by Chris Ritter
Those that follow my blog can verify I have spent a good deal of time over the past four years working toward the goal of United Methodist structural unity. Leading up to General Conference 2016 I drafted four complete legislative programs aimed at keeping United Methodists in the same structure… in spite of seemingly incompatible differences. These proposals were later made obsolete by the election of a bishop whose lifestyle is listed as a disqualifier for United Methodist ministry. If she remains in office, separate episcopacies will be needed and this is something my previous work did not include.
My current preferred plan is a hybrid model that uses the affiliated autonomous status to keep all United Methodists connected through our general agencies while giving some conferences the freedom to establish their own ministry rules. Because the plan uses structures already included in our polity, it could be approved by a simple majority vote at General Conference 2019… no constitutional amendments are needed.
The most recent update from the Council of Bishops revealed that they have spent their time focusing on Model Two (the Local Option, now billed as a “contextual” plan) and a Model Three (a structural plan in the spirit of what I described and analyzed here.) Some are inferring from this that their previously described Model One (accountability and enforcement of our present rules) is being left on the editing room floor.
But accountability is what every General Conference since the 1970’s has sought. When loopholes have been found in our rules, General Conference routinely worked to close them. General Conference 2016 had a whole raft of enforcement measures approved in legislative committees. I predict they would have approved by the plenary body had we not set them aside in favor of The Commission. Past efforts at accountability have been severely frustrated by the fact that many of our bishops refuse to uphold and enforce United Methodist standards. Some have even despaired that accountability is impossible given the players currently involved.
I believe the game has changed since 2016. Disobedience to United Methodist ministry standards is no longer a matter of individual clergy defying our rules with the protection of their bishops. Now entire annual conferences have voted their defiance. This actually opens up a whole new box of tools for those seeking to restore order. While disobedient clergy can hide behind a myriad of due process protections, annual conferences can be held accountable in more direct ways.
To forward conversation, I took it upon myself to draft a Model One Accountability Plan. It includes an exit provision that would allow (and insist) that annual conferences unwilling to comply with UMC standards depart their jurisdiction with their assets intact. In fact, progressive conferences would fare quite well because they would be allowed to widen their own borders to receive dissident congregations and clergy from conferences that remain in the UMC. They would also be empowered to negotiate with the general agencies of the UMC for shared services, like pensions and disaster relief.
Will outside legislation be allowed to come before General Conference 2019? Those in a position to know say that it will be. I also understand that the Council of Bishops is prepared to request a definitive declaratory decision on this question from our Judicial Council. Whatever the outcome of this, a specially-called General Conference, once seated, can entertain whatever business it wishes to if it agrees to do so by a 2/3 majority.
Because of the widespread nature of denominational disobedience, the medicine prescribed below is strong. And let me repeat that what you find below is not my preferred Way Forward. But it should be on the table for General Conference 2019 alongside other options. All three models offered by The Commission deserve to be fleshed out and thoroughly vetted. Like my “Platypus Plan,” this legislation does not require constitutional amendments. It includes annual conference accountability, just resolution reform, episcopal accountability and begins with a generous and mandatory exit ramp for those who will not follow the Discipline.
Let me know what you think.
Way Forward Model One Accountability Legislation with a Generous Exit Ramp, v. 2.2
I. The Generous Exit Ramp
Add the following section that allows annual conferences to become autonomous and negotiate individual relationships with the general agencies of the UMC. Exiting conferences would retain their properties and be eligible to set their own borders to receive congregations and clergy from United Methodist conferences.
AUTONOMOUS CHURCHES WITHIN THE BOUNDARIES OF THE JURISDICTIONAL CONFERENCES
¶576. There may be autonomous bodies formed from United Methodist conferences within the boundaries of the jurisdictional conferences. The provisions of this paragraph shall take precedence over, and shall not be limited by, any other provisions of the Discipline that are not in the Constitution.
- Existing annual conferences becoming autonomous bodies.
a. An annual conference in the United States may become an autonomous body when that conference votes by simple majority to seek this status. The annual conference shall notify the president of its college of bishops of its decision at least 30 days before a regular or specially called session of its jurisdictional conference. The jurisdictional conference shall reallocate the territory of the former annual conference among its annual conferences. The existence of the autonomous body shall be effective upon the adjournment of the jurisdictional conference. No approval by the jurisdictional conference is required.
b. All assets and liabilities pertaining to an exiting annual conference, including past and present pension liabilities, shall remain the property of that annual conference or its legal successor in the autonomous body.
c. The newly autonomous body shall continue under the supervision of the college of bishops of its United Methodist jurisdiction until supervisory leadership is in place under its own constitution.
d. For 12 months following the adjournment of the jurisdictional conference, any congregation of the newly autonomous body shall have the right to remain in the existing jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church by a simple majority vote of a church conference. Supervision of the congregation shall transfer to the cabinet of the annual conference assigned to cover their location by the jurisdictional conference upon written acknowledgement to the autonomous body by the receiving cabinet.
e. Any annual conference forming an autonomous body under the provisions of this paragraph will receive a one-time grant from the Episcopal Fund reserves to help pay the cost of episcopal supervision during the transition. The grant shall not exceed the cost of episcopal supervision for one year.
f. Autonomous bodies may negotiate with the general agencies of the United Methodist Church for shared services.
2. Local churches of United Methodist conferences in a jurisdiction may join an autonomous body formed under ¶576.1 upon a simple majority vote of a church conference. The bishop and district superintendent shall facilitate the change of affiliation and shall preside over a charge or church conference in a timely manner when requested by the congregation’s pastor or church council. Such a request to join an autonomous body shall also require the approval of the receiving body by whatever means are provided in its governing documents. Upon decision to join an autonomous body, the provisions of the trust clause shall be released to the new body, and its provisions administered according to the governing documents of the new body. Transfer of the affiliation of a local church under this paragraph shall be effective upon written acknowledgement to the cabinet of the annual conference from the supervisory leadership of the receiving body that the transfer to them is accepted.
3. Identifying annual conferences for the autonomous status.
a. Before January 31, 2020, each annual conference in the U.S. shall vote approving one of the following two statements:
i. “United Methodist positions on ministry (found in ¶304 ‘Qualifications for Ordination’, ¶341 ‘Unauthorized Conduct’, and ¶2702 ‘Chargeable Offenses’) of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (2016) will be maintained, supported, and upheld in their entirely in our annual conference and its subsidiary units. Specifically, persons who are partnered or married in same-gender relationships shall not be ordained, licensed or appointed. Clergy shall not be permitted to officiate at same-sex unions or marriages.”
ii. “Our annual conference will not maintain, support, and uphold the entire ministry standards of The United Methodist Church found in ¶ 304 ‘Qualifications for Ordination’, ¶341 ‘Unauthorized Conduct’, and ¶2702 ‘Chargeable Offenses’ of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (2016).”
b. The General Council on Finance and Administration shall canvass the votes of each annual conference. Those returning a majority vote for the second option, failing to respond, or responding without clearly expressing their vote shall be placed on a list of conferences ideally suited for the autonomous status. This list shall be made available to the colleges of bishops in the United States.
c. Beginning January 1, 2021, the General Council on Finance and Administration shall neither receive funds from nor send funds to the conferences listed under ¶576.3.b unless and until they have an agreement with The United Methodist Church and/or a general agency as an autonomous body. GCFA shall also prohibit the use of the United Methodist name and insignia by these conferences.
d. Annual conferences that are not placed on the list in ¶576.3b may nonetheless vote to enter the autonomous status under the provisions of ¶576.1.
e The General Council on Finance and Administration may grant a one-time twelve month delay to the restrictions in ¶576.3c upon request by an annual conference entering the autonomous status.
4. Other disciplinary provisions notwithstanding, a clergy member may transfer to any autonomous body formed under this paragraph upon the clergy member’s request and upon acceptance by the autonomous body formed under this paragraph. Release by the United Methodist bishop shall not be required for these transfers.
5. United Methodist bishops, both active and retired, may transfer to an autonomous body upon request without affecting their previously earned pension credit from The United Methodist Church. Such a transfer shall also require the approval of the receiving body by whatever means are provided in its governing documents.
6. When one or more annual conferences votes to become an autonomous body after the adjournment of the jurisdictional or central conference, the college of bishops shall call a special jurisdictional or central conference which shall redraw its annual conference boundaries to provide for the territory covered by the withdrawing annual conference.
7. The Interjurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy shall monitor the changing landscape of U.S. annual conferences and bring recommendation to General Conference related to reorganization of the jurisdictional conferences that may be warranted based on the effects of this paragraph.
8. Institutions related to the United Methodist Church may also choose to develop missional ties with autonomous bodies so long as governing control remains vested with the United Methodist Church. If such an institution vests its governing control with an autonomous body or bodies, the relationship with The United Methodist Church shall be renegotiated in a spirit of common mission.
II. Annual Conference Accountability through GCFA
A new provision builds on the accountability role already played by GCFA to make annual conference boards or ordained ministry responsible for keeping their clergy aligned with UMC approved practices. Those unwilling to do so are prevented from participating financially in the UMC or using the denomination name and insignia and are allowed and encouraged to accept an autonomous status.
[Add to the duties of General Council on Finance and Administration:]
¶807.22 The council shall receive and process reports of annual conferences not in compliance with the ministry standards of the United Methodist Church found in ¶304 ‘Qualifications for Ordination’, ¶341 ‘Unauthorized Conduct,’ and ¶2702 ‘Chargeable Offenses.’”
a) All reports of non-compliance shall be forwarded to the chair of the board of ordained ministry of the annual conference in question for response. The chair shall have ninety days to demonstrate and document sustained and credible efforts at compliance with the ministry standards of The United Methodist Church referenced in ¶807.22.
b) If the documentation provided by the annual conference is found to demonstrate sustained and credible efforts at compliance with United Methodist ministry rules, notification shall be sent by GCFA to the board of ordained ministry reflecting this finding.
c. If the annual conference is found to be making less than sustained and credible efforts at enforcing, promoting, and upholding the ministry standards of the United Methodist Church and cooperating with GCFA inquiries, that conference shall be notified in writing that it has been determined to be in non-compliance.
i. The board of ordained ministry of an annual conference found to be in non-compliance shall have ninety days to draft and submit a plan of correction. Every six months thereafter, the board of ordained ministry of the annual conference is required to submit a detailed record of the actions taken toward compliance to GCFA until the council verifies that the factors that caused the finding of non-compliance have been corrected. If substantial progress has not been made by the second six-month report, the actions in ¶807.22.c.ii shall be undertaken by GCFA.
ii. Those annual conferences whose boards of ordained ministry do not submit a plan a plan of correction or are unable to demonstrate sustained and credible efforts at full compliance shall be placed under financial quarantine. GCFA shall neither receive funds from this conference nor remit funds to it until it requests and receives status as an autonomous body under the provisions of ¶576. Other disciplinary provisions notwithstanding, the annual conference and its congregations shall likewise be prohibited by GCFA from using the United Methodist name and insignia.
d. Annual conferences placed under the restrictions in ¶807.22.c.ii that do not wish to take the autonomous status must approve a plan of reform at a regular or specially-called session of their annual conference and submit an update with documentation to GCFA every six months. The annual conference shall remain under the restrictions in ¶807.22.c.ii until credible and sustained compliance has been achieved and certified by GCFA. The annual conference shall be removed from financial quarantine on a date established by GCFA and shall have their right to use the United Methodist name and insignia restored on that same date.
III. Just Resolution Reform
This disciplinary change clarifies that the goal of the just resolution process is to restore adherence to the Book of Discipline.
Addition to ¶ 2701.5
5. A Just Resolution in Judicial Proceedings-A just resolution is one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties. Special attention should be given to ensuring that cultural, racial, ethnic, age and gender contexts are valued throughout the process in terms of their understandings of fairness, justice, and restoration. During the just resolution process, the parties may be assisted by a trained, impartial third party facilitator(s) or mediator(s), in reaching an agreement satisfactory to all parties. Processes that seek a just resolution are encouraged at any time, including through the judicial proceedings. After the referral of a matter as a judicial complaint from counsel for the church to the committee on investigation, if a process seeking a just resolution is used, the appropriate persons, including the counsel for the Church and the counsel for the respondent, should enter into a written agreement outlining such process, including any agreement on confidentiality. As an essential part of any just resolution agreement, all ordained or consecrated parties retaining a ministerial status shall agree to affirm, support and uphold the doctrine, discipline and clergy standards of The United Methodist Church (specifically ¶ 304 ‘Qualifications for Ordination’, ¶341 ‘Unauthorized Conduct’, and ¶2702 ‘Chargeable Offenses’). Those unable or unwilling to do so may not be a party to a just resolution. If resolution is achieved, a written statement of resolution, including terms and conditions, shall be signed by the same persons who signed the written agreement outlining the process, and they shall agree on any matters to be disclosed to third parties. If the resolution results in a change of ministerial status, the disclosure agreement shall not prevent the disciplinary disclosures required for possible readmission.
IV. Episcopal Accountability
The first change adds a pledge of fidelity to the Book of Discipline for bishops to receive a salary from the general church.
Addition to ¶818:
13.Beginning January 1, 2020 the General Council on Finance and Administration shall receive annually a signed statement from each active bishop affirming the following: “I affirm my commitment to teach the historic Christian faith and to promote, defend, enforce, and uphold the ministry standards of The United Methodist Church as contained in ¶304 ‘Qualifications for Ordination’, ¶341 ‘Unauthorized Conduct,’ and ¶2702 ‘Chargeable Offenses.’” Those bishops failing to submit this statement shall received a salary of $0 from the Episcopal Fund until such time as the statement is submitted.
A second change removes Karen Oliveto from the office of bishop using the constitutional powers of the General Conference. Alternatively, General Conference could also remove those bishops who consecrated her.
“Let it be resolved that Karen Oliveto is discontinued from the United Methodist episcopacy under the General Conference powers enumerated in Article IV of The Constitution of The United Methodist Church, ¶16.5.”