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Plan UMC’s fate still up to GC2016

By Heather Hahn
May 10, 2016 | PORTLAND, Ore. (UMNS)

The 2016 General Conference now has the responsibility of determining what happens to three commissions that Plan UMC Revised has put on the chopping block.

The Judicial Council, The United Methodist Church’s top court, ruled May 10 that the revised version of the agency restructure known as Plan UMC has parts that violate the denomination’s constitution and other parts that are entirely constitutional.

In Decision 1310, the court mostly rejected legislative language that would give the Connectional Table, a church coordinating body, new authority in the hiring and firing of agency top executives.

However, the church court affirmed that General Conference has the authority to discontinue commissions, as proposed under Plan UMC Revised. The ruling did not remark on the plan’s proposal to increase African representation on agency boards.

Lonnie Brooks, one of the main drafters of Plan UMC Revised, considered the ruling mostly a win. He said fixing the plan to bring it in line with the Judicial Council ruling “is fairly simple.”

Whether such changes benefit the multinational denomination remains up to General Conference delegates to decide.

Erin Hawkins, the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, sees the ruling as an opportunity for the lawmaking assembly “to engage in a serious conversation about the issues” the commissions deal with.

“Now we can talk about the real mission of the church, which is to meet people wherever they are and to be a voice of justice in a world that is rife with injustice,” Hawkins said.

The May 10 ruling comes after the Judicial Council overturned the original Plan UMC as unconstitutional on the last day of the 2012 General Conference. That previous agency restructure had garnered nearly 60 percent of the lawmaking body’s vote. 

What the plan does

“Plan UMC Revised” includes the following changes to the current structure:

  • It eliminates the United Methodist commissions on Religion and Race and the Status and Role of Women. The plan moves the commissions’ work to a new Connectional Table committee called the United Methodist Committee on Inclusiveness.
  •  It eliminates the Commission on Archives and History, and moves its functions to the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency.
  • It also changes the Commission on United Methodist Men to simply United Methodist Men.
  • It reduces the size of some agency boards and the Connectional Table, while increasing representation from outside the United States, especially Africa. The Connectional Table, for example, would see its total membership decrease from 59 to 45.
  • It replaces the General Secretaries Table, which includes the 13 general agencies’ top executives, with a General Secretaries Committee, which includes the top executives of each remaining agency. The new committee’s chair would be held by the newly created Connectional Table executive general secretary.

The Rev. Clayton Oliphint, the submitter of Plan UMC Revised and a delegate from the North Texas Conference, has argued the changes will increase focus on fostering vital local congregations.

“The church has a decision to make,” he said after the ruling. “Are we satisfied that the way we are structured is helping us focus on the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world? If we are not, I hope we would be open to making necessary changes now, and not waiting another four years to study the issue some more.”

Dawn Wiggins Hare has a different take. She is the top executive of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women and a delegate from the Alabama-West Florida Conference.

She said General Conference will decide whether the denomination’s work on race, gender and history “are still values” of the church.

The Rev. Alfred T. Day III, the top executive of Archives and History, said his commission welcomes the opportunity to give witness to the relevancy of its ministry. In helping the church understand its past, he said, “we resource the church's best path to the future.”

Are there financial savings?

The General Council on Finance and Administration estimates that Plan UMC will not save local churches money. Instead, the agency estimates changes to board membership and the potential increase to Connectional Table staffing will increase general church costs by at least $500,000 in the next four years.

Brooks said he thinks the finance agency is “way overestimating the costs,” and expects eliminating agency top executives will mean some significant savings.

The finance agency also reported that it cannot estimate a cost for the proposed Committee on Inclusiveness, since its membership is unknown.

Oliphint has noted that after decades of declining United Methodist membership in the United States, it’s time think differently about church organization.

“Doing things the way we have always done them may not be the most effective way of accomplishing our mission going forward,” he said.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at newsdesk@umcom.org.