On 7 January the Permanent Judicial Commission of Grace Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) announced its decision in Disciplinary Case 2015-1: Grace Presbytery v. TE Joseph Rightmyer finding him guilty on eight of the eleven counts he had been charged with. This case comes out of the departure of Highland Park Presbyterian Church of Dallas from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to move to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
According to the history in the PJC decision, an accusation was made against TE Rightmyer in the Fall of 2013 and an investigating committee of five members was appointed on 2 December 2013 which then returned the charges on 16 October the following year. There was a pre-trial hearing on 14 November and the trial conducted on 6 January.
The eleven charges filed with the PJC relate to TE Rightmyer’s service at Highland Park as an interim pastor from June 2013 to August 2014 when TE Bryan Dunegan was called and took over as head of staff. Parallel with the pastoral search Highland Park filed suit in September 2013 in the Texas courts to gain control of its property. That case was to go to trial in October 2014 but Highland Park and Grace Presbytery settled for $7.8 million almost exactly a year after the suit was filed.
Instrumental in this case is the fact that Grace Presbytery has a “Policy for a Just and Gracious Dismissal of a Congregation to Another Reformed Denomination“, but in all the reading I have done I have seen no reference indicating that Highland Park initiated discussions with the presbytery under this policy but rather they carried out a unilateral process to leave the PC(USA).
With that background, let us look at the charges against TE Rightmyer. There are four root charges:
- On or about September 23, 2013, and following, you… did commit the offense of advocating and facilitating a process for Highland Park Presbyterian Church to determine whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) not permitted by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and contrary to Grace Presbytery’s “Policy for a Just and Gracious Dismissal of a Congregation to Another Reformed Denomination.”
On or about September 23, 2013, you… did commit the offense of moderating the Session of Highland Park Presbyterian Church and permitting it to vote to call a congregational meeting to vote on whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an action not permitted by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
- On or about October 27, 2013, you… did commit the offense of moderating a congregational meeting of Highland Park Presbyterian Church and permitting it to vote on whether to remain a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), an action not permitted by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (Book of Order G-1.0503) and contrary to Grace Presbytery’s “Policy for a Just and Gracious Dismissal of a Congregation to Another Reformed Denomination.”
- On or about October 27, 2013, and following, you… did commit the offense of permitting the dissolving of the installed pastoral relationship of teaching elder Marshall C. Zieman to serve as associate pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church without action of the
presbytery as required by the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
This is a “theme and variations” set of charges and for each root charge there were multiple variations. For the first, this charge was cited as being a violation of ordination vows W-4.4003e, “Will you be governed by our church’s polity…”, and W-4.4003g, “Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?”.
For the second and third root charges related to calling and holding a congregational meeting with business not permitted by the Book of Order, these were charged as violations of G-1.0503 that limits the business of a congregational meeting, as well as the two ordination vow violations attached to the first root charge.
Similarly, the fourth root charge was a violation of G-2.0502 as well as G-2.0901 regarding the process for dissolving pastoral relationships and the ordination vow about being subject to our church’s polity.
So the two variations of the first root charge and three variations of the other three add up to the total of eleven individual charges.
The Presbytery PJC found him guilty of the first eight, that being the ones associated with root charges 1, 2 and 3, but found him not guilty of the last regarding the dissolution of a pastoral relationship.
Disciplinary trial decisions, unlike many remedial cases and appeals, typically do not come with analysis so there is not much more to directly draw from the PJC’s decision.
The court rendered their decision:
Whereas, you, JOSEPH B. RIGHTMYER, have been found guilty of the following offenses, and by such offenses you have acted contrary to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); now, therefore, Grace Presbytery acting in the name and under the authority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), does hereby set aside and remove you from the ordered ministry of teaching elder.
Removal from ordered ministry, also referred to as being defrocked, is the strongest penalty that can be levied in a disciplinary case.
That pretty much sums up the PJC decision. In an interview with Carmen Fowler LaBerge of the Presbyterian Layman, Mr. Rightmyer indicates that he is in the process of considering an appeal of this decision.
Let me begin my comments with what is to me the elephant in the room — the only reason this trial could take place was because Mr. Rightmyer did not leave the PC(USA) with Highland Park Presbyterian Church but chose instead to remain in the PC(USA) after his interim service was over. In a large proportion of the departures from the PC(USA) all the teaching elders depart for the new denomination taking them out of reach of the PC(USA) disciplinary process should the church’s process been outside the established process. It is worth noting that regarding these charges going to trial Mr. Rightmyer did live into his ordination vow to be “…governed by our church’s polity and… abide by it’s discipline.”
[As a polity note, there is much that can be argued about Mr. Rightmyer’s status and leaving the denomination in light of the fact that interim pastors usually depart the church and the fact that since an investigating committee was considering his case he could not be transferred. I won’t belabor this point except to say that if he wanted to depart with the church, or on his own, a way could probably be found, possibly including renunciation of jurisdiction.]
Another question that arises is why the church went to the civil courts and did not engage in the presbytery’s dismissal policy? In the interview mentioned above Mr. Rightmyer explains the church’s perspective:
“The leadership of Grace Presbytery made it abundantly clear that any candidate for pastor would have to pledge loyalty to the denomination and subscribe to a ‘big-tent’ ideology; meaning that he or she would have to tolerate and perhaps even celebrate what God deems intolerable in the body of Christ. With the church’s children and grandchildren at heart, the leadership of HPPC felt a clear responsibility for the ‘preservation of the truth’ and fidelity to the Scriptures in the preaching of Christ. When seen in that light, the vote to disaffiliate from the PCUSA became a spiritual mandate and the cost was minimal compared to what was gained.”
What are the implications of this decision? You could say that this is only a Presbytery PJC decision and a disciplinary one at that so the formal precedent it sets is minimal. From another perspective this shifts the playing field. While previous cases were all remedial this case indicates that someone is willing to reach into the toolbox and try another option. It sends a message to the presbytery that in the future churches need to engage with the presbytery about dismissal or get our cleanly and quickly so that teaching and ruling elders are out of reach of the judicial process. I thought it significant that the decision specifically indicates that the teaching elder who submitted the accusation was the chair of the committee on ministry giving strong weight to the appearance that this was a case being filed with presbytery backing.
Furthermore, if the case does go through a series of appeals to the General Assembly PJC, then formal guidance to the whole church could result. That is certainly a wait and see situation.
But digging a little deeper, does this case now suggest a preemptive strategy for those that would prefer stronger enforcement of the trust clause? While I am not endorsing this and hesitate to continue this thought exercise lest I give anyone ideas, I want to consider a couple scenarios:
What if a church were to baulk at a presbytery’s gracious dismissal policy or the negotiations under it? Could some random member of the presbytery who has standing bring charges like these against the teaching elder(s) and ruling elders on session if they were to take some sort of unilateral action outside the process even before they tried to separate from the denomination?
Or consider charge 2, the most general of the charges in this case: the offense of
advocating and facilitating a process… to determine whether to remain a member of the PC(USA) not permitted by the Constitution and contrary to the Gracious Dismissal Policy in violation of your ordination vow “to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church”. So what might qualify as advocating a process? A discussion in the session meeting about alternatives? Preaching a sermon critical of the PC(USA) or its leadership? Consulting with the leadership of another Reformed body? It would seem that any number of possible actions could have the appearance of “advocating and facilitating a process” and be the basis for an accusation.
Farfetched? Probably. Minor and not likely to be successful at trial? That could certainly be the case. But my point is that simply filing an accusation and having an elder under investigation is enough to stop their transfer and possibly stop all progress under a Gracious Dismissal Policy, particularly if it is the installed teaching elder. So what are the choices? Waiting it out could easily take a year or more like this case did. Speeding it up by changing to self-accusation would amount to pleading guilty and taking your chances with the penalty imposed by the PJC. Moving forward by renouncing jurisdiction means that you lose standing with the denomination and would probably lead to the congregation departing but likely leaving the property behind. Is there another, easier and faster alternative to clearing this that I am missing?
It is an interesting possibility to ponder, and hopefully not one that we will have to respond to. For the moment we are left with our first disciplinary case and penalty for actions take outside the presbytery process for gracious dismissal. There are still questions whether the trial verdict would stand up under appeal and whether more disciplinary cases will follow now that the ice is broken.