I was watching the live feed of the proceedings of General Conference on Friday, May 4, when Decision 1210 from the church’s Judicial Council was reported.
What is Decision 1210, you ask?
It was the bombshell letting the General Conference know that much of its efforts at crafting and approving a broad restructuring proposal for the United Methodist Church were to be for naught.
“Plan UMC”—the proposal finally passed after much compromise and debate—was unanimously declared to be unconstitutional.
First, we need to understand why the Judicial Council would render a decision that voided so much of the General Conference’s work. And then we need to consider what this calls for on the part of the Church now that the General Conference is over.
In Decision 1210, the Judicial Council found that the restructuring proposal the General Conference had approved did not pass constitutional muster on two main points.
The Judicial Council decision points out that the degree to which the General Conference can delegate powers to the institutional bodies it creates is limited to the work of “promotion and administration.” This stipulation is found in ¶16.8 of the Book of Discipline.
Problems emerged in Plan UMC in the powers that the General Conference was attempting to delegate to a new “General Council for Strategy & Oversight.” The GCSO was intended to provide direction for a significant portion of the UMC general church bureaucracy.
In its review, the Judicial Council found that Plan UMC “commingles” the oversight role of the Council of Bishops with the proposed General Council for Strategy & Oversight. Our church’s constitution gives oversight responsibilities to the bishops alone, so the kind of oversight intended for the GCSO body simply cannot be legislatively delegated by the General Conference (see ¶47 in the Book of Discipline).
Another major defect of Plan UMC was in the way it wanted the GCSO to provide a form of accountability over other general agencies of the church by giving it the power to withhold funds from those agencies if they were not meeting the intended outcomes of their various programs. This provision violates ¶16.9 of the UMC Constitution, which gives the General Conference sole authority “for raising and distributing funds necessary to carry on the work of the Church.”
The unanimous decision of the Judicial Council was offered in unmistakable terms: “We have reviewed the plan to determine whether any part, portion, or all of Plan UMC can be saved and conclude that it cannot,” the decision reads.
“The broad delegation of legislative authority and the commingling of the role of oversight so inextricably permeate the Plan as to render it constitutionally unsalvageable.”
So that’s the reasoning behind Decision 1210. And it is good reasoning. I do not agree with one comment I read online that expressed frustration and said this was the kind of thing we should expect from a bureaucratic church. There are reasons to get frustrated at bureaucracy, but this isn’t one of them.
We need the Judicial Council to act in the “conservative” mode that all civil and ecclesiastical courts must adopt when called upon to do the work of legislative review. They are the check on legislative excess and the preserver of constitutional frameworks. Argue against this reality if you want. But if you do, then you’re really arguing against having a 12-million member church with a global presence. Because if we want to exist in the worldwide way that we do, there are going to be certain institutional complexities we simply have to live with.
But now what?
After the Judicial Council’s decision, a colleague from my annual conference wrote on Facebook: “The most important accomplishment of GC was struck down. We all can slink home.”
His comment sums up how many of the hard-working delegates must have felt after so many days trying to get some type of restructuring legislation passed.
But they shouldn’t feel ashamed or dejected. They did good work.
What we need right now is evangelical patience. For all we know, these are early days in the life of the church. We can carefully work on restructuring again in the coming four years. And in 2016, the proposal can be an even better plan for streamlining the general church’s organization.
We can also launch into the much more important work of local ministry: worship, discipleship formation, and evangelism. And we can do this with the evangelical zeal of the Methodists of old, assured that we are carrying on their witness faithfully in our own day.
The Rev. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology and Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at www.andrewthompson.com