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.