By Thomas Lambrecht —
In two decisions just released, the Judicial Council has clarified several matters related to the upcoming 2024 General Conference and addressed some shortcomings in the Congo Central Conference.
Another General Conference
In Decision 1451, the Judicial Council ruled that the General Conference session to be held in 2024 was really the postponed 2020 session. In doing so, the Council in effect lengthened the 2017-2020 quadrennium to include the years 2021-24. It mandated that the same budget should continue that was approved for 2017-2020. It allowed all officers in place to extend their terms until the next General Conference (2024), when they should have expired in 2020. So, we are currently in an eight-year quadrennium. (See my previous article on this decision.)
Now, in Decision 1472, the Judicial Council is mandating a “make-up” General Conference to be held sometime in 2025-27, prior to the regular General Conference to be held in 2028. They base this decision on the tortured logic of Decision 1451 that allowed them to postpone the 2020 General Conference, rather than taking the more common-sense step of cancelling it altogether. “The Constitution ‘establishes the minimum frequency at which the General Conference must convene, not the actual year when this occurs,’ by setting the number at once every four years in ¶ 14. JCD 1451. Since ¶ 14 stipulates one session per every four years, another regular session of General Conference is therefore required.”
It should be noted that the Judicial Council already violated its “once per every four years” statute when it allowed the 2020 General Conference not to be held for 8 years. There was no regular General Conference held during the quadrennium of 2017-2020, just the called special session in 2019. And rather than insisting that the “postponed” 2020 Conference be held as soon as practicable, it allowed that conference to be scheduled in the very last year of the 2021-2024 quadrennium.
This decision continues the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to reverberate through the general structure of the church, rather than seeking a return to normalcy at the earliest possible moment. The General Conference generally meets before the next quadrennium to set budgets and elect officers for the quadrennium to follow. It therefore does no good for the 2020 General Conference to meet in 2024 to set budget and elect officers for a quadrennium that expires at the end of 2024!
Rather, the 2024 session of General Conference would set budgets and elect officers for the 2025-2028 quadrennium. However, the mandate of another General Conference to be held in 2025-2027, followed by another General Conference in 2028, means that the actions of the 2024 session (as well as one held one to three years later) will have limited lifespan.
It should be noted that four of the nine Judicial Council members (one short of a majority) registered their dissent from this mandate for an extra General Conference. Member Beth Capen points out in her dissent that “Our very structure is quadrennial and any attempt to hold a Regular Session of General Conference in less than four years will have a chaotic structural effect and the consequences will likely be far more egregious than the difficulty that has been experienced by the denomination’s need to continue to exist within the confines of rules and legislation that were subject to amendment in 2020.”
Many of the officers elected at General Conference, jurisdictional and central conferences, and annual conferences, have four-year terms. Those terms were extended to eight years by the postponement of the 2020 General Conference. But if another General Conference meets in 2026, does that mean the terms of those elected in 2024 would only last two years?
Capen gives the example of Judicial Council members, who are elected to eight-year terms. Under the Judicial Council’s reasoning, only the Judicial Council members whose terms expired in 2020 will be replaced by electing new members in 2024. They would actually have served 12-year terms instead of eight. If another General Conference is held in 2026, the members whose terms expired in 2024 would be replaced at that time (since it is in effect the “postponed 2024 session” of General Conference). They would actually have served 10-year terms instead of eight. Those elected in 2024 would be replaced at the 2028 General Conference, having served only four years instead of eight. Then, those elected in 2026 would be replace at the regular 2032 General Conference, having served only six years instead of eight. Are you confused, yet?
On the other hand, if the officers elected and budgets approved in 2024 are really for the whole quadrennium 2025-2028, then there is no compelling reason for the General Conference to meet again in between, save the overly legalistic, rigid reading of the Constitution proposed by the Judicial Council.
This same chaos and confusion would affect the election of other General Conference officials, such as members of the University Senate, General Commission on General Conference, general secretaries of general boards and agencies, and board members of all the general boards and agencies. It would also affect annual conference officials, including the election of lay members of annual conference, the conference chancellor, members of the conference Board of Ordained Ministry, the Administrative Review Committee, and other annual conference agencies, as well. Most annual conferences have ignored this train of thinking and have adapted the terms of office to fit the exigencies of the current situation. But it shows how unworkable the Judicial Council’s thinking on these issues is.
Finally, there is the matter of cost. We have been told that it costs $10 million to hold a General Conference of the normal length. By mandating an extra General Conference session, the Judicial Council just added $10 million in costs to a budget that is already projected to be cut by one-third from that of the previous quadrennium. Is it fair for a small group of (in this case) five Judicial Council members to commit the church to spend that amount of money?
All these problems could have been avoided by taking the simple step of Judicial Council cancelling the 2020 General Conference and designating the 2024 General Conference as that very thing. That would have put the operating schedule of the church back on its normal quadrennial footing immediately. Instead, Decisions 1451 and 1472 are prolonging the chaos, confusion, and pain caused by the original decision to postpone the 2020 General Conference until 2024. The Judicial Council has not served the church well in this matter.
Filling Vacant Delegate Spots
In the same Decision 1472, the Judicial Council reaffirmed that persons who are elected as delegates to General Conference, but whose status has changed since their election, are no longer eligible to serve. This most commonly applies to laypersons who become ordained clergy. In this time of disaffiliation, it would also apply to clergy and lay members who have left the denomination. Unfortunately, some delegates also die or experience health problems that makes it impossible for them to continue serving.
Ordinarily, when a person dies, resigns, or is no longer able to serve as a General Conference delegate, they are replaced by the next elected reserve delegate. If there are four General Conference delegates, there would also be four Jurisdictional Conference delegates who act as reserves. Then there are normally four Jurisdictional reserves, who could also move up. Two-thirds of the delegation would have to remove themselves from serving for there to be a problem at General Conference. It is more likely to be a problem at the Jurisdictional level since there are fewer reserves available there.
The Judicial Council made clear that delegates going off the delegation need to be replaced in order by the reserves below them. Only in the case when the delegation runs out of reserves may the annual conference hold a special election to elect more delegates and reserves. Again, this is more likely to affect the jurisdictional conference delegates than the General Conference ones, but it is helpful to have this clarity.
Issues in the Congo Central Conference
In Memorandum 1471, the Judicial Council stated it did not have jurisdiction to decide on complaints that Fair Process procedures for clergy and lay members in the Congo Central Conference had been violated. The Council noted that “since April 2020 to current, numerous clergy and lay members of the Congo Central Conference have submitted complaints to the Judicial Council” about the fact that the Congo Central Conference had not established an Episcopacy Committee, a Committee on Investigation, or a Judicial Court.
Five members (a majority) of the Judicial Council (including all three African members) admonished the Congo Central Conference about its need to establish the required committees and court, along with ensuring that clergy and lay members are treated fairly and have the right to appeal any action against them. These are all required by the Book of Discipline but have been ignored in the recent history of the Congo Central Conference. As noted in previous Perspectives (here and here), this has resulted in clergy being defrocked without trial or removed from all appointments and in laity being excommunicated from the church.
The Council also noted that they had been referred to a purported 2020 Book of Discipline adopted by the Congo Central Conference. Since the most recent general Book of Discipline is the 2016 one, the Council declared that a 2020 version does not exist. This calls into question whether the changes adopted by the Congo Central Conference – most notably a shift to lifetime episcopacy – are still valid. The Judicial Council did not rule on that question since it was not before them.
One hopes that the Congo Central Conference will work diligently to bring its structure into compliance with the requirements of the Discipline, for the sake of fairness and brotherly love in the way that members are treated.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.