By Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane
Imagine forming a committee that you hope you will never have to meet or do the work it is charged to do? Such is the case for the Unified Fitness Review Committee formed from the Associations of the Massachusetts Conference.
“The prayer and hope for every Association is that its clergy will honor the Ordained Ministerial Code and maintain healthy boundaries in ministry,” said Associate Conference Minister Rev. Wendy Vander Hart.
“But the apostle Paul affirms what we know about ourselves – that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ People make mistakes, cross lines, and act without accountability from time to time. Pastors are just as capable as the next person of falling ‘short of the glory of God,’ she said.
In the United Church of Christ, all clergy are authorized for ministry by an Association. When a question is raised about a Pastor’s fitness for ministry, a Fitness Review is initiated and a process is enacted by that clergyperson’s Association to look into the matter and assure that concerns are taken seriously and considered in depth, and that decisions rendered, along with resulting actions, are just, fair, appropriate and compassionate for all concerned.
Over the past year and half, however, the 11 Associations in Massachusetts have considered doing this Fitness Review work as a unified body of the Conference, as opposed to handling it as 11 separate entities.
Almost all associations within the Conference have agreed on a proposal outlining the process. After 20 drafts of the document incorporated many suggestions from members throughout the Conference, the unanimous adoption of a Unified Fitness Review Committee proposal is heading down the homestretch. Ten Associations have passed the proposal; one Association contemplates bringing it to vote during its Spring meeting.
“It’s a sensible approach to unfortunate circumstances that sometimes come up,” said Conference Minister and President Jim Antal. “I have received feedback from the members of the Associations that they are pleased there is now a unified way to approach a Fitness Review, and that the Associations can now pool their resources. Also, by establishing a Unified Fitness Review Committee that is populated by volunteers across the whole Conference instead of just one Association, the likelihood of conflicts of interest is greatly reduced.”
“There’s a common recognition among the Associations that we can do this together far better than trying to accomplish it by ourselves,” said Associate Conference Minister Peter Wells. “Although there are only one or two of these incidents a year, a Fitness Review is a very time-consuming process. The opportunity to utilize people who are trained and who are on top of the process has been considered by many of the Associations as a gift.”
Each participating association has appointed someone with appropriate experience to the new unified committee, and the Board is in the process of rounding out the group by naming five individuals from a pool of candidates identified by Association leaders and staff.