I have four observations to make about the fall session of 2015. One, the case load was exceptionally light. Two, the bishops won big on many little things but were put off till May on their one big thing. Three, what would happen if we changed to casting lots to elect delegates to General Conference? Four, Local Pastors are extremely vulnerable, perhaps in violation of our constitution.
First, the case load for the fall sessions of the Council have tended in recent years to average two dozen docket items. This year there were about a third of that number. And of that nine, one was a reconsideration (JCM 1299), one was a carry-over from the past (JCD 1302), two were related to the concern about “appointive cabinets” (JCDs 1301 and 1307), two were related to electing delegates by casting lots (JCMs 1305 and 1306), two showed ways the Council could refuse jurisdiction (JCDs 1304 and 1308), and one of some consequence was put off until May 2016 (JCM 1303). Almost half were deferred (JCMs 1301, 1303, 1305, and 1306), requiring no hammering out of a decision.
This lighter load allowed for some rationale to be presented on all but the request for reconsideration (JCM 1299). That gave the Council a chance to offer us more insight into their way of thinking. Too often, the Council has had little time to explain themselves on cases where they could not take jurisdiction.
Second, while the bishops were put off on their request for possible support of the Council on “Plan UMC Revised,” they won on everything else directly or indirectly. JCM 1299 changed nothing with respect to holding bishops accountable. JCM 1300 has postponed testing a bishop for unmaking an appointment of an Elder without fixing another first. Bishops may stack a non-Disciplinary body (“appointive Cabinet”) which undercuts the consultation process (JCD 1301 and 1307). The separation of powers over the issues of accountability of certain conference officers (JCD 1304) and of removing Local Pastors from ministry (JCD 1308) were left unchanged by legal technicalities. And the ladder to success in the denomination has not been disrupted (JCM 1305 and 1306). The merger plan (JCD 1302) may even have allowed some subtle additions to the authority of the bishop (most such plans do, as the Council itself has pointed out in the past). In short, nothing decided really make bishops change their behavior and some add to their power.
Third, casting lots has become the mode of election for delegates to General and Central Conferences of some annual conferences in the Philippines. When that process is used openly and respectfully, it appears to be very difficult to influence the selection of delegates. The current system used in the United States and many other places of politicking and vote swapping really works well for the ambitious and assertive. It puts their names into position for nomination to boards and agencies on all levels of the denomination and ultimately to episcopacy. With charisma and political skill, pastors can rise above their competence to high office in order to reach the prize of prestige, privilege, and a golden parachute upon retirement (note that some bishops are retiring early).
If by chance the charismatic, politically skilled, and ambitious did not happen to be selected by lot, they might not find being a United Methodist to their liking . . . . Ever wonder why casting of lots was considered viable by our Hebrew ancestors? They’d had over two million years of experience in human community by the time the Bible was written. It will be interesting to see if the Council gives any credence to using casting of lots when they meet in October of 2016.
Fourth, church law does not protect Local Pastors the way it protects Elders and Deacons. Local Pastors often are dropped without explanation and have no recourse. The powerful intentional movement of the 1980s to use Local Pastors because of their enthusiasm as a counter to the “professionalism” of seminary trained Elders was not accompanied by changes in the loopholes which made Local Pastors vulnerable to arbitrary firing. Local Pastors were required to become trained and sometimes came in as seminary-trained. And they had to be approved by vote of the clergy session in order to get in the door. But they are still “at-will hires” of the Church and all the more devastated when they are cast aside. JCD 1308 barely scratches the surface of that pain and does nothing to alleviate it.
I understand that flexibility is needed in a closed appointive system like ours and I understand the need for expediency when circumstances may require simplicity of options and timing. But those are best handled with forewarning and with respectful dialogue among the involved parties and the Local Pastor. This is a church, for God’s sake (literally), and not somebody’s sandbox.
Finally, I think I have respected the limitations under which the Council operates by explanations in the commentaries above. The Council has its legal boundaries and can only do so much in the name of justice. I cannot speak to intentions of the Council and hope I do not imply any biases. I can only point out results.
That leaves us, dear reader, to learn how better to work in our judicial system to help the Council any way we can to counter challenges to balance of powers and separation of powers. So far, it is clear that we have a lot to learn.