By Linda Bloom*
Nov. 2, 2009 | DURHAM, N.C. (UMNS) Local United Methodist churches may not arbitrarily choose which general church programs to support financially, according to the church's top court.
The Judicial Council has upheld the decision by Bishop Larry Goodpaster that the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference's "Choice Empowerment" plan is a violation of Paragraph 247.14 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.
That case was one of 21 docket items considered by the nine-member council when it met October 27-31. Among other issues, the council addressed questions on the participation of retired clergy in local churches, pension and health insurance plans, and representation to the church's legislative body.
The Choice Empowerment plan essentially gives churches permission not to pay what is requested of them, the council's decision said. The bishop had noted a "substantial decline in connectional support" during the five years the plan has been in effect.
"One of the basic principles of The United Methodist Church's connectional system is to provide ministries and outreach in ways and places that individual churches are not able to do alone," the council pointed out. "This philosophy is built upon a belief in shared responsibility for the extension of mission and ministry of the whole church to the world."
Payment in full of these apportionments "is the first benevolent responsibility of the church," the decision said.
How clergy participate in local churches after retirement was addressed during the council's October 29 oral hearing. The clergy executive session of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference had asked for a decision on whether a retired elder could serve as chairperson of a local church committee on finance. Such a position is usually held by a lay member.
The case affects the Rev. Stanley Menking, a member of Mt. Pocono (Pennsylvania) United Methodist Church, who argued before the council that the Discipline allows retired clergy the same privileges as other members of the local charge conference.
If bishops are able to deny them such opportunities for service, "countless congregations" would be denied the chance "to benefit from the experience, talents, gifts, and graces gained from the years of faithful service of the 16,000 retired elders in The United Methodist Church," he said.
The council agreed that a retired elder may serve as chairperson of the local church committee on finance. In a dissenting opinion, Jon R. Gray said the council had no jurisdiction in the matter because it was a policy issue.
In a separate case involving retired clergy, the Judicial Council agreed with California-Nevada Conference Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr. that the conference is entitled to set the rate it pays for retired clergy, as long as it does not cut compensation.
In a brief, the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits argued that the church mandated an automatic two-percent increase in payment through its Clergy Retirement Security Program.
The council decided, however, that the conference may either retain the same "past-service annuity rate" for retired clergy from one year to the next, or increase it without restriction.
In a concurring opinion, Ruben T. Reyes said the decision was a "plain and simple" issue. "The bottom line is that the yearly option to retain the same rate or hike it belongs to each annual conference," he wrote.
In other business, the Judicial Council:
· Ruled that the secretary of the General Conference has the authority to determine the number of delegates that each annual and missionary conference will elect to the General Conference, within the provisions of the Constitution and the legislative enactments of the General Conference.
· Affirmed the ruling of Bishop Jonathan Keaton that a request for a decision of law in the Detroit Annual Conference, regarding identifying local church membership in the Reconciling Ministries Network, was "moot, hypothetical, and improper."
· Found that the Louisiana Annual Conference did not violate the Discipline by establishing clergy compensation before knowing the cost of health insurance premiums, because such a cost is a benefit, not compensation.
· Upheld a decision by Bishop Mary Ann Swenson regarding implementation of the California-Pacific Conference's Annual Conference's Clergy Benefit Charge to cover the costs of the health premiums for retired and incapacitated clergy.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.
(Judicial Council members Belton Joyner and Susan Henry-Crowe participate in an oral hearing, in photo above, left. A UMNS photo by Taylor Mills.)