By Neill Caldwell*
ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. (UMNS) — 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.
‘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.”
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.”
* Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate magazine. Heather Hahn with United Methodist News Service contributed to this report.