Property for sale
Related to the decision to cease the discussion about a proposed move from Ohio is the determination to put up for sale the property near Denton, Texas, that the church bought in January 2008.
The general conference, in May 2007, had voted by a 202-195 margin to approve the move to Texas. But, in a rapidly changing economic environment, five council members placed the question on a second ballot a year later. That time the council voted, by a similarly narrow margin, 187-175, not to move to Texas.
On the question of "private discussion groups," which can include Internet forums separate from the official one for elders that began in 1995, the council concluded there was nothing inherently wrong with ministers participating in, and even setting up and coordinating, unofficial discussion groups as long as participants' conduct does not violate ethical standards.
In a 31-page report called "Answers to Key Questions About Private Discussion Groups" dated July 28, 2009, the council announced it has found nothing ethically amiss about private discussions among elders, even if they are organized and occur on the Internet.
The report referred to council member Paul Kieffer, who had set up an ongoing alternate Internet discussion that he called the Leadership Information for Elders (LIFE) forum.
In the LIFE forum's "guidelines," Mr. Kieffer had written:
"The Leadership Information For Elders (LIFE) Forum is a 'principle centered forum,' a tool for elders interested in communicating on issues related to our church slogan, 'Preaching the Word, Preparing a People.'"
Why the need?
Why do some UCG elders feel the need to participate in conversations apart from the official elders' forum?
For one thing, unofficial forums can write rules that are different from the official forum's. For example, the LIFE forum (which shut down in early 2008) allowed elders' wives, not just elders, to participate.
Another possibility: The official forum allows no discussion of church doctrine. An unofficial forum, assuming it conducts its business ethically and politely, could discuss doctrine.
Mr. Kieffer stated that the LIFE forum had conducted itself honorably and ethically and, in fact, had never even participated in "bloc voting."
Speaking of bloc voting, The Journal perceives a bit of confusion in the UCG's discussions of that subject.
UCG leaders and other elders have made statements on the official elders' forum that soundly condemn the practice of bloc voting, which by definition is the practice of voters influencing each other to cast their ballots for or against the same person or issue.
Yet a careful reading of the UCG's own materials reveals that the church's attorney, Larry Darden, in an April 12, 2007, legal opinion, signed off on the bloc-voting concept, concluding there is nothing wrong with it.
"Elder attempts to both initiate and influence other GCE [general conference of elders] members to ballot a certain way on ballot issues of interest to the GCE is permissible and even encouraged by the UCG Bylaws," Mr. Darden wrote.
That statement, taken at face value, is obviously speaking of bloc voting and clearly states it is not only permissible but is supported by the church's bylaws.
Mr. Darden did go on to imply, however, that there is more than one kind of bloc voting: good and bad. The good kind helps to decide "issues." The bad kind selects "nominees or candidates."
Elders may discuss among themselves, even attempt to influence each other, before votes that decide issues, but are directed not to do so when it comes to selecting who should occupy the 12 seats of the council of elders.
About deciding issues, Mr. Darden was quite specific, even though he nowhere explained why one kind of bloc voting is good and another is bad.
"The Ministerial Code of Ethics does not contain any proviso which would make the participation with other elders in 'bloc voting' on a particular issue unethical," he wrote.
However, the same memo from Mr. Darden implied that the council, authorized by section 7.5.4 of the church's bylaws, could prohibit bloc voting for candidates if it chose to.
He said this even though the same memo strongly implies there is nothing intrinsically unethical about any kind of bloc voting.
Attorney Darden wrote that, even though bloc voting isn't inherently unethical, the council is within its rights when it prohibits it. He wrote:
"The prohibition on 'bloc voting' in the nomination and election of Council members by Council resolution pursuant to their authority to do so under Bylaw 7.5.4 was appropriate."
Mr. Darden didn't say why the "prohibition" was "appropriate," but he mentioned bylaw 7.5.4. So The Journal looked up the bylaw.
This writer was taken aback for a moment because the 233 words of the bylaw seem to say nothing about bloc voting.
It talks about the use of printed ballots for nominations and elections. It mentions that ballots must be signed. It emphasizes that the winner of an election must attract more voters than a loser.
The last sentence of the bylaw, however, does veer off into murky prose that sounds suspiciously as if a lawyer had written it:
"The Council shall prescribe such other procedures as are reasonably necessary to insure the integrity of balloting with respect to the nomination and election of elders for the Council."
Could that last sentence create a loophole just large enough to invite council members to define bloc voting as a serious unethical practice?
All kinds of statements
That seemed like quite a stretch. So The Journal contacted a council elder, Scott Ashley of Arvada, Colo., to ask him if the council had enacted a rule, maybe written up as a policy statement, that the church's elders must heed, even though the bylaws themselves do not prohibit bloc voting.
"Before previous GCE meetings, the council has issued letters to the ministry instructing them not to participate in bloc voting," Mr. Ashley said.
But there is nothing in the bylaws against bloc voting in the UCG ministry, is there?
"To my knowledge, there's never been one definitive statement of policy on bloc voting," he said.
"Obviously most of us would view, quote, political, unquote, moves to get certain people on or off the council as being wrong and unethical.
"But on some issues, like the relocation to Texas, how do you bloc-vote on a yes-or-no issue? You're either for it or you're not, or you choose not to vote at all."
Mr. Ashley indicated he had read The Journal's analyses of bloc voting in past issues.
"And, frankly," he told this writer,"I thought your analysis of bloc voting was brilliant."
The Journal appreciates the compliment. Mr. Ashley was apparently referring to an article--more or less an opinion piece--in the Feb. 29, 2008, issue titled "UCG Council Worries About Blocs of Balloters."
That article indirectly quotes a UCG elder, who was at that time a council member, as saying the problem with bloc voting is that it makes a mockery of the concept of seeking God's Spirit to guide elders' decisions.
Another council member agreed, stating that attempts to influence a fellow elder break the spirit of proper balloting.
But other council members, mentioned in the same article, made the point that no one seems to be clear on what can acceptably be discussed before balloting and that bloc voting needs to be defined, and if it's wrong somebody needs to explain why it is wrong.
This writer and UCG elder Ellis Stewart of Big Sandy discussed bloc voting in an article in the April 30, 2008, issue titled "Should the UCG's Headquarters Move to Texas? UCG Elder Offers His Opinion on Move and GCE."
Bloc voting also came up in another Journal interview with Mr. Stewart, "UCG Elder Reports on Recent General Conference," in the May 31, 2009, issue.
The Journal has offered the opinion that bloc voting happens any time two voters discuss an issue or candidate and then vote the same way. Therefore, at least in a technical sense, it is as much a proper part of the democratic process--which the UCG chose to embrace in 1995--as balloting itself.
In a democracy--whether it's a church or a country--it is impossible and ill-advised to try to outlaw bloc voting or to pretend it does not routinely occur in every election.