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:
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.