Did the spring 2019 elections of delegates to the 2020 General Conference (now postponed until 2021) really show that “American United Methodists” have shifted to become dramatically more liberal on questions of sexual morality and underlying theology?
Much of the rhetoric over the past year suggests this.
But when we look closer, we see that the truth is rather more complicated than simplistic summaries. “American United Methodists” as a whole are not nearly as liberal as some are claiming.
The widely noted liberal backlash seen in the 2019 U.S. delegate elections was actually rather limited, to a relatively narrow range of clergy.
It looks like lay delegates to the next General Conference have not shifted overall to become any more liberal than lay delegates to the last General Conference. And we laypeople make up most of the church.
It is important to be clear that there are four distinct issues, which are sometimes misleadingly conflated:
- The views of all American United Methodists on particular controversies;
- The views of the tiny minority of us elected as delegates;
- How well the views of the latter represent the views of the former; and
- If there has been any shift in the views of American United Methodists.
As previously noted, while some liberal leaders have misrepresented some survey data, the most recent scientific survey of which I am aware (in 2015) found that slight majorities of both pastors and the most active laypeople in American United Methodism still supporting our denomination’s continued ban on same-sex union ceremonies.
I freely admit that the majority American General Conference delegates to the last General Conference leaned in a theologically liberal direction, and that there is a lower percentage of traditionalist-leaning American delegates this time. (For reasons I have noted, counting votes, which I have carefully done at every General Conference since 2008, is a mix of art and science, so that it is simply not possible to provide absolutely precise, guaranteed percentages for how many American General Conference delegates have a specific position on any major controversy.) These liberal gains among American delegates have been countered by the allocation of delegates shifting away from the USA to the Global South.
But delegate elections are NOT the most reliable measures of how grassroots United Methodists feel about any single controversy. Among other things, election results are driven by the particular strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates, the comparative organization of “campaigns,” and a range of different issues. There is some skewing in representation in terms of who shows up to vote at annual conference sessions, including serious economic justice concerns when attendance is made prohibitively expensive for some. Rev. Dr. Chappell Temple has noted how an annual conference with 57 percent of clergy voting in a partisan liberal bloc could elect a slate of clergy delegates that was 100 percent liberal, but this would not reflect the conference’s true diversity.
It would take a separate article to document how various liberal American bishops and their cabinets used their offices to effectively help the liberal side in the 2019 elections, through such tools as the bully pulpit, curious scheduling of votes, and even decisions in which laypeople got to vote for delegates as “equalization members” of annual conference.
Finally, too many skip over the fact that delegate elections systematically over-represent ordained clergy while under-representing laity. According to the official membership statistics used to determine representation at the 2020 General Conference, only 0.6 percent (43,795) of the 7,118,133 American United Methodists at that time were clergy, and over 99 percent (7,074,338) were laity.
So when we talk about “American United Methodists” as a whole, this primarily means laity. There are obvious reasons for giving special weight to those the church has set apart as clergy, and they clearly have great influence. But when General, jurisdictional, and annual conferences are required to give 50/50 representation to clergy and laity, we can be honest that this is not purely representative. And it has been widely observed by leaders across the spectrum that in the big picture, American United Methodist clergy are significantly more theologically liberal than laity.
So what happened with the elections among the over 99 percent of American United Methodists who are laity?
By my count, comparing American delegates to the 2019 General Conference with American delegates elected to the 2020/2021 General Conference, there were 14 U.S. annual conferences that elected a greater percentage of lay delegates believed to be theologically traditionalist-leaning, and 13-14 U.S. annual conferences that elected a lower percentage of lay delegates believed to be traditionalist-leaning. Other conferences had no net change.
So among laity, who are over 99 percent of the U.S. church, there were actually about as many annual conferences in which traditionalists gained ground in elections as those in which traditionalists lost ground!
But annual conferences are not equal. So I calculated the percentage of all U.S. lay delegates to General Conference in 2019 vs. 2020/2021 believed to be traditionalist-leaning. And I found that with the 2019 elections, U.S. lay delegates overall have shifted to having (very slightly) more traditionalists.
So in the big picture, the widely noted liberal gains in U.S. General Conference delegate elections, overall, was a development seen among less than one percent of American United Methodists: clergy.
We can be even more specific in observing that this liberal shift was primarily among the majority portion of one sub-group of clergy, those in the order of elders.
A 2019 report counted over 13 times as many elders as deacons in American United Methodism (see page 26).
The other main category of clergy is licensed local pastors. But the current UMC Discipline systemically denies a large portion of these the right to vote for General Conference delegates.
In more than one conference, knowledgeable sources have told me that they would have expected different results in clergy delegate elections if ALL licensed local pastors, who are often more theologically traditionalist, had been allowed to vote. Clergy elections appear to have been further driven to the left by highly effective caucus campaigns to recruit liberal retired elders to come back to conference and vote, even if they had stayed away for years.
So the last year certainly seems to have seen many American United Methodists who were already liberal-leaning become more rigid or militant in their liberalism, especially among the elder sub-group of clergy. This included a rise of single-issue voting in delegate elections. But I have not seen direct evidence that in the last year there has been a major shift, in terms of a significant portion of American United Methodists as a whole “flipping” their views from traditionalist to liberal on the dividing questions about marriage and sexual morality.
Of course, I realize that for potential decisions at the General and Jurisdictional Conference levels, what matters are the views of the delegates. I do not intend any of the above as “sour grapes” about last year’s elections. I remain honored that the voting lay members of my annual conference readily elected me once again as a delegate.
But as we prepare for the coming denominational separation and the related decisions we will all have to make, it is important to have a nuanced understanding of the one-the-ground realities of our already deeply divided denomination.