The UMC Judicial Council — what is it and what does it do?

By April 25, 2019

Photo courtesy of J. Vance Morton, Central Texas Conference

In case you were wondering exactly what the Judicial Council is and what they do, it may be helpful to know that The Judicial Council is the highest judicial body or “court” of The United Methodist Church. Its nine members and twelve alternates are elected by the General Conference to determine the constitutionality of acts or proposed acts of the General, Jurisdictional, Central, and Annual Conferences. To see the nine members and first clergy and lay alternates, click here.

United Methodist Communications interviewed several members of the Judicial Council last October. In a new video, they discuss the court’s role and responsibilities.

“We are not lawmakers,” said the Rev. Dennis Blackwell, a veteran council member from the Greater New Jersey Conference. “The law is actually made in General Conference. Our responsibility as council members is to interpret the law of the church.”

As you may remember, this week The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church will be reviewing The Traditional Plan that was passed at the recent Special Session of the General Conference. One of the duties of the Judicial Council is to issue declaratory decisions on the constitutionality, application, meaning, and effect of actions taken by the General Conference and referred to it by the General Conference in a regular or called session.

Dr. Tim Bruster, First Clergy Alternate to the United Methodist Judicial Council, has participated in more than 70 decisions of the Council since 2012. He will be sitting this one out, however.

Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

Because he is actually the one who made the motion during the called session to send the Traditional Plan back to The Judicial Council for this declaratory ruling, Dr. Bruster has recused himself from the entire docket. Dr. Bruster also served as Lead Delegate from the Central Texas Annual Conference.

Interested parties and amicus curiae (friends of the court) may submit briefs arguing both sides of an issue before the Judicial Council. In the days following the Called Session, Dr. Bruster and others wrote and submitted briefs to the Judicial Council for their deliberation.

These briefs cite judicial precedents and paragraphs from The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church to argue the matter before the court. Occasionally, the president of the Judicial Council will grant an oral hearing on one or more of the items on a docket, but in this case the president declined to grant such a hearing.

The Judicial Council will make its decision on this motion this week, and the result will be posted on its website at some point after the decision is announced.
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Organization: The Church as Connection (from

Terms: General Conference, Jurisdictional Conferences, Central Conferences, Annual Conferences, Districts, Charge Conferences and Local Churches

United Methodist leaders often speak of the denomination as “the connection.” This concept has been central to Methodism from its beginning.

The United Methodist structure and organization began as a means of accomplishing the mission of spreading scriptural holiness. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, recognized the need for an organized system of communication and accountability and developed what he called the “connexion,” a network of classes, societies, and annual conferences.

Today, our denomination continues to be organized in a “connectional” system, which “enables us to carry out our mission in unity and strength” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 701). Every local church is linked to an interconnected network of organizations that join together in mission and ministry, allowing us to accomplish far more than any one local church or person could alone.

Within the connectional structure of The United Methodist Church, conferences provide the primary groupings of people and churches for discernment and decision-making. Wesley described Christian conferencing as a spiritual discipline through which God’s grace may be revealed. At every level of the connection, church leaders and members come together in conversation, or conferencing, to discuss important issues and discover God’s will for the church. The word, conference, thus refers to both the assembly and organization of people as well as the process of discerning God’s call together.

General Conference

As the primary legislative body, General Conference is the only entity with the authority to speak on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church. The General Conference meets every four years to consider the business and mission of the church. An equal number of lay and clergy delegates are elected from United Methodist conferences around the world to decide matters of policy and procedure for the denomination. Learn more.

Jurisdictional Conferences

There are five geographic jurisdictions, or regions, in the United States, which are comprised of eight to 15 annual conferences each. Learn more.

Central Conferences

In Africa, Europe and the Philippines, there are seven geographical regions, called central conferences, each of which is comprised of annual conferences and divided into several episcopal areas. Learn more.

Annual Conferences

The annual conference is a geographical entity, an organizational body (made up of elected lay and clergy members), and a yearly meeting. It is the fundamental body of the church (Book of Discipline, ¶ 11). Learn more.


Each local church is part of a district, which is an administrative grouping of churches in a geographic area. Learn more.

Charge Conferences and Local Churches

As the visible presence of the body of Christ, the local church is the place where members grow in faith and discipleship, putting their faith into action through ministry in the world. Learn more.

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Constitutional Structure (from

Terms: General Conference, Council of Bishops, Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church does not have a central headquarters or a single executive leader. Duties are divided among bodies that include the General Conference, the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council. Each of these entities is required by our Constitution, a foundational document, to be part of our structure, and plays a significant role in the life of the church.

General Conference

The General Conference, the primary legislative body of The United Methodist Church, is the only body that speaks officially for the church. Meeting once every four years to determine legislation affecting connectional matters, it is composed of no fewer than 600 and no more than 1,000 delegates.

Working within the boundaries of the Church Constitution and General Rules, the General Conference defines and fixes the conditions, privileges and duties of church membership; the powers and duties of elders, deacons, diaconal ministers and local pastors; and the powers and duties of annual conferences, missionary conferences, charge conferences and congregational meetings. It authorizes the organization, promotion and administrative work of the church. The General Conference also defines the powers and duties of the episcopacy, authorizes the official hymnal and book of worship, provides a judicial system and procedures, initiates and directs all connectional enterprises of the church and enacts other legislation for the operation of the church. Learn more.

Council of Bishops

The Council of Bishops gives general oversight of the ministry and mission of the church and spiritual leadership to the entire church connection. Composed of all active and retired bishops, the council meets as a group at least once a year.

Bishops are elected by Jurisdictional Conferences and assigned to a particular area, made up of one or more annual conferences. Each bishop provides oversight of the ministry and mission of annual conferences in his or her area and appoints all clergy to their places of service.

Through its Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships, the council builds and maintains ties with other Christian denominations as well as other faith groups. Learn more.

Judicial Council

As the denomination’s highest judicial body or “court,” the Judicial Council’s nine members, made up of laity and clergy, are elected by the General Conference and normally meet twice a year to consider whether actions of the various church bodies adhere to the constitution and follow the rules outlined in the Book of Discipline.

Their cases are generally referred to them by action of the Council of Bishops, the annual conferences or the General Conference. According to the Constitution, decisions of the Judicial Council are final (Paragraph 57, Article III). Learn more.

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