Restructure plan struck down, Methodists scramble to shrink

By Heather Hahn
Posted May 7, 2012

Members of the Virginia delegation huddle to discuss possible next steps after the United Methodist Judicial Council ruled the proposed “Plan UMC” for church restructuring to be unconstitutional on May 4 during the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. UMNS photo/Mike DuBose.

[United Methodist News Service – Tampa, Fla.] The 2012 United Methodist General Conference spent the last hours of its last day May 4 scrambling to downsize agency boards, after the denomination’s top court ruled the “Plan UMC” restructuring legislation unconstitutional.

After months of denomination-wide talk about agency reconfiguration, delegates tried to salvage some part of the movement for structural change. They took up petitions that eight of the denomination’s 13 general agencies had submitted to reduce the size of their boards, independent of the Call to Action legislation and other comprehensive restructuring plans.

The result: the delegates shrank agency boards by 266 members, cutting the number of board members for the 13 agencies nearly in half. The revised plan is here.

The approved legislation included petitions from the United Methodist Boards of Discipleship, Global Ministries and Higher Education and Ministry. Also included were petitions from the General Council on Finance and Administration, United Methodist Men and the churchwide Commissions on Religion and Race; the Status and Role of Women; and Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

The delegates also approved legislation to fold the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the denomination’s ecumenical agency, into the Council of Bishops.

“I think it’s good we’re reducing the size of the boards,” said Karen Millar, a lay delegate from Arkansas who had helped develop the Plan B and Plan UMC restructuring proposals. “I am so proud of the boards because they did that before we came to General Conference, except for the (United Methodist Board of Church and Society). But I am really disappointed the plan failed because 60 percent voted for it, and there was a lot of perfecting over the last two weeks. I am astounded.”

Charlotte (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, outgoing Council of Bishops president, sought to comfort a frustrated assembly at the start of the night’s session. “God always provides a way,” he said.

Emotional two weeks

The General Conference worked late into the final night of its 10-day gathering after nearly two weeks of wild ups and downs for various restructuring plans.

Three groups had come to General Conference with plans to consolidate agencies and shrink their boards. They included two officially submitted petitions to the lawmaking assembly — the Call to Action plan, endorsed by the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table, and “A New Administrative Order,” by the progressive caucus Methodist Federation for Social Action. A third ad hoc group had drafted UMC Plan B as a substitute motion.

But after three full days of deliberations, the General Administration Legislative Committee, which included proponents off all three plans, adjourned nearly a half hour past its deadline without recommending any comprehensive plan to consolidate agencies.

Plan UMC came together in the next two days when supporters of Call to Action and Plan B worked together with central conference delegates to develop a compromise. The full assembly approved a slightly amended version of that compromise by a 60 percent majority on May 2.

The May 4 announcement of the Judicial Council’s decision came in the late afternoon just before a team of Connectional Table members, Plan UMC drafters and two young people was set to deliver its report resolving inconsistencies in the Plan UMC legislation. The news sent shockwaves throughout the assembly. Some delegates gasped; others started muttering, and still others began walking out of the room.

“I want to encourage you, if I may have this moment of personal privilege, to work the rest of the evening more concerned with quality than concerned with getting something done,” the Rev. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist, the General Conference secretary, told the delegates before they recessed for dinner.

The General Conference’s Committee on Agenda and Calendar spent the dinner break trying to find a way to bundle the remaining legislation together.

Still the late-night session left many frustrated that General Conference could not accomplish even broader change.

“My opinion is the problem is not with the size of the general boards,” said Judy Benson, an Oklahoma lay delegate, Connectional Table member and proponent of Call to Action. “The problem is we haven’t been able to figure out a way to work together towards the common goal of making disciples. … Limiting the boards may save some bucks, but it’s not going to change the direction of the church.”

Not a surprise to some

One of the critiques offered of Plan UMC was that it seemed similar to the old General Council on Ministries structure that the current Connectional Table replaced in 2004.

The Judicial Council ruled the original legislation that created the General Council of Ministries unconstitutional, stating that the denomination’s constitution did not make provision for a single body to assume the authority reserved for the General Conference in guiding the work of the church.

Similarly, the Judicial Council’s decision on May 4 said Plan UMC gave too much authority to the General Council for Strategy and Oversight, which would have had oversight of four agencies and been able to direct the General Council on Finance and Administration to “withhold funding.”

“The broad delegation of legislative authority and the commingling of the role of oversight so inextricably permeate the Plan as to render it constitutionally unsalvageable,” said the court’s ruling.

Some delegates had different misgivings about the restructuring plans. “I don’t know what agenda was driving this,” said the Rev. Kavul Vary-Mway of South Congo. “So I did not vote for any of it.”

Tracy Merrick, who helped draft the Methodist Federation for Social Action plan, expressed hope after the Judicial Council’s decision.

“I think this gives us the opportunity to spend more time and do this well,” he said, “and come back to General Conference with a plan that will be more inclusive, better structured and better considered.”