What Just Happened?

John Fleischauer
Feb 27 · 8 min read
Photo by Cody Board on Unsplash

Well, it’s over. Adjourning a few minutes after 6:30pm, General Conference 2019 is in the books. By way of prologue, I’ve debated how to approach this post because there’s simply a lot we don’t know at this point. But like a good Methodist that’s not going to stop me, so I’ll do my best here. I’m going to assume you’ve read my original writeup, and if you haven’t I’d encourage you to do so since a lot of this is not going to make sense if you haven’t either read it or been following General Conference closely.

I’ll note from the outset that a lot of this is pretty fluid for reasons I’ll get into, and I’m still processing a lot of what’s happened in the last three days. I’ll try to keep this updated as things develop, but definitely encourage you to watch communications from your annual conference (click here for North Alabama) and UM News.

Lastly, I’m going to try to keep with the standard of keeping this all as factual as I can, and try to keep the prognostication to a minimum. Of course, I have opinions on what happened, and I may be willing to discuss them privately, but my role has me serving faithful Methodists from across the ideological spectrum and I can’t be effective if I alienate any of them. Thanks for understanding that my hot takes in this space may be a bit more lukewarm.


What happened?

Let me know if you find out. (Kidding. Sort of.)

Anyway… because there wasn’t ultimately a huge volume of legislation dealt with at this General Conference, I’ll break it down by what passed and maybe throw in some honorable mentions. Again, check out my earlier post for more on what led to all this.

Backdrop: Judicial Council Decision 1377

Since it affects pretty much all of this, I’ll go on and mention the first big news of the day: Judicial Council Decision 1377. This was in response to the declaratory decision requested Monday by the legislative committee and looked at the Traditional Plan and the two disaffiliation petitions the committee recommended. Worth noting that it is one of three decisions (the others being 1366 and 1375) that addressed the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan.

The short version is that JCD 1377 ruled all or part of the 9 out of the 15 petitions submitted to the Judicial Council by the legislative committee (two petitions, 90041 [Traditional Plan Implementation Process] and 90048 [Concordat Churches] were assigned to and rejected by the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters rather than the legislative committee) that made up the Traditional Plan to be unconstitutional. It also declared the two disaffiliation petitions (90056 and 90056) to be unconstitutional. Follow the link above for the full reasoning of the Judicial Council.

Legislation

With the Judicial Council decision (which was announced just before lunch after the Wespath Recommendations were adopted) as the backdrop to all this, I’ll turn to the legislation itself.

Wespath Recommendations

As I’ve noted previously, these have been pretty uncontroversial all along, and offer some clarity that I suspect was needed regardless. They passed with a minor amendment this morning.

One Church Plan

As expected, the One Church Plan made an encore appearance as the minority report to the Traditional Plan. For various parliamentary reasons, minority reports are treated as motions to substitute: the minority report gets presented as an amendment, then there’s a vote on a motion to substitute the minority report for the committee report. If that motion is approved, the minority report becomes the main question and debate/voting continues from there.

That’s a long way of saying that the motion to substitute failed, which officially ended OCP’s progression legislatively, leaving the Traditional Plan as the one remaining COWF plan being discussed.

Traditional Plan

With the OCP defeated, nearly the entire afternoon focused on debate of the Traditional Plan. As I’ve mentioned, the Judicial Council ruled pretty large parts of it unconstitutional in JCD 1377, which meant that the plenary had the task of trying to “perfect” it to become constitutional — no small task given the hard stop of 6:30pm to start pouring dirt for Wednesday’s monster truck rally and the number of petitions that needed amending.

I don’t want to get too much into the weeds of what, exactly, happened during this debate. The bottom line is there were two competing dynamics: supporters of the TP were trying to get amendments through that would resolve the issued raised by the JC, but this was complicated by numerous other motions (there was an appeal of the chair’s decision at least three times). This made for very slow going, and ultimately only one petition (90037) with which Judicial Council had concerns was successfully amended, though we all learned a lot about parliamentary procedure along the way.

In any case, as you’ve probably seen from the push notifications courtesy of, by my count, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR, AP, and the Wall Street Journal, the Traditional Plan went up for a vote and was ultimately approved with 53% voting in favor.

Disaffiliation Petitions

You’ll remember that there were two disaffiliation petitions, which deal with the process by which churches leave the UMC. The only one that was debated was 90066. It was amended (which may resolve the constitutional issues Judicial Council raised) and adopted as the final piece of legislation of the day.

Amendments ans Effective Date

A bit of inside baseball, but since there’s some bad information out there: regardless of Judicial Council action, no constitutional amendments were passed and so nothing passed will be voted on by annual conferences. At least in the US, changes to the Discipline will go into effect January 1, 2020.

Other Business

Declaratory Decision

It should be noted that the body voted to request a declaratory decision from the Judicial Council about the Traditional Plan as amended and adopted. This will be part of JC’s next scheduled meeting in April. More on that shortly.

Lingering Business

Because they had to start pouring dirt for the monster trucks, legislative work lasted right up to 6:30pm. There was some unfinished business, including a minority report that would have brought the Connectional Conference Plan back to the floor and the other disaffiliation petition (90059). Due to the order of the day, these were all rejected in a final omnibus motion.

Bribery?

I mention this purely because it’s gotten some buzz: yes, there was a referral to the ethics committee to investigate allegations of bribery. It’s unclear what will come of that, but it was something that was alleged and referred by the body.

Western Jurisdiction

A final thing worth mentioning. At the end of the plenary, a statement was made on behalf of the Western Jurisdiction leadership that they are, to paraphrase, reevaluating their relationship with the UMC. That’s about all we know at this point, but it may be significant in the months ahead.


So What Now?

As I said at the top, there’s a lot that’s pretty fluid right now, and I don’t want to engage in rank speculation about what will or won’t happen at any level. However, there are a few things I’ll be watching in the coming weeks and months as we move toward 2020.

I want to say at the outset on all of this that I have no special knowledge on any of this, and this is the closest I’ll get to speculation. Anything more authoritative than my musings (which bear equal weight with those of my cats) will come through official channels.

Judicial Council Decision

Obviously, this is the big one. In April, the Judicial Council will issue its declaratory decision on the Traditional Plan as amended and adopted. As I mentioned, though, only one petition out of the nine with issues identified in JCD 1377 was amended, and so it’s hard to imagine that much will change from the initial decision.

I’ve gotten some questions about whether General Conference can pass legislation that’s unconstitutional, and the answer is clearly yes (since they passed petitions without amendments that were already ruled unconstitutional). Those petitions will presumably be voided by the Judicial Council and not go into effect and, because General Conference has adjourned, any changes will have to be taken up in 2020. Regardless, this ruling will likely have an impact on the rest of what I’ll be watching.

Who Stays and Who Leaves

It saddens me to have to write it, but the reality is that there will be some churches, clergy, and perhaps an entire jurisdiction that will leave the United Methodist connection in the wake of General Conference. This was probably inevitable, and some have already voiced their intent in this regard.

The question will be who it is that leaves since that will affect things going into 2020. I’m not going to speculate on this point, but it will be significant and will affect things at all levels of the denomination.

2020 Legislation

It’ll be interesting to see what legislation starts circulating heading into 2020. Especially depending on the above two points, it wouldn’t be especially surprising to see some of the legislation from this General Conference reemerge.


Some Final Thoughts

I’ve got thoughts right now, none of which will be helpful in this moment. Instead, I’ll leave you with how I ended my initial post, which is just as true today as it was then:

The Kingdom of God, and God’s work in the world, extend far beyond any given denomination or institution. Whatever does or does not happen Tuesday, that work will continue, and we Christians are still called to be part of it.

For most of the world, you (assuming you’re United Methodist) and your local church, not General Conference, are United Methodism. When people hear “United Methodist”, they think of you, not 864 delegates in St. Louis. What General Conference does or does not do is of far less importance than the way we as the people called Methodists serve our communities.

Don’t, for the love of all that is holy, get denominational news from mainstream media outlets. I saw an AP article that made me want to pull my hair out earlier, and the others are no better. Mainstream outlets don’t know our system and have a tendency to find the loudest, not the most accurate, voices to quote. UM News, as the official denominational news agency, is reliable and obviously knows our system, so I always recommend them. Also, your annual conference has a communicator that is doing a fantastic job sharing updates from General Conference. You can find North Alabama’s here, or there’s probably a link on your own annual conference’s homepage. If all else fails and you have questions, hit me up and I’ll find you an answer.

Thanks for following along these past few days. Grace to you as you continue to be the Body of Christ.

John Fleischauer

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United Methodist clergy. Seminary student. Train traveler.