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.