Judicial Council upholds guaranteed appointment for clergy, overturning GC 2012 action

By Neill Caldwell for United Methodist News Service…

ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. (UMNS) — The top court of The United Methodist Church has upheld church rules that ensure security of appointment for elders and associate clergy members, striking down legislation passed by the denomination’s lawmaking assembly last spring.

The church’s General Conference, meeting in Tampa, Fla., had approved on May 1 a much-debated piece of legislation that would have deleted language in the church’s Book of Discipline ensuring security of appointment. The legislation also would have added steps for discontinuing elders and associate members from receiving an appointment. A churchwide Study of Ministry Commission had proposed the changes as a way to replace ineffective pastors.

However, the church’s Judicial Council, meeting Oct. 24-27 in Elk Grove Village, ruled that the General Conference action was in violation of the church’s constitution.

Security of appointment “has long been a part of the tradition of The United Methodist Church” and “abolishing security of appointment would destroy our historic plan for itinerant superintendency,” the nine-member court said in Decision 1226.

The General Conference action was in violation of the church’s third and fourth Restrictive Rules, which ban changes that would destroy that historic plan and do away with clergy rights to a trial and appeal, respectively, the court said. That right to trial and fair process is “absolute,” the ruling states, and it has been upheld repeatedly in previous decisions.

‘Itinerancy is the cornerstone’

Frederick K. Brewington, the General Conference delegate who had asked that the matter be referred to the Judicial Council, argued in favor of overturning the legislation during an Oct. 24 oral hearing before the court.

“Itinerancy is the cornerstone of the whole structure,” said Brewington, a lawyer and lay member in the New York Annual (regional) Conference. “This action shifts power from the annual conference to the episcopacy. There would no longer be a need to bring charges against an elder, just fail to appoint them.…

“Elders make a contract, a covenant, to serve where the bishop sends them,” Brewington said. “This turns things into a mish-mosh — and that’s not a legal term. It will take away our ability to attract new and young clergy, who will go elsewhere.”

Reached by phone afterward, Brewington was pleased with the council’s decision.

“We need to be all thankful that we have a church that allows us the opportunity to be able to have these important issues decided clearly and in a fully articulated fashion as the Judicial Council has done,” he said. “I think this is an important determination for over 30,000 clergy who basically would be left without recourse if indeed there were determinations made that were not just. That’s really what we — my team and I — were looking at as we put this together, the justice issue.”

Conflict within lawbook

The ruling restores Book of Discipline Paragraphs 377, 321 and 354 to their 2008 language.

The decision tracks the security of appointment language since it was inserted into the Book of Discipline in 1956, and cites several previous Judicial Council decisions in which security of appointment was upheld. In Decision 380, the council said that “there is no directly stated Constitutional right to an appointment. However, it is implicit in Constitutional provisions.…”

The ruling also mentions a conflict in the 2012 Book of Discipline, noting that Paragraph 334 retains similar language that was deleted in Paragraph 337.

The Judicial Council acknowledged in its ruling that the phrase “guaranteed appointment,” while not used in the Book of Discipline, has become commonly used around the denomination for the idea of security of appointment.

Arguing for additional authority

At the oral hearing, recently retired Bishop Alfred W. Gwinn Jr. represented the Council of Bishops and argued to preserve the legislation.

Episcopal duties have not changed in any way, said Gwinn, who served on the Study of Ministry Commission. “A bishop recommends a person for transitional leave to the Board of Ordained Ministry; the Board of Ordained Ministry must recommend that leave to the clergy session, which has the final decision. Where does the bishop gain additional authority beyond what already exists?”

In an Oct. 29 phone interview, Gwinn said he was “disappointed, of course.”

“I feel like the Judicial Council looked at the issue very narrowly, and they speak of historical precedence of security of appointment and refer to 1956 as being historical,” he said. “The church is 230 years old, and they seem to try to establish the theory that it’s a historical precedent in the church by using 1956.”

Itinerancy should not be linked to security of appointment, the bishop said.

“Itinerancy is related to call and commitment — not to security of appointment — and I think (Bishop Francis) Asbury and (Thomas) Coke would be very disturbed by the idea of itinerancy being connected to security of appointment.”

Looking ahead, Gwinn said he thinks boards of ordained ministry should concentrate on recruiting “superb candidates” for ministry.

“The bishops can deal with people who make the grades E or F,” he said. “There’s a system to exit totally ineffective people, and we are very grateful for B and A pastors. What is killing the church is C- and D pastors with no way to exit them. The removal of security of appointment could have moved out the C- and the D pastors.”

* Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate magazine. Heather Hahn with United Methodist News Service contributed to this report.

 

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Join the conversation....

  1. Unconstitutional? Perhaps. Biblical? Never does the sacred text even hint at anything like guaranteed appointments. Which is why the youngest and most talented of clergy are coming not into the UMC, as attorney Brewington might argue, but going into churches that live out of the timeless Bible rather than the latest Book of Discipline. Yes, there is such a thing as Bibliolatry, but today's UMC suffers far more from an idolatry that places her BOD above her GOD and an adultery that loves the Church above her Christ. Should Elders have guaranteed appointments? Only in a dying denomination like the UMC.

  2. methodistpie says:

    I am a B pastor who has mixed feelings about this. I supported the legislation and am disappointed it was overturned by the Judicial Council. (Was eight million dollars of the Lord's money ever more poorly spent than at the 2012 General Conference?) That said. We have a lot of C & D congregations–SOMEBODY'S got to serve them! And given the current dysfunction of the Methodist connection, where are these "superb candidates" supposed to come from? What are we doing to model "superb" at the General Church level?

  3. Guranteed Appointment security of clergy should not be factor. If a pastor is not fulfilling the needs of his congregation the pastor should be removed. I feel that 5yrs is long enough to determine a pastors successfulness of keeping his congregation together in faith with the Lord's will. When a pastor's congregation starts to decline rapidly, I believe there is something wrong in the pastors ability to feed the soul's and he doesn't seem to care or try to rebuild. I have personally seen this happen within the church of 600+ members under a good leadership only to see it dwindle down to a few faithful souls of 30 over the past 12 years.

  4. I'm intrigued by Bishop Gwinn's comments on the need for only A and B pastors. Once the Bishops were shepherds of their flocks. I wonder if Jesus really said to Peter "cull my sheep" instead of "feed my sheep". Maybe Jesus said that only class A and B people would inherit the Kingdom of God, and Peter should get rid of the class C and D sheep, not to mention the E and F sheep. It's time for the Bishops to turn in their shepherd's crooks and become grim reapers.

  5. No doubt the UMC faces many challenges , but blaming and labeling one another is not the way to deal with them. Clergy and laity together should join together in bringing renewal of vision and committment. Now, the judical council has ruled on most of what the general conference thought was accomplished. The restructuring plan and appointment security issue was shot down. So, let's move on and stop whinning and start listening to our sisters and brothers and to our Lord about how to move forward.

    Unfortunately, Bishops , like we clergy, often speak out of our disappointent and discouagement. Probably not the best time to do that. Personally Bishop Gwinn's remarks were very disappointing to me— we are better than this! To speak of our brothers and sisters as if they were "grades" , some to be celebrated and desired and others to be blamed and rejected is not what the Church is all about. It only promotes continued division and distrust and presupposes a level of judging far above the rest of us that Bishops have not yet ascended to.

    In any case, I am grateful to the UMC and the message it has spoken and continues to speak to our world. It is a great church whose treasure can often be found in it's "earthen vessel"

  6. The decision of the judicial council is not just about tradition. It is about progress, equality and fair play within the context of tradition. In the decision the council states, “The United Methodist Church has a heritage of concern with the rights of persons. That concern has repeatedly made provision for the protection of the rights of its members and of its ministers.” I believe that in the council’s way of thinking tradition is not simply broken down into time increments. It’s about the direction in which God has been leading us. For example, we’ve been around for 228 years but we’ve only been ordaining women for only 57 of those years. Yet our tradition is now to ordain women (as it should be.) How long have we been practicing open itinerancy? About 20 years? Yet open itinerancy is now a tradition as well it should be. In the good old days of Coke and Asbury, many Methodists were slaveholders. (including some Bishops). In 1885 Methodists could have argued, “We allowed slaveholding for 80 years. It’s only been prohibited for 20 years. The established tradition is to allow our people to hold slaves. Let’s go back!” Tradition evolves within context of continual greater insight into the scriptures and the progressive movement of the Holy Spirit in and through the church. Guaranteed appointment along with women clergy, inclusiveness and open itinerancy is a product of this Holy Progress toward justice for all persons. Eradicating guaranteed appointment would have been a giant step backwards. This decision saved us from the hypocrisy of becoming a church that advocates justice and equality for all persons while practicing quite the opposite in our own church family.

    Guaranteed appointment was never the problem and eradicating it was not a solution but would have engendered more problems. Many of we clergy in the field said all along that we were willing to go to a Hybrid Appointment/Call system. That would be fair. If you want to take away guaranteed appointment then give pastors and congregations a real say so in the process. But many of our Bishops are all take and no give on this issue. Those who thought this would have saved the church would have ironically hurried its demise. No young people or second career to be clergy feeling a call to the ministry would have entered such a system. And frankly its offensive and demeaning to hear a bishop break the clergy down into be A,B.C,D.E.F Pastors. Such talk engenders further mistrust between bishops and the clergy they oversee. Spiritual renewal is the great need of the church and that does not come through new legislation. True Reformation never comes through smooth transition or from the establishment. Reformation always comes from out of the wilderness. Reformation has never come from a respected college of bishops. The very nature of true reformation exempts such ones from being able to bring it about. Jon Huss, Martin Luther, and John Wesley were all cast away from the establishment. All of the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles were ostracized by the established church. This is without exception. Not once has reformation come from legislation arising from Roberts rules of order. We would do better at the next General Conference to get on our knees and pray TongSung Kido 24 hours a day. We should start practicing now.

  7. clark_2012@comcast.n says:

    Maybe we are looking in the wrong direction? Bishops are supposed to inspire the clergy. Most don't. Maybe we should put all our C & D Bishops up for election at the end of each term they serve if the Conferences they serve don't increase in membership when that term comes up for renewal. Between the theological quibbling and the lack of any direction the Methodist church certainly isn't United – and is in danger of disapearing. Instead of looking for a cause in the shrinkage of the UM, perhaps it is time to admit that the big tent approach isn't working and
    restructure what is left of the church. I grew up in the Methodist Protestant arm of the church and think it might be time for the Progressives to return to that Polity and let the Evangelical arm retain the Hierarchical Polity –
    which is much more tailored to a Faith that requires strict adherance to doctine. It would require a "splitting" of the church but the two children would be in a much better position to return to proclaiming the Gospel as they understand it, and each could grow in their own way. If one of the "children" does not make it, it will have to be accountable to itself – no more finger pointing at the other would be possible!

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  1. […] our own situation.  Of course, General Conference 2012 attempted to get rid of the GA but was rebuffed by the (not nearly activist enough) Judicial Council. Systems love homeostasis, after all, whether […]

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