June 24, 2011
KAUKAUNA — After nearly six hours of deliberation, a 13-member jury of Wisconsin Methodist clergy suspended the Rev. Amy DeLong from ministerial duties for 20 days, starting July 1, and noted the time is to be used for “spiritual discernment.”
DeLong, 44, of Polk County, was convicted Wednesday of performing a 2009 same-sex wedding in Menomonie in violation of United Methodist Church rules. She was acquitted on a 12-1 vote of a second charge of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual.”
A 7-vote majority was needed to reach a penalty on the wedding charge. The final vote was 9-4.
The jury also ordered DeLong to draft a document outlining “procedures for clergy” to “resolve issues that harm clergy covenant” jointly with church leaders by Jan. 1, 2012. The document is to be presented at Wisconsin’s Annual Conference next summer.
If DeLong does not meet the January deadline, she will be suspended for one year, beginning June 3, 2012.
DeLong told The Post-Crescent she would “do my best” to meet the deadline, and cast the penalty as a victory.
“We’ve said all along that we have already been successful,” DeLong said. “We had a 100 percent chance of winning because our goal was to be faithful and to tell the truth. We have done that and we’ve broken the silence. We’ve opened the door a little bit so (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) people can hear a good message from the church.”
The Rev. Tom Lambrecht of Faith Community Church in Greenville, who served as counsel for the church during the trial, expressed satisfaction with the jury’s decision.
“I think it’s a very creative penalty,” Lambrecht said. “It recognizes that an offense was committed through the suspension, and it initiates a process that allows Rev. DeLong to reflect on what she’s learned from this experience and perhaps share some of those learnings with the rest of the annual conference. It certainly lifts up the harm that was done to the clergy covenant and the adversarial spirit that was created within our annual conference over this issue.”
Bishop Linda Lee, leader of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church, issued a statement lamenting the “adversarial” nature of church trials, which she called a “heart-wrenching and painful process.”
“My prayer is that, as Christians, and as United Methodists, we will use this experience as a gateway to reconciliation, healing and restoration of our relationship with one another and with Christ,” Lee wrote.
Peace United Methodist Church in Kaukauna hosted the three-day trial, which began Tuesday.
The jury had broad discretion to choose DeLong’s penalty. Previous Methodist ministers found guilty of similar offenses have been stripped of their ministerial credentials. Others have been suspended temporarily.
During final arguments, Lambrecht asked the jury to suspend DeLong until she signed a pledge that she would not perform future same-sex weddings so long as church law forbids the practice.
About two hours before the 20-day suspension was announced, DeLong rejected Lambrecht’s proposal.
“Performing the holy union for the couple I did was one of the great joys of my ministry, and I would never sign a document that would indicate I wouldn’t do that again,” she told reporters. “To sign such a document would say to the couple that I married, ‘Your marriage is not valid.’ I’d never want to send them that message.”
In response, Lambrecht said, “That’s her choice. The penalty that we proposed put the ball in her court as far as how long she remains in suspension.”
In his final statement, Lambrecht asked the jury to consider the importance of their decision.
“This is not some insignificant violation of the terms of the discipline,” Lambrecht argued. “When any of us violates a provision such as this, we are setting ourselves over against the church that has ordained us, declaring that we will not submit to the authority of the church.”
Much would be at stake, he said, if an “inadequate penalty” encouraged other ministers to disobey church rules at will or led lay members to flee due to a perceived “lack of accountability.”
“No church or denomination can long survive such rendering of its covenant,” Lambrecht said.
The Rev. Scott Campbell, counsel for DeLong, also asked the jury to think about the broader implications of their decision and invoked movements in secular culture to embrace same-sex relationships, including the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and a recent United Nations resolution affirming gay rights.
“Change is coming in the church and in the world,” Campbell said. “Signs are all around us in the church and in the world.”
Campbell said church leaders have resisted that change and used church law as “a club to coerce our clergy into violating their own consciences.”
“This is not violation of covenant, but rather a vindication of conscience,” Campbell continued. “These are not the seeds of schism but the sowing of our salvation. We are not engaged in the abrogation of accountability, but in the creation of community. God is bringing forth something new in our midst.”
In closing, Campbell told the jury, “Let the penalty fit the crime.”