Efforts to restructure general agencies of the United Methodist Church came crashing down Friday when the Judicial Council declared unconstitutional Plan UMC, the compromise legislation passed at General Conference.
The dramatic decision was announced in the waning hours of General Conference, whose delegates had labored first in committee, then in plenary session, to agree on a 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.
There were scrambling efforts late Friday to refer Plan UMC to the Council of Bishops for correction of constitutional problems and possibly for consideration before 2016 by a specially-called General Conference.
“There is a way forward,” Bishop Larry Goodpaster told delegates Friday night.
But a motion to that effect was tabled, and a motion to bring it back up for consideration failed.
Delegates worked through last-minute business, including approving a $603 million four-year budget for general church work. They voted to adjourn for good at about 10:40 p.m.
The Rev. Rebekah Miles, an Arkansas Conference delegate, described the closing day of General Conference as “beyond surreal.”
The Rev. Robert Williams, top executive of the Commission on Archives and History, had opposed agency restructuring, wanting the commission to remain independent. But he said he couldn’t take satisfaction in how this General Conference played out.
“There’s no celebration that’s appropriate, because it’s just not good for the church,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, delegates heard the Judicial Council decision read aloud from the plenary chair, 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.”
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 restructuring 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 negotiations yielded Plan UMC.
The plan called for a new 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 were 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.
The Judicial Council has postponed ruling on the constitutionality of another key reform of General Conference, the ending of guaranteed appointment for ordained elders.