United Methodist Church Still Shaped by Dramatic Imbalance between Leadership, Membership

on August 13, 2013

Certain privileged segments of United Methodism have long hogged more than their fair share of the denominational pie.  (Photo credit: Church Software Blog)


The well-documented, pervasive divide that has long persisted between the grassroots laity and elite hierarchy of the United Methodist Church has done inestimable damage in eroding the former’s trust in the latter and the latter’s responsiveness to the former.

One area where this imbalance is dramatically seen is the ways in which our Council of Bishops is geographically structured to dramatically privilege certain voices at the expense of others.

The tremendous power United Methodist bishops enjoy in our denomination is extremely undersold. Their appointment power alone probably makes them the most powerful bishops of any major Protestant denomination in the U.S. Furthermore, their other powers include presiding over General Conference plenary sessions, serving as presidents of denominational agencies, and collectively and individually choosing people for all sorts of influential leadership positions in their annual conferences and in the global church connection. U.S. bishops and many non-U.S. bishops are bishops for life.

Within the last three years, the U.S. Southeastern Jurisdiction has continued to choose to have one less bishop than the number to which it had been entitled, while each of the remaining four U.S. regional jurisdictions reduced its number of bishops by one, and one additional bishop was added to the Congo Central Conference in central Africa.

Yet despite these long-overdue, cost-saving, playfield-leveling partial corrections, the geographic imbalances continue, as seen in this chart:



                                                            WJ’s Proportionate

                                        Lay               Representation in

                                     Members         Council of Bishops

Region       Bishops     per bishop         Vs. this Region

USA: WJ         5                  70,267.8                       1 : 1

USA: NEJ       9               144,769                     2.06 : 1

USA: NCJ       9                143,960                    2.05 : 1

USA: SCJ      10               171,726.5                 2.44 : 1

USA: SEJ      13               218,256.2                 3.11 : 1

Europe            4                  15,940                         1 : 4.41

Philippines   3                 48,547.3                      1 : 1.45

Africa            13              322,392.9                  4.59 : 1


(Key: WJ = Western Jurisdiction, NEJ = Northeastern Jurisdiction, NCJ = North Central Jurisdiction, SCJ = South Central Jurisdiction, SEJ = Southeastern Jurisdiction)

My sources for membership statistics are the latest overseas central conference statistics available from our denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) website along with more updated U.S. data from the recently released 2013-2016 United Methodist Directory.

The last column above means that, proportionate to membership, the Western Jurisdiction enjoys over three times as many bishops as the Southeastern Jurisdiction, over two times as many as the other U.S. jurisdictions, and over four-and-a-half-times as many as United Methodists in sub-Saharan Africa. I should note that part of the imbalance in the rest of non-American United Methodism can be attributed to three of the four European bishops each presiding over multiple annual conferences in diverse nations and languages and to the membership figures of Filipino United Methodism being hit by a recent major schism led by a former bishop.

Obviously, there are implications related to theological differences between these differently treated regions.

But this imbalance also raises some fundamental questions of justice.

There is probably wide agreement in principle among United Methodists that there is some basic level of equality to the value of the voices of each of our denomination’s roughly twelve million global members. In practice, however, within the Council of Bishops and other global leadership bodies where our denomination’s bishops serve, we are structurally treating the voices of predominantly white Americans from the Western Jurisdiction (less than three percent of United Methodism) as over four times more valuable than the voices of black United Methodists in sub-Saharan Africa (over one-third of United Methodism). The Western Jurisdiction, with its five bishops has fewer members than the North Georgia Conference, with its one bishop.

I have earlier reported on how the Western Jurisdiction bishops are disproportionately well represented in the upper echelons of global United Methodist leadership, how all the other U.S. jurisdictions pay to subsidize the unsustainable oversupply of Western Jurisdiction bishops, and how the Western Jurisdiction still lags consistently far behind all other U.S. jurisdictions in the percentage it actually pays of its assigned share to support its own already-subsidized bishops.

As one prominent African United Methodist leader pointed out in another context, marginalizing African United Methodists on the basis of their receiving subsidies from the United States seems suspicious when the same arguments are not applied to the also-subsidized Western Jurisdiction.

Last year, the Standing Committee on Central Conference Affairs did finally recommend one long-sought additional bishop for the rapidly growing Congo Central Conference. However, at the last General Conference, this same Standing Committee also succeeded in writing into the Book of Discipline a ranking of criteria for determining when an overseas central conference should get an additional bishop, placing actual membership numbers dead last in priority. Such a ranking order would seem to protect the disproportionate privilege enjoyed by the European and Western Jurisdiction leaders who have dominated that Standing Committee. The powerful Standing Committee on Central Conference affairs is one of the most proportionally unrepresentative bodies in our church. Each jurisdiction and central conference, regardless of size, is guaranteed three members, with four additional members allotted to the General Board on Global Ministries and GCFA. The vice-chair, Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the Western Jurisdiction, is openly disdainful of the role of Africans in the life of our global denomination, attributing the adherence of most of them to biblical teaching on homosexual practice to their alleged childish failure to “grow up.” The Standing Committee she helps lead has now been tasked with deciding whether or not they want central African United Methodists to have one more bishop.

  1. Comment by Robert Sparkman on August 13, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Very true, and regrettable. Many of us witnessed the over-emphasis on the authority of the bishops at the last General Conference, where restructuring was struck down because they said the bishops were tasked with oversight of the ministries of the church. The reason for that new emphasis is that the Council of Bishops may be the only body in the church where the old ruling order, which has led us in our decline, can maintain its control over the long term.

  2. Comment by cleareyedtruthmeister on August 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    It’s interesting how so many of these leaders are quick to condemn what they view as US “imperialism” but have no problem being imperialistic in their own church.

  3. Comment by Pudentiana on August 13, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    this is such an excellent and true point, I recommend we begin to use it in our critiques of the power abuse in the UMC

  4. Comment by gary on August 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Good article Mr. Lomperis. For my 15 years in the UMC I have always thought that the episcopacy of the UMC is the main problem. They have allowed liberal theology to creep in and in fact choke out orthodoxy in many places. Too many of the conservative bishops are quiet and don’t want to rock the boat wheras libs like Carcano, Talbert, etc do their darndest to rock the boat and incite heresy. I hvae such little respect for the episcopacy even though I know one of the bishops pretty well from his stint at the UM church I just stopped attending (another story).

  5. Comment by Pudentiana on August 13, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    We need to pray for the Lord to hold these people accountable. Sometimes He works in mysterious ways, His will to perform.

  6. Comment by Pudentiana on August 13, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    After observing how the election of Bishops occurs at a Jurisdictional Conference, it is a wonder that we have ANY which are truly representatives of Biblical Christianity.

  7. Comment by John S on August 14, 2013 at 8:11 am

    The only recourse the laity has is money. I give a basic amount to my local church and designate the rest to specific outreaches. Both those lead or supported by my local church and those unaffiliated with the UMC. I realize the apportionment formula varies from conference to conference and seems to be purposely obtuse but you work with what few tools you have.

  8. Comment by cleareyedtruthmeister on August 14, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Just before leaving the UMC last year I spoke at a conference “listening session”. Of the 15 or so speakers there were only two (TWO!) who spoke on behalf of traditional Christian teaching. The rest were doing their usual: encouraging divestment from Israeli firms, “full inclusion” of the LGBT community, etc.

    I was told that the bishop would attend and that’s a major reason I went. He was a no-show. I forwarded my comments to him and received no response. Guess he’s marking his time until retirement.

    Another bishop, Larry Goodpaster (sp?), supposedly a traditionalist, would not even endorse the North Carolina marriage amendment last year.

    It’s the laity that will have to effect change, either by grassroots action or by voting with their feet.

  9. Comment by Thomas H. Griffith on August 18, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    Two responses to Brother Lomparis’ article on the power of the Bishops:
    a) While the number of bishops seems relatively disproportionate to the number of members in the Western Jurisdiction, please remember that these five bishops have to cover UM churches in over half of the landmass of the United States, some of which churches are a day’s travel each way, just to visit one local church.
    b) I will remind you that on a per capita basis, the churches of the Western Jurisdiction pay the highest amounts of money both into the Advance and into the General Church Apportioned Funds, out of all the Jurisdictions and Central Conferences.

  10. Comment by John Lomperis on August 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks for your sharing these nuancing details, Thomas. A couple of responses:
    a) The geographic size challenges the WJ bishops face pale in comparison to what at least two of the European UMC bishops face, and probably also the Congolese bishops (given lack of good, safe roads and other infrastructure). Yet I don’t hear a big clamor that based on geographic size alone, we should have more UM bishops in Europe. People realize that that just does not make sense when we have so few people.
    b) That may be. But they still are falling way short of paying their fair share. As my colleague Jeff Walton pointed out earlier, saying that the few United Methodists in the Western Jurisdiction should get drastically more representation than millions of UMs elsewhere makes about as much sense as saying that the US federal government should go out of its way to give more representation to New Hampshire at the expense of California simply because of New Hampshirans voting at a slightly higher rate than Californians. Or from another angle, I doubt many progressive UMs would apply this suggested line of logic consistently by saying that the votes cast by higher-income citizens who cheat on their income taxes should be given more weight at the voting booth because they pay more per capita in absolute dollars even when tax cheating is factored in.

  11. Comment by Alan Carson on October 17, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    My ancestors were Methodists since John Wesley. Enough already! I saw the light, left the UMC, and was confirmed in John Wesley’s Church. Try it – you’ll like it!

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