More Than 600 United Methodists File Formal Church Complaint against Jeff Sessions

By Service, Jack Jenkins; Service, Emily McFarlan Miller | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), June 20, 2018 | Go to article overview

More Than 600 United Methodists File Formal Church Complaint against Jeff Sessions


Service, Jack Jenkins, Service, Emily McFarlan Miller, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


More than 600 United Methodist clergy and laypeople have signed a formal denominational complaint against fellow United Methodist Attorney General Jeff Sessions, condemning his role in the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of separating children from their parents along the U.S.-Mexico border. The charges include child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church.”

The complaint was sent on Monday (June 18) afternoon to two churches, one in Alabama and the other in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, said to be affiliated with the chief lawyer of the U.S. government.

“We, the undersigned laity and clergy of the United Methodist Church, issue a formal complaint against fellow United Methodist layperson Jefferson Beauregard Sessions,” reads the letter, which was provided to Religion News Service.

“While we are reticent to bring a formal complaint against a layperson, Mr. Sessions’ unique combination of tremendous social/political power, his leading role as a Sunday School teacher and former delegate to General Conference, and the severe and ongoing impact of certain of his public, professional actions demand that we, as his siblings in the United Methodist denomination, call for some degree of accountability.”

Dave Wright, an ordained United Methodist elder and chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, is the chief author of the letter. He said he hopes the complaint will result in pastoral conversations between Sessions and church leaders.

“My ideal outcome is that his pastors in church leadership who know him will speak with him, and that in those conversation he will be challenged to think through the level of harm he is causing and have a change of heart — which is about as Methodist as you can get,” Wright said.

Of the four charges against Sessions, the first three — child abuse, immorality and racial discrimination — are in reference to the border policy. The last, regarding the dissemination of doctrines against Methodism, follows Sessions’ attempt to defend separating families during a speech Thursday, in which he rebuked “church friends” who criticized the policy by insisting its enforcement is biblical, citing Romans 13.

Sessions did not publicly respond to the UMC complaint.

David F. Watson, academic dean and professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary, called the complaint “an extraordinary development.”

It is “very unusual” for a complaint to be brought against a layperson in the United Methodist Church, Watson said. In recent history, several professors noted, most complaints have been brought against clergy who have performed or entered into same-sex marriages, as the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination has been roiled by debate over the inclusion of its LGBT members.

John Feagins, an ordained UMC elder in the Rio Texas Conference who has taught church polity to pastors, said the letter sets in motion a process that allows a pastor or district superintendent to resolve the issue with the accused pastorally, possibly through a process involving a third-party mediator that United Methodists call “just resolution.” Just resolution focuses on “repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties,” according to the Book of Discipline.

If no resolution can be reached, that person’s case could go to a committee on investigation or eventually a church trial. In a worst-case scenario, the court could remove him or her from membership, but the denomination’s rulebook also makes allowances for lesser punishments. That could include things like losing the ability to hold office as a delegate or teach Sunday school.

The letter concluded: “We look forward to entering into the just resolution process with Mr. Sessions as we seek to journey with him towards reconciliation and faithful living into the gospel. …

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