At age five, he dressed up as a lawyer for career day. Today Andy Vorbrich dons his suit as an attorney in Kalamazoo and chancellor of The Michigan Conference.
GLENN M. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications
In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul compares the church to a human body. Individuals of many different gifts are essential to the functioning of the community of faith. Pastors, missionaries, teachers, and musicians easily come to mind. The church needs scholars and stewards, mentors, and persons who pray. There are times that the church also needs a great lawyer.
In the Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church, a lawyer is nominated by the bishop and elected every quadrennium (four years) by the annual conference to act as its chancellor. For the past 11 years, Kalamazoo attorney Andrew Vorbrich has served as the chancellor of The Michigan Conference.
Andy was born in Iowa Methodist Hospital and grew up in Des Moines, IA. He was raised as a baptized member of The United Church of Christ.
Andy remembers that he always wanted to be an attorney. At the age of five, his school had a career day where students could dress up in the costume of their dream job, and Andy dressed as an attorney. His outfit included a suit, briefcase, and a clip-on tie. Andy said, “I don’t know if this is my calling from God, but I do know that I have never wanted to be anything else but an attorney.”
After graduating as valedictorian from his high school, Andy received his Bachelor of Arts degree with departmental honors in history from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. He earned his law degree with high distinction from the University of Iowa. Following a law internship in Chicago, Andy moved to Kalamazoo in 1990 with his wife, Sally.
To set down roots in their new community, Andy and Sally made a long list of churches they wanted to visit to decide where they would settle.
The first church on their list was First United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo, where the Rev. Dr. Royal Synwolt was the pastor, and Sally’s sister was a member. Andy said they had such a positive experience on their first Sunday that they never went anywhere else.
In 2010, following the death of longtime West Michigan Conference chancellor Thomas Shearer, the Rev. Terry Euper, then clergy assistant to Bishop Jonathan Keaton, recommended Andy for the post. Keaton interviewed Andy and subsequently submitted his name for ratification by the West Michigan Conference; Andy has continued in this same post in the new Michigan Conference.
During his past ten-plus years as chancellor, Andy has established files on over 200 cases and estimates that he has offered helpful opinions in over 500 instances where the Conference sought his legal expertise.
When asked for examples of the kinds of cases that he handles for the conference, Andy mentioned acting on behalf of a church camp involved in a lakefront property dispute. He defended church interests when a municipality sought to void tax-exempt status for a D.S. parsonage. He has represented the conference’s interests involving the UMC’s disciplinary trust clause when local congregations left the connection. During the pandemic, there have also been issues of church legal liability to consider.
Andy has also worked with local churches. He negotiated a contract with a county regarding public use of a church parking lot, dealt with clergy conduct issues, and addressed the mishandling of church funds.
Because of his expertise in church issues, Andy has also done work for congregations from other denominations. He enjoys sharing his expertise in church legal issues by leading connectional training events for trustees and offering webinars on church legal matters through Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
When asked about the role of his faith in his work, Andy replies, “I know that being an attorney is what I have always wanted to do, and I get energized when I can help people to achieve their goals and successfully handle their legal issues.” His law firm website details many of the ways Andy gives of himself to assist others. He serves as a weekly tutor in the Kalamazoo Public Schools and is involved with several other charitable community organizations.
Andy notes that in his role as chancellor, his primary responsibility is to help with legal issues affecting the Michigan Conference, but says local churches seeking his advice are welcome to call him directly at his Kalamazoo law office for a consultation. For billing purposes, the bishop determines if the chancellor’s services affect the broader connectional interest or whether the local church needs to contract for Andy’s services directly. Many congregations value Andy’s expertise in federal, state, and church law.
Andy celebrates the UMC’s broader connectional structure. He is part of the denominational organization that involves 90 chancellors from around the world. These chancellors meet periodically in-person and virtually during the pandemic and have also connected for social and recreational outings to foster friendships. The chancellors maintain an important active listserv to share expertise and information regarding church legal cases globally. Andy hopes to host a group of conference chancellors in Traverse City later this year.
Vorbrich notes that his Michigan Conference chancellor’s role takes about 30% of his professional attention. In addition, he handles casework as part of the Kalamazoo law firm Lennon, Miller, O’Connor & Bartosiewicz, PLC, where he helps his clients with asset protection, estate planning, and estate administration.
Andy is a valued participant in other church and non-profit organizations. He is a gifted tenor in the church choir at First United Methodist Church of Kalamazoo. Andy is a member of the Board of Trustees of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and serves on the student life committee at the school.
Andy has recently been elected to serve on the United Methodist Denominational Committee for Legal Responsibility and Corporate Governance. This committee of 12 includes three chancellors and advises the General Council on Finance and Administration for the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Andy notes that before the pandemic began, this group met quarterly in person in Nashville, TN, but will continue meeting virtually on Zoom for the time being.
Because he has not yet had his first meeting with this committee, Andy does not know what items will be on the next agenda. But he does know that this advisory group has provided important denominational legal support regarding a national bankruptcy filing by the Boy Scouts of America. The Boy Scouts of America is dealing with sex abuse allegations and litigation. The United Methodist Church needs good legal counsel because United Methodist congregations sponsor many local Boy Scout Troops.
It has been my experience over more than 40 years of church leadership that the church functions best when gifted people are doing what they are gifted at to strengthen the body of Christ for the glory of God. When our conference and our churches need sound legal counsel, Michigan United Methodists are blessed that Andy Vorbrich continues to share his many talents as our chancellor.