An Open Letter from Clergy Services

An Open Letter from Clergy Services

An Open Letter to the Members of the Annual Conference and the Churches of Holston Annual Conference: Annual Conference Voting—Constituent or Conscience Based

By Rev. Terry Goodman, Secretary of the Annual Conference
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The One who was. The One who is. The One who is to come.
I write this letter to you as the Secretary of the Holston Annual Conference. We find ourselves in the midst of a secular and church election season. Everyone is being encouraged to engage with and vote in the secular elections. I too, encourage each of you to cast a ballot for the person(s) you think should be the elected leaders of our counties, states, and nation. The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church state: “While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government as a principal vehicle for the ordering of society… (and) The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens.” Therefore, you are encouraged to participate in our secular elections.
Let’s not forget, however, that at this time of each year, members of district conferences, elect Lay Members at Large to the upcoming Annual Conference. It is important to understand this process.

The Book of Discipline in ¶602 states: “1.The clergy membership of Annual Conference (¶369) shall consist of deacons and elders in full connection (¶333), provisional members (¶327), associate members, affiliate members (¶¶344.4,586.4), and local pastors (¶317).”
In ¶602.4 provisions for lay membership of the Annual Conference are spelled out with a lengthy list of lay persons who are members via an office held.  In addition, each charge served by a pastor shall have the right to send a layperson for each qualified pastor on the charge. The goal is that there will be equal representation of laity and clergy in the make-up of the Annual Conference session. ¶602.4 also states: “If the lay membership should number less than the clergy members of the Annual Conference, the Annual Conference shall, by its own formula, provide for the election of additional lay members to equalize lay and clergy membership of the Annual Conference.”

It is for this reason that Lay Members at Large are elected each year. The Holston formula determines the total number of Lay Members at Large that need to be elected and then assigns, on a proportional formula, based on district membership, the total number of Lay Members at Large that must be elected by each district.
For the 2021 Annual Conference there is a total of 924 clergy. Based on the number of charges and those in offices that make them a lay member of Annual Conference, there is a shortfall of 230 Lay Members at Large that have to be elected from the nine districts of Holston.

If you have made it this far, thank you. The above information was given to help you see the numbers of persons that are members of the Annual Conference session. Now, to the reason for my open letter. There seems to be some confusion within the Annual Conference about how the members of the Annual Conference are to cast their votes. There is a small contingent of laity that is espousing the idea that each lay member is like a member of congress: they are elected and must support the views of their constituents. I must say this is incorrect. Any person that is a member of Annual Conference—lay or clergy—is free to vote on all the matters that come before the Annual Conference as they feel led by God and their conscience to do.

I support this stance, with the following rationale. First of all, I acknowledge this stance is not stated in The Book of Discipline. Neither is it stated in the Standing Rules of the Annual Conference. I take my stance on this matter, from Judicial Council Rulings. In simplified terms, the Judicial Council is similar to the Supreme Court. The members of the Council hear and evaluate questions related to The Book of Discipline and the manner in which it has been interpreted by Bishops and Annual Conferences.

I posit the following rulings from the Judicial Council as my grounds for the ability of members of Annual Conference to vote their conscience on all matters before the Annual Conference and not what some imply their “constituents” would have them vote. Members of Annual Conference are not elected to represent other persons opinions and beliefs.

I consulted with the Lay Leader of our Annual Conference, Del Holley on this matter.  He pointed me to Judicial Council decision 109, in which the following is stated: “In conformity with the generally accepted principle that delegated members of a Church Council shall be free to make decisions in the light of facts and discussions concerning issues that are considered by such body, the Discipline of The Methodist Church does not authorize an Official Board or a Quarterly Conference 'to order and instruct its Lay Member or Reserve Lay Members of the Annual Conference to vote in any specified manner on matters coming before the Annual Conference."

Mr. Holley comments, and I agree, that we have been unable to find a subsequent Judicial Council decision that overrides or modifies this statement of church law. We would further submit that if an "official board" of a local church does not have authority to direct the votes of the lay member representing that congregation, there is no entity at the district level that would have authority to direct the votes of a lay member at large. Thus, a delegate voting his or her conscience is upheld by this Judicial Council ruling.

We must also consider Judicial Council Decision 592. In this ruling, the Council refers back to Decision 109 as a support for a ruling that an Annual Conference is not empowered—it cannot make or require—its delegates to General or Jurisdictional Conference to submit a record of their individual votes at those conferences. Apparently, an Annual Conference was seeking to force the submission of votes so that they could then be distributed to the pastors and churches of the Annual Conference. As part of the ruling, the Judicial Council stated,  "Delegates to General Conference, just as members of an Annual Conference, are bound to do as their conscience dictates what is good for the Church of Jesus Christ, The United Methodist Church in particular, and that only." (emphasis added)
In addition to affirming that Decision 109 remains authoritative in The United Methodist Church, Decision 592 supports the proposition that members of an Annual Conference (both lay and clergy) "are bound to do as their conscience dictates."

As the Secretary of the Annual Conference, it is my desire that you, as either a lay or clergy member of the Annual Conference, will ignore the voices of those persons that are trying to tell you that you must vote in a manner that your “constituents” would have you to vote.

First, you do not have constituents, especially as a member at large or as a member by virtue of office held. Some might say as the lay member representing a charge you need to vote as that charge would have you vote. I contend, however, unless it is a charge of just one person, then you are going to have differing ideas. Therefore, it would be impossible to discern the absolute will of the charge on each matter that comes before the Annual Conference for discussion or vote. Furthermore, you will not be able to call and poll each of the charge members on each vote or decision that has to be made. That is an impossibility and makes the concept that you vote the constituent’s view untenable.

What then is a member of the Annual Conference to do when it comes time to vote?  Remember, you were nominated and elected because your church/charge and/or district trusts you will follow God’s leading in regards to matters that come before the Annual Conference. You must rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the conviction of your conscience as to what you feel is the best course of action on each discussion and vote that occurs at Annual Conference. Your ultimate constituent is God and you should aim to satisfy God with your vote – not humans.
Rev. Terry Goodman
Secretary of the Holston Annual Conference


Terry Goodman

The Rev. Terry Goodman is [Holston] Conference Secretary and Director of Clergy Concerns. His office is in Alcoa, Tennessee.