Friday, May 17, 2019

Philip Wingeier-Rayo: The United Methodist Representational Problem, Part III

Today's piece is the second in a three-part series by Dr. Philip Wingeier-Rayo. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo is Dean of Wesley Theological Seminary.

The previous part of this blog series discussed whether the UMC’s polity and election formulas are consistent with the UMC’s mission statement, which emphasizes making disciples.

This leads us to another problem with the representative system that only counts current members, but does not take into account potential. What about underrepresented people groups? The voices of the potential mission opportunities are largely absent at General Conference, which gives a disproportionate power to the status quo.

The Hispanic population in the United States is about 17% of the population (52 million) but comprises less than 1% of UM members. Asians-Americans are 6% of the U.S. population (about 21 million) and comprises only 1% of UM members, and both groups are large potential mission fields in the U.S. Yet there were only a handful of Hispanic and Asian-American delegates to General Conference. The same could be said for other underrepresented groups.

Every four years annual conferences elect delegates to General Conference. Usually mindful of the desire for racial and gender diversity, some annual conferences are more successful than others at achieving this aim. In the United States, the UMC is approximately 90% Caucasian at a time when ethnic minority populations are growing. The U.S. Census predicts that the U.S. will become majority minority by 2044. Generally speaking, Caucasians in the U.S. tend to be older, while people of color are younger.

We are already seeing this shift in the U.S. where African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American membership is growing in the UMC, while Caucasian membership is in decline.

There are many local churches that are islands of older Caucasians in the middle of black and brown neighborhoods. This reality is reflected in the power structure, where the majority of U.S. delegates to General Conference delegates are older and white, yet their churches are located in communities that are younger and ethnically diverse.

Although the United Methodist Church prides itself on being a global church, there is very little representation at General Conference from Asia and none from Latin America.

The Philippines had 50 delegates representing 5.8% of the total delegates. Sixty percent of the world’s population lives in Asia. The three most populated countries in the world, China, India and Indonesia (who together comprise 1/3 of the world’s population--approximately 2.7 billion people) have no voting delegates at General Conference.

Mexico, Central and South America, a region that is extremely important geopolitically to the United States and has a population of 625 million people, have no voting delegates. Can we call ourselves a global church when such large sectors of the world’s population are not represented in the United Methodist Church?

Within the United States, the Western Jurisdiction only comprises 3% of membership, and thus has 3% of the delegates to General Conference. However, the jurisdiction covers one-third of U.S. territory with vast natural and economic resources. Historically, Methodism arrived in the Eastern United States and slowly moved to the West. The Western Jurisdiction began as missionary annual conferences, and Alaska is still a missionary conference today.

Although the jurisdiction has proportionally small membership, the states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, and Utah have some of the highest populations of unchurched people among their collective 65 million inhabitants—many of them younger and ethnically diverse. The populations in these states are growing.

Losing this growth potential and mission field would be a huge loss to the United Methodist Church, but our current formula for representative democracy takes no account of the needs and potential of this population.

Our system favors conferences that have more current members, even though they are generally older, of a dominant ethnic group and male. These voices have disproportionate power and are not representative of the potential mission and future growth of the church.

The General Conference election formula is inconsistent with the mission statement of the UMC. A balanced and healthy church polity would have proportionate representation of those who are living out the mission statement with their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.

Here are five practical recommendations that could make the process for electing delegates more representational of the reality of the UMC constituency:

1.    Move the dates of the General Conference to a time when more young people are available to attend (i.e. taking into account the academic calendar).

2.    Support the young people’s call to mentor and encourage young people to become delegates to General Conference.

3.    Require an equal number of men and women from each annual conference as delegates to General Conference.

4.    Ask each annual conference to be accountable for financial commitments of the general church proportionate to the number of its General Conference delegates.

5.    Give greater voice to those leaders from vibrant ministries making new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

1 comment:

  1. In defining the representational quality of the membership in the UM General Conference, the nature of the organization is the primary agent of determination. The annual conference, a membership organization, is the basic unit from which delegates are elected. Membership has its privileges, among them the right to hold elected offices. Membership in the conference itself is a requirement for clergy delegates to General Conference and membership in a local UM Church is at least an assumed qualification for lay delegates. The representational quality of the quadrennial body that meets as the General General Conference is assumed to be that of the active membership of the annual conference and its member churches. While UM annual conferences take on geographical identities in their naming that may suggest the larger demographics of their geographical boundaries, and the denomination itself seems enthralled by a worldwide corporate identity, it is the membership base and the respective conference electoral processes that determine the profile of the elected delegates/delegations.
    While I agree with Phillip’s aspirations to see a more diverse demographic representation among General Conference delegates, I am not at all sanguine about that happening through a set of new electoral rules and/or meeting regulations. If it becomes a reality, it will be the result of the intentional evangelistic outreach of our churches and the nurturing of those under represented membership groups into the organizational culture of the UMC.
    I am not willing to support shortcuts to attain gains in diversity in General Conference membership. Most General Conference delegates have “paid their dues” by serving various functions/offices in the connectional life of the church that enrich the quality of their participation. Pre-empting this run-up to election as a General Conference delegate sacrifices the knowledge and experience it takes to make informed judgments and decisions at the highest level of church policy making.
    And it should be recalled that membership of the general agencies that administer the policies and programs of the general church are selected from among the General Conference delegates. This requires a level of commitment based upon experience that goes far beyond an episodic appearance in a General Conference delegation. I have a deep appreciation for this reservoir of talent that populates general agency membership each quadrennium. That selection process, not without fault, is guided by existing disciplinary standards of inclusiveness that enlarge the selection pool as required including the need for special expertise and youth. Emphasizing experience over the fresh perspectives of these categories is an acknowledged liability.
    As for doing better, a post GC2019 focus has turned to the limitations of the exercise of the electoral franchise by some conferences in Africa. Issues such as infrequency of meetings, travel distances, lack of transport, communications/language/tribal issues and financial hardship prevent the functioning of connectional bodies at a level of efficiency and accountability that accompany a UM disciplinary approach. Cultural norms of authority subvert representational decision making. The end result is a compromised effectiveness and confidence that is expected/required in a body with global consciousness. This can be and hopefully will be addressed by leadership across the connection when it learns to overcome it’s timidity in dealing with inter-cultural relations and responsibilities.
    Robert J. Harman





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