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.
Left untouched were revisions to Paragraph 338 in the Book of Discipline that allow bishops — with two-thirds support of the conference’s clergy members — to appoint elders, provisional member elders and associate members to a less than full-time appointment. The Judicial Council was not asked to review the constitutionality of those changes and thus did not specifically rule on them.
‘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.”
The Rev. John Feagins, director of San Antonio United Methodist Campus Ministry and member of the Southwest Texas Conference, helped Brewington argue for keeping job guarantees for elders and associate members in good standing. He said he expects the Judicial Council’s ruling will help clergy be more focused on ministry.
“The clergy can be motivated by their love for Christ and their love for the church and their love for the mission field rather than by fear of arbitrary denial of appointment,” he said. “I think it makes a tremendous difference for our clergy to have questions about their character and status determined in the open forum of the annual conference (clergy session) … rather than in the secrecy of a cabinet room some place.”
Conflict within lawbook
The ruling restores Book of Discipline Paragraphs 337, 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.”
Newly elected Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, who also served on the Study of Ministry Commission and now leads the Florida Conference, said his appointive cabinet “will of course exercise its leadership within the Book of Discipline, even as we live with the practical challenge of connecting superintendency and itineracy to our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Across the theological spectrum
Groups across of the United Methodist theological spectrum that often disagree had joined in expressing concern about the removal of guaranteed appointments before General Conference and celebrated the Judicial Council’s ruling on Oct. 29.
“The Judicial Council ruling opens a door to broader discussion about faithful calling, training and support of clergy in a two-way covenant system,” said a statement by the progressive caucus Methodist Federation for Social Action.
Similarly, the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of the evangelical caucus Good News, cheered the decision for preserving itinerancy and fair process.
“There is a fair process in place for addressing pastoral ineffectiveness,” his statement said. “Let’s use it.”
* Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate magazine. Hahn is a United Methodist News Service reporter.
News media contact: Linda Bloom or Heather Hahn, New York and Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.