News Archives

Clergywoman accepts 'cost of being truthful' about sexuality

10/27/2003

This report is a sidebar to UMNS story #511.

By Joretta Purdue*

SAN DIEGO (UMNS) - Two and a half years after revealing her sexual orientation in a letter to her bishop, the Rev. Karen Dammann came more than a thousand miles to a crowded hotel room to face her denomination's highest court.

At stake was her profession as a United Methodist minister and her job as pastor to one of the congregations of the church's Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference.

In addressing the United Methodist Judicial Council during oral hearings Oct. 23, Dammann said she and her partner, Meredith Savage, did not envision that the process initiated by her letter of Feb. 14, 2001, in which she asked to come off family leave, would still be ongoing.

"We knew that the cost of being truthful with my bishop and my annual conference would be high," she recalled. "We were ready to accept that cost because we already knew the cost of living in closets, with the accompanying lies and deceptions, was one we were determined not to pass on to our son."

In the letter, Dammann told Bishop Elias Galvan that she was in a committed relationship with a woman. The bishop subsequently said he believed such an appointment was forbidden in light of her statement and did not appoint her to a church. The church's Book of Discipline, a book of laws and rules, forbids ordination and appointment of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals."

The issue of her non-appointment ended up before the Judicial Council, which ruled in October 2001 that only the clergy session of the conference could change the status of a clergy member. Because of a misquote of the Book of Discipline, the court reconsidered the case the following spring to correct the error.

The bishop brought a complaint against Dammann afterward, based on the 2001 letter. The Pacific Northwest Annual Conference Committee on Investigation held a hearing July 24, 2002, and the following day issued a statement saying that it dismissed the complaint because the matter did not receive the five votes necessary to send it forward to trial.

The committee's decision was appealed to the Western Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals, which met Jan. 29-30. The appellate committee affirmed the conference committee on investigation by a 4-3 vote. The counsel for the church appealed the decision to the Judicial Council.

The Rev. James Finkbeiner, a retired clergyman of Townsend, Wash., presented the church's arguments in the oral hearings.

"We believe, as the counsel for the church, that essentially the Pacific Northwest Conference of the church is presently in violation with the Discipline (Paragraph) 304.3, which gives the qualifications and disqualifications for ordination in the United Methodist Church, and for appointment as well as for ordination," he stated. The law is uniform, he said, so that every candidate in every jurisdiction of the church can look at it and know whether they are qualified.

The bishop's office, believing it was violating the law but also heeding the decision of the committee on investigation, appointed Dammann to First United Methodist Church in Ellensburg, Wash., Finkbeiner said. He added: "It is a very trying and frustrating and difficult time for all of us who care about each other and love each other in our agreements and in our disagreements."

Dammann, in her presentation, said she was thankful for the members of the Ellensburg congregation and of the two committees that heard her case. She referred to the committee members as "'reformers,' for through them and through their decisions on this matter, surely the Holy Spirit is speaking clearly and strongly for the church to hear."

Dodie Haight, a laywoman representing the Ellensburg congregation, affirmed the pastor. "Karen is a good fit for our congregation and is effective because of her honesty and openness about who she is." Haight said Dammann had won the hearts of the congregation in a short time.

The Rev. Robert C. Ward of Tacoma, Dammann's clergy counsel, said he believed that the committee on investigation "was looking at the whole Discipline, and beyond that was trying to be aware of who we are as the people of God … and … as United Methodists."

The Judicial Council's decision, released Oct. 27, said the Book of Discipline is binding on individuals, congregations and other groups within the church. The council remanded the case back to the jurisdictional appeals committee and set aside the conference committee's decision.

"Our church has in place a judicial system that protects the rights of pastors and the well-being of the church," said Bishop Elias Galvan after learning of the council's decision. "We will continue to follow the disciplinary process as directed by the Judicial Council." He requested prayers for Dammann, her family and all those involved "in this difficult process."

"I guess my immediate concern is for the congregation," Dammann told United Methodist News Service. She said she warned them from the beginning that she might be an interim rather than a long-term pastor.

She said she had not given much thought to her future. She noted that she has been employed by the church since age 19, except working nights at a nursing home when she was without an appointment.

"My calling is very strong still, and I'm not interested - at least I don't think I am - in a denominational switch. So, I would anticipate that my profession as a minister is over or would be fairly soon unless there are big changes next year at General Conference. Even then, I don't know."

For the time being, she said, she will try to accomplish what she can with her congregation and watch the process unfold.

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*Purdue is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Washington.

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