Rio Texas General Conference delegates?

What follows is the text of an e-mail I am sending momentarily to the Secretary of the General Conference and the resident bishop of the San Antonio episcopal area.

Secretary Reist and Bishop Dorff,

There are two problems concerning General Conference delegates from the Rio Texas Annual Conference that I am not aware of having been addressed.

I. How many General Conference delegates will Rio Texas be allocated?
II. When will these delegates be elected?

I.

According to ¶¶ 511.5 and 2012 General Conference Calendar Item 238, the Commission on the General Conference determines the General Conference delegate allotment for each annual conference. The most recent allotment I’ve seen does not contain an allotment for the new Rio Texas Annual Conference.

This blog post on the website of the South Central Jurisdiction states, “When ACs unite the aggregate of the conferences will be the number of the new Annual Conference in 2016.” On the surface this statement sounds plausible. However, the South Central Jurisdiction does not have the disciplinary authority to make this determination. Unless this determination comes from the Commission on the General Conference pursuant to ¶¶ 15 and 511.5, such a determination is contrary to The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.

Based on 2012 lay membership statistics (on the linked webpage there’s an Excel spreadsheet under “Department Resources”), the Southwest Texas Annual Conference has 114,884 lay members; the Rio Grande Annual Conference, 13,087 lay members. If Rio Texas has 10 General Conference delegates for its total of 127,971 lay members, by lay membership it would be the smallest U. S. Annual Conference with 10 delegates. It will have two more General Conference delegates than Arkansas (134,864 lay members), North Alabama (135,458 lay members), and Central Texas (166,859 lay members).

If this allotment question were up to me, I would reallocate Rio Grande’s two delegates to the new Great Plains Annual Conference. Based only on 2012 lay membership statistics the lay membership for Great Plains would be 223,009 lay members. Great Plains will be much larger than Mississippi and its 179,320 lay members, the largest current U. S. Annual Conference lay membership with 12 General Conference delegates.

Of course, this allotment question is not up to me. It is supposed to be answered by the Commission on the General Conference.

II.

It’s fundamental to the polity of The United Methodist Church that annual conferences, the basic bodies of the church (¶¶ 11, 33), elect General Conference delegates (¶¶ 13.1, 13.2, 15, 33, 34, 35, 36, 502.1a, 502.2, 502.3, 502.4, 502.5, 511.5). It follows logically that General Conference delegates from the Rio Texas Annual Conference will have to be elected by the properly constituted Rio Texas Annual Conference.

In the U. S., jurisdictional conferences set annual conferences (¶¶ 9, 27.4, 40). I would argue that once an annual conference no longer exists pursuant to constitutional procedure, the General Conference lacks the authority to recognize delegates from the nonexistent annual conference.

As far as I can tell, there are currently no plans for the Rio Texas Annual Conference to elect 2016 General Conference delegates. I conclude this because the preliminary agenda for the upcoming meetings of the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Annual Conferences has set aside June 13th (3:15 and 4:00 respectively) for General Conference elections. I don’t question that each annual conference has the authority to do so. I just don’t see the point of holding these elections when the conferences currently plan to cease to exist by the time of the opening session of the next General Conference. Under this current plan, the next General Conference will arguably have no basis in law for seating these delegates.

Just now I first noticed the pastoral letter dated May 20, 2014. This pastoral letter provides further confirmation of the conferences’ plans to hold elections that might not be recognized by the General Conference.

III.

I might be accused of wallowing in schadenfreude. As far as I’m concerned, it would be worse for me to point out this potential problem after questionable elections.

There’s been talk of the importance of the Church setting boundaries. I don’t know what could be more fundamental in The United Methodist Church than the setting of annual conference boundaries. These boundaries are part of what define the context of “fair and open” elections. The guarantee at ¶ 13.2 of a fair and open process in selecting those who set global policy for the Church has been a cherished part of the Constitution since January 2006.

In my opinion, it is in the best interests of the Church that this situation go under judicial review. If for whatever reason judicial review does not occur, I would hope that at least one delegate would challenge the credentials of all delegates elected by annual conferences that no longer exist. Such a failure would establish dangerous precedent.

I speak for myself in this e-mail. (I’m also posting it online.) If anyone else has doubts about this situation, by speaking out maybe I can also help them speak up. Any further comments on my part will be determined by what the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Annual Conferences do next month in Corpus Christi concerning these dubious elections.

Respectfully,
Steven B. Wiegner

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A couple of thoughts concerning Docket Item 0414-5

Last Friday I was going through Form 990s and didn’t expect to find anything major. I did.

Two Fridays ago I finally got around to read the full Docket for the April 2014 Judicial Council Meeting. Here’s how the final docket item, 0414-5, concludes:

Therefore, GCFA requests the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision that:

(1) The use of general agency funds to subsidize the premium costs for employees and their same-gender spouses enrolled in the GAWBP does not violate ¶ 806.9 of the 2012 Discipline, or in the alternative, that GCFA’s determination that such premium subsidies do not violate ¶ 806.9 of the 2012 Discipline is dispositive on this issue, and

(2) The use of general agency funds to subsidize the premium costs for employees and their same-gender spouses enrolled in the GAWBP does not violate any other provision of the 2012 Discipline.

Oh.

OK, I didn’t brief the Council on this Item. (To be honest, I could barely afford submitting the brief that I did.) I’m not even going to try to predict how this will turn out.

Actually, I can make one prediction that’s pretty safe: no matter what happens, the extreme traditionalists will insist that This is The Worst Thing to Happen to Christianity Since Judas Iscariot. No, Really, This Time We Really Mean It. No, Really, The Church Is Fighting To Survive In A Manichean Struggle That God Is About To Lose. (Of the following two choices, circle whichever one applies)

  • The Ultra-Liberal Judicial Council Has Refused To Stand Up To The Ultra-Liberal General Council on Finance and Administration. We Must Elect General Conference Delegates This Year (And Next) Who Will Teach The Judicial Council Who Is Boss.
  • The Reasonable And God-Fearing Judicial Council Has Wisely Stood Up To The Ultra-Liberal General Council on Finance and Administration. We Must Elect General Conference Delegates This Year (And Next) Who Will Teach The General Council on Finance and Administration Who Is Boss. (Then Again, Maybe That Judicial Council Was Not Emphatic Enough . . . .)

Is the above fair? Right now, I don’t know. I hope that subsequent events prove to the world that the above characterization is not fair.

In my opinion, the GCFA has a strong case. Even if the Judicial Council ultimately disagrees, the GCFA did the appropriate thing in requesting a declaratory decision.

The basis for my opinion is the legislative history of ¶¶ 612.19 and 806.9. I would summarize this history by saying that it is so utterly confusing, the GCFA’s determination has to be dispositive on the issue. (Note that this conclusion is based on the current Discipline and that a future General Conference could provide more definitive guidance.)

The legislative history of ¶¶ 612.19 and 806.9 is an important aspect of this case, but it’s also not the only aspect. The case could turn on esoteric aspects of health insurance. Health insurance in the United States had esoteric aspects five years ago, even before “Obamacare.” For example, see this FAQ concerning HIPAA.

I can’t comment meaningfully on these esoteric aspects. There’s one argument I first heard twenty years ago that I’d like to address. This argument might go something like this: “We can’t afford to expand coverage to include same-gender spouses! Think of the increase in costs!” Based on my (incredibly) limited understanding of HIPAA and group coverage, this is a non-issue.

Suppose each position on the organization chart is budgeted to pay benefits for only the employee. The employee’s age is not a factor in the plan expense. In a group plan, the cost for each individual’s insurance would be the same. If there were differences based on age, the employer could justify discriminating based on age. General agencies cannot discriminate based on age; see ¶ 716.1.

If an employer is going to meaningfully provide health insurance to an employee and their spouse, this cost has to be budgeted before the hiring process even begins. If paying for “two persons” is too expensive, why do it for anyone? This creates an incentive for hiring managers to hire persons because they are single and not because they are the most qualified.

Any cost differential in insuring same-gender spouses versus opposite-gender spouses has to come from an actual health insurance plan administrator providing a quote. To put this in other words — if only I had an editor! — I’m not convinced it’s more expensive to insure a same-gender spouse. Under a group plan, it might be the same cost. I can’t imagine this cost issue would be a pivotal argument in the instant case anyway. (It is strange though to think of health benefits for opposite-gender spouses as “promoting the acceptance of heterosexuality.”)

Maybe next month I’ll provide commentary after the Decision is announced.

My IRS Complaint Concerning the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Inc.

Last night I filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service concerning the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Inc. (I will refer to this corporation as the “IRD” throughout this post. “IRS” is a well-known abbreviation within the United States.) This complaint concerns the inadequacy of the IRD’s recently submitted 2012 Form 990.

By necessity the details get technical rather quickly. However, the basic problem is this:

  • “Under penalties of perjury”, the IRD’s President, Mark Tooley, has already admitted that in 2012 the IRD distributed $158,798 in cash to ten individuals. Under Form 990 the IRS calls distributing cash in this way a “cash grant.”
  • The IRS requires the following description: “In general terms, describe how the organization monitors its grants to ensure that such grants are used for proper purposes and are not otherwise diverted from the intended use.” Whether by intention or mere negligence, the IRD did not provide this mandatory narrative.
  • If the IRD had included any narrative, I would have had no solid basis to file a complaint.

This is a minimal requirement for corporations that receive the benefit of tax-exempt status. Anyone honestly defending the IRD in this situation has to address the basic problem rather than rant and rave about the IRS. Such ranting and raving might sound like this: “Not only do true Christians not have to travel the second mile, but the godless IRS has no business asking true Christians to travel the first mile!” A Christian message indeed.

There is also my suspicion that the “cash grants” were distributed at the 2012 General Conference. This isn’t strictly an IRS problem; it would be nice if the Council of Bishops also did some sort of investigation.

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Can Individual United Methodists Petition 2016 General Conference? Part 3

(Although dated 2014-03-06, this draft was finally published on 2014-03-13.)

This is the final post in a series. Earlier posts are here and here.

Arguing that individual United Methodists can’t petition the 2016 General Conference isn’t going to be a popular argument. I realize this. I also realize that I am bringing something unusual: a principled argument.

The General Conference is supposed to define what is in the Discipline. ¶ 507 in the Discipline covers who may petition General Conference. The 2012 General Conference passed Calendar Item 477. Can individual United Methodists petition the 2016 General Conference? We might each regret the lack of clarity in the General Conference’s answer to this question. Allowing a small group to answer this question (a) after the General Conference has adjourned and (b) without any public review of their legal reasoning undermines the very principles of deliberative democracy that the General Conference is supposed to represent.

I admit that I am cynical concerning the value of individual petitions. Some of this cynicism arises from the realization of how deeply broken the Discipline is and in many places. I doubt any individual can even begin to heal it. Working together, maybe there’s a chance. A small group ignoring basic parliamentary law certainly will not be able to heal it, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.

There is a legitimate question here. I would not be bothered if the Judicial Council would say that individual United Methodists can petition. There could be a rationale I’m missing. That’s fine. That’s why individuals aren’t entrusted to make major legal determinations. At the same time, I would not be happy with the Judicial Council saying they have no jurisdiction. That might have the same result, but it would have an extremely different meaning.

So, how could this issue appear before the Judicial Council? With mixed emotions, I answer: thanks to the Council of Bishops.

Decision 1210 (May 2012) basically reiterated that the Council of Bishops has an obligation to provide oversight to the entire Church (see ¶ 47). This is one small way the Council of Bishops could do so. I’m reluctant to propose draft language for Judicial Council petitions, mostly because I’m not in a position to argue for or vote on any final petition. (In other words: I don’t care about getting credit if a body uses my language “as is” and it works. I care very much about “getting the blame” if my language does not work and no one puts any of their own thought into it. I’ve been around United Methodism long enough to be a realist about this sort of thing.)

Here’s a first draft:

The Council of Bishops is making a request pursuant to ¶ 2609.4 under the 2012 Discipline. This concerns an action of a body created by the General Conference, the Committee on Correlation and Editorial Revision. Did this Committee correctly process 2012 General Conference Calendar Item 477 according to VIII.A(2) and X.B of the Plan of Organization and Rules of Order for the 2012 General Conference? Specifically, was ¶ 507 in the 2008 Discipline amended?

Decision 1159 (October 2010) suggests strongly that this type of question has to come from the Council of Bishops. (Coming from General Conference would be too late.) I also note in passing that X.B requires that “If the matter should go to the Judicial Council, the appealing party shall give notice thereof to the Committee.”

I don’t mind being “the bad guy” on this issue. In the larger picture, I believe that principled arguments deserve open discussion.

Can Individual United Methodists Petition 2016 General Conference? Part 2

(Although dated 2014-03-06, this draft was finally published on 2014-03-13.)

This post is a continuation of the previous post and contains a sketch of an argument for why Petition 20318 via Calendar Item 477 should be applied to the 2012 Discipline. This contains a sketch of an argument because — to put it bluntly — I’m not interested in spending more time on this unless others are interested in it. At the same time, I want to be clear that this is not a frivolous argument.

The basic idea is this: under parliamentary law, it is up to the General Conference to enforce its own rules of order. If a presiding officer does not enforce the rules of order, any member can make a “point of order.” The record is clear: this did not happen. Any subsequent claims that the action in question violated the General Conference’s Rules of Order are at best irrelevant, at worst a usurpation of the legal authority of the General Conference.

If the secondary amendment to Calendar Item 477 was illegal on some other basis under the Discipline — an argument I will not consider here — it is correctly the Judicial Council who would make this determination (for example, ¶ 56.1).

(My next and final post in this series won’t be as technical but will still require some technical detail.)

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Can Individual United Methodists Petition 2016 General Conference? Part 1

(Although dated 2014-03-06, this draft was finally published on 2014-03-13.)

I didn’t follow the 2012 General Conference “in real time.” I was busy moving. After the Conference had adjourned and things had settled down for me, I finally had the chance to read about one of the highlights (the fate of “Plan UMC”). To be honest, I burst out laughing.

One detail regarding the 2012 General Conference I didn’t find funny. It was reported that the General Conference had modified the General Conference petitioning process so that individual United Methodists could no longer petition General Conference. See Calendar Item 477 and Petition 20318. After reading the plenary session transcript in the 2012 Daily Christian Advocate (pages 2760–2764), I also wasn’t happy with how this potentially major change was adopted so abruptly. (I’d link to the relevant PDF at UMC.org, but the UMC.org reorganization has hidden or removed the page that contained the DCA PDFs.)

While looking through the 2012 Discipline I was surprised to find that ¶ 507 still allowed any “lay member of The United Methodist Church” to petition General Conference.  Now this was “obviously” a mistake. So I started drafting a letter to The United Methodist Publishing House regarding a needed addition to the Discipline’s errata. (Let me be clear: the first sentence of this letter did not aver whether I am a crackpot.) Before I got too far into this, it made sense to research this issue. I ended up coming across this blog post from John Lomperis of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

In his blog post Mr. Lomperis fails to disclose that he has petitioned the General Conference. According to CALMS (2008 and 2012), Mr. Lomperis submitted 14 petitions to the 2008 General Conference and 27 petitions to the 2012 General Conference. It behooves me to note this Calendar Item adopted by the 2008 General Conference. (This enactment is also highlighted here. However, I’m not so sure that such resolutions constitute the “official teaching” of The United Methodist Church.) I quote from the “Resolved” language of this Resolution (“5013. On Humility, Politics, and Christian Unity,” pp. 640–641, 2012 Book of Resolutions):

Therefore, be it resolved, that the 2008 General Conference hereby affirms that differing opinions in public policy debates generally “do not strike at the root of Christianity”; and

Be it further resolved, that we call on all Christian people in political and ecclesiastical realms to have the humility to be cautious of asserting that God is on their side with regard to specific public policy proposals; and

Be it further resolved, that we continue to affirm the importance of conscientious and humble Christian social engagement for the sake of advancing justice and the common good.

I will certainly try to engage this issue concerning parliamentary law in the spirit of the above resolved language.

Mr. Lomperis concludes the blog post with these paragraphs:

So I recently asked the Rev. Fitzgerald Reist, the longtime Secretary of the General Conference, for clarification.  He responded with the following statement, which I post here with permission:

The language of the petition does not appear in The Book of Discipline 2012 because The Book of Discipline 2012 was not amended.  The language adopted limiting who could submit petitions to the General Conference only amended a report, not The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.  Consequently any United Methodist, lay or clergy, may submit petitions to the 2016 General Conference. 

It should be kept in mind that in making such determinations, Reist’s job is not to declare what he or anyone else may wish for General Conference policies to be, but rather to simply make clear what General Conference policies actually are.

Bottom line: since the McLeod Amendment did not come through the proper avenue for changing binding church law, all individual members of our denomination still have the right they have long had to submit petitions to General Conference.

I respectfully disagree with Mr. Lomperis’ characterization of the Reverend Reist’s job. I also respectively disagree with the Reverend Reist’s stated conclusion.

Sometime in the aftermath of General Conference, I came across this blog post from the Reverend Jerry Eckert. The Reverend Eckert also believed that petitions from individuals could no longer be submitted. (In an update dated October 29, 2013, the Reverend Eckert also states some reasons why ¶ 507 still allows petitions from individual United Methodists. I don’t find those reasons convincing either.)

The more I have researched this issue, the more I’ve become convinced that ¶ 507 in the current Discipline is not correct. Personally, I don’t care if individual United Methodists can petition General Conference. I’m OK with being wrong on this specific question. I’m not OK with “back-room deals” deciding this question. I’d prefer the Judicial Council decide it.

In my next post, I’ll sketch out why I believe the text of petition 20318 should be applied to the current Discipline.

How is the candidacy application fee legal?

Last year I was reading Bishop Merrill’s A Digest of Methodist Law and thought: what are the current requirements for ordination in The United Methodist Church?

So I downloaded some brochures from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The below screenshot is from the brochure for “Ministry of the Deacon”, but the same basic requirements also appear for “Ministry of the Elder”.

Excerpt from page 2, "Ministry of Deacon", 01/15/2013.

Excerpt from page 2, “Ministry of Deacon”, 01/15/2013. (Click to enlarge)

So after the first steps (not shown), the person who is called shows proof of a minimum one year membership in The United Methodist Church. Then the person needs to register online in the Candidacy Application System and pay the candidacy application fee.

The candidacy application fee?

Excerpt from page 2, "Ministry of Deacon", 01/15/2013. (emphasis added)

Excerpt from page 2, “Ministry of Deacon”, 01/15/2013. (emphasis added)

It’s difficult to imagine John Wesley saying that those called have to pay “the candidacy application fee.” It is somewhat reassuring that the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry does not require that the candidacy fee be paid by credit or debit card. Check or money order are also accepted. Last summer the candidacy application fee was $75.

I’m convinced that, under the current Discipline, the candidacy application fee is illegal. (“Showing proof of one year membership” misstates current disciplinary requirements as well: see ¶¶ 310.1a and 666.8.) Of course my word on this subject is not final; only the Judicial Council’s word would be. It would take an annual conference willing to challenge this fee via a request for a declaratory decision for the Judicial Council to get jurisdiction. There could be other concerns that I’m missing, but I believe there is a strong case that the fee is illegal. A sketch of that argument follows.

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