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.