The frustration level for reformers of the struggling United Methodist Church appeared to reach a new high as the denomination’s Judicial Council struck down the last major reform standing after General Conference 2012.
The council, after an Oct. 24-27 meeting outside Chicago that considered 18 cases, ruled that legislation to end guaranteed appointment for ordained elders violates the church’s constitution.
Retired Bishop Al Gwinn chaired the Study of Ministry Commission that recommended the change.
“I’m disappointed,” he said. “A nine-member committee [the Judicial Council] has the ability to trump, if you please, what a whole thousand member delegation around the world believes, and what a four-year commission did with all its consulting.”
The Rev. We Hyun Chang, a New England Conference delegate to General Conference 2012 who spoke against ending guaranteed appointment, defended the Judicial Council.
“All of us should appreciate the process that has brought the final decision on this matter,” he said.
At the end of General Conference, held in late April and early May in Tampa, Fla., the Judicial Council also swept aside as unconstitutional hard-won legislation that would have restructured and streamlined general church agencies.
Attempting to address decades of membership decline in the United States, the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table of the UMC joined forces to recommend a range of reforms to General Conference 2012, a 10-day meeting that cost about $9 million.
But delegates voted down some measures, and with the Judicial Council’s rejection of the two major measures that did pass, the reform scorecard is nearly empty.
Despite broad consensus of the need for change, change itself has proved daunting because of UMC polity, said Jay Brim, an Austin, Texas lawyer, Connectional Table member and General Conference 2012 delegate.
“We’ve gotten ourselves into a situation where we’re just overwrought with rules,” he said. “We don’t seem to be flexible enough to change with our conditions.”
Others focused criticism on the denomination’s high court.
“Again, Judicial Council has shown its true colors: opposition to any fundamental changes to our declining United Methodist connection,” said the Rev. Andy Langford, pastor of Central UMC, in Concord, N.C., General Conference 2012 delegate and longtime advocate for reforming denominational governance.
The ‘D’ pastor
The Study of Ministry Commission reported in 2011 that guaranteed appointment was in the long term financially unsustainable given membership declines in the U.S., and a study the year before showed there were already hundreds more ordained elders already than the church needed.
In a recent phone interview, Bishop Gwinn stressed the need to more easily remove ineffective clergy.
“If a pastor makes an ‘F’ regularly from church to church, we can exit that person,” he said. “The church’s problem is it has no way of dealing with ‘C minus’ or ‘D’ pastors who are draining churches, and the removal of security of appointment would have opened up an avenue.”
The commission’s legislation called for allowing a bishop to recommend to an annual conference’s board of ordained ministry that an elder be placed on unpaid transitional leave if “a missional appointment is unavailable.” The legislation also said a bishop and cabinet could give an elder a less than full-time appointment.
Before and during General Conference, the church heard considerable debate, with defenders arguing that guaranteed appointment boosts opportunities for women and minorities and protects prophetic pulpit voices.
At General Conference, the committee assigned to screen the legislation added safeguards for clergy. These included requiring each annual conference to name a task force to develop guidelines for bishops and cabinets as they make appointments, and reporting on the age, ethnicity and gender of elders who don’t get full-time appointments.
The committee then overwhelmingly approved the legislation, which put it on the consent calendar used to expedite legislation. An effort to bring it off the calendar failed in plenary by a vote of 564 to 373, assuring passage.
Opponents, as expected, immediately asked the Judicial Council to consider whether the legislation violated the UMC Constitution.
The court heard oral arguments at its recent meeting, and then issued a 15-page decision, declaring that General Conference had indeed violated the constitution in ending guaranteed appointment or, in the church’s preferred language, “security of appointment.”
“Security of appointment has long been a part of the tradition of the United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies,” the council began. “Abolishing security of appointment would destroy our historic plan for our itinerant superintendency.”
Along with linking guaranteed appointment to the office of the bishop as general superintendent of the church—an office protected in Restrictive Rule #3 of the church constitution—the court said the legislation unconstitutionally eradicated clergy’s right to “fair process procedures, trials and appeals.” That right is protected in Restrictive Rule #4.
(The council also noted—as had careful followers of legislation earlier—that though General Conference 2012 amended one section of the Book of Discipline that protected guaranteed appointment, it left intact another that does so. Delegate leaders of the effort to change guaranteed appointment called that an oversight and said General Conference’s intent was clear.)
The Rev. John P. Feagins joined in the oral argument against the legislation, and learned of the court’s decision while attending worship at La Trinidad UMC in San Antonio, on Oct. 28.
“My reaction was tears of joy and gratitude, not only for the decision, but for my church and its commitment to fair process and the full deployment of its clergy into the mission field,” he said.
Frederick Brewington is a lawyer and General Conference 2012 delegate from the New York Conference who joined Mr. Feagins in arguing that the council should strike down the legislation.
“What this legislation did was create an opportunity for a clergy person to be marginalized without any recourse, to be placed into a state of appointment limbo without being charged or being told that they have done or are doing anything wrong,” he said.
But Bishop Gwinn accused the council of being “legalistic” in its upholding of guaranteed appointment, and said the lengthy decision failed to show how the legislation violated the restrictive clauses of the constitution.
“The elder still had total access to fair process,” he said.
Bishop Gwinn zeroed in on the council’s holding that guaranteed appointment is part of Methodist tradition, given that language articulating the principle entered the Book of Discipline, the church’s law book, in 1956.
If tradition is the guide, Bishop Gwinn said, the court should have gone back all the way back to the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, with Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as leaders.
“Asbury and Coke would turn over in their graves if they thought we were connecting itinerancy to security of appointment,” Bishop Gwinn said. “We have been saying, and the church historians have been saying forever, that itinerancy is connected to call and commitment.”
Lonnie Brooks, a General Conference delegate and lay leader from Alaska who submitted a brief in support of the legislation, labeled the council’s decision “astounding.”
“You can’t reasonably interpret a guarantee of a right to trial as a guarantee of a right to lifetime employment,” he said. “That’s precisely what the Judicial Council has done.”
The decision came just before the Connectional Table, Council of Bishops and General Council of Finance and Administration issued a “2012 State of the Church” report which shows overall growth for the UMC, thanks to rapid expansion in Africa, but the loss of almost 650,000 members in the United States since 2000.
The congregations of the United States fund nearly all of the UMC’s general operations.
UMC leaders have in recent years called for a 10-year focus on increasing vitality among congregations, and the Judicial Council’s striking down of reform legislation aimed to help that effort has clearly escalated tensions and heightened rhetoric.
Mr. Brooks, for example, said, “When change is inevitable and sorely needed, and those with the power to do so block orderly change, then the result is revolution.”
And Mr. Langford was just as forthright.
“Increasingly, only the nine members of the Judicial Council speak for our denomination,” he said. “Time has come to withdraw all funding for their work.”
The Rev. William Lawrence, dean of Perkins School of Theology, is current president of the Judicial Council. He declined to respond to criticisms.
“The decisions stand for themselves and we would encourage people in the church who are committed to and care about these matters to study the decisions carefully,” he said.
To read the council’s decisions online, go to http://archives.umc.org/interior_judicial.asp?mid=263/.