THE JUDICIAL COUNCIL OF
THE AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL ZION CHURCH
IN THE MATTER OF
THE PETITION OF THE REV. DR. ROBERT L. SHUFORD
DECISION No. 2021-41
This matter is before The Judicial Council by a petition filed by The Rev. Robert Shuford. (hereinafter referred to as Petitioner), a member in good and regular standing in the Central Alabama Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, seeking a declaratory judgment clarifying the church law regarding the 60-day Notice prior to the re-assignment of a pastor of an A.M.E. Zion Church.
The Judicial Council shall not have original jurisdiction, since decisions are declaratory and final in the interim of the General Conference. The Book of Discipline of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (The Discipline), Paragraph 343, Article II (b), (2016).
To hear and make declaratory judgments when petitioned to do so when any law is subject to more than one interpretation or any paragraph in The Discipline is of doubtful meaning. Any person in good and regular standing in The A.M.E. Zion Church can petition The Judicial Council for such a judgment. The Council's decision is final unless revised by the General Conference. The Discipline, ¶ 344, Art. III (b), 2016.
FACTS OF THE CASE AS ALLEGED BY THE P
Petitioner, an ordained Elder and pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was the Pastor of Butler Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, Greenville, Alabama which he deemed the First Church on the Greenville District, South Alabama Annual Conference. At the Annual Conference in 2019, Bishop Lartey did not appoint Petitioner to the Butler Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church which was in his authority to do with restrictions. One of the restrictions of a change of pastoral appointment by any of our Bishops is the requirement of a 60-day Notice be given to pastors in advance of changes of appointment. Such is the issue in this present matter, Petitioner alleges that because Pastors are appointed annually, the Bishop was required to give him a 60-day Notice prior to removing him from the church of which he was the pastor. Petitioner alleges that he was neither given the prerequisite 60-day Notice by the Presiding Bishop nor by the Presiding Elder. Petitioner seeks a Declaratory Judgement on the issue of whether he was due a 60-day Notice. In addition, if the outcome of his petition is favorable to his position, Petitioner in his prayer of relief request a written apology from the Bishop and the Presiding Elder admitting their actions were illegal and inappropriate be read publicly to South Alabama Conference by the Bishop and the Presiding Elder.
Whether Petitioner was entitled to a 60-day Notice prior to being removed as Pastor of Butler Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church in 2019.
The question presented before the Judicial Council is not one of first impression. It is a continuing problem which occurs throughout our A.M.E. Zion Connection. Pastors will attend Annual Conferences each year and to their surprise will receive a different appointment without the 60-day Notice requirement or even an explanation. Prior to this occasion, this same issue was raised in Judicial Council Earl Harris Decision No. 2005-020, and again in Rev. Robert E. Linder Decision No. 2014-31. As stated then, the answer to the question is an unequivocal “Yes”. A 60-day Notice Is required prior to the removal of a pastor from his/her charge. However, there are some situations in which the answer could be “No.”
Prior to 1988, there was no provision for a 60-day Notice in the Book of Discipline of The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Book of Discipline). The 60-day Notice requirement first appeared in The Book of Discipline in 1988. It is unfortunate that our discipline is not annotated to remind people of why certain provisions are in our Book of Discipline. The 60-day Notice provision was added to the law of our church to accommodate our pastors and their families. For a pastor to move from one locale to another requires some preplanning. It is difficult for a family to be disrupted without time to prepare for such a move. Housing is a problem, and if the pastor has school-aged children, time is required to prepare the children to be transferred from one school district to another. While 60 days for relocating is not enough time in many cases, it does provide some time for a pastor to plan and prepare for having to go through to relocate. Nevertheless, the 60-day Notice is a requirement, it is the law of the church. Both Bishops and pastors know it and they must adhere to this important mandate of our beloved Zion.
It has been well established law in The A.M.E. Zion Church that a Bishop must give a pastor a 60-day Notice prior to appointing him or her to another location. On the surface it appears that this is an outright concrete requirement, however, there is a . two prong test that must be applied to determine if the 60-day Notice was required. Prong 1: Are Bishops required to give a 60-day Notice prior to moving a pastor from one location to another? “Yes” or “No”? The answer is “Yes” except in “extreme circumstances.” Prong 2: Are there “extreme circumstances?” Using this standard, an analysis must be done to satisfy the mandate of the Book of Discipline. Although the term “extreme circumstances” may be subjective, it is the decision of the Judicial Council that extreme circumstances “describes an event, situation or behavior which exceeds the norm and which is much more severe or unusual than you would expect”. This standard and definition shall be used in cases of this nature.
In the present case, the Petitioner stated that he was not given a 60-day Notice prior to his reassignment in the 2019 Annual Conference. The Presiding Elder also states that he was not aware of any such Notice, however, the Presiding Elder stated that he was aware of extreme circumstances, but he would not elaborate. It seems that if there were extreme circumstance to a level that requires the removal of a pastor, there would have been dialogue between the Bishop and the affected pastor. As a result, the Judicial Council contacted the Bishop, the Presiding Prelate, and he gave a response regarding extreme circumstances that prompted the appointment of Petitioner to a different charge.
Applying the above standard for determining whether a 60-day Notice was required in the instant case, we find that it was required but was not issued. The Bishop stated that at the Annual Conference of which Petitioner was the host pastor, that he had a conference with Petitioner and the Presiding Elder. It was in that meeting that the Presiding Elder stated that he could not support the pastor returning to the church because of declining membership. The Presiding Elder reported that the church was declining very rapidly and in the best interest of the church and the Annual Conference, he felt that a move was warranted. This is what was offered as an extreme circumstance to support the failure to give Petitioner his required 60-day Notice before appointing him to a different charge. From the report of the Presiding Elder, it seems that the condition of the church and ministry at the church, as well as the need to have a new pastor at the said location, which is the subject of this matter, should have been known long before the Annual Conference and should have been brought to the Bishop’s attention early enough for a 60-day notification to have been issued. It seems that the declining membership was occurring over a set period of time and should have been within the knowledge of both the Bishop and the Presiding Elder. Matters of the health of the local church are matters that are within the purview of the Quarterly Conference. Matters of membership, new members, members on probation and decrease in the number of members are all subjects for review at the Quarterly Conference. Therefore, it is the decision of The Judicial Council that the given rationale for not issuing a 60-day Notice does not meet the above standard for extreme circumstances to support an exception to the 60-day Notice requirement.
As for the Petitioner’s prayer for relief that a written apology from the Bishop and the Presiding Elder to Petitioner be read publicly to the South Alabama Annual Conference by the Bishop and the Presiding Elder, we, leave this issue to be a matter for the South Alabama Annual Conference and the parties involved in this Petition for Declaratory Judgment.
BY ORDER OF THE JUDICIAL COUNCIL, THIS 20th DAY OF APRIL, 2021.
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