United Methodists behind closed doors

The Rev. William B. Lawrence.  Photo by H. Jackson/Southern Methodist University.
The Rev. William B. Lawrence
Photo by H. Jackson/Southern Methodist University.
United Methodists have a self-image that we are an open and welcoming faith community. We created the venerable slogan “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.” We celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion with an “open table,” offering the bread and the cup to anyone willing to receive it. We have a constitutional system of governance with open pathways linking all parts of the connection together. We have Social Principles concerning major public issues, expressed in ways that say we are open to debate about them. 

And we have a church law (¶ 722 in the 2016 Book of Discipline) that says “all meetings … at all levels of the church … shall be open.” 

Apart from very limited exceptions, we conduct church business openly and publicly. We stream our General Conferences and hold them in arenas big enough to accommodate thousands of visitors, so they are open to all. We elect our bishops in jurisdictional and central conferences, where the politicking and the contested balloting are publicly visible so that anyone can observe. We choose delegates to these conferences and vote on budgets and resolutions in annual conferences, where advocates reveal their conflicts with one another openly. We expose our church work to public scrutiny.


UM News publishes various commentaries about issues in the denomination. The opinion pieces reflect a variety of viewpoints and are the opinions of the writers, not the UM News staff.
When Roman Catholics elect a new pope, the conclave of cardinals is closed for the selection process, and the ballots are burned after they are counted. When the Coptic Orthodox Church chooses a pope, three nominees’ names are put on slips of paper that are placed in a box from which a 5-year-old child draws one. That chosen paper has the name of the next Coptic pope. 

So only God knows how some churches make decisions. United Methodists, however, let everybody know.  

When we meet and make decisions, we hope that God has at least an unseen role in the process. But we insist that the human roles be visible. We can be a messy church, but we let almost anyone watch us make our messes. 

Therefore, our default position is that everyone is free to observe us conducting church business. News media with an interest in covering church events can report on them. Members without a vote on certain matters can watch the balloting.

The exceptions to this norm are rare. Only in a few specified situations can units of The United Methodist Church conduct business behind closed doors. No church group can work in secret merely because it has a preference for doing so. Specific constitutional or legislative criteria must be satisfied for a meeting to be closed.  

Paragraph 722 mandates that meetings be open and lists the exceptions under which meetings may be conducted behind closed doors. The legitimate circumstances for committees, commissions, councils, task forces, and boards to conduct business in secret involve the types of work listed in this church law. 

The only bodies exempt from the open meeting law are named in The United Methodist Constitution. 

Every United Methodist who has ever served on a pastor-parish (or staff-parish) relations committee knows how delicate its business can be. The group carries sensitive responsibilities ranging from personnel issues, to consulting with district superintendents and bishops about changes in appointments of clergy for the charge, to deciding whether individuals who claim a call to the ministry should be endorsed for entry into candidacy, to handling concerns regarding the performance of the appointed clergy and employed staff, to judging whether an accusation against a pastor involves a violation of church law that must be taken seriously as a chargeable offense. 

Paragraph 722 says that, in light of all this, “Meetings of the committee on pastor-parish or staff-parish relations are to be closed meetings.”   

Every ordained elder who has ever served on a cabinet knows how discreet and difficult its work can be. Cabinets discuss appointments that impact the clergy members’ incomes, their spouses’ careers, and even the schools or athletic programs to which their children have access. Paragraph 722 does not explicitly exempt cabinets from the open meeting mandate when it says “all meetings of councils, boards, agencies, commissions, and committees of the Church at all levels of the church, including subunit meetings and teleconferences, shall be open.” But the exemptions for personnel matters and potential litigation mean that cabinets may — indeed, almost always do — meet behind closed doors. 

Unless an exemption exists, any meeting of any committee in a local church, any council or board in an annual conference, any committee or commission of the General Conference, or any governing body of a denominational agency must be open. To meet behind closed doors, the committee or council or board or body must show the basis in the constitution or in church law that grants an exemption. 

Therefore, the burden of proof rests upon the entity that seeks to close a meeting.  It must identify the grounds that authorize it to declare the meeting closed. It cannot just assume its own authority to shut the doors, or exclude persons merely because it prefers to keep someone away from the discussion. It cannot bar journalists from a room merely for fear that someone might be embarrassed by a report or a quote. It has to work in the open, or it has to find a justification in the constitution or in a disciplinary law to do its business in secret. 

Paragraph 722, of course, is a piece of legislation enacted by General Conference. It cannot overrule the constitution. So it acknowledges that constitutionally established bodies have authority to decide when or whether meetings will be closed. It recognizes that the Judicial Council, the Council of Bishops, annual conferences, jurisdictional or central conferences, and the General Conference write their own rules of procedure. While ¶722 expresses hope that these bodies will honor the principle of openness, it defers to their constitutional prerogatives.  

The jurisdictional conference is a constitutional body. One of its major roles is to elect bishops. As such, jurisdictional conferences could choose to meet all or part of the time behind closed doors, though they rarely do. However, when episcopal elections have been completed, the Jurisdictional Conference Committee on the Episcopacy meets in secret to determine where the bishops will be assigned. The committee works behind closed doors, not based on a right to secrecy derived from the constitutional power of the jurisdictional conference, but because it deals with personnel matters. 

In an annual conference, the clergy session considers whom to receive as clergy members and whom to ordain or commission. The annual conference decides when or whether its clergy session, or some part of it, will be conducted in executive session when it ponders such matters. The basis for this is the constitution—an annual conference has “reserved to it the right to vote … on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its clergy members, and on the ordination of clergy.” (See Division Two, Section VI, Article II, ¶ 33, in the constitution.) Annual conference boards of ordained ministry are not constitutional bodies, so they have no blanket power for secrecy. But they handle personnel matters, so they may meet behind closed doors under church law.

The General Conference has “full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional.” (See Division Two, Section II, Article IV, ¶ 16, in the constitution.) It can decide whether to have a closed session. But constitutional prerogatives cannot be delegated to subordinate bodies, which need exemptions in church law to meet secretly. 

In short, only two kinds of exceptions exist for allowing meetings to occur behind closed doors. One is the authority of a body established by the constitution to set its own rules. The other is a set of exemptions listed in church law for specified activities that let groups meet behind closed doors. 

Paragraph 722 is the only place where a committee, commission, board, or agency of the General Conference can find authority to close meetings. Derivative or subordinate bodies are not established in the constitution and do not have constitutional prerogatives. (See Judicial Council Decision 869.) 

The Commission on a Way Forward, for example, was created by the 2016 General Conference and did not have constitutional standing to close its meetings. A specific authorization in church law was needed. Likewise, the Commission on the General Conference and the general boards and agencies of the church (Board of Global Ministries, Council on Finance and Administration, Board of Higher Education and Ministry, United Methodist Communications, etc.) are standing bodies, and each has actually been incorporated as a formal institution. Nevertheless, as subordinate entities under the General Conference, they can claim no constitutional authority to meet secretly. They can meet behind closed doors only by citing some basis in church law to do so.

Finally, a meeting is either closed or open. A group cannot bar journalists yet allow advocates for points of view in the room. A meeting is either open or closed. 

Every governing unit at every level of church life should meet openly, unless it can cite a basis in the constitution or in church law that allows it to do otherwise.

Lawrence is an ordained elder of The United Methodist Church, former dean of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University and former president of the Judicial Council.

News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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