Meeting earlier this month, the United Methodist Church’s powerful Commission on the General Conference decided to keep the 2020 General Conference at close to the same size as the 2016 General Conference (864 total voting delegates).
This decision amounts to a compromise between what were competing alternatives.
On the one hand, this amounts to rejecting the attempt by a small minority of commission members to shrink General Conference to 750 delegates, which would have dramatically shifted voting power further away from Africa and larger U.S. annual conferences to benefit annual conferences with fewer members, especially in Europe, the Philippines, and the U.S. Western Jurisdiction.
But on the other hand, this does not correct how four years ago, this same group chose to restructure General Conference to further over-represent the smaller-membership annual conferences at the expense of the larger-membership annual conferences.
While this sadly fails to correct all that should be corrected with the size of General Conference, it at least amounts to the Commission not worsening its troubled history of blatant imbalance and perceived liberal bias.
As with many things in the UMC hierarchy, the situation is a bit complex. Here is what is going on:
The Constitution of The United Methodist Church requires that every General Conference have no more than 1,000 voting delegates and no less than 600. (A strong supermajority of delegates to the 2012 General Conference voted to raise the minimum to 800 delegates, but this fell narrowly short of the 2/3 required to amend the Constitution.)
United Methodism is organized into dozens of geographic units called annual conferences around the world. The voting delegates at General Conference, the supreme governing body of our denomination, are elected in their respective annual conferences. Each annual conference is allotted an equal number of clergy and lay delegates to elect, so that each conference must always elect an even number of General Conference delegates.
The UMC’s governing Book of Discipline includes a mathematical formula requiring that how many delegates an annual conference gets to send to General Conference be roughly proportional to the total number of clergy and total number of lay church members in that annual conference. However, although this specific formula has remained unaltered for years, it has also been true for years that if every annual conference got the full number of delegates to which this formula would entitle the conference, then the size of General Conference would be larger than the aforementioned 1,000-delegate maximum.
So as a back-up, the Discipline allows the Commission on the General Conference to “remedy the situation by adjusting” the formula to yield a total number of delegates within the 600—1,000 range, provided that the new formula they use is directly proportional to the formula in the Discipline.
The formula remains the clearest statement of the will of our denomination’s most representative body, the General Conference, for how many delegates there should be at General Conference, and in what sort of proportional distribution. So it would be reasonable to expect that if this formula yields a total number of delegates greater than 1,000, the formula should only be adjusted to the minimum extent necessary to bring the total number of delegates to slightly under 1,000.
Such minimal adjustments were what had consistently been done previously.
However, the Commission on the General Conference has recently interpreted these provisions as giving them completely free rein to arbitrarily set the total number of delegates anywhere they would like between 600 and 1,000.
If your eyes are not yet glazed over, you may be wondering, “What does it matter if they adjust the size of General Conference, as long as we maintain the same proportion of representation between each region?”
The simple answer is because any change to the overall size would NOT maintain the same proportional balance of power between the annual conferences. Instead, any change to the total number of delegates inevitably skews voting power to benefit some regions at the expense of others.
The constitution also requires that each and every annual conference, no matter how small, gets to send at least two voting delegates to General Conference. There has been some debate about changing this, but this remains the system for now.
Looking through the official statistics used for allotting delegates to the last General Conference, it is clear that annual conferences around the world vary wildly in the number of people in each—from several that have less than 500 lay members of local churches to others that each include several hundreds of thousands.
This ensures that the smallest-membership annual conferences are guaranteed to be over-represented, even in a General Conference with 1,000 delegates. The disparity is that the ratio of church members per General Conference delegate is less than 200 for some annual conferences and in the tens of thousands for others. In other words, proportionate to membership, the voices of United Methodists in certain annual conferences are given many times more consideration and power than the voices of United Methodists elsewhere.
So in any reduction of delegates, it is important to examine which annual conferences would be penalized by seeing a cut in their number of delegates, and which would not.
Of the 134 annual conferences who were allotted delegates to the 2016 General Conference, 65 (nearly half) are already at the minimum-of-two-delegates level of representation, and so would not lose any delegates. These 65 conferences are rather unevenly distributed. They include all 20 annual conferences in Europe and all 25 in the Philippines, as well as over half of those in the U.S. Western Jurisdiction. It is important to keep in mind that such smaller-membership annual conferences would already be very significantly overrepresented in even a 1,000-member General Conference.
In concrete terms, with this system, our denomination treats the voice of every 1,000 United Methodists in the liberal, declining Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference as being significantly more valuable and worth listening to than every 1,000 United Methodists in a large, fruitful annual conference in central Africa. So much for concern about systematic racism.
And when these small conferences keep the same absolute number of delegates while larger conferences decline in their absolute number of delegates, the percentage of General Conference votes controlled by the former increases at the expense of the latter.
Thus, whatever the intent, any reduction in the size of General Conference is effectively a “power grab” to shift power towards smaller-membership annual conferences and away from larger-membership General Conference.
At the most basic level, the more people an annual conference encompasses, the more delegates it would lose in a shrunken General Conference. At the broader regional level, this would mean a significant shift of representation away from Africa and U.S. South to benefit other regions, and moving us away from how we have had a healthy system of rewarding membership growth with more representation.
This raises such good-governance concerns as how shrinking General Conference would perversely punish some annual conferences for their evangelistic success while in other regions actually encourage such bureaucratic inefficiencies as dividing relatively tiny numbers of United Methodists in one area into more annual conferences than is really necessary.
Four years ago, this same Commission made a choice to significantly shrink the size of the 2016 General Conference from nearly 1,000 delegates to a target of 850. (The actual number ended up being 864, due to some statistical errors.)
They did this over the protests of some evangelical renewal leaders, who had written to the commission urging them to maintain the size of General Conference. Among other things, these renewal leaders expressed concern about how shrinking General Conference would worsen what were already significant imbalances in proportionate representation between regions, and noted that a 1,000-delegate General Conference is actually NOT particularly large, and proportionate to membership is actually a bit smaller, relative to similar denominational assemblies of other large Protestant denominations (denominations which have less global diversity to represent!) such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ.
They also warned that shrinking General Conference would make it harder to have adequate theological, socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and age diversity among delegates. This proved prophetic when after the Commission decided to shrink the size of the 2016 General Conference, there ended up being no room for even one youth delegate.
The commission’s decision to ultimately shrink General Conference regardless of the concerns it heard from renewal leaders is consistent with its troubling recent history of imbalance and bias.
This Commission selected activists prominently involved in the homosexuality-affirming Reconciling Ministries Network to be co-leaders for worship at the 2008 General Conference.
Before 2012, this commission over-represented the Western Jurisdiction while limiting African United Methodists to a single token member, despite Sub-Saharan Africa being home to a much larger portion of our denomination’s members.
In the 2008-2012 quadrennium, this commission was chaired by Randall Miller, an outspoken gay activist from the Western Jurisdiction who has more recently emerged as an ardent defender of Karen Oliveto’s fitness to be a United Methodist bishop, despite her bizarre demon-defending and anti-Jesus teachings. Shortly after the 2012 General Conference, the aforementioned Reconciling Ministries Network actually hired Miller as its new interim CEO, as an apparent reward for how he had led the Commission to manipulate General Conference processes to advance the outcomes favored by a liberal minority.
In the 2012-2016 quadrennium, under the leadership of Judi Kenaston, the Commission invited an imbalanced group of representatives from two orthodox and three revisionist United Methodist caucus groups to a dialogue session. But in response to my expressing interest in the participation of UMAction, Kenaston made clear that we were not invited and that she did not regard us as being as authentically United Methodist as those who were invited. Even though the stated goal of one of the liberal caucuses the commission did choose to invite, Amy DeLong’s Love Prevails group, explicitly includes withdrawing their support, presence, and even prayers from any congregation or other part of our denomination that does not support their agenda.
It was also under Judi Kenaston’s leadership that the commission chose to deny the request of a group promoting “intelligent design,” an idea despised by many liberals, to sponsor one of the dozens of exhibit booths.
During this same quadrennium (and previously), another powerful influence within the commission was Secretary of the General Conference Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist. As time went on, the Rev. Reist seemed to become increasingly open in using his position to promote his biases on such matters as encouraging shrinking the size of General Conference and demonizing orthodox United Methodists involved in IRD/UMAction. In a couple of 2015 addresses hosted by the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), he blatantly misrepresented the truth us in a number of ways, including about our clear public opposition to Apartheid in the 1980s. He went on to actually liken IRD/UMAction to “National Socialism, the Nazi Party,” which “was evil, and by its very nature it is evil.” However, he at least generously conceded that just as not “everyone who was in the National Socialist Party was evil,” he liked some things about me personally. To this day, having the UMC Secretary of the General Conference publicly characterize as being like a nice Nazi amidst organized evil remains one of the most bizarre complimentary insults or insulting compliments I have ever received Revealingly, after he left his longtime position last year, Reist joined the staff of Bishop Minerva Carcaño. Bishop Carcaño has been an outspoken advocate for clergy disobedience of the UMC’s standards on sexual morality, and she has infamously characterized African General Conference delegates as needing to “grow up.” She also served as the Council of Bishop’s representative on the commission in the 2012-2016 quadrennium.
(With such ingrained liberal myopia and reckless trust-breaking, it is no wonder that this commission’s Rule 44 proposal provoked such mistrust and went down in flames last year.)
In contrast to this clear track record, the less cynical explanations and arguments presented for the alleged need to shrink the size of General Conference really do not hold up.
In 2013, before this commission decided to shrink the size of General Conference, there were claims about how they should do this to practice having fewer delegates, because when a future General Conference is held somewhere outside of the United States, whatever facility it is held in would have to be smaller.
But this hardly stands up to scrutiny. Do Reist and others who pushed shrinking General Conference really expect us to believe that there are no possible meeting spaces anywhere in the Philippines or Africa that have room for up to 1,000 delegates? (Regardless of whether or not we reduced space available for folk other than delegates, particularly the dozens of meddling general agency staff and non-Methodist, sign-waving, liberal protesters.)
A United Methodist News Service report a while back even noted that the city of Harare in Zimbabwe, the proposed site for the first African-hosted UMC General Conference, recently “hosted the Ebenezer Convention, a United Methodist gathering attended by some 55,000 worshippers — far more than the typical General Conference.”
So there is absolutely no room in a city capable of hosting a gathering of 55,000 United Methodists to later host a gathering of one or two thousand United Methodists. And for such considerations, we should exclusively put our exclusive trust in the recommendations of white Americans with a history of liberal bias, and disregard the testimony of UMC leaders actually in Zimbabwe who “say the city of Harare could certainly handle the crowd.” Right.
The other big argument presented for shrinking the size of General Conference are claims that it allegedly costs too much.
But let’s look at the actual numbers: According to a recent report, aside from fixed costs like facility rentals and translations, it costs about $214,000 for every 50 delegates. So this most recent proposal to shrink to 750 delegates would have saved our denomination a grand total of less than half a million dollars. On the other hand, raising the size of the 2020 General Conference back to exactly 1,000 delegates would have cost a little less than $600,000 extra.
That’s certainly a lot more than I’ll ever see in my bank account. But are these six-figure possibilities for extra or reduced costs really that much for our denomination?
Remember, our denomination-wide budget for the 2016-2020 quadrennium is over $600 million. So the potential increases and decreases in costs from changing the size of General Conference amount to less than one-tenth of one percent of the whole UMC budget. And whether or not we increase or decrease this miniscule drop in the financial bucket determines very major questions of whether or not our denomination’s supreme governing body can be trusted to be fairly representative of our denomination as a whole.
There are plenty of less important parts of our denominational budget that cost far more. I could write a whole series of articles on this topic alone. Among other things, many wonder why they should pay apportionments to give partnered lesbian activist Karen Oliveto a lavish $150,000 yearly salary to illegitimately occupy the bishop’s office – let alone paying the same salary and other generous benefits to the four active Western Jurisdiction bishops who illegitimately consecrated her as bishop last year and who to this day are dragging their feet of performing their clear duty of disciplining her.
Furthermore, our general agencies have been some of the biggest wasters of the money taken from United Methodist offering plates. I have long documented wasteful, counter-productive spending by the GBCS and others. I remain dumbstruck by a General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) board of directors meeting I attended a few years ago, in which they rented a bus to take all directors as well as some others to have dinner at a really fancy, expensive restaurant. Is this really the best stewardship, when simply ordering a bunch of sandwiches from Chick-Fil-A delivered to the meeting room could have fed everyone for a fraction of the price? (To be fair, another report notes that at least the Commission on General Conference is seeking appropriate steps to cut the costs of its own meetings.)
It is sad to see that the Commission on the General Conference failed to use this recent opportunity to restore the delegates effectively stolen from African and larger American annual conferences by the unjust 2013 decision to shrink the size of General Conference. It remains an important matter of basic justice and inclusion of all voices for these problems to be remedied in some way, at some point in the future.
But at least now this injustice will not be made any worse.