this work prayerfully and seriously, and are prepared to do the work faithfully and well.
The Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) ministry team is the team in the national setting to whom conferences and associations report information about the initiation or outcomes of fitness reviews. This information is kept secure in a centralized database accessibly only to conference or association staff who bear responsibility for this information and to certain national staff. The MESA team has begun to conduct semi-annual audits of this data, reviewing historical information of these disciplinary procedures and following up on open reviews (where a decision has yet to be reached, or a minister is still in a growth plan) in the system.
Here’s some of what MESA learned in our first audit, conducted earlier this month:
From the information available to us, over the past 30 years, Committees on Ministry in the United Church of Christ have conducted 425 fitness reviews, with one of seven possible outcomes: reaffirmation of fitness for ministry, referral to a situational support consultation, conditional affirmation, censure, suspension of standing, termination of standing, or resignation of standing pending a fitness review. The sobering news is nearly all fitness reviews result in some sort of disciplinary outcome – of the 407 fitness reviews where a COM has rendered at least an initial decision, 344 of them were conditional affirmation, censure, suspension, or termination, with the most common initial outcomes being suspension or termination of standing. An additional 50 ministers resigned their standing before a COM could adjudicate the review. (See Chart 1)
When the disciplinary action was a conditional affirmation or a censure, the vast majority of ministers had their standing later reaffirmed. When a minister’s standing was terminated or they resigned their standing, there are only a handful of situations in which their standing was later reaffirmed (which involves a return to the association or conference that adjudicated the review to seek reinstatement).
Of the 138 ministers whose standing was suspended following a fitness review, 57 (41%) had their standing eventually terminated as a result of the review. Another 47 (34%) had their standing reaffirmed, and 18 (13%) resigned their standing at some point after adjudication of their review. (The other 16, or 12%, are currently involved in a program of growth.)
The second chart helps us to understand the final disposition of fitness reviews. Analysis of the 407 fitness reviews studied shows that 40% ultimately result in a minister’s termination of standing and another 16% resign their standing at some point in the process, which is indeed not a rosy picture. But there is a ray of encouraging news: 36% of all fitness reviews ultimately result in a reaffirmation of standing (the red portion), including more than 130 ministers who faced a disciplinary outcome with a program of growth. This is, admittedly, a rather slender thread, but it is encouraging to know that ministers often choose to do the hard work of growth and reconciliation necessary to have their standing reaffirmed. (10% of fitness reviews in the survey are currently in process and do not have a final outcome.)
In this audit, we noted that 18 reviews listed no initial outcome, indicating that Committees on Ministry are still gathering information and preparing to make a decision. Another 24 reviews have resulted in a disciplinary action that is not yet final – that is to say, the minister is in some sort of program of growth. Because this was our first systematic audit, we also uncovered many older fitness reviews among this pool of 42 (the 10% in the “no outcome” category in Chart 2), which probably have been completed without final data submitted, or the minister in question has since died. We estimate that there are about 25 open fitness reviews currently being adjudicated, spread across 16 conferences.
All of this information tells us that Committees on Ministry take very seriously the concerns that come to them about a minister’s fitness. COMs take this work extremely seriously and do not begin fitness reviews lightly. Nor do they do the work haphazardly – they follow a common set of policies and procedures laid out in the Manual on Ministry, Section 8 (as well as any policies specific to their setting). COMS seek to uphold the integrity of the pastoral office, take seriously the concerns of those who have been negatively affected by a minister’s misconduct, and seek to offer reconciliation and growth for the authorized minister when possible. This also demonstrates that COMs are committed to upholding ministerial accountability when there are situations of misconduct on the part of authorized ministers.
The Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Ministry Team of the national setting is the team that resources COMs to do this work effectively. It is important to note that because of the confidential nature of oversight, MESA does not typically learn about the reason for fitness reviews; when we do become aware of the circumstances surrounding reviews, the most common reasons are (in no particular order): sexual misconduct, drug or alcohol abuse, financial misconduct, or ministers interfering in the ministry of other clergy.
A final note: if you wish to raise a concern about a minister’s fitness for ministry, please contact the association where that minister has standing for further guidance. We encourage everyone who wants to learn more about the process of a fitness review to refer to the UCC’s Manual on Ministry, Section 8.
Rev. Elizabeth Dilley serves as Minister for Ministers in Local Churches within the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team of the UCC national setting. You can learn more about Elizabeth’s work supporting local church pastors here.