Naming a troubling trend: when the majority tries to become a hegemony by changing the way how The UMC allocates votes at General Conference.
One Vote, One Chance for Change
If you want to effect change in The United Methodist Church, sending delegates to General Conference is how you do it. Delegates determine budgets, write our Social Principles, determine judicial and episcopal oversight procedures, and other unique powers within The UMC.
So “who gets to send delegates?” is an incredibly important question to ask…and we can point to one vote that drastically changed this question.
16 Years Ago…
Back in 2000, an amendment passed that changed the way how delegates were allocated to General Conference (see ¶15). Like the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress, larger populations of Methodists send larger delegations to GC. Before the amendment, clergy populations were considered when determining “which region gets how many” delegates. After the amendment, clergy and lay populations were considered.
My point is not to debate that amendment, but to show its uneven effects. The chart at this section heading shows the difference in delegates between 2000 (pre-amendment) and 2004 (post-amendment). The General Conference overall shifted delegates to the Central Conferences, but the shift was not equal across the USA:
- The Southern Jurisdictions (SCJ/SEJ) gained 18 delegates total.
- The other three Jurisdictions (NCJ/NEJ/WJ) lost 50 delegates total.
- In every subsequent year, the jurisdictions all lost delegates at proportional rates to the growing lay membership in the Central Conferences.
The Southern jurisdictions were the recipients of a 68 vote swing in one year, simply by rewriting the delegate allocations. The SCJ, in particular, leapfrogged two jurisdictions to become the #3 region, because of this change in “how we count.”
…To Be Repeated in 2016?
In 2016, delegates are seeking a change in “how we count” again, which would significantly better the same regions.
Since 2012, the Southern U.S. and African regions have reportedly been annoyed at having about 15% smaller delegations than they should have. The reason for this disparity is The UMC includes mandatory minimum representation by an annual conference: regardless of how small a regional conference is, they get two delegates. That leaves slightly fewer delegates to be allocated proportionally to the larger regions. (see #2 in this article for more information).
For 2016, two efforts are on the table to give the larger areas even more delegates. From Sam Hodges article for UMNS:
- The first proposal (from a layperson in Great Plains in the SCJ) would eliminate the minimum representation unless the annual conference has at least 5,000 lay members. This would remove representation entirely from our predominantly Native American regions (Alaska and Red Bird missionary, and almost Oklahoma Indian).
- The second proposal (from a layperson in Alabama-West Florida in the SEJ) would establish the minimum representation by episcopal area, meaning each Bishop (instead of an Annual Conference) gets at least two delegates from their regions. I think there’s 10 U.S. bishops that serve two annual conferences, so shared ACs would have to decide which conference elects how many delegates…and again, it is our predominantly Native American conferences that lose representation.
But it isn’t about America…
Make no mistake, these proposals are targeted at removing votes from two regions: The Philippines and Europe/Eurasia.
- The 25 annual conferences in the Philippines serve under 3 bishops, and the 30 countries in Europe/Eurasia serve under 3 bishops. Rather than having delegates from the rich diversity of these areas, they could be reduced to 16 from Philippines (currently 50) and 8 from Europe/Eurasia (currently 20).
- The Southern U.S. and Africa would be unaffected. The SEJ could even have another bishop, and Africa has requested more bishops for 2020, so they will not be negatively affected by the proposal.
As we can see, a mere change in “how we count” could swing almost 50 votes again away from entire regions of United Methodism. Again, and this is key, this is not based on evangelism and earned lay membership, but on “how we count.”
Majority in No Need of the Minority
“Whether a democracy is a good democracy or not is not measured on the majority’s ability to take what they claim is statistically theirs…it is measured on the majority’s willingness to protect the minority.”
~ Audun Westad, GC delegate from Norway (source)
Here’s the disturbing part: the rest of the UMC doesn’t even matter when it comes to these votes because the Southern U.S. and the Global South (Africa) have enough votes to effect this change now.
The Southern U.S. and Africa hold the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd highest voting blocs, totaling 556 delegates in 2016, or 64% of the vote. So if their region votes in lockstep, along with 3% token support from the rest of the world, these proposals would increase their voting percentage well past the 2/3 threshold…which means by 2020, their regions could rewrite the Constitution by themselves.
Please don’t misunderstand: it’s great that these regions are growing, and their success at spreading the Gospel should be paired with influence at how the Church operates. But my concern is when majority perspective becomes something more not because of evangelism but because of voting to remove voices from the table.
From Majority to Hegemony
Hegemony…is the perspective of the dominant culture, race, or group, as if it were the only perspective–everyone else needs to get on board. Hegemony is blind to the notion that we–you and I, perhaps most especially when we are divergent–are in this together. We each have distinctive points of view. Together, we can have a wide-angle outlook [that we need].
Virginia Bassford Lord, I love the Church and We Need Help, page 35.
We say that The United Methodist Church is a big tent church. This is true, but not quite as evenly spread as you might think. It should be disturbing to anyone for two regions to form a majority that legislates its way to a supermajority in a mere 16 years.
Both of these proposals are targeted at removing representation from annual conferences that cover an entire country (European conferences), an entire island (Philippines), or huge geographic regions (Oregon/Idaho’s geography is four times as big as Missouri, which gets 12 delegates).
Therefore, I fear such changes will lead to a hegemony that shifts us from being a global or multinational church into a regional church. It’s hard to have a worldwide perspective to solve worldwide problems and reach worldwide people when two regions legislate changes to increase the number of their voices at the table, at the expense of the rest of the world.
My hope is that delegates to General Conference from the Southern U.S. and Africa value the diversity and world perspective that comes from self-limiting their own supermajority in favor of the minority. Because if people outside your regions matter, so do their voices and votes.