Working With Complaints – Geoffrey Skilton

Working With Complaints: a decade on, what have we experienced?
Discipline Process Review Group

 Welcome to the conversation
To date, I’ve never had to consult chapter 15 of the Book of Order or the wider disciplinary sections of the Book of Order or the associated Supplementary Provision for the purpose of lodging a complaint against a member of the church. Neither have I been the subject of a complaint. Likewise, the church councils of which I have been a member have not had cause to dive into the relevant sections. However, others have not been so fortunate. For the church courts, councils and individuals who have been a party to a complaint, the experiences are varied.

The current regulations have remained substantially unchanged since adoption by the 2006 General Assembly. Council of Assembly decided in September 2015 that now is a good time to hear feedback from the Church, and appointed a group to review the discipline process: Deborah Bower, Rev. Wayne Matheson (Assembly Executive Secretary), Rev. Jonathan Pouli-Lefale,  Rev. Hone Te Rire, Meauli Seuala (Corresponding), Rev. Geoffrey Skilton (Convenor) and Penelope Stevenson.

What is the purpose of our discipline process?
It’s not rocket science so to speak, neither is what we figured out new, when we considered the purpose of the Church’s disciplinary process. At the heart of our discipline process is the desire to see estranged people move to a restored relationship through a just process. The primary gospel value at work is reconciliation.  Justice and mercy, restoration and restitution find unique expressions in the judicial aspects of our process.

What have we been asked to do?
In appointing the Discipline Process Review Group, the Council of Assembly provided some possible avenues of exploration:

  • The robustness of the process and lack of confidence in the process which seems to encourage a judicial environment at an early stage
  • The place of legal representation in our processes
  • The practice of the AES on behalf of the Church to pay the legal costs of all parties to a complaint.
  • The early adoption of judicial process with legal representation rather than a keenness to use Pastoral Resolution;
  • The lack of process around monitoring of agreed outcomes at the end of a Pastoral Resolution process;
  • The appeal processes and the place of presbyteries in appeals, particularly in relation to Pastoral Resolution;
  • The long time lags that seem to be built into our process;
  • Consider the role, function and accountability of complaint assessors;
  • The impact of Conduct Unbecoming as the only outcome of an upheld complaint;
  • The loss of ‘Good Standing’ status by a minister as soon as a complaint is received implies a breach of natural justice.

We are a small team with limited time resources. We have taken the list of possible avenues of enquiry and have focused most of our effort on two parts of the process: Pastoral Resolution and Conduct Unbecoming.

Pastoral Resolution – A Confused Practice
The Pastoral Resolution process in our view is primarily judicial in nature despite the original intent that it be restorative. Currently if the parties to a complaint are unable to resolve the complaint with the assistance of the Pastoral Resolution Committee the Committee is required to make a determination. This requirement results in respondents assuming a defensive posture. This negative rather than open posture is accentuated by the absence of an appeal process – unlike other steps in the process. The absence of appeal makes this step unattractive and risky for a respondent.  We are currently discussing what a process might look like that begins with a facilitated conversation when a relationship breaks down, and in which a legitimate outcome could be no mutually agreeable resolution.  This facilitated conversation might be a first and compulsory step, which if the dispute remains unresolved moves to mediation, with an adjudicated outcome.

Conduct Unbecoming – All Tarred With The Same Brush
Conduct Unbecoming is the single designation applied to a respondent when a complaint is upheld by a disciplinary or judicial commission. Though the singular designation is applied  commissions have a range of disciplines which may be invoked depending on the nature and severity of the complaint.

We believe the single designation is a blunt catch all which risks stigmatising people whose failing may be performance related rather than moral. Our current thinking is that two designations, Unsatisfactory Conduct and Serious Misconduct with an undesignated middle ground, be given consideration. Unsatisfactory Conduct would relate to profession practice, performance or task related matters. Serious Misconduct would relate to matters of a moral nature, or serious criminal conviction.

Who have we consulted with so far?
To date our consultation has primarily been with the Assembly Executive Secretary, the Book of Order Advisory Group, the National Complaints Officer, presbyteries, Te Aka Puaho and the Pacific Island Synod. We have sought information from them about: how often they have invoked particular parts of the process over the last five years; what money they have in reserve for legal costs relating to complaints, and what they have spent; what money they may have spent on preventative mediation or counselling.  The Discipline Process Review Group has invited presbyteries, Te Aka Puaho and the Pacific Island Synod to share their experiences in writing and face-to-face conversations via Skype.

What have you to share from your experiences?
It is now the turn of church councils, Advisory Groups and individuals to consider providing us with written submissions and/or to speak with us. We want insights from your experience. We will be diligent in respecting confidentiality and privacy constraints.

If you choose to speak with us our role is to listen, and ask questions for clarification. Your experience is your reality and we do not believe it is our role to question the veracity of your experience. We will ask you to provide beforehand a bullet point summary of what you want to share so that we can listen and not be overly absorbed in note taking.

We have initially blocked out time for 40 minutes conversations over three evenings:

Tuesday 18 October
Wednesday 19 October
Thursday 20 October
commencing at 6:30pm, 7:30pm, 8:30pm.
If you wish to participate please contact me

Written submissions close 18 October, 2016.

How will people who no longer associate with the Church be heard?

In our discipline process some people move, or are removed, from participation in our life. It is highly probable that they do not visit the PCANZ website, or ‘like’ us on Facebook, or receive this blog. Some of them may want to tell us their story, if they knew they could. You may know some of these people and we are hoping you will pass on the invitation to speak with us or make a written submission.

Rev. Geoffrey Skilton
021 109 5240


One thought on “Working With Complaints – Geoffrey Skilton

  1. A difficult subject and fraught with challenges. From professional practice and working with groups like Ngai Tahu, I am aware of how important design is to a good outcome. The mistake in dispute resolution is to imagine that “one size” fits every situation. Often the most promising results come about when disputants are offered a range of options and allowed, wherever possible, to design their own process.


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