Decision Number 398


April 04, 1975

Episcopal Ruling on a Point of Law Regarding the Constitutionality of the Restructuring Plans for the Mississippi and the North Mississippi Annual Conferences with Four District Superintendents Appointed to Each of Two Districts.


The Discipline of The United Methodist Church contains no provisions allowing the number of district superintendents to exceed the number of districts. The administrative structures of the districts of the Mississippi and the North Mississippi Annual Conferences are contrary to the structures established in the Constitution and law of The United Methodist Church to provide the basis for a connectional Church, and are violative of the rights of an Annual Conference, the members of the Annual Conference, and the principle of inclusiveness. The Plans are, therefore illegal and unconstitutional.

Statement of Facts

Special study committees of the Mississippi and the North Mississippi Annual Conferences recommended plans of operation to those conferences which contained recommendations that each conference be divided into two districts. Each of the two districts would be served by four district superintendents, at least one of whom would be black.

The report to the Mississippi Annual Conference reads specifically as follows:

"1. That for the next conference year beginning in June 1974 and ending May 1975, the Mississippi Conference be composed of two districts and that these districts be formed by the presiding bishop by churches and charges. That the cabinet be composed of 8 district superintendents, four from each district; that there be representation on each district from both former conferences; that the district superintendents work together in a team process of administration, guidance and leadership. That in keeping with The Book of Discipline, the presiding bishop, in consultation with the cabinet, will work out the lines of accountability of the churches and charges in each district. That the annual conference at its regular session in 1975 evaluate and reconsider the implementation of this plan.

"2. That a study committee be appointed in adequate time before the end of the quadrennium to give careful consideration to the structural and substantive matters included herein and to a reduction in the number of district superintendents when recommended by the annual conference and to evaluate the progress being made in the conference.

"It is the opinion of the committee that this is the most workable, feasible, and considerate plan of arrangement of districts for the present time. With experimentation and adjustment to conditions and needs, it could become a new, helpful and creative plan within The United Methodist Church. The plan is considerate of all groups, members and churches of both former conferences, within the framework of the Christian inclusiveness of The United Methodist Church."

The report was adopted.

The report adopted by the North Mississippi Annual Conference was basically the same.

At a special session of the Mississippi Annual Conference on November 12, 1973, Reverend B. Ferrell Stokes submitted in writing the following question:

"I request a ruling on a point of law regarding the constitutionality of the "Two District Plan," inasmuch as Sec. III, Par. 17, Article III of the Constitution denies even the General Conference the right to do away with or drastically alter the plan of our itinerant general superintendency. "The Two District Plan," in my opinion, alters the itinerant superintendency to such a degree as to destroy the traditional form of itinerant general superintendency, and is in violation of the Discipline."

Bishop Mack B. Stokes ruled that the Plan was legal. The ruling was reported to the Judicial Council in writing in accordance with Paragraph 56 of the Discipline.

On February 5, 1975, the Commission on Religion and Race petitioned the Judicial Council as follows:

"1. The Commission on Religion and Race hereby petitions the Judicial Council for a ruling in the nature of a declaratory decision to determine the constitutionality of the action of the Mississippi Annual Conference in establishing and implementing its so-called 'Two District Administrative System.'

"2. AND further, to determine the constitutionality of the action of Bishop Mack B. Stokes, presiding Bishop of the Mississippi and the North Mississippi Annual Conferences in forming the districts, and in implementing the said 'Two District Administrative Systems' by the assignment of the administrative responsibility for the charges in such a manner as to restrict the responsibility for Black charges to Black District Superintendents and the responsibility for White charges to White District Superintendents.

"3. Petitioner, the Commission on Religion and Race, states that the actions of the North Mississippi and Mississippi Annual Conferences and of the Bishop in establishing and implementing said system are violative of the discipline provisions on the elimination of racial structures from the church.

"4. Petitioner alleges that Bishop Mack B. Stokes, the Mississippi Annual Conference and the North Mississippi Annual Conference are necessary parties to this action and are therefore named as parties to this action entitled to notice of the filing of this petition. "5. Petitioner states that it is a General Conference Body and that the actions complained of relate to and affect the work of the Commission on Religion and Race and that the Judicial Council therefore has jurisdiction of this case and of the parties thereto."

The Judicial Council held public hearings on both matters at which Bishop Mack B. Stokes and Rev. B. Ferrell Stokes from Mississippi, Bishop D. Frederick Wertz, the chairman, Reverends Joseph E. Lowery and Woodie W. White and attorneys Leonard Slutz and Clenzo B. Fox, of the Commission on Religion and Race were heard. For the purpose of this decision the two matters were combined. The plans for restructuring the conferences hereinafter will be called the Plans.


The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under Paragraphs 56, 1512, 1515.2 (c) of the Discipline.

Analysis and Rationale

The district superintendency is established under Paragraph 58, Article IX of the Discipline which states:
"In each Annual Conference there shall be one or more district superintendents who shall assist the bishop in the administration of the Annual Conference and shall have such responsibilities and term of office as the General Conference may determine."

The duties of the district superintendent are enumerated in Paragraph 354 of the Discipline, among them:
"1. To travel through the district in order to preach and oversee the spiritual and temporal affairs of the Church.

* * * * *

"3. To administer the program of the Church within the bounds of the district in cooperation with the pastors and the Charge Conferences, to encourage adequate salaries for pastors, to promote a concern for continuing education for ministers, and to urge financial support of all conference and denominational causes.

"4. To supervise the work of pastors in the district and counsel with them concerning their pastoral responsibilities, continuing education, and other matters affecting their ministry and personal life....

"5. To appraise the needs and opportunities of churches within the district; to evaluate fields of labor, and within an ecumenically responsible perspective to initiate new forms of ministry, mergers, yoked fields, and long-range planning and the establishment and closing of churches." The position of district superintendent was originally devised in Methodism as a supervisory position and is, in large measure, the connection between the local church and the general church.

The question was raised in the Mississippi Annual Conference as to whether or not the proposed district structure was a violation of the itinerant general superintendency protected by Paragraph 17, Article III of the Constitution. Historically the bishops of The United Methodist Church are itinerant general superintendents. (See The Doctrines and Disciplines of The Methodist Episcopal Church (1798) at page 44.)

Of course, the position is correct that no General Conference or Annual Conference or any other body may take any action that would change or alter the government of The United Methodist Church in such a fashion as to destroy the plan of the itinerant general superintendency.

The itinerant district superintendency is clearly an administrative arm of the itinerant general superintendency, established in the Constitution and law of The United Methodist Church as the basis of its distinctive connectionalism. It is clear from the paragraphs of the Discipline already cited, as well as many others, that it is the intent of the Discipline that the format for the Annual Conference structure shall be one superintendent for one district and that each district shall have clearly defined geographical boundaries.

Bishop Roy Short, in his book, United Methodism in Theory and Practices, points out:

"There are more than five hundred district superintendents in The United Methodist Church. They blanket every foot of territory in the United States and vast areas in other countries where United Methodism operates. They keep in contact continually with every congregation and are available for counsel with every preacher and lay person. They are the living links by which the connectionalism is kept alive and functioning with efficiency."

The provisions of the Discipline heretofore cited give ample foundation for the accuracy of the definitions of districts and district superintendents found in the glossary of the Discipline on page 563:
"District. The major administrative subdivision of an Annual Conference, the number of which is established by the Annual Conference and the boundaries of which are set by the bishop after consultation with the district superintendents. It comprises all the pastoral charges in the prescribed territory and is under the supervision of a district superintendent."

"District Superintendent. A minister appointed by the bishop to administer the work of the church within a district."

Under Paragraph 390.3 of the Discipline the number of districts is determined by vote of the Annual Conference. The formation and structuring of the district is the responsibility of the bishop after consultation with the district superintendents. The appointment of district superintendents is the responsibility of the bishop.

The historical background of the office of district superintendent as well as the provisions of the Discipline make it clear that the office of district superintendent is a keystone of the connectional system. The Constitution also provides that "The Annual Conference is the basic body in the church . . ."

Paragraph 390.3 provides that among the duties of a bishop is "3. To form the districts after consultation with the district superintendents and after the number of the same has been determined by vote of the Annual Conference." It is clear that the historical reason for reserving the right to determine the number of districts to the Annual Conference is to give the Annual Conference control over the size and cost of the administration of the conference. Therefore, when an Annual Conference votes on the number of districts it is also deciding the number of district superintendents. The Plans are violative of this basic right reserved to the Annual Conference.

While the Annual Conference has broad powers to adopt rules and regulations for its own government, the Judicial Council has consistently ruled that the Annual Conference may not adopt structures which are contrary to those established for Annual Conferences in the Constitution and law of The United Methodist Church, nor may the Annual Conference adopt procedures which deny any rights of Annual Conferences, District Conferences or local churches, or the members thereof, which rights have been provided for in the Discipline. (See Decisions Nos. 239, 252, 314, 367.)

The Plans before the Council fail in these respects. For example: theDiscipline clearly provides for the rights of the membership of the conference on a district level.

"Paragraph 669. A District Conference shall be held if directed by the Annual Conference of which it is a part and may be held upon the call of the district superintendent, which call shall specify the time and place."

"Paragraph 670.4. The District Conference may incorporate a District Union, under the laws of the state in which it is located, to hold and administer district real and personal property, receive and administer church extension and mission funds for use within the district, . . . and may act for or as a District Conference when convened for that purpose by the district superintendent, who shall be its executive secretary . . ." (emphasis added)

"Paragraph 835.4. Staff-The district superintendent shall be the chief executive staff officer" (emphasis added)

"Paragraph 872. Should the Annual Conference make the apportionments to the districts only, the distribution to the charges of each district shall be made by its district Board of Stewards, composed of the district superintendent as chairperson and the district stewards elected by the several Charge Conferences (Par. 145.3) " (emphasis added)

"Paragraph 1041.1. In each district a district chairperson of education shall be appointed by the district superintendent in consultation with the chairperson of the conference Committee on Education. District chairpersons will be confirmed by the conference Committee on Education." (emphasis added)

"Paragraph 1414. There shall be in each district of an Annual Conference a district Board of Church Location and Building, consisting of the district superintendent, three ministers, and three lay persons nominated by the district superintendent and elected annually by the Annual Conference; . . ." (emphasis added)

No provision for these basic relationships between the membership of the district and the district superintendent is made in the Plans.

The Discipline clearly provides that there shall be the office of District Lay Leader.

"Paragraph 1056. Membership-The committee shall be composed of the district lay leader, who shall be chairperson . . ." (See also Par. 1057) (emphasis added)

No provision for this basic lay position is made in the Plans. As a matter of fact, the connectional rights of the laity, as a whole, are dissipated by the Plans.

The Discipline protects the rights of a local church to have a relationship with a district structure and a district superintendent.

"Paragraph 144.6. Special sessions may be called by the district superintendent after consultation with the pastor of the charge or by the pastor with the written consent of the district superintendent. . . ." (emphasis added)

"Paragraph 147. The Church Conference may be authorized by the district superintendent on written request of the pastor or the Administrative Board or ten percent of the membership of the local church to the district superintendent, with a copy to the pastor, or at the discretion of the district superintendent . . ."

"Paragraph 130. If a local church is discontinued, the district superintendent shall select another United Methodist church and transfer its members thereto, or to such other churches as the members may select."

"Paragraph 1429. Prior to the purchase by an unincorporated local church of any real estate, a resolution authorizing such action shall be passed at a meeting of the Charge Conference . . . and provided further, that written consent to such action shall be given by the pastor and the district superintendent. (See Par. 1436) "

"Paragraph 1431. Prior to the purchase by a local church corporation of any real estate, a resolution authorizing such action shall be passed by the Charge Conference in corporate session, . . . provided further, that written consent to such action shall be given by the pastor and the district superintendent; and provided further, that all such transactions shall have the approval of the Charge Conference."

"Paragraph 1432. Any real property owned by, or in which an unincorporated local church has any interest, may be sold, transferred, or mortgaged subject to the following procedure and conditions:

* * * * *

"3. The written consent of the pastor of the local church and the district superintendent to the proposed action shall be necessary and shall be affixed to the instrument of sale, transfer, or mortgage." (See also Par. 1433)

"Paragraph 1434. Real property acquired by a conveyance containing trust clauses may be sold in conformity with the provisions of the Discipline of The United Methodist Church ... the written acknowledged consent of the proper district superintendent representing The United Methodist Church to the action taken shall constitute a release and discharge of the real property sold and conveyed from the trust clause or clauses; or in the event of the execution of a mortgage, such consent of the district superintendent shall constitute a formal recognition. . . "

"Paragraph 1436. Any local church planning to build or purchase a new church or educational building or a parsonage, or to remodel such a building if the cost will exceed 10 percent of its value, shall take the following steps:

1. It shall secure the written consent of the pastor and the district superintendent.

* * * * *

"6. The pastor, with the written consent of the district superintendent, shall call a Church Conference . . ."

"Paragraph 1438. Two or more local churches may merge and become a single church by pursuing the following procedure.

* * * * *

"3. The merger must be approved by the superintendent or superintendents of the district or districts in which the merging churches are located."

"Paragraph 1439. One or more local United Methodist churches may merge with one or more churches of other denominations and become a single church by pursuing the following procedure:
* * * * *

"3. The merger must be approved in writing by the superintendent of the district, a majority of the district superintendents, and the bishop of the area in which the merging churches are located."

No provisions for these basic relationships of the local church are made in the Plans. Churches seeking to assert their rights are provided with no connectional rights. All of these rights are, in effect, eliminated when there is no district structure provided as required by the Discipline.

The rights of a lay pastor in an Annual Conference also require a relationship on a district level. As an example see Paragraph 1532:

"Appeal of a Lay Pastor-1. In case of conviction a lay pastor shall be allowed to appeal to the Annual Conference; provided that within thirty days after conviction the lay pastor shall signify in writing to the superintendent of the district the determination to appeal."

Like provisions are made in reference to the rights of a local church members.

"Paragraph 1533.2 Any member of the Church against whom judgment shall have been rendered by a Trial Court may appeal to the Court of Appeals, as hereinafter constituted, by giving written notice of appeal to the district superintendent within thirty days after judgment is rendered.

"3. When thirty days' notice of appeal shall have been given, or sooner if agreed upon, the superintendent, having due regard for the wishes and rights of the appellant, shall convene a Court of Appeals ... The district superintendent shall give not less than ten nor more than thirty days' notice to all persons concerned of the time and place at which the Court of Appeals shall assemble . . . The district superintendent shall preside. The court may order a new trial or acquit the accused or impose any penalty prescribed in Par. 1555."

"Paragraph 1556. If a member is brought to trial, it shall be before a Trial Court composed of not fewer than seven nor more than twelve members. They shall be chosen by the Charge Conference by ballot ... The district superintendent or an elder in full connection appointed by the district superintendent shall preside at the trial."

"Paragraph 1558. If within sixty days after conviction under the foregoing provisions the accused shall make application in writing to the district superintendent for a new trial on the ground of newly discovered evidence, and shall submit therewith a written statement of the same, and if it shall appear that such evidence is material to the issue involved, the district superintendent shall grant a new trial . . ."

No provision for these basic rights of lay pastors and church members is made in the Plans. Provisions of the Discipline are no mere matter of semantics. They clearly outline the rights of the districts collectively, the laity, the lay pastors, and the church members. These provisions have been eliminated by the Plans and replaced by a confusing administrative procedure which effectively eliminates these rights.

The Mississippi Conference and the North Mississippi Conference have substituted a sub-district administrative structure for a district structure. This is not provided for in the Discipline. The Plans are antagonistic to the above quoted and many other sections of the Discipline and are violative of the connectional system of The United Methodist Church. The basic conference structures are clearly outlined in the Discipline. While there is flexibility in structure as to boards and agencies, there is no such flexibility as to conference administrative structure.

The result is inequity.

The Commission on Religion and Race petitioned the Judicial Council in reference to the Plans averring that they ". . . are violative to the discipline provisions on inclusiveness and on the elimination of racial structures from the church." (Article 3 of Petition)

The Judicial Council takes notice of the amount of progress made toward racial inclusiveness under the leadership of the Area Bishop, Mack B. Stokes, as well as the lay and clerical leadership of both conferences.

Nevertheless, the record indicates that the Plans are in effect an implementation of merger with little, if any, involvement of the local church in the process of elimination of racial structure in the church. The record also indicates that the Plans call for the lines of accountability to run between selected district superintendents and selected churches which system provides an open door to racial structures within the district. The record indicates that the result has been essentially the dividing of the district into three sub-districts with three of the district superintendents being assigned on an essentially geographical basis and one being assigned district wide. A structure which admits of de facto exclusiveness is no more legal than one based on de jure exclusiveness. The Plans disregard the ruling of the Judicial Council in Decision No 362:

"If any merged conference or its boards and agencies should be so structured that it can in fact be demonstrated that equitable attitudes in matters of representation have not been observed and the resulting structure is in reality inequitable, that structure would be unconstitutional."



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