Today's piece is the first in a three-part series by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary.
The United Methodist Church has a representational problem.
The recent General Conference in St. Louis was comprised of 864 elected delegates, half lay and half clergy, who were elected according to a formula proportionate to the membership in their home conferences.
A representative democracy was established at the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the Christmas Conference in 1784 in Baltimore. The conference system builds on the foundational system of Christian conferencing established by John Wesley in England, and moves from the local church, to the annual conference, to jurisdictional/central conference, and finally General Conference, which is the maximum authority of the church.
The question is how do we define representational?
Let’s take for example the basis of the United Methodist form of government, the annual conference, also composed of an equal number of lay and clergy delegates. Although seemingly fair and equitable, this model actually gives proportionately more representation to smaller membership churches than medium and larger membership churches.
Why is this? A small membership church may have 50 members or fewer, while a medium to large membership church may have considerably more—yet these churches may both have one appointed pastor, and thus be allotted one lay delegate. Larger churches may have several pastors on staff (e.g. youth pastor, children’s minister, pastor of visitation, executive pastor, etc.), but if they aren’t appointed, then they will not be delegates to annual conference. So a large church may have many more members and pay much more in apportionments, yet only be allotted one lay delegate per appointed pastor—the same as a small membership church.
And nobody knows if the lay delegate for each church will necessarily vote in a way that is representational of his or her church membership. The UM representational system has no way of holding delegates accountable for voting with their constituency. Once delegates are voted on at charge conference, each delegate is free to vote his or her conscience and does not have to vote as a representative of the wishes of his or her congregation.
There is also no way to assure fair demographic representation in the United Methodist system. If a congregation is comprised of 50% men and 50% women and elects a male delegate, then are the women represented? And if the church names someone who is retired, are the youth represented? And this doesn’t begin to address the ethnic diversity in a congregation.
The representative formula for General Conference is different from that of annual conference. While the annual conference is one lay and one clergy delegate per church, the formula for General Conference is proportionate to conference membership. Those conferences with larger church membership receive more delegates.
Similar to annual conference delegates, the formula for electing General Conference delegates has no way to guarantee that women are proportionately represented. Of the 864 elected delegates at St. Louis, 309 (36%) were women and (64%) were men. Among U.S. delegates the delegates were 56.3% men to 46.5% women. Among the Central Conference delegates, men outnumbered women 260 to 87 for a 3:1 men to women ratio. Of the jurisdictions, the Northeast was the only jurisdiction with a majority of women delegates (54.7%).
The majority of male delegates contrasts with the membership of local churches. Dana Roberts reported in her book, Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers, that two-thirds of the membership of the global church are women. And if we look at who are the people behind the scenes making ministry happen, women often play significant roles in churches, but are disproportionately underrepresented as delegates.
Young people are another group who were disproportionately represented In St. Louis with delegates under the age of 35 being only 7% of delegates.
Yet their voice was heard when they wrote a statement signed by 15,000 youth from around the world which encouraged delegates to: “elect a young person to your 2020 delegation. Not as a reserve, but as someone seated with a vote on the floor. Mentor a young person to run. Advocate for a young person to be elected. Show up for the young people in your life, and actually celebrate them around these tables in 2020. If we are actually part of the Body, it is time to bring our voice and vote around these tables.” The statement went on to say: “Over and over, bishops and delegates have told us from the floor here, they don’t want us to leave, but with all due respect, you are not fighting to keep us here.”
Despite their under-representation, young people will be disproportionately financially impacted by a decline or division in the denomination through losses in support for ministerial education and impacts on ministerial pension plans.
The formula for delegates to General Conference has no way to account for equal financial responsibility and accountability. If a delegate votes for a petition that has financial implications, that delegate will not necessarily be proportionately impacted. The delegates at General Conference set the budget for the whole church. One supposes that these delegates are generous givers as members of their local church, but nobody knows how much they pledge.
So as a body the General Conference creates a budget that they personally will not cover. Some conferences may have larger membership, but their financial contribution to the general church is not proportionate to their membership. Conversely, a conference that is allotted just a few delegates may make a substantial contribution to the general church. The size of an annual conferences delegation to General Conference is not proportionate to its apportionment to the general church budget.
Yes, the United Methodist Church has a representative democracy, however there are different ways to interpret “representative.” At the annual conference level, representative is defined as one clergy and one lay delegate per church, and so large churches who contribute more are disproportionately underrepresented. At General Conference the number of delegates is proportionate to conference membership; however, there is no consideration for proportionate gender, age, ethnicity or financial contributions of the annual conference.
This formula without provisions for gender, age, ethnicity or financial representation leads to certain groups being disproportionately underrepresented and not having their voices heard. It also leads to other groups having a disproportionate power in spite of not being representative of their home church or conference.
As we strive toward perfection, I invite United Methodists to reflect on ways to improve our representative democracy to have people making decisions who are truly making ministry happen in our local churches through their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.
In the second part of this blog I will discuss the mission of The United Methodist Church and whether membership is the best metric to assess participation in the life of the church.