Decision Number 536


October 27, 1983

Authority of an Annual Conference to Establish Higher Standards for Admission to Ministerial Membership than Those Prescribed by the Discipline


An Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements for conference membership, but it may under certain circumstances adopt additional requirements not in conflict with the disciplinary provisions or their spirit or intent. 


By its own motion, under Rule 13 of its Rules of Practice and Procedure, the Judicial Council has decided to reconsider Decision No. 513.

Analysis and Rationale

In Decision No. 513 we referred to Decisions 313 and 318 and said ". . . so that an Annual Conference may not add to, nor subtract from the requirements [for ordination and conference membership] established by the General Conference." That statement was not necessary to the decision in that case. There had been no attempt by an Annual Conference to make any change in the disciplinary requirements and we were not asked whether an Annual Conference might constitutionally do so. Hence, this decision does not change the ruling in No. 513.

There is a fine and sometimes not readily discernible line between the full legislative power of the General Conference under Article 15 of the Constitution over all matters distinctively connectional, and the authority of the Annual Conference under Article 37 of the Constitution, as the basic body of the Church to which is reserved the right to vote on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members, and on the ordination of ministers and such other rights as have not been delegated to the General Conference under the Constitution.

The requirements for admission into the ministry are a distinctively connectional matter over which the General Conference has authority to legislate, and the Annual Conference may not contravene such legislation. The analysis in Decision No. 513 is correct in saying that the Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements, but may the Annual Conference add additional requirements that do not conflict with General Conference legislation? That question can be answered definitively only with relation to a particular adopted or proposed additional requirement, for potential conflict cannot be determined in a vacuum. It may be helpful to review some of the seemingly not altogether consistent previous rulings.

Decisions No. 313 and 318 both dealt with the authority of an Annual Conference to require a ministerial candidate to pledge to abstain from the use of alcohol or tobacco. Both cases state that an Annual Conference may neither add to or subtract from the basic ministerial obligations established and pre-empted by acts of the General Conference. It should be noted, though, as pointed out in the concurring opinion in Decision No. 440, that the preceding General Conference in 1968 had affirmatively acted to delete the requirement for such a pledge which had been mandated under the 1964 Discipline. Such direct consideration and positive action lend support to a conclusion that the General Conference had considered and pre-empted the subject.

Decision 316 involved action by the Iowa Annual Conference to require an applicant for admission by credentials to serve a minimum of one year in probationary status, an addition to the disciplinary requirements of Par. 375.3 of the 1968 Discipline. The decision says that the Annual Conference does have the authority to adopt such a rule and in a particular case could vote to suspend or rescind it. The specific wording of the Iowa Conference action, however, was such that it could be interpreted to give the Board of the Ministry the right to make a decision to admit a candidate without the necessity for a favorable vote by the Annual Conference itself. The rule was for that reason held invalid as an illegal delegation of authority, but the decision says that the defect could be remedied by adding the words "If the Annual Conference so orders," and hence clearly indicates that with such addition the Annual Conference had authority to add to the disciplinary provisions.

Decision No. 317 is to some extent contrary. It holds that a Board of the Ministry of an Annual Conference may not deny approval of a candidate for probationary membership on the basis of marital status or the ministerial occupation of the spouse. It points out that the Discipline has not limited or imposed a bar to eligibility because of sex or marriage. While the decision does not expressly say whether the Annual Conference itself could impose such a requirement, the implication is that it could not.

Decision No. 321 holds that where the 1968 Discipline in Pars. 391.5 and 391.6 authorizes appointments to positions in or through United Methodist-related agencies, and under some limitations to non-United Methodist agencies, the only limitations which can be imposed are those which can be exercised according to the judgment of the Bishop, the District Superintendents and the Annual Conference. It is stated in the analysis "The Annual Conference has control here if it chooses to exercise it. It can fix its own limitations to such special appointments."

Decision No. 325 referred to a statement in No. 321 to the effect that the Annual Conference has considerable control if it wishes to set its own guidelines for approval of special appointments, but pointed out that such guidelines must be in harmony with the provisions of the Discipline. The case held that under the Discipline sabbatical leave and voluntary location are entirely voluntary and discontinuance may be voluntary. Hence, a rule of the Annual Conference requiring a person seeking a special appointment to select one of those changes of status would be altering the voluntary nature of such status by the Discipline and such rule would therefore be in conflict with the governing General Conference legislation.

In Decision No. 440 the question was whether an Annual Conference could require more than one year of service under episcopal appointment before a ministerial candidate may be accepted into full membership, whereas Par. 421 of the 1976 Discipline required at least one full Annual Conference year. The majority said that while the Judicial Council had held in Decisions No. 313, 318 and 325 that an Annual Conference could not enlarge nor reduce the requirements for the ordained ministry, Par. 421 specifically allowed for going above the minimum requirement. It emphasized that the words "at least" implied strengthening and clarification of minimum standards while allowing for possible additional requirements, so that an Annual Conference might establish standards in excess of, but not less than, nor in conflict with, Par. 421 of the Discipline.

Three members of the Council, concurring with Decision No. 440, stated they would place the decision upon a broader basis. They would have reached the same result in the absence of the words "at least." They saw no constitutional prohibition invalidating action by an Annual Conference adding to the disciplinary requirements for ordination an additional factor in no way inconsistent, or out of harmony, with General Conference legislation on the subject. They felt Decision No. 325 to be clearly distinguishable because there the action of the Annual Conference was in conflict with specific provisions of the General Conference. With respect to Decisions No. 313 and 318 they pointed to the affirmative delegation by the General Conference of the requirement of a pledge of abstinence in the use of tobacco or alcohol, and said that the effect of the attempted reversion to the earlier provision could be considered to detract from, and unconstitutionally conflict with, positive General Conference legislation.

Our review of former decisions of the Council leads us to the conclusion that, while it has repeatedly been held that an Annual Conference may not adopt a rule or requirement with respect to ministerial membership that is in conflict with a disciplinary provision, only Decisions No. 313 and 318 hold invalid a provision not in conflict with an express provision of the Discipline, and in those cases there was conflict with the intent of General Conference as evidenced by its positive action.

We conclude with respect to requirements for admission into conference membership that, while an Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements, it has authority to add requirements that do not conflict with General Conference legislation on the subject or the spirit or intent thereof.

The Division of Ordained Ministry suggests as examples of possible higher standards, increased educational requirements for candidates for associate membership such as a Bachelor of Arts degree, or sixty hours of seminary work rather than a minimum of sixty semester hours toward a Bachelor of Arts degree, or in other cases certain required courses, or in individual cases some counseling, therapy, continuing education, etc. It would be necessary for us to have before us a specific proposed or adopted requirement before we could properly determine whether there is conflict with General Conference legislation on the subject, but we recognize the possibility that an Annual Conference may properly adopt for its own purposes a requirement for admission to conference membership in addition to, but not in conflict with, those adopted by the General Conference


An Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements for conference membership but it may under certain circumstances adopt additional requirements not in conflict with disciplinary provisions or their spirit or intent.

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