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Memorandum No. 1129

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October 30 2009
In Re: Request for a Declaratory Decision from the Virginia Annual Conference as to the Meaning, Application, and Effect of ¶¶ 639, 1504, and 1506 with Respect to Sponsorship and Administration of Denominational Pension and Benefit Plans

Digest of Case

The Judicial Council has no jurisdiction. Jon R. Gray concurs in the result reached that the Judicial Council has no jurisdiction.

Statement of Facts

During the 2009 session of the Virginia Annual Conference, on a motion from a clergy member, the conference approved a petition to request a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council. The petition, which was an amended version of an earlier motion that had been presented to the annual conference, has three elements which were not revised from the original motion, so they appear with the original identifying letters. The following is the text of the motion:

Given that secular law stipulates responsibilities of plan sponsors and plan administrators, The Virginia Annual Conference immediately petitions the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision as to the meaning, application and effect of paragraphs 639, 1504, and 1506 of the 2008 Book of Discipline with respect to the following questions: d) what legal authority an individual annual conference, its board of pension and its individual board members have, or should have, acting as plan sponsor in relation to denominational pension and benefit plans; e) what legal authority the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits, its board of pension and its individual board members have, or should have, acting as plan administrator in relation to denominational pension and benefit plans; and f) what basis exists, if any, to contravene secular law pertaining to the role of plan sponsors and the plan administrator relative to our denominational pension and benefit plans.
The motion was approved by the conference. The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits submitted a brief on the matter. Douglas Gestwick has sent a brief, along with various attachments, which included a response to the brief from the General Board. The Board has sent a second brief, responding to the brief of Douglas Gestwick. An oral hearing on the matter was held on Thursday, October 29, 2009, in Durham, North Carolina. Douglas Gestwick, Thomas L. Joyce, Betty J. Forbes, and Donald Rogers of the Virginia Annual Conference appeared. Bishop B. Michael Watson, Barbara Boigegrain, and Sarah S. Hirsen, spoke on behalf of the Board of Pension and Health Benefits. While the Virginia Conference has standing to petition the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on matters relating to annual conferences or the work therein, and while responsibilities for pension programs of the church certainly relate to the work of the annual conferences, and while the annual conference board of pension is “auxiliary to” the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits according to ¶ 639, and while church law is itself opaque in stating that the “mandatory benefit programs shall be incorporated by reference into the Discipline and shall have the full force of law as if printed in the Discipline,” it remains a basic tenet of the Judicial Council that abstract, hypothetical, and advisory matters are not within the jurisdiction of the Judicial Council to resolve. According to ¶ 2610.2j, an annual conference may petition the Judicial Council for a declaratory decision on matters relating to annual conferences or the work therein. It is clear that the work of the annual conference includes various actions regarding pensions, and some items such as setting or revising the service records of clergy are in ¶ 1506 exclusively assigned to the annual conferences. However, the questions that the annual conference has generated in this case fail to meet the test that crosses the threshold into the jurisdiction of the Judicial Council. The Council has repeatedly found that it lacks jurisdiction over questions that are abstract, hypothetical, or advisory in nature. The questions posed in this case by the Virginia Conference fit those characterizations. During the oral hearing, the parties attempted to add information that was not contained in the request for declaratory decision or included in the briefs. The Judicial Council is ill-equipped to resolve the disputed facts from those presentations. Yet none of the facts can alter the nature of the matter that has been formally offered by the Virginia Conference, which is a set of abstract, hypothetical questions that seek advice. Hence, the Judicial Council has no jurisdiction in this specific petition submitted by the Virginia Conference. The Judicial Council will not render decisions that are merely advisory. The Council has spoken unambiguously on this topic. See Decision 193. And the Council takes great care to construe our jurisdiction strictly and with restraint. See Decisions 996 and 1118. The questions posed by the Virginia Conference invite the Judicial Council to set aside our historic precedents and to offer abstract, philosophical, hypothetical views on the matters that span church law, general board practice, annual conference actions, and secular law. The Council finds that there is no justification for doing so and has no jurisdiction in the matter as presented by the Virginia Conference.

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