MFSA Suggests Jurisdictional Alternative to General Policies
By Bruce Pettit
Walnut Creek -- February 4, 2004
Reorienting the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church may
be a solution to keeping the United Methodist Church viable to more liberal
thinking, representatives of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA)
suggested Jan. 31 to the California-Nevada Annual Conference delegation to
"The Constitution of The United Methodist Church gives a jurisdiction
considerable power to govern itself," wrote Richard Bentley of the
California-Pacific MFSA chapter in a discussion paper now being circulated
by the Cal-Nevada chapter. "It may be time for the Western Jurisdiction to
use this power to help United Methodism not only survive, but thrive in the
very unique social setting and culture which exists in the western part of
the United States."
The quadrennial Western Jurisdictional Conference will be held in San Jose
July 14-17. Its main job will be to elect a projected two bishops for the
western part of the country. But Bentley said the jurisdiction can also
assert itself in other ways. He quotes the UMC constitution: Jurisdictions
may "promote the evangelistic, education, missionary, and benevolent
interests of the Church and …provide for interests and institutions within
In 2000 the Western Jurisdictional Conference passed a resolution,
Not Be Silent," as a pointed policy difference with the General Church on
the issue of sexual orientation. Bentley is now suggesting it go farther in
taking action on that and any other differences - in his words, "to provide
for its special needs in these areas which are not being met by the national
Odette Lockwood-Stewart, a clergy jurisdictional delegate, was excited by
the Bentley paper and said she will facilitate meetings about possible
Cal-Nevada's MFSA chapter intends to provide hospitality to Western
Jurisdictional delegates in July, it announced.
MFSA and the General Board of Church and Society are pushing General
Conference resolutions that contend the UMC has differing opinions on sexual
orientation matters, and urge deletion of language from the Book of
Discipline that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teachings."
MFSA said another important area it is concerned about is theological
integrity -- keeping openness in thought, rather than reducing the process
to creedal statements. Lee Williamson, the MFSA membership secretary, urged
the California-Nevada delegates to watch particularly for legislation
regarding the University Senate that may attempt to restrict academic
freedom. Jean Reynolds, a Cal-Nevada MFSA co-convenor, reported the group
has offered legislation to have women number a minimum of 10, rather than 5,
on the University Senate.
Loran Berck, a clergy jurisdictional delegate, said that there is a move
developing to remove the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley,
and the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, from the approved
list of seminaries for United Methodist students.
MFSA also urged the delegation to begin thinking early
about candidates for bishop. Without endorsing anyone, it offered some names
to think about, including a gay man.
Basic Pay Outside U.S.
Paul Dirdak, a clergy reserve delegate, is also deputy secretary for the
General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) for UMCOR (the United Methodist
Committee on Relief). He reported to the delegation some challenges facing
the church in this time of financial shortages.
One main challenge will be paying pastors in other nations, who are not
guaranteed pay as they are in the United States. GBGM is proposing to
General Conference that the UMC study, over the next four years, offering a
"minimum survival allowance" for pastors in the Central Conferences (outside
the U.S.). Dirdak said that in some cash-based economies, bishops give
pastors some cash as they appoint them, and that cash might be their only
pay for a year. Some pastors exist by "eating tree leaves," he said.
Recently the General Council of Ministries provided Bulgaria with some
emergency, one-time funds after a special plea by GBGM.
Dirdak said that the UMC is in an expansive period of growth in other parts
of the world -- that 11 nations have joined its worldwide umbrella recently.
There may not be similar empathy for Latin American churches that became
autonomous from the UMC over the past generation as an extension of
liberation theology. Dirdak said he personally disagrees with arguments to
abandon Latin America.
Before General Conference may be legislation to limit the Women's Division
of the GBGM. Some conservatives are contending that the Women's Division is
too powerful and has plenty of money. He would counter that it is not
powerful enough and has not enough money.
Dirdak has a differing view from Ben Silva-Netto, a clergy general
conference delegate, on whether mission and money should be merged under a
new "Connectional Table." Silva-Netto contends mission discussions are
shortchanged when they are not part of financial discussions; Dirdak
maintained that, when money and mission were linked before, finance always
dominated - the reason they were then separated.
Better U.S. Retirement
Some Cal-Nevada delegates noted an irony that, while GBGM will try to get
pastors outside the U.S. simple basic pay, the General Board of Pensions and
Health Benefits (GBPHB) will be proposing that U.S. pastors be better
protected in retirement benefits - changes that would not benefit pastors in
Jeanne Featherstone, a GBPHB actuary, outlined to the California-Nevada
delegation changes that will be before General Conference and would, if
adopted, take effect in 2007.
The roiling stock market of this quadrennium has meant that pastors take
considerable risk with their pensions as they designate investment choices
in the church's retirement system. GBPHB is proposing to General Conference
that most of that risk be switched to the pension plan itself, by
implementing a "defined benefit" - guaranteed sums to retirees. During stock
market downturns, the denomination would have 20 years to make up what it
loses, Featherstone explained. Recovery is considered a guarantee because,
historically, in every ten-year period the economy does well part of the
time. About one-quarter of pension plans would remain in investments that
would be participant risk.
GBPHB is also proposing to General Conference, meeting April 27 through May
7 in Pittsburgh, that all local church or annual conference lay employees
who have completed a year of service receive a pension benefit from a
contribution of at least 3 percent of compensation.
Donna Hamilton, the conference director of lay speaking, urged the
delegation to reject changes that the General Board of Discipleship (GBOD)
has substituted for four proposals that originally came from the Association
of Annual Conference Lay Leaders (AACLL).
The AACLL proposals are meant to strengthen the laity, which is a philosophy
the General Church is supposed to be advancing, Hamilton said. GBOD struck
from one AACLL measure a requirement that conference lay leaders be included
in any Cabinet discussions that consider matters relating to coordination,
implementation, or administration of conference programs. GBOD wanted their
presence by invitation, not requirement, so it put in separate legislation.
In another proposal, AACLL suggested that a conference lay leader serve "as
a partner in ministry with the bishop." GBOD wants to strike that phrase,
thus gutting a major laity thrust of the UMC, Hamilton maintained.
Bruce Pettit is a member of the Conference Communications Commission and
a lay jurisdictional delegate.