United Methodist laity vs. clergy

Did 2019 US Delegate Elections Really Show “American United Methodists” Shifting Against Traditionalism? Look Closer

on May 19, 2020

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.

  1. Comment by Reynolds on May 19, 2020 at 8:11 am

    If the protocol passes, how are you going to protect the laity’s rights to call a vote to leave UMC. It would seems the leadership will fight to stop and voting period. What recourse will laity have since it will be a time sensitive issue to vote

  2. Comment by Herb on May 19, 2020 at 9:17 am

    I am a clergy in a conference that shifted from a split clergy delegation to a 100% centrist/progressive clergy delegation. Our laity are split but lean traditional.
    I actually believe our 50-50 lay/clergy balance requirement allows the representatives at an Annual Conference gathering to be even more liberal than the grassroots. Here’s why.
    Every appointment beyond the local church must be balanced with a lay delegate. Centrist/progressive DSs can pick who they desire, as could traditional DSs, but when you have precious few traditional DSs, then you can do the math. Further, conference clergy staff are balanced and, in my conference, those clergy naturally cluster near the conference office which happens to be in Metro Atlanta. They affiliate with metro churches in more progressive districts. Guess where their equalizing laity are drawn from?
    All that being said, I’m still not convinced that when push comes to shove, we will see a great exodus of traditionalists. Inertia is a powerful thing, as is fear of the unknown and the desire to remain with the familiar. Plus, people may very well choose local tradition – our building, our name, our Sunday School class, – over traditional values.

  3. Comment by JR on May 19, 2020 at 10:08 am

    I agree with your last paragraph – changing churches is HARD, and most people who sit somewhere off the extremes will choose to stay in their church.

    When a church votes to go to a new denomination, the majority of the people will stay with the church, even if they don’t really agree with the denominational position. They might attend a little less, but that church (assuming they have been there any reasonable amount of time) is the draw. It’s not usually about the pastor or the building, but about the people they know and like.

    Because honestly, unless you are at one of the more extreme ends of the opinion, those changes don’t really have much impact on you as a member of the congregation.

  4. Comment by Brad Pope on May 19, 2020 at 10:46 am

    JR- true for a while. But once your youth start being taught “there is no heaven, the Bible we have is likely doesn’t resemble the real time writings, OT miracles are just legend, etc, etc, etc” – ALL of which are direct products of a culture of abdicating scriptural authority- laity who really care will become deflated and drift…I know that is my own experience & I was even lay leader once upon a time in my congregation

  5. Comment by MJ on May 19, 2020 at 11:41 am

    Herb, JR, and Brad, I think you are all making good points. I suspect that traditionalists will be disappointed at how few majority traditionalist congregations have the political wherewithal to depart to a new denomination. And, Brad, your point about deflated traditionalists drifting away is what happens once the liberals have full control. This was the experience of my own congregation that didn’t leave our denomination (not Methodist) when we had the chance.

  6. Comment by John Lomperis on May 19, 2020 at 1:38 pm

    Herb, yes, in the article above, I briefly mentioned the issue of liberal DS’s (who represent the bishop) stacking the deck with liberal “equalization members” – which is a real problem. According to church law, it’s actually illegal for DS’s to just unilaterally appoint favored individuals to these slots. The Discipline is clear that equalization delegates must be chosen via an “election” process. But I am aware that some liberal bishops have disregarded this rule, in ways that benefit their “side.”

  7. Comment by Herb on May 20, 2020 at 10:44 am

    I want to be clear that I’m not accusing any DS of illegally stacking the deck. All AC delegates have been duly and rightly elected by the appropriate bodies.
    My point is that in my conference, we have a number of appointments beyond the local church concentrated in the metro areas, which makes sense. Those districts also tend toward the centrist/progressive side. The laity recruited and elected from those districts will tend in that direction, whereas those in what we call the “outlying” districts tend the other way. That is compounded by the presence of a UM seminary.
    In terms of North Georgia clergy, it didn’t take much to go from a split delegation, that leaned centrist/progressive, to a uniform C/P one. The current voting system allows for a pretty easy sweep if you get a majority and vote in a disciplined manner.

  8. Comment by Brad Pope on May 19, 2020 at 10:36 am

    The progressive leadership is already gently ostracizing and ever so slightly demeaning traditional laity. The message is “of course you can join us, but your traditional views are going to be treated as childish and less enlightened & definitely not taught to children & youth”. There are too many other worship options out there who believe in scripture authority for traditional laity to stick around for long.

  9. Comment by Loren J Golden on May 19, 2020 at 1:06 pm

    “According to the official membership statistics used to determine representation at the 2020 General Conference, only 0.6 percent (7,074,338) of the 7,118,133 American United Methodists at that time were clergy, and over 99 percent (43,795) were laity.”
    I think your numbers are reversed from your percentages.

  10. Comment by John Lomperis on May 19, 2020 at 1:38 pm

    Thank you. It’s been corrected.

  11. Comment by C.A. Buster on May 19, 2020 at 5:13 pm

    I am a lay person who hopes the 2021-2024 season does not produce T-shirts for traditionalists that say “I’m a Methodist – I love my church, hate my denomination”. Frankly, I believe some Methodists will likely move to ‘bible’ churches because of no other option available locally. Time will tell.

  12. Comment by C.A. Buster on May 20, 2020 at 2:57 pm

    Such a move to a ‘bible’ church will obviously challenge precepts of prevenient grace, women ordination and infant baptism to those who do chose to ‘migrate’, but there will certainly be a clarity regarding sexual morality.

  13. Comment by William on May 20, 2020 at 11:04 am

    Let’s hand out a ballot and VOTE. It’s time to stop cutting bait.


    To Which Methodist Denomination Do
    You Wish To Belong?

    Please Check ✔️ One

    ——— A Progressive Denomination

    1. Believe in a new understanding of marriage to include same-sex marriage derived from new progressive perspective, contextual, and evolving Biblical interpretations —- accompanied by same-sex marriage ceremonies inside the church sanctuaries conducted by the church clergy.

    2. LGBTQ identified persons welcomed into full-inclusion with their committed sexual relationships affirmed, thus freeing them from the call of repentance for the forgiveness of previously considered sins —- a revised understanding of love and grace derived from new progressive perspective , contextual, and evolving Biblical interpretations — while having an undefined position regarding the sexual practices and lifestyles of the heterosexual community outside those of a man and a woman in marriage.

    3. Full inclusion of LGBTQ candidates seeking licensing and ordination into the ministry who are in committed LGBTQ sexual relationships while having an undefined position for heterosexual candidates engaged in committed sexual relationships outside those of heterosexual marriage.

    ———- A Traditional Denomination

    1. Believe in God’s created order for marriage as only that between a man and a woman as Jesus described and emphasized when he said — “haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate”.

    2. LGBTQ identified persons and heterosexual identified persons welcomed equally into full-inclusion (Wesleyan Prevenient Grace) in order to partake of repentance preached in Jesus’ name for the forgiveness of sins, including the sins of sexual immorality, and be recipients of salvation (Wesleyan Justifying Grace), thus becoming anew or born again in Jesus in order to pursue, with the help of the Holy Spirit, holiness (Wesleyan Sanctifying Grace) — the historic, universal, and Wesleyan Christian understanding of the Good News Gospel.

    3. Believe in the traditional, historic, universal, and Wesleyan Biblical standards of sexual behavior for candidates seeking licensing and ordination into the ministry as those practicing fidelity in heterosexual marriage and celibacy in singleness.

  14. Comment by David Gingrich on May 23, 2020 at 8:07 am

    The traditionalists, with weak and really undemocratic leadership, made a terrible deal.

  15. Comment by John Smith on May 26, 2020 at 10:22 am

    This was amusing: “And we laypeople make up most of the church.” to which could be added: and pay the bills but have authority, are never listened to and wield no power.

    Something must be done to address the imbalances in the new denomination. Right now the laity have three options: Suck it up, quit giving money or leave.

  16. Comment by Paul Rudolph on May 26, 2020 at 4:08 pm

    I have already started looking for another church. There is no reason to remain with a church that will become a pretend church. Either you believe the Bible or you don’t. Progressives (?) don’t. So what then is the point?

  17. Comment by John Smith on May 27, 2020 at 9:17 am

    Now that its Pastor shuffle season our church got kinda sucker punched but why lifelong methodists are surprised by this is beyond me. Current pastor, popular, did a good job of rebuilding after previous pastor made it clear he didn’t want to be there. Budget battle last year, we have to pay apportionment or they will remove Pastor _____. So they paid and, of course, the Pastor was moved. Why people think the AC or district listens to them is beyond me. OBTW the church needs to pony up more money, in lockdown, when finances are in freefall plus everyone knows that when a popular pastor leaves membership (even more so when there is no prep) and giving always drop, the question is how much? Sometimes you wonder what the bureaucracy is thinking.

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