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WARNING: to non-methodists and the Methodists who care little about polity and structure of the UMC, this blog post will be exceptionally boring. Go read something else or watch something funny on youtube. All Methodorks or Methodork wannabees, please read on…

In the wake of the Judicial Council decision to retain guaranteed appointments and overturn the ‘Mueller Amendment’ and related 2012 General Conference legislation, I’ve seen a flurry of comments on facebook. This is an effort to clarify some things and offer some perspective on the decision.

“How does the Judicial Council have the right to overturn something voted upon?”

The Judicial branch has the responsibility to review the constitutionality of any legislation enacted by General Conference that they are asked to review. The Judicial Council holds the United Methodist Church accountable to its founding constitutional principles (found in the Book of Discipline). In this case, they felt that the proposed changes violated Article 3 & 4 (more on that later)

“Overturning the legislations is a move by ‘old pastors’ to preserve their jobs”

I just don’t think this is true at all. First of all, only five of the nine judicial council members are clergy and only two of them currently serve in the local church. Secondly, as I recall there were three consistent voices on the Higher Education Ministries subcommittee at General Conference who advocated for retaining guaranteed appointments. I didn’t check their IDs, but I think they were all around 40 or younger. The bulk of clergy who were supporting an end to guaranteed appointments were established clergy over the age of 50 (not a swipe at anyone, just the facts as best as I remember them).

 

Why were guaranteed appointments overturned

(my interpretation based on their ruling)

The Judicial Council did not mince words in their ruling. They said that the proposed changes were ‘repugnant to the constitution.’ To understand why, you have to read the 3rd and 4th restrictive rules of the UMC constitution.

Article III “The General Conference shall not change or alter any part or rule of our government so as to do away with episcopacy or destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency.”

Article IV “The General Conference shall not do away with the privileges of our clergy of right to trial by a committee and of an appeal; neither shall it do away with the privileges of our members of right to trial before the church, or by a committee, and of an appeal.”

Breaking that down in light of the proposed changes to guaranteed appointments:

1)   The Judicial Council feels that guaranteed appointments and itineracy are inextricably linked. The fact that pastors are still appointed by bishops under the proposed changes is not enough to maintain itineracy—probably because it becomes a one-way power street with the bishop able to appoint and the pastor having no recourse. My guess is that some would argue with the Judicial Council’s interpretation on this.

2)   Ordination is a covenant. All covenants have promises made by both parties. When I was ordained I made a lot of vows. I cannot suddenly choose to stop following some of those vows. To do so, breaks the covenant and I can have my ordination nullified. Likewise, the church made vows to me when I was ordained and elder, among them was the promise of a guaranteed appointment. For the church to take away that right (see article 4) is to break it’s part of the covenant.

3)   The Judicial Council likely saw one of the key flaws in the Mueller Amendment and its partner legislation. According to the new framework, a bishop could assign a pastor to a less than full-time appointment without having to provide cause and with very little accountability. This sweeping power could be seen as a betrayal of the covenantal relationship between bishop and pastor, annual conference and clergy. If a pastor was suspected of being ineffective or having done something improper, but the bishop did not want to pursue a formal trial, he or she could simply send that pastor to a quarter time appointment in the far reaches of the annual conference until the pastor leaves on his or her own accord, effectively denying the pastor the right to trial (article 4). Alternatively, a bishop might receive negative, but untrue information about a pastor from a District Superintendent or other source and consequently appoint the pastor to a less-than-fulltime appointment. Without a trial or hearing, the pastor could be effectively blacklisted by a bishop who does not take the time to hear directly from the pastor in question.

4)   I would guess that there may be labor law issues at play here as well. This is tricky because labor laws differ by state. I would imagine that in some places in the United States, removing guaranteed appointments could leave the UMC open to law suit. It could be argued that the contract between clergy and annual conference includes a guaranteed appointment. Removing a pastor according to Mueller amendment procedures might be a ‘breach of contract’ much in the same way that removing a tenured teacher without cause and without going through previously agreed upon methods would constitute a breach of contract between a school board and a teachers union.

 

“We are stuck and there is no way to change the system”

This is also not true. The United Methodist constitution can be (and has been) amended. This, however, is not the course of action taken by the legislation that came out of Higher Education Ministries at General Conference 2012.

Constitutional amendments require (my polity is a little rusty so I might be a little off on this) 3/4 vote by the General Conference and a ¾ majority of Annual Conferences affirming the constitutional change by vote at their next Annual Conference. That being said, the only Book of Discipline I can find in my house right now is the Spanish version.

Here’s the thing: the Mueller amendment and its partner legislation passed on the consent calendar at GC 2012. That means that fewer than 10% of the body objected or realized what was being voted upon. Had the legislation to end guaranteed appointments been done along a constitutional route, it may have received its 3/4 super majority. It would have been close, but it might have gone through the round of Annual Conferences and we could be facing a completely different UMC in 2013.

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