Do Two-Thirds of American United Methodists Really Support Redefining Marriage?

on April 22, 2019

Shortly before the United Methodist Church’s specially called February 2019 General Conference, the Rev. Mark Holland’s “Mainstream UMC” caucus emailed a message to delegates. Holland claimed that “more than two-thirds” of U.S. delegates supported the “One Church Plan” – which would liberalize the denomination’s current definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and also roll back the denomination’s longstanding bans on same-sex union ceremonies and “self-avowed practicing homosexual” clergy. The caucus group’s message confidently boasted that “There is no question the U.S. church is ready for” such liberal policies.

At other times, Mainstream UMC went even further, equating their dubious two-thirds statistic with not only two-thirds of the U.S. delegates, but “2/3 of the U.S. church”. In one context, this appeared to identify an alleged liberal super-majority of American United Methodists with the perspective of not only wanting our denomination to take a more liberal approach, but rather of being unwilling to respect the United Methodist Church’s official decisions if they cannot get their way. That was not an isolated incident of Mainstream UMC engaging in rhetorical sleight-of-hand to move from their unproven claim that two-thirds of U.S. delegates supported the liberal One Church Plan to claiming that this is the perspective of “2/3 of the U.S. church” as a whole. For other examples, see here and here.

Especially since the conclusion of General Conference, Mainstream UMC’s claims about the views of “the vast majority” of American United Methodists have been spread far and wide, with surprisingly few questions.

But is there really firm justification for treating such claims from this caucus group as undisputed fact?

The language of Mainstream UMC conflates three distinct issues:

  • The views of all American United Methodists;
  • How well the tiny few elected as delegates actually represent the views of the rest of the church; and
  • The views of American delegates to the 2019 General Conference.

Let’s take each of these in order.

To back up its claims, Mainstream UMC cites a 2014 Pew Survey which Holland claims “reported that 60% of U.S. United Methodists believed that same-sex marriage should be accepted.”

For one thing, 60 percent is a bit less than that “2/3 of the U.S. church” Holland claimed more recently.

And like many other claims from this caucus group, Mainstream UMC simply misrepresents the truth about the Pew survey.

You can let the Pew Research Center speak for itself by clicking here.

When the 2014 Pew survey asked United Methodist respondents specifically about “allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally,” it found 49 percent in favor (not 60 percent!) and 43 percent opposed. Even that 49 percent is likely a bit inflated for Holland’s purposes by the unfair framing of the question (painting opponents as “not allowing” people to do something, rather than something like “redefining the institution of marriage in civil law to include same-sex couples”) and how in recent years some U.S. Christians have taken a libertarian attitude of being okay with such redefinitions of marriage in civil law while taking a very different attitude for the internal policies and teachings about marriage within their own church.

An entirely separate question found that 60 percent of U.S. United Methodists believed that “Homosexuality should be accepted by society.” But this is a poorly worded question which says nothing directly about “same-sex marriage” (contrary to Mainstream UMC’s claim) and is subject to such a range of interpretations (does that merely mean not ostracizing gay people, or something more?) that it is of much more limited value than the marriage-specific question which Mainstream UMC ignores.

As a Religion News Service summary notes, accepting something in society is not the same as accepting it in your own church. So we should expect a chunk of the 49 percent of surveyed U.S. United Methodists who favored, in the words of Pew’s liberally framed question, “allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally,” to not necessarily favor liberalizing marriage and morality policies within our denomination.

Mainstream UMC also ignores a more recent survey conducted by our denomination’s own liberal-leaning United Methodist Communications.

Many liberals confidently predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage to include same-sex pairings would influence American church people to quickly redefine their personal religious values to better conform to Caesar’s.

But that is not what the 2015 United Methodist Communications survey found in the immediate aftermath of this major change in U.S. secular law. Instead, that survey, like Pew, revealed that American United Methodists remain closely divided. Specifically, the 2015 survey found slight majorities of American United Methodism’s pastors and most involved laypeople still supporting our church’s policies prohibiting same-sex union ceremonies.

(It should be noted that the terms “pastor” and “clergy” are not interchangeable. A significant number of UMC clergy are not currently pastoring a congregation, but instead are retired or employed elsewhere, such as in denominational offices, non-profits, or schools. Many of these clergy are much more liberal than many of their colleagues who still have sheep to shepherd.)

Even if claims about two-thirds of U.S. delegates could be trusted, this alone cannot logically mean that “there is no question” that such a position represents “the U.S. church” as a whole.

While there were exceptions, the group of American delegates who came to St. Louis was likely to have been, overall, much more liberal than the people in the pews back home.

There are some structural reasons for this.

First of all, United Methodists across the spectrum have frequently noted a reality in American United Methodism that, in the words of outspoken liberal leader Rev. Dr. James Howell, “on average the clergy are far more progressive than their congregations.”

By my calculations, clergy are less than one percent of all American United Methodists (0.6025 percent, to be exact). And yet our church law requires that this overall more liberal one percent of the U.S. church (not the same as saying “the most liberal one percent”) determines who 50 percent of the U.S. delegates will be.

Furthermore, the quirks of assigning even numbers of delegates to each annual conference with guaranteed minimums results in great proportional unevenness in the representation of different regions at General Conference. We could cite plenty of individual cases where this resulted in one more theologically liberal-leaning conference getting proportionally greater representation than another, more theologically traditional-leaning conference, and vice-versa.

But overall, we see such big-picture patterns as the fact that the Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ) got to send a total of one delegate to the 2019 General Conference for every 15,052 clergy and lay members back home, while the Western Jurisdiction got to send one delegate for every 11,463 clergy and lay members. In other words, proportionate to the number of United Methodists in each region, the most liberal U.S. jurisdiction was represented with over 31 percent more delegates than the most conservative U.S. jurisdiction. The proportionate lay and clergy members per delegate for the Northeastern and North Central Jurisdiction was between these two extremes (14,722 and 13,913), respectively, while the South Central Jurisdiction, with 15,887 people per delegate, was slightly more under-represented than the SEJ. These trends, overall, may have shifted the center of gravity for U.S. delegates a bit further to the left of the people back home.  (My numbers for this article are based on the official membership statistics used for allocation of 2016 General Conference delegates, which you can check out for yourself here.)

And we have long seen a pattern of more theologically traditionalist regions of the church being represented by delegates whose views are far to the left of most of their people back home, often unbeknownst to many of the people who elected them.

As I talked to people from around our denominational connection in preparation for the 2019 General Conference, in multiple conferences I heard a familiar story: “The feedback grassroots people in our conference are sending the delegates is overwhelmingly opposed to the One Church Plan (OCP) and overwhelmingly urging support for the Traditional Plan. But the actual delegates from this conference are much more evenly split.”

I remain struck by how on the floor I ran into a lay delegate from the Alabama-West Florida Conference. Previously, I had recalled her presenting herself as more moderate or even somewhat traditionalist-leaning. Now in that context, away from most of her home folks, she sported a pin touting her support for same-sex marriage.

Some liberal leaders have made a point of emphasizing that General Conference’s voting members are delegates – to whom authority to make decisions solely according to their conscience has been delegated – and NOT representatives – who have an obligations to represent the views and concerns of the people who elected them. I can see merits of this framework, even if I dislike some specifics of how it has been used to woo delegates from more conservative regions to support far-left policies.

But my liberal friends cannot have it both ways. If American General Conference delegates were not there as representatives of the views of their home conferences, than it is misleading, at best, to suddenly switch gears and claim that their views actually do represent those of the people back home, when one side or another finds it politically convenient to make such claims.

Now what about the oft-touted claim, originating with Mainstream UMC, that over two-thirds of U.S. delegates at the 2019 General Conference supported the liberal OCP?

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with Mainstream UMC doing quiet research around the connection to project how many delegates from different areas were likely to vote for one plan vs. another. Leaders on all sides do that sort of thing.

But such surveys and projections are inevitably a mix of art and science, and cannot possibly bring precise mathematical certainties.

Some delegates change their positions, even at the last minute. Some delegates keep their views so closely guarded, even from friends, so that any expectation of them voting one way or another is mere speculation. At any moment during General Conference, several delegates will have reserve delegates, with potentially different views, seated in their places. And all votes are cast by secret ballot.

So no one can claim with absolute confidence to know the precise number of U.S. delegates who supported one plan or another.

I was always a bit dubious of Mainstream UMC’s claims. For one things, my own projected numbers always showed that even in the questionable scenario of every single truly “middle” American delegate, whose views were unclear or who could potentially have gone either way, opposing the Traditional Plan and supporting the OCP, this plus more clearly liberal-leaning delegates would still add up to a little less than two-thirds of U.S. delegates.

It did not help my trust in Mainstream UMC’s accuracy when I saw them blatantly misrepresent the truth on other relevant matters, such as claiming that the OCP “has no effect on Central Conferences outside the United States” (a claim this caucus repeated again, and again, and again, and again) even though that is so obviously false, as I have shown.

My own projections for the total votes I expected for each plan from America, Africa, Europe, and the Philippines yielded final numbers rather close to the final 438-384 vote to adopt the partial Traditional Plan.

On the other hand, Mainstream UMC’s shocking admission that they had actually expected to have 88 African delegate votes for the OCP (and “were dead wrong” on that) raises major questions about their reliability of the model they used for projecting vote totals.

In short, all responsible people seeking accurate understandings of the state of our denomination should challenge, and stop repeating, Mainstream UMC’s claims about two thirds of American United Methodists favoring the OCP to fundamentally liberalize our denomination on marriage and homosexuality.

The most recent available survey data shows that American United Methodists are much more closely divided on questions related to redefining marriage, with slight majorities of our pastors and most involved laypeople supporting longstanding church policies prohibiting same-sex union ceremonies. There are good reasons for skepticism about Mainstream UMC’s claims about how many American United Methodist delegates supported their favored plan. And even if Mainstream UMC was correct in what they said about this year’s crop of U.S. delegates, that group would clearly not be a representative sample of American United Methodism as a whole.

UPDATE: The paragraph addressing the Pew survey’s question about same-sex marriage has been updated for greater clarity. 

  1. Comment by Eternity Matters on April 22, 2019 at 7:24 am

    It is illuminating how the “Christian” Left has to twist things to push their agenda. Note how they aren’t interested in what the Bible says, just what some members *allegedly* believe.

  2. Comment by Mike on April 22, 2019 at 8:13 am

    The “Left”, whether “Christian” or political, always has to twist things to push their agenda. Remember “shovel ready jobs”? How about “If your like your insurance plan, you can keep it”? Need I say any more?

  3. Comment by Reynolds on April 22, 2019 at 10:08 am

    Once the church splits, wait twenty years and only the traditional church will be standing. Look at the other seven sister churches and the dramatic drop in those attending Sunday services. They can all combine in twenty years to have a million worshippers

  4. Comment by Charles Klink on April 25, 2019 at 8:36 am

    I find it fascinating that persons are surprised at the outcome of the GC vote. My son-in-law is from a central African country and his wife (our daughter) asked him how many “gays” are in his country and his response (3 times!) was, “None.” (Denial is more than a river in Egypt!) I am truly convinced, if a split happens, that clergy who go with the non-traditional will soon have “second-thoughts”, as the anticipated “majority” they believe are there will soon be much smaller than they have convinced themselves it will be. As the phrase says, “Talk is cheap.” The “we will leave the denomination” group will be much smaller than perceived (if history’s record is any barometer in these occurrences). And are clergy ready to risk their pension, their “guaranteed appointment” option; their dependence upon the hierarchy for support to join the new “denomination” of churches which separate from the UMC? If history is an indicator, the # is much less than their verbal threats of departure. “The devil is in the details” — remember that!

  5. Comment by Diane on April 22, 2019 at 12:44 pm

    Other side of the coin: do evangelicals still want to steal for their personal benefit the millions of dollars contributed to the Social Security piggybank made by same-sex couples for whom wish to deny civil marriage?

    Until the Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality, the surviving spouse (widow) Social Security benefits was available only to a special class of taxpayers: opposite sex married couples, even though same-sex individual couples were forced to contribute to this safety-net program from which they themselves, as loving, committed, monogamous, long-term couples were denied. The SS widow benefit begins at age 60. A widow with a solid employment record can take this benefit until age 70, when their own employment-based benefit, having earned 8% interest for every year not taken, can be taken. For the ten year period (between age 60-70), the average SS widow benefit is $150K. Taking this income allows one’s employment-based SS benefit to double in amount when taken at age 70.

    Denying the SS widow benefit to a gay, lesbian or bisexual individual who’s suffered the death of a partner is an economic injustice and outright punitive to taxpayers denied marriage. When evangelicals call for defining marriage as one man-one woman, it essentially paints them, whether they choose to admit it or not, as self-serving, greedy faith-based bigots. Their opposition to marriage equality favors the re-distribution of tax dollars, paid into the SS system by gay taxpayers, to benefit one special-rights class: heterosexual, married citizens. Think tax-collector Zaccheus.

    There are currently innumerable American taxpayers whose same-sex partner died prior to the Supreme Court marriage equality decision. They are denied SS widow benefits (think $150K over 10 years) because of those who are opposed to marriage equality.

    Lest one believes the simplistic “well, anyone has the right to marry someone of the opposite sex,” please be reminded that the Straight Spouse Network estimates that 85% of mixed orientation marriages, where one spouse is concealing their homosexual orientation, end in divorce. Many of those marriages include children born during the marriage. Economically rewarding/privileging only opposite-sex
    marriages pressures gay and lesbian folks to conceal their identity and marry an unsuspecting straight spouse. I have a gay friend who did just that – after forty years of marriage, he revealed to his wife that he’s always been gay. He thought marriage to a woman and anguished prayers and service to God would change him. He was still gay. He and his wife chose to remain married to avoid the stigma of divorce. His wife, traumatized and depressed by her husband’s life-altering revelation, tragically took her life a month later. Her widowed husband immediately retired and chose to collect his monthly SS widow’s benefit at age 60. He will eventually double his monthly benefit at age 70, when he elects to take SS monthly income based on his own employment record.

    The Straight Spouse Network is an international organization that supports straight spouses after they learn they’re married to someone with a same-sex orientation. Straight Spouses are often isolated in their pain as they grieve the loss of their marriage (even if they choose not to divorce).

  6. Comment by Jim on April 22, 2019 at 5:52 pm

    The dollars pale in comparison to the untold billions that were never to materialize for the millions of unborn children who were not permitted to live by people just like you Diane. Spare us your pathetic economic data for homosexuality.

  7. Comment by Wayne on April 23, 2019 at 9:03 pm


  8. Comment by CM on January 4, 2020 at 11:32 am

    Agreed. Moreover, sin is sin and what is natural is natural.

  9. Comment by Steve on April 22, 2019 at 8:43 pm

    Evangelicals’ declining to recognize gay marriage does not determine social security payouts. On the other hand, liberals have been throwing traditional congregations and clergy out of their property for decades. Ever hear of the Dennis Canon? Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, NY? When Islam takes the place of Christianity after years of liberal appeasement of everything except traditional Christianity, do you really think things will be better? What do you care as long as you score points on a message board now, you’ll be dead by then, god forbid there should be a judgment day, right?

  10. Comment by td on April 30, 2019 at 10:31 am

    Please stop equating traditional believers in the UMC with cultural evangelicals in the UMC: cultural evangelicals would be a subset of traditional believers (and as an aside- there are also some cultural evangelicals would would be a subset of progressive believers in the UMC).

  11. Comment by Joan on May 1, 2019 at 12:35 pm

    Like many things, when you dig down to the bottom you’ll find money is the root.

  12. Comment by Andrew Hughes on April 22, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    Keep up the great work John. We must fight. Deception is all around us. God is using people like you with truth, scripture and the Holy Spirit to restrain the evil one.

  13. Comment by David on April 22, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    “According to the PRRI 2017 American Values Atlas, a majority of Methodists[1] in the United States support same-sex marriage, though their level of support is slightly lower than that of the general population (61%). More than half (54%) of all Methodists favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, including over one in five (21%) who strongly favor this, compared to just over one-third (36%) who oppose, including under one in five Methodists (16%) strongly oppose same-sex marriage.”

    PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.

  14. Comment by CM on January 4, 2020 at 11:48 am

    This points to Methodists who support this nonsense outside of the church, not within it. The Bible is quite clear on homosexuality and sexual devinacy.

  15. Comment by David on April 22, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    “Sixty-seven percent of Americans support same-sex marriage — the highest level in Gallup’s trend [2018]. In each of the past three annual polls, Gallup has recorded three-percentage point increases among Americans who say same-sex marriages should be legally valid. The current figure is up 40 percentage points from the 27% who supported gay marriage when Gallup first polled on the question in 1996.”

  16. Comment by diaphone64 on April 22, 2019 at 3:05 pm

    Who cares what secular society supports? John 15:19 “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.“

  17. Comment by David on April 22, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    The point of this whole article is about how many support what.

  18. Comment by John on April 22, 2019 at 8:38 pm

    The point of this whole article is how many WITHIN THE CHURCH support what. What those outside the church support may be an interesting aside, but irrelevant to the topic at hand.

  19. Comment by David on April 22, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    In my own and probably other major cities there are what is called “pop up stores.” These retailers often appear in the period before Christmas, then disappear. Mainstream UMC appears to be a pop up publication that was started just prior to GC 2019 and since become dormant. I do not under that great concern about this publication except that they made an error in their survey statistics.

    I have noticed a trend here of engaging in the guilt by association fallacy. Particularly strange cases are presented with the implication that all liberals are of the same mind.

  20. Comment by Paul Thompson on April 22, 2019 at 11:40 pm

    This is the problem we need to be socially active about! Which is totally opposite the direction these others are heading.

  21. Comment by Dan on April 26, 2019 at 12:54 pm

    Much of the discussion also confuses civil marriage vs. a church blessed marriage. It’s one thing to say a government should allow something and another to say a church should bless it in worship.

  22. Comment by K Parker on November 3, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    Wow. So important, but not addressed in churches!! Why not?? I cringed when my daughter’s friend sent out a letter just prior to her wedding saying “it was time to make it legal.” The wedding ceremony is just fluff, a social event to millennials & to the ones who have no idea about living in relationship with God, or the fact that the covenant relationship between husband and wife is meant to honor God’s relationship with us. Sad.

  23. Comment by DeWayne on April 26, 2019 at 5:05 pm

    Concerning biblical standards, does it really matter what godless secular society thinks? We are here to influence our culture for the Kingdom, but sadly, there are those that are “hell bent” in demanding that our culture play the influential role in how as Christians are to live out our faith. It is really nothing more that a spirit of rebellion that has infected our beloved UMC. As the serpent asked, “Did God really say… ?”

  24. Comment by Indy Jones on April 29, 2019 at 4:13 pm

    DeWayne: Wow. “Did God really say … ?” That’s exactly where we are. Nothing’s changed in how many thousands of years?

  25. Comment by John Smith on April 30, 2019 at 6:45 am

    “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” Its gotten to the point when an advocate of any position starts spouting numbers I quit listening. The more relevant point is: So what? If the church is just a social club then majority rules, if its not, if it is something more than the question is what does God say.

    The conservatives may have won the battle but lost the war when they allowed this to be framed as a LGBTQAI battle instead of a battle over the authority of scripture on all, including the Bishops.

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