TAMPA, Fla. (UMNS) – The 2012 United Methodist General Conference spent the last hours of its last day, May 4, scrambling to downsize agency boards, after the denomination’s top court ruled the “Plan UMC” restructuring legislation unconstitutional.

After months of denomination-wide talk about agency reconfiguration, delegates tried to salvage some part of the movement for structural change. They took up petitions that eight of the denomination’s 13 general agencies had submitted to reduce the size of their boards, independent of the Call to Action legislation and other comprehensive restructuring plans.

The result: the delegates shrank agency boards by 266 members, cutting the number of board members for the 13 agencies nearly in half.

The approved legislation included petitions from the United Methodist Boards of Discipleship, Global Ministries and Higher Education and Ministry. Also included were petitions from the General Council on Finance and Administration, United Methodist Men and the church-wide Commissions on Religion and Race; the Status and Role of Women; and Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns.

The delegates also approved legislation to fold the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, the denomination’s ecumenical agency, into the Council of Bishops.

Emotional two weeks

The General Conference worked late into the final night of its 10-day gathering after nearly two weeks of wild ups and downs for various restructuring plans.

Three groups had come to General Conference with plans to consolidate agencies and shrink their boards. They included two officially submitted petitions to the lawmaking assembly – the Call to Action plan, endorsed by the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table, and “A New Administrative Order,” by the progressive caucus Methodist Federation for Social Action. A third ad hoc group had drafted another alternative, UMC Plan, as a substitute motion.

But after three full days of deliberations, the General Administration Legislative Committee, which included proponents of all three plans, adjourned nearly a half hour past its deadline without recommending any comprehensive plan to consolidate agencies.

Plan UMC came together in the next two days when supporters of Call to Action and Plan B worked together with central conference delegates to develop a compromise. The full assembly approved a slightly amended version of that compromise by a 60 percent majority on May 2.

The May 4 announcement of the Judicial Council’s decision came in the late afternoon just before a team of Connectional Table members, Plan UMC drafters and two young people was set to deliver its report resolving inconsistencies in the Plan UMC legislation. The news sent shockwaves throughout the assembly. Some delegates gasped; others started muttering and still others began walking out of the room.

The General Conference’s Committee on Agenda and Calendar, chaired by the Rev. Frank Beard (head of the Indiana delegation), spent the dinner break trying to find a way to bundle the remaining legislation together.

Still the late-night session left many frustrated that General Conference could not accomplish even broader change.

Not a surprise to some

The Judicial Council ruled the original legislation that created the General Council of Ministries unconstitutional, stating that the denomination’s constitution did not make provision for a single body to assume the authority reserved for the General Conference in guiding the work of the church.

Similarly, the Judicial Council’s decision on May 4 said Plan UMC gave too much authority to the General Council for Strategy and Oversight, which would have had oversight of four agencies and been able to direct the General Council on Finance and Administration to “withhold funding.”

“The broad delegation of legislative authority and the commingling of the role of oversight so inextricably permeate the Plan as to render it constitutionally unsalvageable,” said the court’s ruling.

Tracy Merrick, who helped draft the Methodist Federation for Social Action plan, expressed hope after the Judicial Council’s decision.

“I think this gives us the opportunity to spend more time and do this well,” he said, “and come back to General Conference with a plan that will be more inclusive, better structured and better considered.”

Heather Hahn serves the United Methodist News Service.

“I think this gives us the opportunity to spend more time and do this well…”

– Tracy Merrick

Together photo

Members of the Indiana delegation shared their disbelief of the Judicial Council’s unconstitutional decision about “Plan UMC” for church restructuring on Friday, May 4.