A decision to have each of the five U.S. jurisdictions of The United Methodist Church separately bear the cost of episcopal leadership was deemed “unconstitutional” in a May 3 ruling by the denomination’s top court, which reverses General Conference approval given on the consent calendar.
The United Methodist Judicial Council also found action that authorizes the General Council on Finance and Administration to negotiate apportionments with designated missionary conferences and the annual (regional) conferences of the central conferences outside the United States to be in violation of the church’s constitution.
Judicial Council Decision No. 1208 referred to action taken by consent May 1 during the 2012 General Conference on the apportionment formula. Apportionments are the portion of the financial gifts collected by local congregations that support general church ministries.
Report 8 from the church’s finance agency was amended in committee action to remove the Episcopal Fund — the fund that supports the U.S. bishops — from the general church funds apportioned to all annual conferences.
Members of the council were acting on a request from the United Methodist Council of Bishops for a declaratory decision on the “constitutionality, meaning, application or effect” of the legislation, Calendar Item 479.
One of the duties of the nine-member Judicial Council is to determine the constitutionality or legality of acts of the General Conference.
During a May 3 oral hearing in the Judicial Council meeting room at the Marriott Waterside, several bishops spoke in response to the Council of Bishops’ request, along with Bonnie Marden, who spoke on behalf of the interjurisdictional committee on episcopacy.
As the principal spokesperson for the bishops, Bishop Warner Brown said that body believes the adopted legislation “directly impacts the role of bishops as general superintendents,” which is their primary identification.
“This is not just ministry to those who can afford to pay for it, it is ministry to all,” Brown declared.
He argued that a bishop becomes a general superintendent of the church before assignment to residential responsibilities. The council has general oversight for the entire church and authority over all matters connectional, Brown pointed out, including defining the powers, privileges and duties of the episcopacy, adopting a plan for support and providing for retirement or discontinuance because of “unacceptability.”
Alabama-West Florida Area Bishop Paul Leeland said the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s lawbook, does not give jurisdictions authority to negotiate or administer episcopal salaries. “If the paymaster were the jurisdictional conference, then it would create a regionalism that would undermine the historical life of the episcopacy,” he declared.
Mardon said the interjurisdictional committee on episcopacy believed the amended formula to be a transition from a connectional system “to a direct bill concept” that “feels contrary to our polity.”
But Don House, representing the financial administration legislative committee, disputed the “direct bill” description, saying the amended formula is “trying to create an incentive among the jurisdictions to be aware of the amount of money they pull out of the episcopal fund.”
The incentive would be a reduction in the number of bishops by each region to control costs. In recent years, he pointed out, annual conferences have used the same strategy by reducing the number of district superintendents as a way to ease budget pressures.
House said he believes the authority to determine how the church makes apportionments “belongs to GCFA.” Allocating responsibility for the Episcopal Fund to the jurisdictions does not change how the episcopacy functions or how funds are spent, House added. “All it does is address the way the funds are collected.”
‘Contrary to the constitution’
In its decision, the Judicial Council said that while General Conference “provides the legislative process for action on the Episcopal Fund,” it cannot delegate authority to another body, delegate any legislative powers to subordinate bodies or take action “contrary to the Constitution.”
Court members agreed with the Council of Bishops that jurisdictions have no constitutional authority “to bear responsibility for funds that are collected otherwise.”
Nor does General Conference or subordinate bodies, such as the General Council on Finance and Administration, have constitutional authority “to engage in negotiating the apportionments of church funds,” the ruling said.
In this case, that refers to negotiations with the Rio Grande Annual Conference and the Alaska, Red Bird and Oklahoma Indian missionary conferences, along with the annual conferences of the central conferences.
The constitution specifies “a unified superintendency and episcopacy,” the council pointed out. “The proposal in Calendar Item 479 creates a funding mechanism which is dependent upon raising funds from jurisdictions and that invades and undermines the ‘unified’ nature of the episcopacy.”
While the church’s finance agency has the authority to recommend apportionment formulas, “the constitutional authority and legislative responsibility for these matters remain with the General Conference, which cannot delegate or assign them elsewhere,” the Judicial Council ruling stated.