Church Court Clarifies Voting Eligibility
February 17, 2011
By Linda Bloom*
When United Methodists, this spring, start electing clergy delegates to the denomination's top legislative meeting, several new groups will be eligible to vote for those representatives.
The new categories of electors for the 2012 General Conference were clarified by the denomination's Judicial Council in a specially-called session Feb. 12. The nine-member council serves as the church's "supreme court."
The new categories – related to elections conducted by the denomination's Annual Conferences (regional bodies) – are the result of the adoption of Amendment 19 to Paragraph 35 of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church.
As interpreted by Judicial Council in a ruling released Feb. 14, those now eligible to vote are:
- Full clergy members.
- Associate members.
- "Provisional members who have been judged by the Annual Conference to have completed the educational requirements and have been elected to provisional membership."
- "Local pastors who have met two criteria: they have, by either of two options as determined by the Annual Conference, completed the constitutionally specified level of education; and they have been appointed by the bishop and served for two consecutive years, during which time no withdrawal of the appointed status has occurred."
The 2008 legislation was part of a long-term effort by the United Methodist Rural Fellowship, the National Fellowship of Associate Members and Local Pastors, and other groups to expand the pool of those eligible to elect delegations, said the Rev. Roger Grace, the rural fellowship president.
Many rural churches, he explained, are served by local pastors. But under the previous Book of Discipline, the denominational law book, local pastors were not allowed to vote on representatives to the top legislative meetings.
"We always felt that was unfair to the rural churches," he said. "We felt the pool should be enlarged."
The 2008 General Conference refined the petition and adopted what became Amendment 19. That action later was ratified, as required, by the Annual Conferences, with a vote of 79 percent in favor of the legislative change.
Although the United Methodist Council of Bishops certified the vote in spring 2010, the council was concerned that the amendment be interpreted consistently across the Annual Conferences. A declaratory decision was requested from Judicial Council, which held the special session in Dallas to consider the matter.
As certified, amendment of Division Two, Section VI, Article IV of the constitution readS:
"The clergy delegates to the General Conference and to the jurisdictional or central conference shall be elected from the clergy members in full connection and shall be elected by the clergy members of the annual conference or provisional annual conference who are deacons and elders in full connection, associate members, and those provisional members who have completed all of their educational requirements and local pastors who have completed course of study or an M.Div. degree and have served a minimum of two consecutive years under appointment immediately preceding the election."
In an oral hearing during the Feb. 12 session, Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, president of the Council of Bishops, noted the bishops were not questioning the amendment itself but looking for clarity on how it should be interpreted. "The last thing any of us wants is for this amendment to be applied in different ways across the many Annual Conferences," he told council members.
One question, he said, was how to interpret the phrase "two consecutive years under appointment" and whether those years should be counted as the time between the dates a person is appointed to serve by the bishop or as an actual 24 months.
"Because of the nature of our itinerant system and because local pastors can be appointed at any time during the course of a calendar year, the 'two consecutive years' or the '24 months' becomes a necessary matter of interpretation and application," Goodpaster added.
Date for educational requirements
In addition, some provisional members of Annual Conferences gain that status after completing half of their theological degrees. However, since Amendment 19 states that all educational requirements must be completed, a provisional member might have to serve three or more years before being eligible to vote for clergy delegates, Goodpaster pointed out.
A second question posed by the Council of Bishops related to the date that disciplinary educational requirements would have to be met for either provisional members or local pastors.
Such concerns are what led the bishops to seek an interpretation of the amendment by Judicial Council, Goodpaster said. "We believe this is too important a matter to be tested in several ways, and this calls into question the validity of an election process already completed," he told the council.
In its decision, Judicial Council first noted that full clergy members of an Annual or Provisional Conference are eligible to be elected as clergy delegates to General Conference, jurisdictional conference (regional gatherings in the United States), or central conference (gatherings in Africa, Europe, and the Philippines).
Those eligible to become delegates also are qualified to cast ballots for others, as are associate members of the conference.
As stipulated by the Book of Discipline, only the Annual Conference "has the authority to decide whether and when those requirements have been 'completed' for provisional membership. Only those whom the Annual Conference has elected as provisional members are eligible to vote in the election of clergy delegates."
For local pastors, both the educational options and service requirements must be satisfied before they are eligible electors, the Judicial Council declared. "The Annual Conference is the only body with the authority to determine whether those elements have been satisfied," the decision said.
While there is "substantial guidance" regarding the educational elements of the amendment, the council said, "there is no legislative clarity … to define what is meant by 'two consecutive years under appointment.'"
What can be inferred, however, is "…that any local pastor who has met the educational requirement and has been appointed, either full-time or part-time, for two consecutive years 'immediately preceding the election' without being deprived of an appointment during those two consecutive years of appointment, is eligible to vote on clergy delegates," the decision said.
Issue of clarity
The Judicial Council noted that it "cannot provide legislative language where the General Conference is silent" or "create uniformity where the Constitution and the Discipline of the Church create diversity."
Less confusion would have arisen over the amendment, council members concluded, with "a more deliberate process by which the body (2008 General Conference) could have seen and reviewed the full text of the proposed constitutional amendment prior to its adoption…"
Goodpaster agreed that the record from the Daily Christian Advocate of the 2008 General Conference did not clarify some of the questions the bishops had. "I'm grateful that they (the Judicial Council) heard it and gave us some direction," he said after the decision was released.
The rural fellowship, which had filed a brief with Judicial Council, also expressed appreciation for the decision, which, Grace said, "is pretty much what we had in mind."
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.