Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Regional Politics Heat Up in the UMC

Several southern annual conferences are considering a resolution intended to increase the power of the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions on denominational boards and agencies, according to Jay Voorhees at The Methoblog.

The resolution requests a ruling of the United Methodist Judicial Council about the way the secretary of the General Conference interprets the very complicated formula in the Book of Discipline (Paragraphs 705 and 706) used to divvy up between jurisdictions the seats on general church boards and agencies, such as the Board of Church and Society, the Board of Global Ministries, and the Connectional Table. Voorhees discusses the issue here and here, but his most thorough discussion is on his Methodcast # 7, about 14 minutes into the podcast.

As I understand the issue, the current General Conference secretary has decided to follow the tradition of making sure that each jurisdiction has a representative on denominational boards and agencies, then she follows other aspects of the formula. Those advancing the resolution believe that language in the Discipline which charges the secretary to insure "to the extent possible that membership of each board reflects the proportionate membership of the jurisdictions based upon combined clergy and lay membership" (Paragraph 705.5 and elsewhere) should result in an end to the practice of allowing each jurisdiction to have at least one representative. The attitude behind the resolution is: if the proportional numbers do not entitle a jurisdiction to a seat, tough luck!

If the resolution passes in at least one annual conference, and the Judicial Council agrees with its interpretation of the language in the Discipline, it might mean that some jurisdictions will have no presence on some denominational boards and agencies.

Voorhees, a member of the Tennessee Annual Conference, opposes the resolution for a couple of reasons. He argues that the Judicial Council is being used too much. If the paragraphs in the Discipline are poorly written, he says, they ought to be fixed by legislation at the next General Conference rather than be taken to the Judicial Council.

But he also argues that it is neither fair nor healthy to exclude any jurisdiction of the denomination from at least a minimal presence on general boards and agencies. This argument, it seems to me, is right on target.

The motivation behind this resolution and other such efforts to strengthen the power and control of the two southern jurisdictions on denominational agencies is due to the significant difference between the South and the rest of U.S. United Methodism on the issue of sexual orientation. The more power the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions have, the less likely the church will change its policy of excluding gay and lesbian people from ordained ministry and from church celebrations of their committed relationships.

Southern strategists learned the power of changing formulas at the 2000 General Conference. They brought a resolution to the 2000 General Conference to change the formula used to determined how many delegates each annual conference gets to send to General Conference. The formula is based on both the number of clergy and the number of laity in each annual conference.

The pre-2000 formula said each conference got one clergy and one lay delegate for every 140 clergy members of the annual conference plus one clergy and one lay delegate for every 44,000 lay members. The 2000 General Conference changed the numbers to one clergy and lay delegate for every 375 clergy plus one clergy and lay delegate for every 26,000 lay members. This change significantly increased delegates from the two southern jurisdictions and from the Central Conferences, and decreased the number from the Northeastern, North Central, and Western Jurisdictions. (See a pre-2000 UMNS story about this here.)

This is the reason why, although the church as a whole had become more open and understanding of gay and lesbian Christians between 2000 and 2004, General Conference became less so. Southerners had maneuvered the formula so as to strengthen their own power as well as to increase the number of delegates from Central Conferences.

Since a number of the denominational agencies, such as the Board of Church and Society, the Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, and the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, have been supportive of a more inclusive church, the South is now hard at work to capture control of the general church agencies in order to halt their support for change.

Some United Methodists no doubt remember the impact the Board of Church and Society had on integrating the Methodist Church in spite of the resistance of the southern jurisdictions. W. Astor Kirk, who describes his role in desegregating the Methodist Church in his book Desegregation of the Methodist Church Polity: Reform Movements That Ended Racial Segregation, was an staff member of the Board of Church and Society during the time he worked for an end to the Central Jurisdiction and other racist structures within the church. (See "Methodists and Segregation.")

The argument used by delegates from the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions at the 2000 General Conference was the principle of "one person-one vote." I covered the legislative section where this formula was discussed for the Daily Christian Advocate and had the opportunity to hear the debate. Some southern delegates articulated a great sense of injustice and victimization because they had more members in the churches of their conferences but not necessarily as many more delegates. "This is a matter of justice," they said again and again.

Actually, the principle of "one person-one vote" has never been absolute, at least not in U.S. democracy. Every state gets two senators no matter what its population. Iowa has as many senators as New York. The democratic commitment to "one person-one vote" is tempered by the need to insure the presence of every state at the table.

Also, the basis for determining representation at annual conference is hardly "one person-one vote," and it is annual conference delegates after all who elect the delegates to General Conference. The principle used to determine representation at annual conferences could be more accurately described as "every charge-at least one vote, and maybe more." So the sudden promotion of the principle of "one person-one vote" is suspect. Other considerations, such as the inclusion of all the jurisdictions, also represent democratic values.

I have an evangelical friend who is upset about how political General Conferences have become. He objects to the demonstrations and vigils held by those of us advocating for change. He says it makes the church look as though we are battling for power rather than mutually submitting ourselves to Christ.

But the little vigils and demonstrations we hold at General Conference are prayer meetings compared to the politics of those who have learned how to adjust formulas and manipulate the rules for the sake of their agendas. Our vigils are direct and transparent. We are openly and honestly trying to touch delegates' hearts and to persuade their minds.

On the other hand, while back rooms may not be smoky anymore, there are still back rooms.


Blogger azeotroper said...

Why wouldn't those in areas of growth be able to have more "say" regarding their churches' teachings?? Areas with great population density should be able to attract large numbers of members, and thus increase the representation from those areas. Unfortunately fot the Northeast and West Coast, their very theology will likely stunt their growth...

11:05 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

My church is growing, but I do not consider this proof of the worthiness of our theology. That has to be evaluated on the basis of its rootedness in the biblical story and its consistency with the spirit of Christ. Faithful preaching and teaching doesn't automatically lead to numerical growth. There are other tests of faithfulness: Is the church manifesting the principle that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave nor free? Is the church ethnically and economically diverse and empowering of male and female? The UMC in the Northeast and West is more diverse and inclusive than in the South, not so? I am afraid the tendency of some churches within the UMC --North and South-- to preach an individualistic Gospel runs the risk of cheap growth. Numerical growth is only one of many fruits, and perhaps not the most important one. Having said all this, I wish the churches in the Northeast where I am were growing more, but I do not believe theology is the problem. Captivity to old ways of doing things and being stuck in old boxes is the problem.

5:39 AM  
Blogger John said...

Dean, what do you think the result of the resolution will be? Will it pass?

9:02 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Sure. I would be amazed if it did not pass in at least one conference. The formula in the Discipline is so complex and convoluted that it is almost impossible to figure it out. You would need to take almost every agency individually and figure out the appropriate membership case by case.

But the language of the Discipline does seem to include the principle of proportional membership, in so far as possible, based on total clergy and lay membership. One question is whether it includes the principle of every jurisdiction having a place at the table. Another is what "in so far as possible" means.

Jay Voorhees is right that this was just confusing legislation. We ought to let the General Conference secretary alone until next General Conference and then start fresh on formulas for membership on general agencies.

9:47 AM  
Blogger John said...

That's a good idea.

We conservative Methodists are are always squawking about abuse of power by the church judiciary. This issue can certainly wait until the next General Conference.

Idle speculation: perhaps representation should be based on lay attendance, not lay membership, as some churches are slow to clean up the rolls at Charge Conference.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...


The Judicial Council has been very friendly lately to conservatives, I think. I hope they are strict constructionists this fall because I think Beth Stroud's appeal will be upheld, if so.

The membership/attendance question is interesting. We seem to have more and more people who attend and participate without joining. How would this affect representation if we used attendance numbers rather than membership?

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