Bishops ask if agency restructure plan is constitutional

The denomination's top court will get a chance to weigh in on a proposal to restructure The United Methodist Church’s general agencies before General Conference delegates consider the plan in May 2016.

The move comes after the Judicial Council ruled on the last day of the 2012 General Conference that a similar plan violated the denomination’s constitution.

After two hours of discussions behind closed doors, the Council of Bishops announced that it would not wait until the denomination’s top legislative assembly meets to see if a revised version of Plan UMC passes constitutional muster.

The active bishops voted to ask the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision regarding the legislation’s constitutionality. The Judicial Council will next meet in October.

San Francisco Area Bishop Warner Brown Jr., the Council of Bishops president, said the decision to seek review is meant to keep delegates from spending "a great deal of time on something" only to have it ruled out of order.

“The action of the council is in no way intended as support or opposition to the proposed Plan UMC but an effort to facilitate the work of the 2016 General Conference,” Brown said.

The revised restructuring plan comes from six 2012 General Conference delegates who were among the supporters and drafters of the original Plan UMC. The Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders also plans to submit separate legislation that deals with conference structures. 

The original Plan UMC

The new plan marks a change from the 2012 restructuring effort.

Back then, the bishops took the lead in pushing to restructure the 10 church agencies that receive general church funds. The previous legislation came out of the multiyear Call to Action process launched by the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table, a church body that coordinates the denomination’s ministry and resources. The Council of Bishops endorsed the original Call to Action restructuring plan in November 2011.

The Judicial Council typically cannot rule on hypothetical actions, but the Council of Bishops can ask at any time for a review of proposed legislation.

Ohio West Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer and Charlotte (N.C.) Area Larry M. Goodpaster each served as president of Council of Bishops during the Call to Action process. Both told United Methodist News Service that they don’t recall exactly why the council did not seek the top court’s opinion on that initial restructuring plan.

Palmer said he remembered some discussions with church law experts, but the bishops “were not convinced” the plan would give rise to constitutional questions. 

In 2012, General Conference delegates by almost 60 percent approved an amended version of the Call to Action restructuring proposals, called Plan UMC. The vote was 567 to 384. The Judicial Council then overturned the legislation, leaving many of the plan’s supporters feeling stunned and hurt.

After the ruling, delegates spent the last hours of the last day of 2012 General Conference scrambling to downsize agency boards.

“There is great concern amid the Council of Bishops about the disarray at the end of (2012) General Conference,” said Great Plains Area Bishop Scott Jones. “We passed this motion ...in order to know what are the constitutional boundaries.”

He and Dallas Area Bishop Mike McKee brought the motion to the Council of Bishops at the request of drafters of the new legislation.

Jones said the bishops are not likely to make a habit of getting proposed legislation from outside groups reviewed. But because such a high percentage of General Conference delegates supported the initial plan, Jones said he thinks the revised version “is worthy of special consideration.”

What is in the new plan

The 2012 Plan UMC would have established a General Council for Strategy and Oversight to oversee the work of six of the denomination's agencies and consult on the budget of seven.

The Judicial Council identified two problems: The legislation delegated authority that should remain only with General Conference, and the General Council for Strategy and Oversight would intrude into the bishops’ constitutional authority for general oversight of the denomination.

The revised version of Plan UMC aims to rectify those issues. The plan also includes the following changes to the current structure:

  • It gives the Connectional Table new authority to elect the top executives for the United Methodist Discipleship Ministries and the Boards of Global Ministries, Church and Society and Higher Education and Ministry once those agencies have nominated a candidate for the top post. The legislation says the top executives will be accountable programmatically to their boards and administratively to the newly created position of Connectional Table executive general secretary.
  • It details the Connectional Table’s authority to evaluate agencies based on how the agencies direct the flow of energy toward vital congregations and carry out the mission of the global church.
  • It reduces the size of agency boards and the Connectional Table, while increasing representation from outside the United States, especially Africa.
  • It eliminates the Commission on Archives and History, and moves its functions to the General Council on Finance and Administration.
  • It eliminates the United Methodist Commissions on Religion and Race and the Status and Role of Women. The plan moves the commissions’ functions, including monitoring and advocacy, to a new Connectional Table committee called the United Methodist Committee on Inclusiveness.

“The church is four years behind where it ought to be in going forward with this needed and overwhelmingly supported restructure of its general agency complex,” said the Rev. Clayton Oliphint, one of the new plan’s drafters and senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Richardson, Texas.

“Structure isn’t our primary obstacle on the way to fulfilling our mission, but it is one obstacle with which we can and should deal in a straightforward and expeditious manner.”

Jones said the revised plan is “too timid.” He would like to see most agencies merged into one.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]


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