Special General Conference Review

First, I am not really sure how many of you are actually interested in what happened at General Conference. Throughout January and February there were opportunities to prepare for and discuss what was happening. Also there was a follow-up the week of General Conference. Half a dozen people attended these sessions. A couple more folks initiated conversation because they were unable to attend. I write this because I promised it to you. If you have more questions or would like to discuss it further, please see me.

Connectional & Councicular

The United Methodist Church is a connectional, councicular denomination. Basically, the General Conference creates the policy for the whole church (councicular). Connectional means in part that equal proportions of clergy and laity make up General Conference as a delegated discussion body. Each annual conference receives a certain number of delegates based on membership. Remember, the council at Nicea gave us the Nicene Creed. It was made up of entirely of bishops. At General Conference the United Methodist Bishops only preside, they have no voting rights.

Robert’s Rules & Legislation

General Conference uses Robert’s Rules as ratified over the years (with some changes for use as a church body). There are two sessions at every General Conference: a legislative and a plenary. A legislative committee must recommend everything to the plenary session. Only one legislative committee made up of all the delegates met at the Special General Conference. There is a small exception, the Standing Committee of General Conference on Central Conference Affairs. Central Conferences are those outside of the United States. Any petitions that primarily affect the Central Conferences must go through the Standing Committee. This group took up legislative work on 3 of the petitions that came to the the Special General Conference.

A Special Conference

General Conference usually meets once every 4 years. The bishops called a Special General Conference on the subject of Human Sexuality. Specifically: 1) will we allow some, all, or no local congregations to host same-sex weddings
2) will we allow some, all, or no clergy to preside at same-sex weddings
3) will we allow some, all, or no self-avowed practicing homosexuals to be commissioned and ordained as clergy or consecrated as bishops.
The church tried to tackle these subjects in St. Louis. General Conference in 2016 created the Commission on a Way Forward to create a plan (or plans) to resolve the disagreement within the Church.

The Three Plans

The Commission on a Way Forward met for nearly two years and came up with three plans. They created a sketch for the Traditional Plan. This kept things as is within the Church while increasing enforcement of the rules. The One Church Plan allowed those who wish to have a more progressive policy to move that way; while others who wish to remain more Traditional could do so. The majority of US bishops supported the One Church Plan. The final plan was the Connectional Conference Plan. It would create three sub-groups within the United Methodist Church: one traditional, one completely progressive, and one mixed. Note on Language: When I say “conservative, traditional or liberal, progressive” I mean theological perspectives and not secular politics.

Other Plans

The Commission on the Way Forward was not alone submitting plans, anyone is able to petition the General Conference. Several other submitted petitions lacked consideration because of lack of time. The General Conference tracking website lists 99 petitions. Judicial Council voided some because they did not connect with the subject of the call of the General Conference. One petition, called the Simple Plan, would required pastors to officiate at same-sex weddings.

Several submitted Disaffiliation plans. These plans sought to create an exit pathway for congregations and clergy that could wanted to leave. For congregations, it is difficult to leave the United Methodist Church. The Annual Conference owns church property, not the local congregation. For clergy, it can be difficult to leave because of pension concerns. Other petitions made changes to the denomination’s pension plan for clergy and lay workers because these discussions affect the pension plan.

Process

Before General Conference, the Rules Committee met and recommended a plan for how the Special General Conference would conduct its work. The first order of business would be for the delegates to prioritize each set of plans (groups of petitions considered together) and singular petitions on an individual basis as either “high priority” or “low priority.” The prioritization order governed the rest of General Conference. The Daily Christian Advocate for February 25th (a publication of General Conference) reported results on page 6.

The delegates voted that the highest priority is the Pension Plan at 63.56% of those voting. (Voting tallies ranged from about 815 to 830 from what I can gather). The Traditional Plan received 55.57% high priority. The Taylor Disaffiliation Plan and Boyette Disaffiliation Plan received 50.06% and 49.51% respectively (named after their author). The One Church Plan received 48.67% high priority. The Ottjes Disaffiliation plan received 48.41%. No other Plan or petition received more than 29% high priority preference.

Legislative Committee

The main Legislative Committee began their work based on the priority preference. Only the Pension Plan, the majority of the Traditional Plan (two petitions from it dropped), the Taylor Disaffiliation, and the Boyette Disaffiliation received majority support in committee. The Legislative Committee worked on the One Church Plan and ultimately rejected it. Eventually, the One Church Plan returned to the Plenary Session as a minority report and voted down. Everything else failed to pass the Legislative Committee with the exception of the few petitions forwarded to the Standing Committee on Central Conferences.

Plenary Session

The Plenary Session first adopted petition 90015 that came through the Standing Committee on Central Conferences. It was simply about how the changes would affect Central Conferences and when. The Pension petitions passed. The Traditional plan passed in part. Plenary substituted a minority report on the Taylor Disaffiliation plan and adopted it. Plenary rejected everything else forwarded by the Legislative committee in an omnibus motion with minutes left.

Judicial Council Complications

The United Methodist Church has three branches, just like the United States government. The General Conference is like Congress, the Bishops are like the Executive Branch, and we have the Judicial Council that acts like the Supreme Court.

Everyone knew about the constitutional issues prior to General Conference (when we talk about constitutional issues, we’re talking about the Constitution of the United Methodist Church). Partly the problem lies in that petitions to General Conference had to be submitted by June 2018. The Judicial Council reviewed them in October 2018. At that point, the only way to make changes would have been at the Special General Conference itself as amendments. The other part of the issue stems from the way the Traditional Plan was created, the Council of Bishops originally instructed the Commission on a Way Forward not to create details for this plan. The Judicial Council mandated just prior to the June deadline that the Commission create such a plan. So the Traditional Plan never had as much background work as the One Church Plan or Connectional Conference Plan.

When the plans went through the Judicial Council in October of 2018, it was too late to make changes before General Conference. However, supporters for the Traditional Plan worked to draft amendments intended for the Legislative and Plenary Sessions to fix the problems (more below).

During the Plenary Session, after defeating the One Church Plan, various delegates made unhelpful amendments to the Traditional Plan. This hurt the process. However, a motion seconded must go through the process whether it is helpful or not. Protestors interrupted several times and further “points of order” raised that confused the entire process. All this took the time that General Conference had to work because they had a hard stop at 6:30p for the next event (a Monster Truck Rally) to set up. So parts of the Traditional Plan that passed remained unamended, or unperfected in the language of the General Conference, and will likely not become effective.

The Takeaway, aka: So What Happened?

Nothing much actually changed at the Special Conference 2019. The language that is in the Book of Discipline from 1972 remains there. In the 2016 Book of Discipline paragraph 161(G) the portions that were of concern to the Special Conference:
“Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”
“We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
These paragraphs would have changed with any other plan in some way or another. Basically, the church remains unchanged on this position.

However, there were changes that affect clergy. Obviously with the Pension Plan, but the Traditional Plan petitions only effect clergy. Those against the Traditional Plan prevented its “perfection” or complete amendment. It remains though that the majority of General Conference supported the Traditional Plan from the start. The vast portion of that support came from the Southeastern US, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Philippines. The United Methodist Church is growing in these areas. The delegates that opposed the Traditional Plan were mainly from the Northeastern and Western US and these areas are losing membership. (Please know, these are generalities and that a mixture of support and opposition from all areas of the Church exist.)

The Special General Conference delegates were, for the most part, the same people who were delegates at the 2016 General Conference. Each annual conference received an apportion of delegates based on the membership data from 2013. Elections occured in each annual conference in 2014 or 2015. As the demographics of the Church continue to shift towards the areas that supported the Traditional Plan the vote tallies that were 56/44 (give or take a percentage point) this year, will become closer to 60/40 in future years. This assumes that progressive congregations and conferences do not pull out of the United Methodist Church for conscience sake and that traditional congregations and conferences remain with about another generation of continued, but decreasing conflict.

Rundown of Petitions Passed

I’m going to now provide a run down of each petition that passed and its current status. This information is available on the General Conference website http://calms2019.umc.org/Menu.aspx where you can read the actual language of the petition as it was amended/passed/etc. United Methodist News Service reported on all these decisions in their article about General Conference. You can read the decisions there.

Petition 90015: Came through the Standing Committee on Central Conferences 36/1. Adopted by plenary 507/310. States that the changes made at the Special General Conference will be effective for Central Conferences 12 months after the 2020 General Conference.

Petition 90016: Legislative Committee 768/44. Plenary 561/256. Requires that before a local congregation can leave the United Methodist Church it must pay their share of the unfunded pension liability for retired pastors.

Petition 90017: Legislative Committee 768/44. Plenary 561/254. Permits conversion of a pastor’s Defined Benefit retirement plan to their voluntary contribution retirement plan if they decide to leave the denomination.

Petition 90032, Traditional Plan #1: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. Further defines a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” by including public actions such as coming out in a public venue, through social media, or having a civil marriage, civil union, or other recognized relationship. Judicial Council said this was constitutional.

Petition 90033. 90034, 90035, Traditional Plan #2, 3, 4: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. These petitions created a new process of accountability for the bishops outside of the jurisdictional/central colleges and instead placed it with the Council of Bishops and the general church. The Judicial Council said these were unconstitutional. No amendments made. The issues revolve around the right to a trial for clergy (including bishops) brought up on charges. Also, a process of accountability already recorded in the Constitution exists and that requires a constitutional amendment, which these were not, to change.

Petition 90036, Traditional Plan #5: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. Prohibits a bishop from consecrating self-avowed practicing homosexuals as bishops, commissioning the same, or ordain the same. The Judicial Council said this was constitutional.

Petition 90037, Traditional Plan #6: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. Requires the Board of Ordained Ministry, the group that interviews pastors before they commissioning or ordination, to agree to uphold the Book of Discipline concerning issues of human sexuality and requires that the Bishop ask each member before they can be nominated to serve on the Board of Ordained Ministry this question. Judicial Council originally declared it unconstitutional because of the “principle of legality.” This means you cannot punish someone unless they break a rule or law to which they can be held accountable. In this case, the Judicial Council indicated that if the entirety of the Book of Discipline was upheld, instead of the narrow passages on human sexuality, that would be ok. This petition was amended and it is currently back before the Judicial Council which meets in April.

Petition 90038, Traditional Plan #7: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. Similar to 90037, requires the Board of Ordained Ministry to make a thorough assessment of candidates for commissioning or ordination on matters of human sexuality and if they meet the standards of the Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council ruled this unconstitutional. No amendments at General Conference. It will likely remain unconstitutional.

Petition 90039 & 90040, Traditional Plan #8 & 9: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. The Annual Conference would have to verify that the Board of Ordained Ministry has agreed to uphold the Book of Discipline. If they did not, the Annual Conference would no longer be able to receive funds from the General Church or use the Cross and Flame logo. Judicial Council ruled unconstitutional because it was too narrow on human sexuality and not the entire Book of Discipline. Not amended and will likely remain unconstitutional.

Petition 90041, Traditional Plan #10: One of the two petitions of the Traditional Plan not considered at General Conference because issues constitutionally couldn’t be fixed easily.

Petition 90042, Traditional Plan #11: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. Created minimum penalties for clergy that officiate at same-sex weddings. First offense is a year’s suspension, the second is removal from office. Judicial Council said this was constitutional.

Petition 90043, Traditional Plan #12: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. Forbids approving candidates for ministry as commissioned or full Elders without a full examination on all matters. Ruled constitutional by the Judicial Council.

Petition 90044, Traditional Plan #13: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. When someone files a complaint against someone else on a chargeable offense the Bishop cannot dismiss it unless the matter has no basis in law. Any actions taken must be report to the complainant. Judicial Council approved this.

Petition 90045, Traditional Plan #14: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. When reaching a just resolution against a charged clergy person, requires the commitment of the accused to not act again in the way that violated the Book of Discipline. The Judicial Council said the “second sentence violates” the Constitution. The Judicial Council only noted this specific sentence violation. Not amended. It goes before Judicial Council in April, it remains if they will strike the entire petition or just the second sentence they had a problem with.

Petition 90046, Traditional Plan #15: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. Requires the complainant’s inclusion in any just resolution against a charged clergy person. The Judicial Council was ok with this one.

Petition 90047, Traditional Plan #16: Legislative Committee 461/359. Plenary 438/384. This creates an appeals process for the church (the prosecution) within a clergy trial if there are errors in fact with the finding of the trial jury. The Judicial Council was ok with this one.

Petition 90048, Traditional Plan #17: The second petition of the Traditional Plan not worked on at General Conference because of the constitutional issues.

Petition 90066, Taylor Disaffiliation Plan: Legislative Committee 427/385. Amendment to Substitute Minority Report 402/400. Plenary 420/390. Originally the Judicial Council ruled this to be unconstitutional because it neglected the rights of the Annual Conference concerning church property. The amendment process may or may not have fixed this. However, the petition as it passed requires a congregation to pay the current and next year’s apportionments, pay all their pension liability, and anything else the Conference Board of Trustees determines the congregation owes before it can leave the United Methodist Church. Annual Conference can add to, but not substantively take away from this. It remains to be seen whether or not the Judicial Council will accept the changes.

What’s Next?

Well, Judicial Council meets in April and will issue a ruling on it all again as requested from General Conference. I believe that anything they previously said was okay will remain, and everything that they said was not okay will likely not remain. The Taylor Disaffiliation Plan and Petition 90045 are left up in the air, I am not sure if the changes will satisfy the Judicial Council or if they will only strike offensive portions and leave the rest intact.

Also remember, General Conference has its regular gathering in 2020 in Minneapolis. The appointment of those delegates is based on the 2017 membership data and elections have already started at annual conferences (West Ohio will be doing theirs in June). It is likely that no matter what the Judicial Council decides further petitions and discussion will be made at the 2020 General Conference on these same subjects. However, the demographics will be different and continue to shift towards a global majority United Methodist Church that favors a traditional view.

If you have questions, let’s meet for a discussion. Please do not hesitate to email or call to schedule this.

If you made it this far, God Bless You! If you just skipped down, you’re still a blessing!