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Pan-Methodists raise concerns about Pickens’ dismissal

The Rev. Larry D. Pickens prays during a worship service at the United Methodist Church's 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

Dec. 13, 2007

Bishop E. Earl McCloud Jr.

Pan-Methodist members of The United Methodist Church’s ecumenical agency are questioning the process that led to the dismissal of the agency’s chief executive.

On Dec. 5, while meeting in Birmingham, Ala., the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns told the Rev. Larry Pickens that he would not be continuing in his post. Instead, the commission elected retired Bishop Albert F. "Fritz" Mutti, who had served as its president from 2000 to 2004, as the interim chief executive.

A search committee was formed the next day to recommend a permanent replacement for Pickens, the first African-American to serve in that position.

Through the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union, The United Methodist Church has long had relationships with three historic African-American Methodist churches: the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal.

The three pan-Methodist members of the Commission on Christian Unity – Bishop E. Earl McCloud Jr., presiding bishop of the AME Office of Ecumenical & Urban Affairs; Lula K. Howard, the AME Zion representative; and Juanita Bryant, the CME representative – were unhappy enough with the process that led to the dismissal of Pickens that they left the meeting after the decision.

A chief concern, according to McCloud and Howard, was that the full commission never had a chance to vote specifically on whether to re-elect Pickens. Instead, members were presented with a motion from the personnel committee to elect retired Bishop Fritz Mutti as the commission’s temporary leader and initiate a search process for Pickens’ replacement.

"We didn’t vote for or against Larry. What we voted for was an interim general secretary," Howard told United Methodist News Service during a Dec. 12 phone interview.

A close vote

McCloud said that he and several other commission members tried to introduce substitute motions that would have required a direct vote on Pickens but were not allowed to do so. The 21-19 vote to elect Mutti reflected the division among commission members, and while the vote "did not completely line up as blacks against whites … it did not seem very fair," he said.

"I thought it (his dismissal) was not a right signal in the interest of the church when at the same time they are talking about Acts of Repentance."
-- Bishop E. Earl McCloud Jr.

In response to the concerns, Bishop Ann Sherer, president of the Commission on Christian Unity, said it was standard procedure at the end of each year to either re-elect the current chief executive or elect a new person. The personnel committee chose to elect Mutti and form a search committee to recommend a new leader, she added.

Noting that the actions occurred during a confidential executive session, Sherer said she could say no more but "to express my appreciation to Dr. Pickens and hope that we can begin to move toward a new future."

McCloud said he was allowed by Sherer to make a statement to the commission after the vote on Mutti was taken, as were Howard and Bryant, who he said was a dissenting member of the personnel committee. Then, "without any coordination among the pan- Methodist representatives," he said, all three left the meeting.

Attempts by United Methodist News Service to contact Bryant were unsuccessful.

Howard, who just completed two four-year terms as a commission member, said Pickens had received a positive endorsement from the group when he was re-elected in the fall of 2006 for the following year. She felt she had been left "in the dark" about the later discussions between him and the personnel committee regarding job performance.

While she said she respects Mutti, "I just thought the way they handled Larry was not appropriate."

Acts of repentance

McCloud, a former president of the pan-Methodist commission, acknowledged that Pickens was "not perfect" but said the chief executive had made some of the improvements requested of him over a period of six months. "I thought it (his dismissal) was not a right signal in the interest of the church when at the same time they are talking about Acts of Repentance."

Bishop Fritz Mutti

He said he believes the commission did not give Pickens what he considered to be due process, and the action taken "was poor behavior on the part of Christians."

The 2000 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, held an Act of Repentance service focused largely on racist acts within the Methodist Church that led to the creation of the three historically African-American denominations in the 1800s. Some United Methodists expressed concern later that African Americans within the denomination were not part of the focus of the service.

As a follow-up to the Act of Repentance, General Conference mandated that all the churchwide boards and agencies include pan-Methodist representatives among their governing members.

All local United Methodist congregations were called upon to engage in reflection and liturgical acts of repentance, and a study guide was developed for that purpose.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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