Church court evaluates bishops’ decisions

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Key points:

  • As it continues to work through its fall docket, The United Methodist Church’s top court released three decisions and two memoranda.
  • The Judicial Council reviewed bishops’ decisions of law related to annual conference standing rules, General Conference deadlines and equitable compensation.
  • The Judicial Council also declined to reconsider a church disaffiliation case.

Even in these days of instant communications, an annual conference must wait until it is in session to vote on any changes to its standing rules.

“Anything else would be tantamount to proverbially ‘putting the cart before the horse,’” the Judicial Council said in Decision 1440.

The United Methodist Church’s top court released that decision and four other rulings March 29 — almost all reviewing bishops’ decisions of law during the 2021 annual conference season.

During church meetings at which they preside, United Methodist bishops often face questions about church law. The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, requires that the bishops’ resulting decisions go to the Judicial Council for review. The church court then has the option to affirm, modify or reverse each bishop’s decision.

In Decision 1440, the Judicial Council reversed in part a decision by now-retired Bishop Hope Morgan Ward. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many annual conferences met online over the past two years. Ward determined that it was “permissible” under church and state law for the North Carolina Conference to vote by email on standing rules ahead of the 2021 annual conference session to allow the meeting to be virtual.

On the matter of church law, the Judicial Council disagreed. The Discipline’s Paragraph 605 establishes that an annual conference must have an opening session before conducting business, the court noted. That business includes receiving and acting upon reports. Any proposed changes to the standing rules usually come from the report of the conference’s rules committee.

“An annual conference may not approve changes to its standing rules or conduct any other business prior to the opening session,” the Judicial Council ruled. It added that the ruling “shall be prospective and not affect any actions taken by the North Carolina Annual Conference at its 2021 session.” That means the church court's decision has bearing on future annual conference sessions but does not invalidate the annual conference's other actions taken in 2021 after the standing-rules vote.

In a concurring opinion, Judicial Council member Beth Capen agreed that no business may be conducted before annual conference officially starts. However, she differed from her colleagues, who held that the bishop’s mention of the legality of online meetings under church and civil law went beyond the scope of the question.

“I interpret the Bishop’s ruling as providing the contextual framework of the events,” Capen wrote.

Other Judicial Council decisions

Instead of meeting for a few days in one location, the Judicial Council has been meeting online over a period of months and publishing decisions from its fall docket as they are ready.

Earlier this year, the Judicial Council released:

See the fall 2021 docket.

The Judicial Council also has faced multiple questions related to the deadline for submitting proposed legislation to the coming General Conference, which because of the pandemic is now postponed to 2024. In February, the church court ruled that any postponement of General Conference resets the submission deadlines for such proposals.

In Decision 1437, the Judicial Council reversed Bishop Gary Mueller’s decision that said an Arkansas Conference petition submitted past the original deadline would still meet the requirements for consideration by the coming General Conference. The Judicial Council said the Discipline’s Paragraph 507 reserves the determination of whether a petition meets submission requirements to the General Conference secretary or designated petitions secretary.

“A bishop presiding at a session of an annual conference does not have the authority to rule on questions concerning the petitions process,” the church court said.

In Decision 1438, the church court affirmed Bishop Robert Schnase’s decision related to reports from the Rio Texas Conference’s equitable compensation commission.

Each annual conference has a commission responsible for recommending base compensation standards for pastors. If a church is unable to pay the full amount, it may receive supplemental funds from the conference.

The Rio Texas equitable compensation commission presented two reports to the annual conference last year. The first proposed the minimum pastoral support on which the annual conference was asked to vote. The second report restated the conference’s compensation policies adopted in previous years and said it was “for information only.” The bishop faced the question of whether the second report should also have been presented for annual conference action.

The Judicial Council agreed with Schnase that the Discipline only mandates that the proposed minimum base compensation be presented for a vote. The church court added that an “annual conference may, by its rules and regulations, establish the same requirement for policies on minimum pastoral compensation.”

Judicial Council member Capen wrote a separate opinion that concurs in part and dissents in part. She said that the equitable compensation commission bases its recommendations on a policy that should always be “subject to the review, consideration, debate and amendment by the annual conference.”

In Memorandum 1439, the Judicial Council said it had no jurisdiction to rule on North Texas Conference Bishop Michael McKee’s parliamentary determination that a resolution was out of order. The church court said McKee correctly determined that a challenge to his parliamentary ruling was not a proper question of law.

However, the memorandum also said that the bishop erred by adding a substantive ruling at the end of his decision. McKee had added at the end that if the Judicial Council did take jurisdiction, the court would uphold his ruling because the resolution “violates the Book of Discipline and previous rulings of the Judicial Council.”

The Judicial Council, citing an earlier decision from 1997, wrote that when a bishop concludes a request is not a proper question of law, “the bishop shall state the rationale in the ruling without further substantive commentary.”

In a concurring opinion, Capen said she agreed with the majority’s holding but reached the same conclusion relying solely on precedents that establish “the Judicial Council has no jurisdiction to review a presiding bishop's ruling on a parliamentary matter.”

In Memorandum 1441, the Judicial Council denied a motion to reconsider an earlier decision about a church’s disaffiliation from the Alabama-West Florida Conference.

Previously, the church court in Memorandum 1433 clarified that decision to say conference leaders acted “contrary to church law” in closing the sale of the property before annual conference ratified the disaffiliation. The memorandum also said the “holding shall be prospective and not affect the actions taken by the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference concerning the Woodlawn UMC at its 2021 session.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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