Decision Number 831

April 24, 1998

Review of Decision of Law by Bishop C. Joseph Sprague on the Legality of the Interim Plan of Mission and Ministry Adopted by the Northern Illinois Conference in Special Session on November 15, 1997


The ruling of the bishop is reversed. The adoption of the Interim Model is null and void. The structure of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference in place prior to adoption of the Interim Model is hereby reinstated.

An Annual Conference cannot adopt a plan of restructure under constitutional authority given to the General Conference without General Conference enabling legislation. An Annual Conference cannot restructure in such a way as to constitute an unauthorized delegation of its authority to a committee. All restructuring of an Annual Conference must preserve the connectional relationships of the denomination and recognize the separation of powers of the legislative and executive branches under the Constitution.

Statement of Facts

The uncontroverted statement of facts as presented by the propounder of the question of law presented to the bishop are as follows:

At its regular 1997 session, no legislation concerning restructuring the Northern Illinois Annual Conference was presented and the conference took no action relating to the study or development of such a proposal. No special session of the conference was set or contemplated at that time. A proposal for conference restructuring was not mailed to the members of the conference until the second week of October, 1997, at which time a special three-hour session for the specific purpose of voting the proposed Interim Model up or down was set for November 15, 1997. One district meeting was to be held in each district, but the model was proposed so late it missed two district meetings and only very limited time was given over to the discussion of the proposal, less than half an hour in one meeting. Two more drafts of the proposal emerged, the third one not being distributed until the morning of November 15 at the special session. At that session, the bishop and conference leadership made a two hour presentation in support of the proposed Interim Model, after which a one hour "time of discernment" was provided to take questions. The bishop announced that no amendments to the Interim Model could be made and that it would be voted up or down based on a two-thirds vote in a secret paper ballot.

Between the call for the special session issued in October and the session on November 15, the Judicial Council met for its Fall 1997, session. Its decision in what was to become Judicial Council Decision 815 (when published) was reported, but the actual opinion was not published until after the Annual Conference session. A motion to delay action on the Interim Model until after the decision was published and to seek a declaratory decision on the issue prior to the June 1998 Annual Conference session was made and debated. On his own motion, the bishop called for a standing vote by members of the conference on this motion and it was defeated. The conference secretary reports that after the ballot on the Interim Model was taken and its adoption announced, the following question of law was put to the bishop for a ruling:

Is the Interim Plan of Mission and Ministry as adopted by the Northern Illinois Conference legal under the provisions of the Constitution and Discipline of The United Methodist Church?

Verbatim Response By Bishop Sprague:

It is my considered decision that it is, for the following reasons: Number one, the constitutional amendment that would be permissive, if passed, was announced as having passed with more than 90% vote at the Council of Bishops meeting that concluded last Friday--that announcement and that count were shared last Friday. Secondly, Paragraph 607 of the Discipline gives us, in my considered opinion, the ability to do what we have done, and the Enabling Legislation, as revised, is, in the opinion of the Chair, conducive to this decision. Therefore, since this is an interim model, and not a new structure, it is my considered opinion that, yes, it is in keeping with the Constitution and various decisions of The United Methodist Church.

It is noted that the propounder of the question of law included in his brief a second question of law, which reads:

Is the Interim Model's transfer of fiscal accountability from the Council on Finance and Administration to the Conference Governance Committee legal under the provisions of the Constitution and Discipline of The United Methodist Church?

The conference secretary states no written record of such a second question was submitted at the time of the motion (and before the bishop at the time of his ruling).

While we have not considered the second question independently, it is a proper concern under the question of law as reported by the conference secretary.

A careful reading of the Interim Model reveals improper delegation of authority by the Annual Conference to committees, usurpation of the authority of the General Conference in its structuring and organization, a total disregard of the separation of constitutional powers and authority of the legislative and executive branches of our denomination, and a complete disregard of the historical and tradition of The United Methodist Governing Polity, as well as a failure to consider Judicial Council decisions relating to structure and organization. Further, in consideration of the matter by the Annual Conference, there were violations of accepted parliamentary procedure. The presiding bishop disallowed consideration of amendments and on his own determined the method of vote for the body.


The Judicial Council has jurisdiction under ¶ 2613 of the 1996 Discipline.

Analysis and Rationale


Par. 15 of the Constitution states:

The General Conference shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional, and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows: ...

3. To define and fix the powers and duties of annual conferences ...

5. To define and fix the powers, duties and privileges of the episcopacy ...

8. To initiate and to direct all connectional enterprises of the Church and to provide boards for their promotion and administration. ...

The Judicial Council has consistently upheld the legal and constitutional principle that Annual Conferences may not restructure themselves in ways that violate the constitutional and legislative mandates of the General Conference. With the 1968 union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church came shared and immutable assumptions regarding structure which were imbedded in the Constitution of 1968. In the Preamble to the Constitution, the essential relationship of structure to unity is made manifest in the transmittal of the Plan of Union from the Commissions on Church Union to their respective denominations as follows:

Therefore, we, the Commissions on Church Union of The Methodist Church, and of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, holding that these churches are essentially one in origin, in belief, in spirit, and in purpose, and desiring that this essential unity be made actual in organization and administration in the United States of America and throughout the world (emphasis added), do hereby propose and transmit to our respective General Conferences the following Plan of Union ...

With the adoption of the Plan of Union by the constituent communions of what has become The United Methodist Church came a covenantal understanding that matters of structure, organization, and episcopal authority, were reserved to the General Conference's legislative authority. This understanding is fundamental to our connectional polity. Given this understanding, it cannot be constitutional for Annual Conferences to be permitted to restructure themselves without specific authorization from the General Conference. That authorization, if given, must retain the fundamental constitutional assumptions of our denomination.

There is a long history of Annual Conference restructuring attempts which have failed to meet legal and constitutional requirements. In Decision 314, the Judicial Council invalidated a restructuring by the South Indiana Annual Conference for failure to retain the mandatory structures established by the General Conference and specifically described in the Discipline. The Conference had sought to make "... All structures and forms ... subject to modification any time it would assist the Church to fulfill her mission. ..." In its ruling, the Judicial Council stated that the motivations for such a restructure were irrelevant to the central question of whether any Annual Conference could disregard specific Constitutional and disciplinary requirements. It stated:

The question before the Judicial Council is neither (1) whether the plan which was approved by the South Indiana Annual Conference is more efficient or more suitable for the felt needs of that conference nor (2) whether all of the Christian interests and concerns covered by the agencies mandated by the General Conference are cared for in some manner under the proposed plan (emphasis added). The central question is whether an Annual Conference may, at its own option, disregard a specific instruction adopted by the General Conference and made applicable to every Annual Conference.

The answer to that question then and subsequently has been a resounding "no" (Decisions 339, 680 and 712 and Memoranda 411 and 640). The existence of mandated structures at the general church level has and continues to require parallel structures at the Annual Conference level as an expression of the connectional principles that yoke us together in our collective task. It is not appropriate for any body other than the General Conference to restructure our denomination, as the General Conference is the repository of our connectional tradition.


Some have argued that ¶ 15.15, the amendment to the Constitution which was ratified in early November 1997, reversed the prior constitutional history concerning the reservation of restructure issues to the General Conference. The existence of ¶ 15.15 would, therefore, enable conferences to ignore prior judicial history and restructure as they choose, even if that restructure means that the conference boards and agencies are not congruent with the mandated general boards and agencies. In anticipation of the adoption and ratification of this amendment, the 1996 General Conference, before the amendment was ratified, added language to a number of paragraphs purporting to allow Annual Conferences to utilize "equivalent structures" to those specifically required and named in the Discipline. See e.g. ¶ 608, "In each annual conference there shall be a conference council on finance and administration, ... or other structure to provide for the functions of the ministry and maintain the connectional relationships (¶ 607.1) ..." Also ¶¶ 628 (church and society "or an equivalent structure"), 629 (discipleship "or alternative structure"), 630 (board of laity "or other equivalent structure"), 631 (global ministries "or other structure"), 632 (board of higher education and ministry "or equivalent structure"), 638 (commission on archives and history "or alternative structure"), 639 (commission or committee on Christian unity and interreligious concerns "or alternative structure"), 640 (commission on religion and race "or alternative structure"), 641 (commission on the status and role of women "or alternative structure"), 643 (commission on communications "or alternative structure"), 649 (committee on disability concerns "or alternative structure"), and 650 (committee on Native American ministry "or other structure").

The Judicial Council in Decision 815 clearly states that any Annual Conference action to restructure in anticipation of the ratification of ¶ 15.15 "is moot, null and void" as antedating the passage, ratification and effective date of the amendment. Annual Conference restructurings prior to the announcement of the ratification of ¶ 15.15 are therefore nullities.

Restructuring plans adopted subsequent to the ratification of ¶ 15.15 also fail to pass legal requirements. The Judicial Council in Decision 815 has established specific guidelines for Annual Conference restructuring. The first, that "there is no General Conference legislation adopted which enables an Annual Conference to restructure in accordance with ¶ 15.15 of the Constitution", suggests that the ruling of law in the instant case, which relies on the adoption of that amendment as the keystone of its rationale, is clearly erroneous. If ¶ 15.15 does not override the earlier cases discussed in the previous section, the controlling principle of those cases, that connectional principles mean that Annual Conferences cannot unilaterally restructure in ways they see fit, must prevail. They must include within their structure the conference boards and agencies which correspond to the general boards and agencies mandated by the General Conference.

Even if it is assumed arguendo that the legislative provisions relating to conference agencies or equivalent/other/alternative structures somehow can be sustained in light of Judicial Council Decision 815, it strains credulity to argue that the intent of the General Conference in providing the possibility of an equivalent/other/alternative structure was to make it possible for that to be the same conference committee, as is the case in the Interim Model.

However, Decision 815 clearly establishes that the enabling legislation for ¶ 15.15 does not exist. In the opinion, the Council notes that any enabling legislation in the future must be passed by a General Conference (not an Annual Conference) and that it "must preserve the connectional system."


As noted earlier, ¶ 15.5 reserves to the General Conference exclusively the authority to "define and fix the powers, duties and privileges of the episcopacy ..." Par. 404.1 notes that the ministry of bishops is one of "general oversight and supervision." Their presidential responsibilities include the duties "to preside in the ... annual conferences" (¶ 415.1) and "to provide general oversight for the fiscal and program operations of the annual conference(s) (emphasis added). ..."

Contrary to the long-established traditions of Methodism that bishops preside over, but are not members, voting or otherwise, of Annual Conferences, the Interim Model creates an Executive Steering Team, appointed by the bishop, which includes the bishop as a voting member. The powers of the Executive Steering Team include the management and deployment of all budgeted funds and the day to day administrative responsibility over the Annual Conference for the three years of the Interim Model. The provision of the Model to include the bishop as a voting member clearly and improperly expands the authority of the episcopal office by a body, the Annual Conference, which is not empowered to do so.

Inasmuch as a bishop is not a member of the Annual Conference, there is no authority for the Annual Conference or any other board or agency to grant the right of vote to a bishop in matters relating to the Annual Conference.

The shift of authority to the bishop in the Interim Plan is also contrary to the covenantal understandings of United Methodism wherein bishops have historically exercised authority through the appointment process, worship and persuasion. A United Methodist Annual Conference is not a corporation sole or a cardinalatial see. We do not give the presiding bishop ownership and control of property and resources as is done in other religious traditions, nor do we give him or her a vote. Our polity has balanced executive, legislative and judicial authority much as the United States Constitution does. Making the bishop a voting member of the Executive Steering Team is analogous to the President of the United States simultaneously serving as Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, particularly given the appropriation of all district and conference funds by the Executive Steering Team. In addition, the bishop appoints the Cabinet representative and both the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer no longer report to conference councils but directly to the bishop.

The authority reserved to the conference council on finance and administration for finance and to the conference council on ministries for program has been improperly delegated to the Executive Steering Team. Under the Interim Model, all items for finance and program are to be generated by the Executive Steering Team.


In the first case interpreting whether, in light of ¶ 15.15, currently existing conference boards and agencies previously amended by the Discipline could be eliminated or combined into another structure, the Judicial Council in Decision 815 has stated that, where an "equivalent" structure to a conference board of laity is suggested pursuant to ¶ 630.1, "'equivalent' is synonymous with parallel, comparable, unvarying, and match." A specific structure which provides for the carrying out of the current functions of the conference board of laity would have to be adopted by the Annual Conference.

The Interim Model lumps all of the above discrete and specific structures and functions into the Conference Governance Committee. In so doing, the plan as adopted does not provide for connectional relationships with the general councils, boards, commissions and committees provided by the Discipline. It does violence to the shared covenants regarding structure that have informed our polity since 1968 and clearly cannot meet the requirements set forth for alternate or equivalent structures explored in Decision 815.

In making his ruling that the Interim Model is legal and constitutional, apart from relying on ¶ 15.15, the bishop cited ¶ 607. An analysis of that paragraph, however, reveals that the Interim Model, as adopted, is contrary to its provisions. ¶ 607 states:

The annual conference is responsible for structuring its ministries in order to accomplish its purpose (¶ 601). In so doing, it shall provide for the connectional relationship of the local church, district, and conference with the general agencies. ... 1. An annual conference shall provide for the functions and General Conference connections with all general agencies provided by the Discipline... .

The Interim Model legislation does not refer to connectional relationships at all. The provisions establishing the Conference Governance Committee in Section II, 1.o.(6) state that the committee is to "serve as liaison to necessary administrative units (mandated Disciplinary groups) and persons serving in the General Church on behalf of the Conference."

Given the history of the connection in our tradition, this approach cannot be a functional equivalent of any one of the agencies that were abolished by the Interim Model. The Interim Model is therefore also in violation of ¶ 607.


The ruling of the bishop is reversed. The adoption of the Interim Model is null and void. The structure of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference in place prior to adoption of the Interim Model is hereby reinstated.

An Annual Conference cannot adopt a plan of restructure under constitutional authority given to the General Conference without General Conference enabling legislation. An Annual Conference cannot restructure in such a way as to constitute an unauthorized delegation of its authority to a committee. All restructuring of an Annual Conference must preserve the connectional relationships of the denomination and recognize the separation of powers of the legislative and executive branches under the Constitution.

This copy subject to final editing and correction.

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