One of the darkest days in AME history (for me) was when the General Conference rejected one of the most solid rulings of the Judicial Council. The church witnessed a unified episcopacy. (My apology for not researching the exact year/decision. It was in the 1990’s. Hopefully, an informed reader will supply the citation.) Many of the bishops strong armed annual conferences to reject the ruling before we even got to the General Conference for the final blow. The looming issues: mandatory vs voluntary assessments, the power to assess, and how to limit assessments. Without question, the existing legislation (then and now) was flawed and inadequate. The Judicial Council decided there was no proper authorization. The bishops argued (with some merit) we must have funds to administer the work. The people failed to use the opportunity to establish definitions, process, and the limitation of clearly abused power. Instead, the church affirmed, through inaction, the current state of oppression.
What constitutes mandatory versus voluntary? The Discipline unequivocally establishes the payment of general (connectional) budget as mandatory, along with the 12% annuity contribution for the pastor. There is good support for the required payment of the basic presiding elder support package. The bishops had a point on funds for administration of the episcopal district. Whether or not mandated by law, it made sense. A challenge: the interpretation of “administration” and the implementation of “assessment.”
Budgets. The first step toward a more just, transparent administration of church affairs is the requirement of administrative budgets for both episcopal districts and annual conferences. It costs money to run an office and support common expenditures to maintain leadership (such as housing, transportation, healthcare). These budgets must be written, publicly presented, and approved by secret vote in each annual conference. Even the episcopal district budget must be approved by the annual conference as it is the only equitably established forum. This is the vision, not the reality.
Mandatory. General Budget, Annuity Contributions, Presiding Elder Support, Episcopal District Administrative Support, Annual Conference (and Midyear, Planning Session AS BUDGETED) should be mandatory.
Voluntary. All other requests (under the current legislation) should be considered VOLUNTARY. This is where the disagreement begins. Districts/annual conferences which sponsor schools want to “assess” support. Additional life insurances are being “assessed.” Special projects often come with “assessments,” not to mention “events” like retreats, and various component conventions. “Offerings,” “roll call,” and the long list of items we put forward, should be voluntary if not part of the approved budget program of an entity. This is the “ought,” not the “is.”
Process. No assessment should be levied without a secret ballot vote of the general conference or the annual conference! Bishops, presiding elders, pastors and component leaders should not be authorized (de facto or de jure) to merely decree an assessment. Moreover, it is disturbing when a church official changes assessed values among churches without the knowledge and consent of the original body. In other words, a presiding elder should not be able to change the amount required for general budget after the close of an annual conference. If a church is in trouble, the presiding elder should make an appeal for the “voluntary” assistance of other churches on the district. More flies are caught with honey than vinegar.
Exceptions? Sure. Life is unpredictable. There will be unforeseen matters which require more than voluntary assistance. These should be few, infrequent, publicly discussed, and collaboratively addressed by both lay and clergy.
The current application of the power to assess is unjust, demeaning and choking the life out of the church. Until this blaze is extinguished, the house will continue to burn. Proposed legislation is on the way.