The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church this afternoon declared unconstitutional Plan UMC, the compromise effort to restructure church agencies.
The dramatic decision was announced at General Conference, where delegates had labored first in committee, then in plenary session, to agree on some way to streamline church agencies and focus them on supporting the effort to bolster vital congregations.
The decision wipes out the centerpiece reform of this quadrennial gathering, one that evolved from the Call to Action initiative that began soon after General Conference 2008.
Delegates heard the decision read aloud from the plenary chair, in a break between other business, turning electric what had been mundane wrap-up proceedings.
“Just the collective gasp in the group, hearing that—it was interesting to be on the floor,” said the Rev. Mark Calhoun, a delegate from the Yellowstone Conference.
Plan UMC created a new General Council for Strategy and Oversight that was to replace the Connectional Table and have oversight for program agencies of the UMC.
The Judicial Council ruled that General Conference did have the power to create plans for the structure and operations of the church, but violated the church constitution by giving to the new panel oversight responsibility that belongs with the Council of Bishops.
The ruling also said the plan was unconstitutional in giving the General Council for Strategy and Oversight power to direct the withholding of funds from agencies, pending satisfaction of “established outcomes.” Authority for distributing funds belongs to General Conference, the Judicial Council said.
“In reviewing acts of the General Conference for constitutionality, our first inclination is to save legislation, if at all possible, and not destroy,” the Judicial Council said.
The ruling continues: “Although the adoption of Plan UMC by the General Conference came through a tortured process, and outside of the established legislative processes, we do not review those processes. Our review in this case is confined to constitutionality. We have reviewed the plan to determine whether any part, portion, or all of Plan UMC can be saved and conclude that it cannot.”
The Rev. Jim Harnish, pastor of Hyde Park UMC in Tampa and a Florida Conference delegate, was among the strongest supporters of streamlining and focusing general church agencies in a new structure.
Asked his reaction to the Judicial Council decision, he said. “The powers of institutional self-protection are very strong in our system.… I’ve learned to expect change to be very difficult.”
After the decision came, a plenary break was announced, prompting delegations and bishops to huddle to share reactions and talk about whether any rescue was possible with General Conference nearing final adjournment tonight.
“Some of the bishops feel that because of the unconstitutionality of the plan, it’s gone,” said Bishop Grant Hagiya. “There’s just no way they can bring that back. We could craft something on the floor, but we’ve got a couple of hours.”
But at tonight’s concluding plenary session, there was a motion to refer Plan UMC to the Council of Bishops. The idea was that the Council, with the help of .the Connectional Table, would correct constitutional errors and resubmit the plan, possibly at a specially-called General Conference before 2016.
“There is a way forward,” Bishop Larry Goodpaster told delegates.
But some delegates took the floor to question the cost of a special General Conference – Moses Kumar, of the General Council of Finance and Administration, estimated it at $3.5 million for three days – and others echoed the Judicial Council decision language that the plan was unsalvageable.
Delegates voted to table the motion to refer the plan to the Council of Bishops until other last-minute matters, including passing a recommended $603 million general church budget budget, had been dealt with.
Bishop Max Whitfield, who is presiding tonight, said the work session needs to end by 11:15 p.m.
Church leaders acknowledged that the Judicial Council decision left General Conference in confusion. The Rev. Rebekah Miles, an Arkansas Conference delegate, the situation as “beyond surreal.”
Call to Action began in response to a decades-long slide in membership in the UMC. Agency restructuring was one of its key parts—and one of its most contentious.
The Call to Action Plan envisioned consolidating nine agencies under a single, 15-member board, something critics said would concentrate too much power and ignore the diversity of a worldwide church.
Midway through this General Conference, it appeared that no restructuring plan would prevail. The committee handling restructuring failed to get majority support to recommend either the Call to Action Plan or two less-sweeping alternatives.
But a weekend of hectic negotions yielded Plan UMC, creating the General Council for Strategy and Oversight, with a 34-member voting board. It was to coordinate four program agencies, and also was to be in charge of a Committee of Inclusivity, consisting of the combined General Commission on Religion & Race and the General Commission on the Status & Role of Women.
Under Plan UMC, the four agencies got to have executives and boards, but the boards would be dramatically downsized, and the executives would have to report to the General Council for Strategy and Oversight—particularly in regards to their work in helping local congregations become vital.
Plan UMC passed the full General Conference after considerable, impassioned debate. There was a request from the floor that the plan be submitted to the Judicial Council for review, and that obtained the one-fifth vote necessary.