Judicial Council Decisions Search
Decision No. 432
October 28 1977
In Re: An Appeal from The Central Pennsylvania Conference on a Bishop's Ruling that a Conference Rule Requiring Church-Owned Parsonages is Contrary to the Discipline.
Digest of Case
In the absence of specific General Conference legislation on the subject, the Annual Conference has the power under the Constitution to establish policies and guidelines concerning rental or ownership of parsonages or provision of housing allowance. Both the original report adopted by the Central Pennsylvania Conference in 1975 and the subsequent "Motion of Reconciliation" are within the provisions of the Constitution. The Bishop's ruling is not sustained.
Statement of Facts
The Central Pennsylvania Conference had dealt with the matter of parsonages in the "Plan and Basis of Union" adopted in 1969 following the merger of the previous Annual Conferences. That plan read: "It is required that each localCharge shall provide its pastor(s) and his (their) family (families) with a parsonage (s) . . . . ". The presiding Bishop stated that this was interpreted in practice as meaning "church-owned" as opposed to "rented" and as forbidding the payment of a housing allowance. Exceptions to the rule were allowed under unusual circumstances. In the Spring of 1975, Grace United Methodist Church, Penbrook, Pennsylvania, stated their desire to sell their parsonage to the incumbent Pastor with the understanding that they would provide a successor pastor with a parsonage. They pursued this course in light of two previous cases where churches had been granted the privilege. The Commission on Equitable Salaries of the Central Pennsylvania Conference conducted a study of policy concerning ownership of parsonages and offered their report to the Conference. The report included the recommendation "that the Conference should retain the policy of church owned parsonages rather than permit pastor owned parsonages". (1975 Journal Vol. I, p. 41) A substitute was offered providing that the section of the Plan and Basis of union referring to parsonage ownership "not be interpreted to prevent or prohibit a local charge from providing its pastor with a parsonage by means other than ownership of the parsonage by the local Church". This substitute motion was defeated. (1975 Journal Vol II, p. 91). Subsequently, the recommendation of the Commission on Equitable Salaries was approved by a standing vote with 463 votes in favor and 288 votes against. At a later time in that same session, the Conference approved a motion to reconsider and received and adopted a "Motion of Reconciliation" which established procedures to allow for and authenticate exceptions to the rule previously adopted. The Motion provided for consideration and approval by four official groups: (1) The Administrative Board of the local church, with theconcurrence of the pastor; (2) the Cabinet; (3) The Executive Committee of the Board of Ministry; (4) the District Board of Church Location when property matters are applicable." (1975 Journal Vol II, p. 99) After the action of the Annual Conference in June, 1975, the Grace United Methodist Church of Penbrook "entered into an agreement with its pastor for a future sale of the parsonage to him after he should have ceased to be their pastor" acknowledging their "responsibility and intent to provide a parsonage for whoever would be their pastor". The Bishop ruled that this was not an exception to the report approved by the Conference and did not submit the plan to the four bodies named in the "Motion of Reconciliation". One of the four bodies so named indicated its intent to appeal the ruling of the Bishop to the Annual Conference. Grace United Methodist Church then requested a ruling from the presiding Bishop as to the validity of the 1975 Annual Conference action including the "Motion of Reconciliation". The Bishop ruled that the action of the 1975 Session of the Annual Conference was unconstitutional on the grounds that it infringed upon the rights of the Charge Conference and that the procedures established by the "Motion of Reconciliation" gave undue power to the clergy and therefore encroached upon the rights of the laity. JURISDICTION The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Par. 2515.2(i). (See also Par. 2551.10) ANALYSIS The Constitution grants to the Annual Conference specific duties and powers and the additional inclusive statement ". . . and such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution" (Article 37 The Discipline). It may establish policies, guidelines and organizations for the enablement of its work and ministries. The Charge Conference is the basic unit in the connectional system of The United Methodist Church within the pastoral charge (242. 1) and has its power and duties listed in Paragraph 243 of The Discipline. The Charge Conference " shall in consultation with the District Superintendent set the salary and other remuneration of the pastor . . ." (243.9) This process involves the recommendation of the Administrative Board in response to the report of its Committee on Pastor-Parish (Staff) Relations. (Par. 250.3.d) That Committee is charged with the duty of consulting and recommending to the Committee on Finance and the Administrative Board "matters pertaining to ... salary, travel expense, vacation, health and life insurance, pension, continuing education, housing and other practical matters affecting the work and families of the minister and staff . . ." (260.2(d)4) It is here that specific reference to the parsonage is made: "The parsonage is to be mutuallyrespected by the ministerial family as the property of the church and by the church as the private home of the ministerial family." (260.2(d)4) Thus, it is clear that the Charge Conference sets the salary to be paid the pastor, after consultation with the District Superintendent. What is not so clear is the reference to "other remuneration". Is it necessary to interpret that phrase so as to include housing and specifically, a parsonage? The Judicial Council Decisions 213 and 252 referred to "other remuneration" and dealt specifically with Annual Conference efforts to define the limits of travel expenses to be allowed as part of the financial support of the pastor. The traditional plan for the provision of housing for pastors in our itinerant system has not been calculated as salary support. It has been a "given" of the appointive and connectional system. Is an Annual Conference allowed to adopt policies and guidelines concerning the ownership of such housing arrangements? The Discipline provides processes for Acquisition and disposition of parsonages and includes provision for evaluation and review by the District Committee on Church Location and Building, with that committee having authority to withhold approval. Further, the District Superintendent has power to withhold approval of purchase, erection or sale of a parsonage within the district over which he or she presides. Thus, the action of the Charge Conference is subject to the limitations imposed by the Discipline. Part of the dilemma revolves around the meaning of "house" and "housing". The General Conference in its wisdom may provide a clearer definition of these terms, but it has not yet done so. In the absence of General Conference legislation dealing with requirements of ownership of parsonages, the Annual Conference may enact rules and regulations on matters not specifically delegated to the local church. The United Methodist Church is a connectional church in government and the local church is part of that system. It is not autonomous in the style of congregational government. The Annual Conference has the power to adopt rules and regulations for its own government not in conflict with The Discipline of The United Methodist Church. (Par. 702). It has wide latitude in dealing with its internal affairs and the churches within its bounds. The Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference was within its rights in adopting regulations relating to ownership of parsonages as a Conference policy, especially when specific provisions were made to allow for "any necessary and advisable exceptions". The "Motion of Reconciliation" did establish a procedure for review and evaluation of any case judged by a local church to be exceptional. It granted to each of four bodies the right of disapproval, thus requiring approval of all the four bodies plus the confirmation of the Bishop and the Cabinet in a meeting thereof. The specific challenge of the Bishop's ruling deals with the preponderance of power given to clergy. This is not judged pertinent in view of the several arrangements provided in the motion and the guidelines provided in the Discipline giving the Pastor or the District Superintendent power of disapproval on acquisition, remodeling or disposition of local church property. The specific arrangements of the "Motion of Reconciliation" might appear to be unnecessarily cumbersome, but the right of the Annual Conference to adopt the measure is affirmed.
In the absence of specific General Conference legislation on the subject, the Annual Conference has the power under the Constitution to establish policies and guidelines concerning rental or ownership of parsonages or provision of housing allowance. Both the original report adopted by the Central Pennsylvania Conference in 1975 and the subsequent "Motion of Reconciliation" are within the provisions of the Constitution. The Bishop's ruling is not sustained. Gene E. Sease was absent