By Bishop Mike Coyner, Special Contributor…
You have probably heard the news that the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (which is kind of like our Supreme Court) ruled that the new structure passed by the General Conference was unconstitutional. Thus the hours and hours of work by the General Conference were overturned, and we are back to our current structure.
The General Conference then rushed to pass the proposals from all the general agencies (except for the General Board of Church and Society which had no proposal) to reduce the size of their boards by approximately 50 percent. That will certainly result in some savings of meeting costs, and it might even move us along a path toward more efficient operation, but we are still operating in our old structure, just a smaller version.
I personally think that the Judicial Council did us a favor for two reasons:
The proposed new structure, called Plan UMC, was created “on the fly” out of compromise when three other proposed new structures failed to pass their legislative committee. It was a compromise, but it looked like a mish-mash created in haste. Even worse, the General Conference itself passed amendment after amendment to the plan—mostly increasing the size of the boards to be more inclusive. The final new structure was filled with contradictions, which the Secretary of the General Conference was trying to get sorted out for further action. The decision of the Judicial Council to rule the whole thing unconstitutional probably saved us from months or years of wrangling to figure out what the new structure really was.
More importantly, I believe that getting a new structure was never the point. The point of the Call to Action proposal was to realign the denomination around a redirecting of our resources to promote vital congregations. That is more of a “Spirit thing” than a “structure thing.” Of course structures can get in the way, and of course we needed to streamline our current structure. But the real changes we need are not best accomplished by restructuring first. Form will follow function as we live into a new focus upon Vital Congregations.
The Judicial Council also restored the sense of bishops as “general superintendents” who supervise the church. Our UMC is an episcopal system, and we bishops are the only ones elected and set aside for the specific purpose of leading the denomination.
Please don’t hear that statement as a rationale for autocratic leadership, but as a reminder of our shared responsibilities. The legislative processes of Annual Conferences and the General Conference are to establish the policies, budget and direction for our UMC. But then our UMC depends upon our pastors, district superintendents and bishops to lead in fulfilling those policies, living within those budgets and moving in the direction approved by the legislative process. Much like the U.S. government with its three branches and shared powers, our UMC works best when each branch fulfills its own purpose. Our judicial branch, the Judicial Council, did us all a favor by reminding us of these shared responsibilities.
Sometimes both bishops and conferences and individuals get that confused. Sometimes bishops meddle in the legislative processes of our church. Sometimes our conference sessions micromanage the policies they have voted for (and thus the many, many amendments, points of personal privilege, etc. on the floor of General Conference—which can become a kind of “democracy run amuck” as one person described it).
The Judicial Council properly ruled the new structure unconstitutional, reminded us of the proper balance of our legislative branch and our executive branch; and, most importantly, they shocked us back into the realization that structure is not the answer.
I think back on our Imagine Indiana process, and I remember that a turning point toward the vote to approve a plan for a new conference occurred when the Imagine Indiana Team reported to each previous conference (North and South) that their vision for structure was “the conference exists to support and help the local church, not the other way around.” I remember the applause from the floor in both conferences when that vision was shared. It was soon followed by adopting a streamlined, cost-effective structure focused upon that vision.
I yearn for such a moment of clarity at the General Conference. Perhaps the decision of the Judicial Council will move us toward that time when the whole denomination applauds a new vision for structure—and then a new structure will be forthcoming.
Bishop Coyner oversees the UMC’s Indiana Conference.