Forcing Pastors to Go Part-time
The Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, like many conferences around the country, is facing the problem of diminishing numbers of churches that can afford full-time pastors. These smaller churches are also diminishing in capacity to afford paying full apportionments, though that is not identified in the bishop’s response to the “request for a decision of law.” Other words are used to speak of lack of financial strength in the churches.
To help resolve this problem, the bishop and his cabinet have come up with a plan that really only identifies which pastors are not getting their churches to pay full apportionments and threatening them with being put in part-time appointments as punishment.
The reason my opinion is this stark is that the plan’s legality became cemented in church law in New Jersey until the Council ruled on it.
Here’s how it works: When a question of law is asked of the bishop at an annual conference session, his/her decision becomes law for that conference. The only thing that can modify or reverse that legalization would be if the Council overturns or modifies the bishop’s decision.
So the bishop asks the dean of his cabinet to raise a question of law to which the answer supports the cabinet’s (bishop’s) plan and then she/he has full legal power to plow ahead with the cabinet’s plan.
I have not seen this kind of manipulation before in Judicial Council decisions.. Maybe other bishops have just been a lot more subtle about it. Church law geeks have known about the possibility since the 1980s.
The Discipline provides that a bishop may initiate a part-time appointment for “missional purposes. What the New Jersey plan does is allow the bishop to change the definition of “missional” to include failure to raise money.
Let me say that the problem this bishop’s plan seeks to resolve is real. The demographics of the United Methodist Church in the United States are pretty grim. Many conferences have more pastors than churches. Many churches have elderly members dying off without younger folks joining. Many new ethnic populations are moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods around the churches and few pastors are bi-lingual and capable of working with the new populations around them. –That’s truly “missional” as a concern.
An old saying in the South is that you get more flies with honey than with swatting. This bishop’s plan is a not so subtle form of swatting.
The Council has brought an end, at least on paper, to this nonsense. They saw that the plan was not up for a vote and that the questioner made no reference to any specific case representing a problem with the plan or a way for the plan to resolve it. So they took no jurisdiction. Just to be sure no one missed it, they added that “the bishop’s decision of law is reversed.” So the bishop can no longer say he has legal authority bolstered by the Judicial Council’s support. They have not given it so the bishop better be very careful about his use of the cabinet’s policy. By using the policy in an actual case, he faces getting a referral to the Judicial Council for a real case. The Council just might rule against the policy. They did not like his decision this time.