January 10, 2019

Robert Sparkman: What of the Majority Faction of Bishops Supporting the One Church Plan?

Rev. Robert Sparkman is a graduate of the Candler School of Theology and an ordained minister in the North Alabama Conference, serving for over 40 years in pastoral ministry. He has been a delegate to three General Conferences and a reserve to three. He was active with the group of church leaders which studied, proposed, and passed legislation to provide fairer representation of growing areas to General Conference and on boards and agencies. He was the convener and moderator of that group for eight years. He now serves as the Senior Pastor of Latham United Methodist Church in Huntsville, AL. 


At the 2016 United Methodist General Conference, delegates voted to accept a proposal by the Council of Bishops to set up the “Commission on the Way Forward” to study how to deal with the conflicts within the church related to homosexuality. The Council of Bishops set up the Commission on the Way Forward which did its work responsibly, proposing three plans.

The Council of Bishops received the report and voted for one of those options, “The One Church Plan”, based on the current majority faction within the Council. The Council then tried to severely limit other legislative proposals at General Conference to that one option. The Judicial Council ruled that the Council could not limit the proposals sent to the called General Conference. All three plans are coming before a special session of general conference in Feb. in St. Louis.

Now we are witnessing a high level of activity designed to sway the General Conference decision toward the “One Church Plan.” Bishops, progressive groups, and individuals are campaigning using the recommendation of the One Church Plan by the Council of Bishops, voted in by the Council’s current controlling majority faction.

However, the representative make-up of the Council of Bishops makes their preference for the One Church Plan predictable. It is the preference of the majority faction within the Council. The Council of Bishops has more bishops from liberal and declining areas than more traditionalist or growing areas, which shapes its decisions.

The number and distribution of bishops is the result of our historical pattern of church membership and the original establishment of Episcopal areas. Over time, as the northern and the western parts of the U.S. church declined, the Discipline slowed their losses of bishops. (The number of bishops has been reduced in recent years in these areas, but not as much as their membership decrease would have dictated.)

At the same time, we were very slow in increasing bishops in rapidly growing areas. The growing areas of Africa are woefully understaffed with bishops and our church has been reluctant to spend the money to increase that number. (Africa is finally getting several new bishops in the coming years, but not as many as could be justified by membership.)

Interestingly, when the Discipline was changed to establish the current formula for U.S. bishops (by a far more generous standard than that used for African bishops), the Southeastern Jurisdiction could have added another bishop but declined.

The election of bishops is a very political process. The Northeastern, North Central, and Western Jurisdictions elect mostly liberal bishops, with a few exceptions. The Southeastern Jurisdiction and South Central Jurisdiction have elected an ideologically diverse group over the years. The progressives always seem to be more organized in these elections.

The result of all of this history of the deployment of bishops is that the Council of Bishops is an un-representative group dominated by older declining areas and therefore more liberal than the denomination or General Conference.

Given the preference of the Council of Bishops for the One Church Plan, a fair question would be this: if the Council of Bishops is to become this active in General Conference decisions, or if it is to become a planning body within the denomination, how should it best be constituted and organized for effectiveness? What representation should we expect within the Council of Bishops?

Presently this is the way U.S. bishops are assigned: each U.S. jurisdiction may elect five bishops for the first 300,000 members and another bishop for each 300,000 additional members.

However, consider an alternative way of looking at the number of bishops. Each bishop in the U.S. represents an average of 153,789 church members. If the church allocated bishops by this number, the distribution of the Council of Bishops would be as follows:

North Central Jurisdiction:     8 bishops instead of 9

Northeastern Jurisdiction        8 bishops instead of 9

South Central Jurisdiction      11 bishops instead of 10

Southeastern Jurisdiction       18 bishops instead of 13

Western Jurisdiction                2 bishops instead of 5

African Central Conferences    34 bishops instead of 13

The Europe Central Conferences and Philippines 1 each

Put differently, there are now more United Methodists in the Congo Central Conference (only one of three central conferences in Africa) than in the Western, North Central, and Northeastern jurisdictions combined. But these three liberal-leaning U.S. jurisdictions now have a total of 23 bishops, compared to four Congolese bishops.

In our present Council of Bishops it is easy to see why liberal areas of the church dominate and why the Council recommended the “One Church Plan.” If there were 29 bishops in the SE and SC Jurisdictions, 34 bishops in Africa, and only 18 bishops in the North and West, wouldn’t the recommendation have been very different?

Delegates to General Conference 2019 should consider the recommendation of the “One Church Plan” by the Council of Bishops in the perspective of the representative make-up of the Council.

We respect our bishops and the office of the Episcopacy. We listen to them and honor their crucial work within the church. However, in recommending the One Church Plan the Council of Bishops is presenting the ideological representation of a majority group in the Council, not a vision of a way forward for the whole church.

16 Responses to Robert Sparkman: What of the Majority Faction of Bishops Supporting the One Church Plan?

  1. Skipper says:

    While it is very disappointing for many of our bishops to support immoral living, I think the Traditional Plan will be selected because that is what the majority wants (even with the present unfair representation). We want a return to the ways of God.

  2. Jim Tormey says:

    Unfortunately, even if the traditional plan is accepted, I believe they will attempt to make the vote either illegal or judicially unsound. Nothing less than the One Church Plan will be satisfactory to the Bishops. The power of the Bishops has become unquestionable by laity, or for that matter clergy. Even if the Traditional plan passes and stands there are those who will continue to disobey the Book of discipline. If this happens will the Bishops abide by the decision and uphold the Discipline or simply avoid any action at all? Such a sad commentary on where we are at as a denomination. It’s too bad we couldn’t sit down and decide how to separate like adults? And leave an example to the world how the Church is really supposed to act like!

  3. Nina Wynn says:

    Early on in your piece, there seems to be a bias that is troubling. “The Council of Bishops received the report and voted for one of those options, ‘The One Church Plan’, based on the current majority faction within the Council.
    “Majority faction” is used here as if to say there is something wrong with a decision based on what the majority holds to be true. And how can it be a faction if it is the majority? Anyway, the very next sentence was even more concerning. “The Council then tried to severely limit other legislative proposals at General Conference to that one option.” The use of the adverb, “severely” in relation to “limit” promotes a false narrative. I attended to the process of the Judicial Council and the request from the Bishops to hold our General Conference to it’s intended task. This was not an attempt to severely limit anyone, in any way. I’m sorry to say, your bias made it hard for me to head your article without being overwhelmed, in a very negative, way by your agenda.

    • William says:

      But, the present composition of the Council of Bishops is rigged, especially against the Africans, thus giving more authority to the liberals there than justified — which is the point of the article. And, it is the liberals there who are opposed to making the Council truly representative, which again works mostly against the Africans. And liberals are forever accusing traditionalists of being racists and bigots.

      • Sandra says:

        Yes, Episcopal representation appears to be rigged against the Africans, but honestly, wasn’t that based on racism and classism (they are poor jurisdictions) rather than right-leaning ideology?

    • Robert Sparkman says:

      It is a political term, I admit, and one definition is this: “Similarly, in the tenth installment of The Federalist Papers, James Madison defines a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens,…”
      I believe the majority of the church would not support the One Church Plan, but a faction within the Council, as the definition says, “either a minority or majority of the whole” is supporting it based on unbalanced and unfair representation.

    • Geary Rowell says:

      What the COB did was, in fact, an attempt to “severely limit” what could be presented for consideration at GC2019. What else would you call it when they attempted to have only their preferred plan be presented and no other?

  4. Forbes 2 says:

    I agree fully

  5. Bill says:

    I think it may be disproportionately worse than we think. Don’t retired Bishops have voice and vote? Aren’t they overwhelmingly liberal and progressive?

    • John Lomperis says:

      Retired bishops have voice, and are sometimes very vocal in using that voice to try to influence discussions, but usually no vote

  6. Dan says:

    Fascinating article! Liberals and progressives in the political sphere are currently trying to eliminate the electoral college in U.S. politics because it denies the will of the “popular” vote and complaining that small states get two senators while the biggest states still only get two senators. Since many of these political liberals and progressives are undoubtedly UMC members, shouldn’t they be in favor of allocating UMC bishops strictly by membership if they want to be consistent? Just sayin’.

  7. Joseph Richmond says:

    What an incredible mess we have gotten into by leaning on our own understanding and rejecting the leadership and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
    I can only imagine the discussions between John Wesley and Jesus over this in Heaven!
    Let us return to putting first things first as in Jesus Christ and let Him take care of the rest. 🙏

  8. Pat says:

    This is a fine article that gives further proof the UMC has been operating as two distinct denominations for quite some time. The numbers are undeniable that but for the over representation on the COB by bishops from these liberal jurisdictions, the recommendation coming from the COB would have been far different. As liberal factions have gained an upper hand in leadership positions in the North Central, Northeastern, and Western Jurisdictions, traditional Wesleyan theology and thought have gradually been choked out until the voices of earlier generations within the church in those areas have been mostly silenced. Membership has dwindled in these areas significantly and churches have closed. Over representation by these jurisdictions on the COB has only compounded the problem. We should no longer pretend we are one denomination. We are two in thought and action. The OCP is not the solution. As sad as it is, we should admit this and go forward from the Special called GC as two denominations.

  9. Simon Mafunda says:

    Surely the the issue of representation should be corrected as a matter of urgency if we are to continue calling ourselves a true global connection.

  10. Anon says:

    All this byzantine vote-counting and politicking has nothing to do with real religion or God, and therefore is much beloved by organized religionists. This is why I think organized religion is largely useless and unhelpful, and people are better off as individuals or perhaps small groups.

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