The United Methodist Council of Bishops has the authority to call jurisdictional conferences this year to elect and assign new episcopal leaders in the U.S.
However, that authority does not extend to changing the Sept. 1 date when church law says newly elected U.S. bishops officially take office, the denomination’s top court ruled in Decision 1445.
Usually jurisdictional conferences meet to elect bishops in mid-July every four years following General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.
But amid General Conference’s continued pandemic-caused delay, the Judicial Council said the bishops can call jurisdictional conferences “for the limited purpose of effectuating the continuance of an episcopacy in The United Methodist Church” as required by the denomination’s constitution.
Put another way, the Judicial Council says new bishop elections can occur off their usual schedule to fulfill the United Methodist constitutional mandate that bishops provide continuing supervision.
The Council of Bishops tentatively had set Nov. 2-5 for jurisdictional conferences if the Judicial Council ruled in favor of holding the regional meetings.
“This is good news,” said Great Plains Conference Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. “It is vital in this season of change for clergy, laity, and congregations to have certainty about the assignment of their episcopal leader so they can move forward in mission and ministry together.”
To comply with the requirement that new bishops take office on Sept. 1, the Judicial Council decision said the Council of Bishops must either reschedule the jurisdictional conferences so they occur before Sept. 1 this year or assign the newly elected bishops on an interim basis until they officially begin their assignments on Sept. 1, 2023.
The Judicial Council released Decision 1445 on May 20, just as U.S. annual conferences — church regional bodies — begin their spring and summer meetings. Annual conferences frequently nominate one of their clergy members to be a bishop candidate at jurisdictional conferences.
Judicial Council member Beth Capen issued a separate opinion that concurs in part and dissents in part.
Capen concurred with the ultimate holding but dissented that newly elected bishops must assume office on Sept. 1 “because it serves no purpose in these circumstances.”
“Rather, I would suggest that it is much more logical, for the limited purpose of this current situation and for Jurisdictional Conferences held in 2022 only, that just as we had done prior to 1976, we permit the newly-elected bishops to begin their duties immediately following their assignment,” she wrote.
Decision 1445 responded to questions raised by the Council of Bishops following the third postponement of General Conference, originally scheduled in 2020 and now set for 2024.
Last year, U.S. bishops who initially postponed their retirements after General Conference’s first delay stepped down because they were taking on new roles with the Council of Bishops or were bumping up against the denomination’s mandated retirement age for bishops.
To continue episcopal coverage, 13 U.S. bishops have since taken on expanded assignments. Five bishops who planned to retire also agreed to stay on.
In asking the Judicial Council to rule in favor of holding jurisdictional conferences for the purpose of elections, the bishops said the current situation of bishops covering multiple episcopal areas was unsustainable. “The threat to the continuance of the episcopacy and the sustainability of effective episcopal leadership will increase as more retirements are expected,” the bishops added.
The United Methodist Church has five jurisdictions — each encompassing multiple episcopal areas in a geographical region of the United States. Each episcopal area includes one or more annual conferences.
The United Methodist constitution mandates that the Council of Bishops schedule all five jurisdictional conferences to convene at the same time.
“Apart from this stipulation, the constitutional grant of authority is unrestricted,” the Judicial Council said.
The Council of Bishops is “therefore, authorized to call jurisdictional conferences, notwithstanding that the General Conference has not convened since the last election of bishops in the jurisdictional conferences,” the church court continued.
The Judicial Council also noted that the United Methodist constitution lists the election of bishops among a jurisdictional conference’s powers.
The church court said the bishops’ intended purpose for the jurisdictional conferences “is essential” to fulfilling the constitutional mandates in Paragraph 45 of “a unified superintendency and episcopacy” and “the continuance of an episcopacy in The United Methodist Church.”
However, the Judicial Council disagreed with the Council of Bishops that new bishops should assume their duties immediately after election and consecration. Another part of the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, states: “The date of assignment for all bishops is September 1 following the jurisdictional conference.”
That means the Council of Bishops must either reschedule the jurisdictional conferences or make use of the provisions for interim bishops, the church court said.
The Judicial Council put it this way: “the Council of Bishops must reschedule the jurisdictional conferences to a date prior to September 1, 2022, or proceed with jurisdictional conferences in November 2022 as scheduled and assign newly elected bishops on an interim basis under the provisions of ¶ 407 until they begin their assignment on September 1, 2023.”
Paragraph 407 spells out a process for filling bishop vacancies on an interim basis.
The Judicial Council also addressed concerns about the formula and number of bishops allotted to each jurisdiction.
In a decision last year, the Judicial Council ruled that the budget adopted by the 2016 General Conference remains in effect. That same logic applies to the question of the number of bishops assigned in each jurisdiction, the church court said.
With those parameters in mind, the South Central Jurisdiction — of which the Great Plains is a member — would elect five new bishops whenever it conducts its conference. The jurisdiction faces three episcopal retirements in 2022 and 2023, for Bishops Scott Jones (Texas Conference), Gary Mueller (Arkansas) and Mike McKee (North Texas). Two other bishops, W. Earl Bledsoe and Mike Lowry, who recently surrendered his credentials to serve on the steering committee for the new Global Methodist Church, previously retired, prompting several bishops to serve in multiple conferences on an interim basis. Bishop Saenz, for example, began serving as bishop in the Central Texas Conference on Jan. 1, 2022, in addition to his duties in the Great Plains.
The 2016 General Conference approved supporting 46 bishops in the United States — 13 in the Southeastern Jurisdiction; 10 in the South Central Jurisdiction; nine in the Northeastern Jurisdiction; nine in the North Central Jurisdiction and five in the Western Jurisdiction.
“Absent General Conference action, the formula and number of bishops for each jurisdiction approved by the 2016 General Conference remain legally binding and effective until replaced by a new formula,” the Judicial Council said.
-- Heather Hahn, United Methodist News Service