This week, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church voted to defer their ruling on the legality of PlanUMC, a massive reorganization plan of the upper echelons of the UMC. Here’s some reflections.
The short version of the ruling is that the Judicial Council did not rule on the legality of PlanUMC, a massive reorganization plan of the UMC that centralizes control over budgets and personnel in new layer of hierarchy. They did not make a ruling out of concern that their ruling would give preferential treatment to one proposal when there might be more proposals out there that merit the same scrutiny. Instead, they will offer a ruling right before General Conference in May 2016.
So the good is that they did not rule that PlanUMC was constitutional. As I wrote in a previous column, approving a plan would make it much harder for delegates to General Conference to make any (needed) changes to it.
It’s also good that there isn’t a huge push to dramatically restructure the UMC in 2016 like there was in 2012. In 2012, we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Call to Action, the Bishops endorsed the restructure, the Connectional Table endorsed the restructure, and the reformers pushed through the legislation outside of our established processes (see here). It was only the Judicial Council that saved us from their command-and-control model replacing the Methodist way of doing things.
In 2016, we don’t have that impetus pushing this forward–and we did smaller reorganizations in 2012. What we do have is the potential for this legislation to go through without as much scrutiny. That’s why you have this blog to keep you and delegates to GC appraised. 🙂
The bad is that it greatly, greatly diminishes the timeframe for other responses. Proposed legislation was due in October, it will be made available in January, and the JC didn’t want to rule until we knew what the other pieces of legislation were. If there are other proposals, great…though the likelihood of the Council of Bishops sending them for consideration is low given their meeting schedule. If they aren’t sent to the Judicial Council, they won’t consider it. So the likelihood of anything changing before the JC in May is low. So it feels like they are delaying a ruling waiting for a conversation that may not make it to their desk. And that’s problematic.
But worst of all is that deferring actually destroys a more powerful form of conversation: the substitute legislation approach. Between when the proposed legislation is made available and General Conference begins, anyone can circulate substitution legislation to replace a proposed legislation, either in part or in whole. Then we have open debates over the merits of countering proposals.
The truth is that the kernel of PlanUMC came from this substitute legislation process. In 2012, PlanB was proposed by a small group of folks who were dissatisfied with the official Connectional Table plan. They circulated their substitute proposal for months before General Conference 2012. The PlanB was substituted for the CT plan in committee–and though it was ultimately voted down, it became the basis for PlanUMC, which was ultimately found unconstitutional.
The substitute legislation model is a powerful way to have the conversation at General Conference. By not pointing out the errors in PlanUMC in a ruling, they fail to help alternative proposals to be crafted with their informed concerns in mind.
I’m most struck by the failure of the Bishops to do their due diligence. The entire decision’s analysis reads as a slap to the Bishops for sending this proposal to them in the first place:
While a proper request from the Council of Bishops has clearly been delivered to the Judicial Council, there remains a subtle but important consideration about the merits of rushing quickly to assess the constitutionality of one piece of proposed legislation when other proposed legislation may also exist on the same issues that the “Plan UMC Revised” seeks to address.
…The Council of Bishops made its request of the Judicial Council “in order to better facilitate the work of GC2016.” That intent, combined with a specific selection of one piece of proposed legislation that is delivered to the Judicial Council with a request for a declaratory decision on its constitutionality, could intrude into the “full legislative authority” of the General Conference—even with the disclaimer that the Council of Bishops takes no position on the proposed legislation.
I’m pretty close to alleging that the Bishops were used–one or two bishops very forcefully asked for them to just “send it off” to the Judicial Council, and they went along with it in the name of Council unity. The request was timed for when it was just the active bishops at the meeting, which cut out the voices of the retired bishops. So, there’s a Judicial rebuke in the response to the Bishops that if they are to be Bishops of all the people, then they need to not offer preferential treatment to one proposal that didn’t come from an official agency–no matter how powerful the people are proposing it.
Going forward, the key thing for legislation to General Conference is that we should be afraid of the Constitution. We should do a piecemeal, slow approach to a general church restructure. We began that process in 2012 by approving the plans for reorganization proposed by the agencies themselves. We’ve only seen four years of their new reality–can we get reports from the General Agencies as to their successes? We are Methodists, we study things, and then we act.
But most importantly, we need to clarify whether “do we want a command-and-control model of the Church to be the way we relate with one another?” Currently, the central bodies do visioning and coordination with the rest of the church–they do not alter budgets (that’s General Conference’s job) or fire personnel (that’s the individual boards’ job).
My hope is the coming months bring:
- Clarity to the shortcomings of PlanUMC so that it is ultimately rejected by General Conference as insufficient for the people called Methodists.
- The emergence of the successes or shortcomings of the General Boards with their new realities to help us know if reorganization is needed.