But very little has been examined about the way how representation will change, and the significant way how hundreds of thousands of Methodists would have their voting rights removed if the Traditionalist Plan fulfills its goals.
Dwindling USA General Conference Representation
A quick primer and numbers breakdown (feel free to skim). General Conference is the highest body of The United Methodist Church and writes its doctrine and polity. Between 800-1000 delegates from across the world gather to worship, consider, write, and vote in changes to our doctrine and polity.
“Who is in the room?” is a fair question as General Conference. Depending on what region you live in affects how much voice you have at General Conference, and that voice fluctuates over time.
Between the 1996 and the 2000 General Conferences, US jurisdictions and non-US central conferences did not see much change in delegate percentages across the connection. Every region changed by a percentage point or less in those four years. But the 2000 General Conference voted in a new way of assigning delegates: no longer would it consider both clergy and laity membership totals, the assignments would solely be on local church membership totals. It basically turned General Conference into the House of Representatives, with large pew membership conferences amassing large delegations, and with minimum representation for smaller conferences.
Since that change, larger percentage shifts started to be seen. After the redistribution, from 2004 to 2012, the northern jurisdictions were reduced by 82 votes at General Conference, and the southern jurisdictions were reduced by 100 votes. The West was only reduced 12 votes in the same time span. African Central Conferences went from 186 delegates in 2004 to 372 in 2012.
The 2016 and future 2020 General Conferences dramatically reduced the total numbers of delegates (previous conferences were all within a 10 delegate variance), so to maintain the comparison we have to shift from votes to percentages. From 2004 to 2020, the northern jurisdictions were reduced by 11% of their representation and the southern jurisdictions were reduced by 12% of their representation. Overall from 2004 to 2020, the USA represesentation was reduced by 24.4% while African Central Conferences added 21.6% to its representation over the same time period.
The percentages now are that the USA jurisdictions represent 55.9% of the vote at General Conference 2020, and African Central Conferences represent 32.3%, with other central conferences filling in the remainder. The anticipation is that the USA delegations would be at or lower than 50% of United Methodism starting in 2024.
*Special thanks to WJ’s Richard Bentley for his help with these numbers.
Why mess with a good formula?
This distribution of varied geographies and regions makes United Methodism a unique denomination on the world stage with African voices and American voices both together at the highest levels–in substantial numbers–and a diverse denomination with progressive regions and conservative regions together at the same table.
But what if you wanted to increase your region or perspective’s voice? How do you gain votes and seats at the table? The acceptable way is to evangelize and increase the number of United Methodists in your region.
But it turns out there’s a shady way to do it: remove the votes from
Traditionalist Plan Removes Voting Ability
The Traditionalist Plan, for consideration by General Conference 2019, encourages progressive annual conferences to leave United Methodism and form their own self-governing affiliated-autonomous conferences, as we’ve described previously. Exited conferences get to take their churches and (some of) their pensions and their clergy and conference structures, and so on, but what they don’t get to take with them are their votes.
The legislation reads (italics are descriptions, underlines are TP additions)
Petition 17. Amend ¶¶ 570 and 574.1 to create the option of concordat churches in the United States. The changes in these paragraphs shall take effect immediately upon the adjournment of the 2019 General Conference.
¶ 570. Churches located outside the boundaries of the jurisdictional conferences and churches formed through the provisions of ¶ 2801 and which have entered into
relationshipwith or have agreements with The United Methodist Church, including that of sending representatives to General Conference of The United Methodist Church are described as follows:
¶ 574. Concordat Agreements
1. With the exception of The Methodist Church of Great Britain and churches formed through the provisions of ¶ 2801, such concordats may be established…
Rationale: This opens the possibility for concordat churches in the United States, allowing negotiated covenants and relationships between self-governing Methodist churches formed under ¶ 2801 and The United Methodist Church. This allows a continuing connection with those congregations departing from the denomination because of conscience.
So these exited conferences would likely become a Concordat Church. Concordat Churches get two votes each. No matter their size, they get the same number (except Great Britain – they get four).
The Traditionalist Plan hope is that the Western Jurisdiction and maybe half of the northern jurisdictions leave, which means their votes disappear too, as they would be allocated 2 votes total for their entire new region of Methodism. That’s right: hundreds of thousands of United Methodists will get 2 votes at General Conference total.
And the West and parts of the North? They would be affiliated without representation in their former spiritual home.
Not just Votes, but Direction
The expulsion of progressive conferences solves two problems for Traditionalists.
- It removes progressive voices from helping determine the future of the denomination. The schism in the 1840s separated the South and the North , enabling both visions of Methodism to go their separate ways. It was relatively clean as far as slave-affirming and abolitionist lines go. But the same situation is not present today, as progressives and Traditionalists share every conference in United Methodism. The original Traditionalist Plan legislation allowed churches and clergy to leave, thus allowing those mixed conferences to split along ideological lines. The loss of membership numbers is nothing compared to the number of votes the remaining conference would then control—and the lessened numbers of dissenting voices.
- Second, we haven’t even mentioned the kicker: those regions would be removed from membership on boards of directors of the General Boards and Agencies. Boards and Agencies draw from United Methodists, not Concordat relationships (I can only find one Concordat director in all of United Methodism looking back multiple terms). So at least a third of these boards would no longer come from progressive regions: they would be entirely populated by conservative and moderate voices, with the progressive voices reduced to tokens.
Are there fixes?
The chorus that arises whenever valid criticism is made of the Traditionalist Plan is “we can fix it. Just pass it and we can fix it.” And that’s true to a point: We do have a different Concordat relationship with the British Methodists where they send a higher number of votes than other Concordat churches. And so such an arrangement could be made that bring 2 votes to a higher number.
But any such arrangement could be easily revoked by a future General Conference. It would take only a tiny slight or prophetic action by the exited conference to justify the newly empowered Traditionalist majority to revoke their special relationship, rendering it back down to 2.
Finally, supporters rightly say that an exited conference IS a new denomination and shouldn’t have a say at all in the former denomination, as the parent doesn’t have a say in the child one either. That’s true. But none of the other Concordat churches participated in the creation and care for all these boards and agencies and structures for decades
It feels less like a divorce and more like theft.
The Only Choice for Fair Representation
The purpose of the Traditionalist Plan is to make The UMC so unbearable to progressives, and the way out so easy, that progressives choose to leave (or in some scenarios, are forced out). By doing so, the remaining Traditionalist powers-that-be gain more votes at General Conference, gain more director’s seats at denominational authorities, and enjoy better pension benefit improvements (as previously reported). The Plan is less about LGBTQ persons than it is about consolidating control.
There is no fix. The only choice is to vote it down.
My hope is that delegates see the Traditionalist Plan is less about LGBTQ inclusion–and certainly not church unity–and more about gerrymandering the votes and director’s seats away from vast swaths of United Methodism and creating a hegemony where there previously was a gracious unity.
Will they prevail? The choice is yours.
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