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Guaranteed Appointment Redivivus: A Few Reflections on a Major Decision

The big news in United Methodism over the weekend is Judicial Council (JC) Decision 1226, which declared legislation passed by the 2012 General Conference (GC2012) that would have ended the so-called guaranteed appointment (GA) to be “null, void, and of no effect.” The basic argument in the decision is that the changes are unconstitutional because they violate the third and fourth restrictive rules which, respectively, perpetuate the intinerancy and safeguard clergy rights to trial and appeal. The argument is that doing away with security of appointment would “destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency” and remove the rights of clergy to trial and appeal. Some are pleased with the decision; others are not. I won’t take time now to repeat what I’ve said before about this issue. Instead, I’ll offer a few reflections (in no particular order) on the decision and the early reactions to it.

We already have a way of exiting ineffective clergy. I say that because the relevant paragraphs in the Discipline which provide clergy with accountable security of appointment specify that only an “effective elder” who is “in good standing” shall be appointed (par. 334; cf. par. 337). So, if an elder is not effective, then he or she is not guaranteed an appointment. Paragraph 334.4 also specifies that elders who fail “to meet professional responsibilities” or do not “demonstrate vocational competency or effectiveness” forfeit their right to an appointment and an official complaint against them can be made. One of these “professional responsibilities” is “continuing effectiveness” (par. 334.3.c), and the Board of Ministry and the cabinet have the authority to define effectiveness (par. 334.4). So, conceivably, an elder who is ineffective could be removed from an appointment and formally charged with failing to perform the work of ministry. The point is that, despite the language of GA, we do not have the absolute guarantee of an appointment. We have an accountable security of appointment. And there is already a process in the Discipline for removing ineffective elders. The question is not whether we have a way of removing ineffective elders. The question is whether we will make use of the process we already have.

General Conference (GC) would do well in the future to ask for counsel from experts in our denomination’s constitution and from the JC during (and even early in) the legislative process. With this decision, the two most significant acts of GC2012, namely the restructuring plan and the removal of GA, were overturned for unconstitutionality. If someone had asked the JC whether removing GA was constitutional early in the process, we might have saved a lot of time, energy, and resources. If legislative body and the judicial body worked together rather than being pitted against one another, the process would be more efficient.

The JC is being (and will likely continue to be) criticized for not considering and taking into account the will of GC2012. We should note carefully and respectively that the role of the JC is not to consider the will of the GC as weight in favor or against a decision. In this case, it was the will of GC2012 itself that was under review and whether or not that will was within its constitutional boundaries. Rejecting or accepting the will of GC2012 is precisely what the JC was asked to do, and rejecting the will of GC2012 is, evidently, what the JC took to be the right decision.

This decision is a good reminder that, while GC is the only body that can speak on behalf of the UMC, the GC has neither absolute nor unilateral authority to so speak. Even GC has accountability. The authority of GC is checked by the JC. Sometime the GC speaks mistakenly (or unconstitutionally) on behalf of the UMC, and the JC is responsible to correct such mistakes.

It is not quite clear to me how the removal of GA might destroy the itinerancy. So, if someone could clarify that in a comment, I would appreciate it.

I tend to agree with JC that removal of GA undermines the right of clergy to trial. If an elder can be exited from the itinerancy without a trial (which is, I think, what the legislation was trying to do), then it would seem that the fourth restrictive rule has been violated.

What do you think? Do agree or disagree with JC Decision 1226? Leave a comment and tell me why.

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