General Conference 2012 may not have ended guaranteed appointment for ordained elders after all.
Though delegates at the United Methodist Church’s quadrennial meeting voted to change one relevant part of the Book of Discipline, another was left untouched, apparently inadvertently.
“It appears that there is no end to guaranteed appointments for elders under the 2012 Discipline, though the interpretation of the meaning of such appointment rests with the Judicial Council,” said the Rev. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist, secretary of General Conference.
Mr. Reist added: “Conflicts in the Book of Discipline are regularly present and that is perhaps a consequence of the way we do business, rushing to complete as many items as we can rather than focusing on the quality of the work we do.
General Conference 2012 began with a long list of reform proposals, but most – including restructuring of general church agencies – bit the dust. Guaranteed appointment was considered the biggest survivor, and now it’s clearly in jeopardy.
“It makes (General Conference) look like even more of a failure than many of us thought it was,” said Lonnie Brooks, a reserve lay delegate to General Conference from the Alaska Conference.
Reformers have argued that guaranteed appointment protects ineffective clergy, something the UMC can ill afford as it tries to reverse decades of membership decline in the United States.
Others have said guaranteed appointment protects women and minority clergy, as well as prophetic voices in the pulpit.
The proposal to end guaranteed appointment was approved in committee, after it was amended to provide additional clergy protection from arbitrary dismissal.
The full General Conference approved the change on the consent calendar, catching many delegates by surprise. Efforts to bring the matter up for reconsideration failed, despite impassioned arguments from opponents.
Delegates did agree to refer the legislation to Judicial Council for review as to whether it comports with church law, and the council has yet to rule.
Mr. Brooks, a veteran General Conference delegate known for his expertise in church law, was among those who discovered the problem that Mr. Reist has acknowledged during interviews today and in communication with the Council of Bishops.
Mr. Brooks said he was asked by Bishop Grant Hagiya of the Pacific Northwest Conference to help with a brief to be submitted to the Judicial Council regarding the legislation. In doing so, he found that while the legislation deleted the requirement in ¶337.1 of the Discipline that an ordained elder in good standing “shall be continued under appointment by the bishop,” it did not change such language in ¶334.1.
A petition that would have changed the language in that part of the Discipline never got acted on by the committee, he said.
The Rev. Ken Carter served on the Study of Ministry Commission that recommended eliminating guaranteed appointment, and also chaired the Western North Carolina Conference delegation to General Conference.
“This appears to be an unintended legislative outcome, removing a statement in one paragraph but leaving it in another,” he said. “The clear intent of the General Conference was to move from continued appointments of elders to missional appointments. This is yet another indication of how difficult and complex change can be to implement at the denominational level. It is also true that the Judicial Council will take up the matter of continued appointment, and at present the matter is open to interpretation.”
The Rev. Gary Mueller, pastor of First UMC in Plano, Texas, served on the committee that considered the legislation, and he introduced the amendment that helped the legislation win approval both in committee and the full General Conference.
He said he recalled no discussion in committee on the need to change language in both sections of the Discipline.
“The will of the conference was clear that it was ready to end guaranteed appointments,” he said. “Gere Reist has rightly pointed out that there’s a discrepancy. I would assume the interpretation of what that means is left to the Judicial Council.”
He added: “We have a system that is so complex that it’s very hard to bring reform to the church. I think we saw that time after time (at General Conference.)”
The Rev. We Hyung Chang, a New England Conference delegate who opposed ending guaranteed appointment, said, “I think this is just another example of what happens when the body tries to push something without fully examining its implication. Judicial Council and our Constitution have become the centering place for our confused church.”
Here’s what Mr. Reist said in a message to bishops:
“The Book of Discipline 2012 does not eliminate security of appointment for elders. The amendments to paragraph 334 that would have mirrored the changes in 337 were not supported by the committee. They were not voted on in the plenary. The language of 334.1,`Every effective elder in full connection who is in good standing shall be continued under appointment by the bishop provided that if the elder is appointed to serve in an affiliated relationship in a missionaryconference (¶ 586) and that appointment is terminated by the bishop who presides in the missionary conference, then the responsibility for meeting this obligation rests with the bishop of the conference of which the elder is a member’ remains in effect.”
And here’s a statement from the Rev. David Bard, Ministry and Higher Education Committee chair at General Conference; the Rev. Amy Gearhart, chair of a subcommittee of that panel; and Bishop Hagiya, a leader of the Study of Ministry Commission:
“The intent of the HEM legislative committee was clear, even if our action was not as clear as our intent, and the intent was the elimination of the language of security of appointment. In creating ‘transitional leave’ for elders, we made that clear, and appointment to such a leave still constitutes an appointment. (ref. Paragraph 334.1)
“The General Conference plenary also intended the elimination of the language of security of appointment when it voted not to reconsider the legislative committee action on paragraph 337.
The issue of the relationship between paragraphs 334 and 337 is being considered by the Council of Bishops and we need to let them do their work.
“Any final conclusions about the constitutionality of the language or actions re. security of appointment would be premature until a ruling from the Judicial Council in Fall 2012. The process needs to be allowed to move forward.”