By: Christa Meland
Shortly before retiring from active ministry in 2008, Rev. Kathi Austin Mahle got an email from Bishop Sally Dyck, who was presiding in Minnesota at that time and who she’d known for many years. The subject line read: “Oh, by the way…” And the body of the email simply said: “I submitted your name to the College of Bishops for Judicial Council.”
Mahle, who had no intention of joining the United Methodist Church’s top court, wrote back, “Oh, by the way…didn’t you get the letter? I’m retiring.”
But God had another plan for her. After being nominated by the Council of Bishops, 2008 General Conference delegates elected her to the nine-member Judicial Council—the highest judicial body of The United Methodist Church. The council determines the constitutionality of acts or proposed acts of the General, Jurisdictional, Central, and Annual Conferences. It acts on these either on appeal of lower rulings or through requests for declaratory decisions.
Mahle’s eight-year term has been a blessing—and on Monday, it came to an end. She had sought re-election for a second term but wasn't one of the two clergy people elected among the 11 nominees.
“I think my voice is an important voice,” she said. “I carry a progressive leaning but I also have the gift of being able to change my mind. I’m not so locked into one position that I will only see the world in one way.”
Mahle has learned a lot within the past eight years, and the council has made some key decisions during that period—including reinstating Rev. Frank Schaefer, who lost his credentials after officiating at his son’s same-sex marriage; ensuring the security of appointments for clergy; approving putting the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the Southern Methodist University campus; and reinstating Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe, who was placed on involuntary retirement from the North Texas Annual Conference.
The Judicial Council meets twice annually, and a variety of United Methodist bodies can request a declaratory decision on a specific topic. Every decision of law that’s made by a bishop is also automatically referred to the council. At some meetings, there are just a few items for the council, and at others, there are as many as several dozen.
Making decisions involves careful interpretation of the United Methodist Constitution and the Book of Discipline. Prior to each semi-annual meeting, two members of the council are assigned to write a brief on each docketed item. When the full council meets, both briefs are read—and the council decides which of the two briefs to use as its working document. Sometimes decisions are easy, and there aren’t many changes to the brief before it’s finalized. Other times, there’s lots of discussion and the brief changes substantially.
“Sometimes people pass resolutions in annual conference that are clearly against the Constitution, so you have to rule that way even though that might not be your heart’s desire,” Mahle said. “You have to be impartial.”
Although the council’s work is legalistic in nature, Mahle’s faith played an important role in every decision.
“When I was in the parish and I would prepare a sermon, I would always do it in the context of prayer,” she said. “That’s how I work on the Judicial Council. God, guide me to see what your will is in this case.”
Hearing the different perspectives of the council members and getting to know them has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the past eight years, Mahle said. Several of the members are from the United States, but two are from Africa, and one is from the Philippines. They are all careful thinkers and have diverse opinions.
“The joy is the relationships that have been built, being able to listen to the voices and the questions that come to us, and trying to respond to people’s concerns,” she said.
Mahle said there was a deep spiritual element behind her decision to run for re-election. As she was sitting in a worship service at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and Dakotas-Minnesota Area Bishop Bruce R. Ough was preaching about call, she heard God telling her that it’s not time for her to be done.
Throughout Mahle’s years working within the global connection, she’s met people of many perspectives and theological stances. This has given her a deep appreciation of the people called United Methodist.
“The church is really important to me, and having the church be as effective as possible is important to me,” she said. “It’s that sense of wanting to hear all sides and to be fair that really motivates me.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church