Delegates NOT Representatives

United Methodist Elections

In the United Methodist Church, every four years we send 1000 delegates (plus staff & church leadership) to General Conference. That means that the year before, each Annual Conference (a state-sized section of UM churches usually) elects their percentage of delegates to General Conference to vote on meta-church matters.

That’s right: delegates, not representatives. This is important in a moment.

Last year I was in conversation with another clergyperson and I said that I wanted to have the voting records of the delegates made public. After all, they were our representatives and I wanted to know how they voted so I would know whether or not to vote for them next time around. It would be more transparent and with more accountability to have their voting records public. It’s called democracy, right?

I have decided that I am wrong.

A very elder clergyperson gave clear insight into this at my own Annual Conference this past week. A person who had been elected as a delegate said that “it was an honor to represent our Annual Conference.” Here’s roughly what the elder pastor said to him/her:

You are not representing our conference. You are a delegate. That means we have delegated our collective authority to you. You vote your conscience as a delegate and pay no heed to “representing” your state. Authority has been delegated to you, take it and vote as a United Methodist who loves [his/her] church.

That is a great distinction. A representative represents their constituency. So one would expect a representative to vote how their constituency would want them to. But a delegate has had authority delegated to them. They have been elected on their own character and bring only the good of the Church Universal to the table at General Conference.

So asking for voting records is not appropriate: they are delegates and vote not accountable to our state but accountable to God and one another. What is appropriate is to ask that they remember that they are delegates. It doesn’t matter what caucus or special interest or big shiny gold star got you into General Conference. It doesn’t matter who buys you phones and texts you their desires, or who buys you breakfast, or who gives you rainbow stoles. You are not representative of the UMC, you are delegated the authority as the United Methodist Church for two weeks. Vote how your heart and head and experience and reason and tradition would vote, not who elected you wants you to vote. ::EDIT based on comments:: Vote to discern God’s dream for your church, not make the hometown happy.

I would hope that Annual Conferences this year remember that they are electing delegates not representatives. Their elected people may or may not represent you or your views, but they are whom you all collectively have delegated authority. Pray for them, be of good counsel to them, and for two weeks know that they are not there representing your state but are part of the 1,000-strong worldwide church struggling together to listen to the reality of our world and the hope of the Holy Spirit and find the thin places where the twain meet.

(Photo Credit: “Voting” by Cle0patra on Flickr. Creative Commons Licensed)

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  1. Hansen says

    We had that conversation two weeks ago. My only change to your distinction is that you are not delegated to vote your conscience, but to discern God’s will.

      • says

        I’d add that scripture should be paramount since you’ve included the three subservient members of the Wesleyan quadrilateral.

        I know it’s assumed, but it is the clear foundation of our faith and should be the overwhelming factor in how we shape our church.

        • Keith Jenkins says

          I would have to take issue with your use of the expression “subservient members of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral” to describe tradition, experience, and reason, John. Though Outler views this so-called “quadrilateral” as not being equilateral, there are certainly many United Methodist Christians who acknowledge the primacy of scripture without denigrating the value of the other three.
          As stated in the Book of Discipline, “Scripture, as the constitutive witness to the wellsprings of our faith, occupies a place of primary authority among these theological sources. . . . [but] what matters most is that all four guidelines be brought to bear in faithful, serious, theological consideration.”

  2. Natasha says

    Thank you for your post. As a first time voter, this article brings a perspective that I think/know people don’t share in. Thank you for bringing that perspective to the table.

  3. says

    Great distinction between US politics and the Church. The power of God to move in a group of people and show them something higher or something new. Allegiance to God not local custom. The power of God to move in actual leaders who are not just bureaucratic puppets. Thank you Jeremy for this needed interpretation. How Wesleyan and thoughtful! I wonder how the representative model just keeps things exactly the same and never really changes anything. For a system that has been aging and shedding membership for 40 years, it might be time to to listen to God, be a little more flexible, and maybe change a little here and there. Delegates not representatives. I will re-post this and print it for future church delegates.

  4. Robert Stutes says

    Interesting trivia – in the Commonwealth of Virginia – they have a “House of Delegates” instead of a “House of Representatives.”

  5. says

    Thanks for highlighting this! I am so glad that we have delegates who are able to go to General Conference _having done their research_ and yet prepared to listen to the Spirit in holy conferencing. That can only happen when we haven’t segmented along party lines in advance.

    A few things I would change, though:

    First, the number 1000 is an outward estimation —- the General Secretary could choose a number much lower (and it’s slightly lower for 2012).

    Second, US politics occasionally allow for the kind of delegate > representative mindset that you claim is not available there… read JFK’s _Profiles in Courage_ :-) Of course, those delegates who fight their way through to following their conscience ARE rare enough to have a book written about them…

    And third, this is a brilliant time to discuss how we are *members* of an annual conference. In casual conversation I hear too many people call themselves a “delegate” to annual conference, and no, we are members together in a body…

    Thanks again for your post… it is a good reminder.

  6. Cathy Hall Stengel says

    I am appreciative for the clarification and discernment that this journey of representatives/delegates speaks to. In my years of being on the Board of Ordained Ministry- when we have asked male clergy to attend the clergywomen’s consultation, we have tried to ask men who take seriously the desire, need, and fruit of such a gathering, and men who respect women clergy in whatever status they come in. The one thing we ask is that they be faithful in knowing the reason they have been sent….to listen, to be open to the Holy Spirit and those who lead, and to respect the sacred ground into which they have been invited.

    Likewise with being delegates to General or Jurisdictional Conference….we ask that our delegates attend, participate with the rest of the delegation, grow in knowledge, love and understanding of the entire body of this UMC. We ask that they remember the alternate if they need to step out, for an hour, a day, whatever is needed. When we could only elect two delegates and one alternate….how disturbing it was when we learned that a delegate hard fought for and elected…did none of the above. In choosing to be absent, to not participate in worship, committees or voting, to separate oneself from the body entirely is to have betrayed the trust and underestimated the respect that those voters had…not in being represented, but in being who we know them to be in our context, faithful- to God and to the church who has given them the privilege of serving.

    If it sounds like a tirade, I don’t mean it to be, if it sounds bitter, that is not whats on my heart. My hope is that we can ask one another…will you be faithful to this task, will you live up to the respect and trust bestowed upon you. You don’t have to give your life, or even 24 hours 7 days a week, but give the heart and faith and intelligence that you were sent with.

  7. JoshTMcc says

    Overall, a cool thing to think about. But help me understand how we shouldn’t still call for transparency and be informed on how members vote? I am interested in HOW those to whom I’ve delegated general church authority end up exercising that authority. I would like to make an informed decision when delegating that authority, and one great insight into who I might think best for the task is how I deem they have done with that authority in the past. Sure, they are ultimately accountable to God, but if a delegate appears to me to have misused the authority I’ve entrusted him/her, it will shape who I entrust that authority to in the future. I feel accountable to no one but God in the votes that I cast for who will be in our delegation, and I’d like that decision to be informed on many levels. What is the practical downside to knowing how our delegates vote? Really?

    As long as they themselves are confident in their authority and how they’ve exercised it, they should stand boldly by their voting voice. For me, that means not only a generic reporting but a personal willingness on each delegate’s part to talk about the discernment behind the vote. I think that responsibility is inherent in the honor of serving. Really, the message that the delegates discern and speak through their conference votes should be one that they feel compelled to share in the annual conference.

    • says

      I agree with the second part of this, that delegates should feel compelled to share what happened at conference. If they were absent, why and so on.

      The problem I have is with the first part is how focused it is on what the individual wants, as if an individual is the one that gives authority. That is the way it is with US politics certainly. I would argue that an individual church would might want a delegate to represent them and that they give them their authority, and they send them, supporting them in prayer, and that when they return there be an accounting of what takes place.

      But as Methodists and Christians we should want to leave room for God to move. A Democracy is supposed to be inefficient so things stay the same, at least that’s what Aristotle said. Unfortunately we suffer from a Church that can’t seem to change course before it implodes. (Some may argue we have been too effective at democracy in the UMC) Unless we are open to God’s possibility for change now and God’s possibility for our future and we become flexible for God, we will implode before we can revive.

      Nobody want to hear the storm sirens, but putting hands over ears, or worse yet unplugging the siren will not stop the tornado.

      • JoshTMcc says

        The bottom line is that we choose our delegates according to tons of personal criteria. For nearly all of us, foremost seems to be Spirit-led discernment and action. For me, the primary way that practically plays out is through voting and the reasoning behind the vote. I want to hear stories about the crazy hub-bub that goes on like Cynthia describes, and how the process went, and how God spoke. Hearing that, and knowing how my AC’s delegates reacted (including even their votes), is hugely important to me and certainly shape my future choosing of delegates.

        I just really haven’t heard anything convincing from anyone about why we don’t report. Luke’s point from 1988 is good, but it doesn’t do-away with this idea for me; if it turns out that we feel strongly enough as a denomination and want this kind of accountability, then we can work on action at the GC level to make it so, or to at least give delegates an “opt-in” choice so that they can report if they choose to. I’m not entrenched here, as a 20-something pastor I’ve never given this topic much thought. But no one here is giving me a good case for not reporting. I just don’t see a down-side. Many of you seem to say that there needs not be reporting because delegates aren’t answerable to others for their voting. Maybe that’s so. But as I see it, being answerable to God alone has never meant being free from bearing witness to others of one’s actions; rather the opposite. I understand that they’re not bound to vote according to my personal whims, or anybody else’s, but I’d still love to know how/why they do.

        What practical harm does reporting do? Is there no other reason against it, practically, except that we think delegates will not vote their hearts for fear of how their AC members will react? Are delegates concerned that reporting will affect their future election? Would some be coerced into voting differently because of the appearance to their AC members? If the answer is “yes” to any of those questions, then I’d say that member has failed terribly in the primary task of taking delegated authority. Good delegates for me are those that discern and act in the face of accountability. Period. Please, please, help me understand differently if you can.

        • says

          Honesty and sharing of information are ideals that I think will help the United Methodist church. I am completely for the sharing of the information and for accountability that you suggest Josh. I hate the feeling when we keep everything hush, hush to protect the church from some possible scandal. That never helps the church. Speak the truth and through the momentary chaos people will organize and overcome, but secrets will only make problems fester, and will dilute trust in people and the system.

          • JoshTMcc says

            True that. Very much. Looking at that judicial council ruling that prevented required reporting, it goes back to a Conference’s pressure on delegates to not overturn racial segregation in the church. Those ACs wanted reporting so that they could try to influence and even coerce delegates’ voting. That sounds like good grounds to keep the anonymity. But then on the other hand, at the time delegates who were trying to be a prophetic, Spirit-led voice by voting to end segregation should have been able to do so publicly in the midst of the conference, regardless of the consequences. That’s what the prophetic voice does, to me. So even in that case, it would have forced delegates to do more than just use anonymous voting to silently support the cause they thought was God’s, it would have provoked them to really grapple with the hearts of their ACs. If it’s kinda like you’re saying, I don’t like the idea that sometimes things pass (or get closer to passing) at General Conference and then few are willing to admit they voted one way or another. If their AC is opposed to said vote, then everybody says, “Well I voted against it…I did, too…me, too. So who voted for it? Not me…” And so on. I think maybe we just need to work on a structure/system that easily enables delegates to report on their experience, including their voting. It can be even completely unofficial, and completely voluntary. I have no idea.

        • David says

          Josh, you raise some really interesting points. I guess what I heard from this article wasn’t necessarily that delegates shouldn’t share with their AC’s and churches what they voted for and why, but rather that a publishing of voting records wouldn’t accomplish the task of sharing the movement of God’s spirit in the midst of the discussions, votes, and general craziness of General Conference. When I hear publishing of voting records, I think a list of votes that AC members can then use to determine whether a delegate voted the “right” way on each issue. What I’m hearing from you is a desire to hear more than that–a desire for an open and honest sharing of the process of discernment that took place for each delegate. I’m all for that idea, I’m just not sure that a publishing of voting record accomplishes that–I think, unfortunately, what it would accomplish is creating a sort of “orthodoxy test” for delegates (see, for example, comments on this post about delegates needing to “support the discipline”).

          I don’t know if that makes any sense, but anyway, thanks for adding to this discussion.

          • JoshTMcC says

            It does. I’d like to see a report as a starting point for the conversation, encouraging AC members to approach delegates for the story behind GC, and the same for delegates to describe the Spirit’s moving at GC. I know that goes on informally at some level anyway, but not very well in my little experience.

            My understanding is that even in an individual delegation the members are not always transparent with one another. I just can’t fathom that attitude. If I’m at GC, even if I knew that my views were in a huge minority in my own delegation and there was gigantic hostility to those views, I’d still think it’s always my duty to let the other delegates know where I stand, how I vote, and why. So again, if the only fraction of my “prophetic voice” that I express is my vote, I think I fail in the task. And the same at the AC level, or any level. I think the option to report might be a start to chip away at that attitude. Maybe. Or something else might. But we can try something.

  8. Creed Pogue says

    It’s not a delegation of authority, your delegate is supposed to REPRESENT you. Hopefully, they act as the larger group would act if the larger group had access to all the information the delegate receives. I think it would be very beneficial for the Conference to be informed of what the delegate did while they were there. After all, two thirds voted for the World Wide Church amendments and “All Means All” amendments which went down in flames. There needs to be a discernment process somewhere that isn’t going to start without some exchange of information.

    • Pastor Rick says

      It appears to me that the definition of a delegate is another name for a representative.

      Glossary of Terms: Term definition
      lay member, Annual Conference The voting lay delegate to the annual conference. Each annual conference is required to consist of an equal number of lay members and ministerial members. The vast majority of lay members of Annual Conferences are elected by pastoral charges to represent them at the sessions of Annual Conference. Lay members may speak and vote on all items coming before the Annual Conference with the exception of those relating to ministerial membership, relationships, ordination and election of clergy delegates to Jurisdictional and General Conferences.
      Source: A Dictionary for United Methodists, Alan K. Waltz, Copyright 1991, Abingdon Press. Used by Permission.

  9. PastorCynthia says

    Re: previous year’s votes. I was at General Conference in Fort Worth as an alternate, so I was doing my best to keep up with what was happening both in plenary and in the committee I was assigned to. What I can tell you is that it’s very difficult, especially with the pace GC delegates are asked to keep up (and with having no Sunday break last time), to wrap your mind around the full implications of what it is you’re voting on. Sure you can go in with all kinds of research and discernment about proposed legislation, but what actually ends up getting voted on can be very different. I agree with the main thrust of this article because in the end, I may vote for delegates from my conference with whom I probably have a disagreement with in terms of “the way they will vote”–but whom I also know to be connected to the Spirit of God in such a way that discernment is a way of life with them.

    I was reading over the reflections on Vatican II for a paper I wrote in seminary, and I remember distinctly that one of the participants commented that he had no rational recollection of what he was thinking during that time. In fact, he said, he attributed the work of Vatican II solely to the Holy Spirit because if any of them had been thinking at the time of how much would change, they would have never done it. Now, I’m good with there being lots of number crunchers there to make sure we’ve got those things right, but I’m also good with making one of the main criteria I use to select delegates how they handle authority–and I hope that I can look most especially at those who handle it with deep humility, prayer and wisdom.

  10. Luke says

    Not that anyone has quite gotten there, but the Judicial Council ruled in 1988 that “an Annual Conference may not legislate a requirement that delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences submit a record of their voting in the General and Jurisdictional Conference to be distributed to pastors and churches in the Annual Conference.” (Decision 592)

    This was in response to just such an action taken by the North Carolina Conference in its 1987 session. I ran across it when reading about how delegates are apportioned.

    • says

      Nice find, Luke! Thanks for adding significantly to the discussion.

      The final line of that case’s analysis is interesting:

      Delegates to General Conference, just as members of an Annual Conference, are bound to do as their conscience dictates what is good for the Church of Jesus Christ, The United Methodist Church in particular, and that only.

  11. AL says

    I think Wikipedia says it best about how delegates should act.
    “A delegate is a person who speaks or acts on behalf of an organization (e.g., a government, a charity, an NGO, or a trade union) at a meeting or conference between organizations of the same level (e.g., trade talks or an environmental summit between governments; an arbitration over an industrial dispute; or a meeting of student unions from individual colleges at a national student union conference). Generally, but not always, delegates differ from representatives because they receive and carry out instructions from the group that sends them, and, unlike representatives, are not expected to act independently.”
    Bottom line: they need to support the Discipline and the bible… hopefully the majority will do so.

    • David says

      Given that delegates to General Conference may be asked to vote on changes to the Discipline, can “supporting the Discipline” really be the bottom line? It seems to me that it would be more accurate to say that delegates need to take the Discipline seriously–in the sense of realizing the implications that decisions about the Discipline have for the body and discerning the mind of Christ in the midst of those implications. If delegates had to support the Discipline, then it could never change…but we exactly and specifically provide mechanisms for allowing it to do so.

  12. Kevin says

    Delegate or Representative? Same thing. That is why they are elected at annual conferences because people would not elect delegates whose views are radically different from there own. If they were not supposed to represent their conference then we would not have delegate quotas by conference. If these delegates are unwilling to stand up and tell the whole world how they voted then I might jump to the conclusion that they are ashamed of explaining how they were moved by the Holy Spirit to vote the way they did.

  13. David Finch says

    The delegated General Conference was created in 1808 by the existing seven Annual Conferences that had attended en masse since tlhe first General Conference was held in Baltimore in 1792. The ministers of the several annual conferences were unwilling that a small delegated body should have power to change the esstntial characteristics of the church, so the plan they proposed and adopted limited the authority of the delegated General Conference by restricting its legislative power in six areas of church life without majority approval of all the annual conferences. This was later changed to a majority of three-fourth of all the annual conferences. So be careful what you do out there Jeremy, because the Annual Conference hasn’t delegated its authority to you. Your elder pastor friend misspoke. You do represent us. Should you pass legislation that conflicts with the Constitution we voted into existence in 1808, or propose amendments to change it, you’ll have to get our permission. Only we have authority to change the essential characteristics of the church. Our polity does not permit us to delegate that power to persons and entities within the church, not even chosen and elected delegates to the General Conference.

  14. Charles Alkula says

    How then do those on the margins find a voice at General Conference? None of the delegates/alternates from the SWTX Conference are from small, rural, elderly, poor, etc. congregations. Too many are D.S’s, Conference staff, etc. There is no way that anyone not on the outside has a chance of being a delegate.


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