Statistics: What do they really tell us?

By Thomas A. Lambrecht

In 1891 Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke came up with the phrase “there are three degrees of untruth — a fib, a lie, and statistics.” Statistics can be very valuable, but one must be careful about the conclusions one draws from statistics.

This is nowhere more apparent than the latest issue of the Flyer put out by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (February 2012, accessible at www.gcsrw.org/WBNFeb2012.aspx). The headline reads, “Women and U.S. people of color lose representation at General Conference.” If that were true, it would most certainly be worth our attention.

From the headline and tone throughout the article, one would assume that women had a lower percentage of the General Conference delegation in 2012, compared to 2008. One has to read to the fourth paragraph of the Flyer before discovering that the percentage of U.S. female representation at the 2012 General Conference actually went up from 43 percent to 44 percent. The headline should have read, “Female representation increases for 2012 General Conference.”

The GCSRW is bemoaning the fact that the total number of female U.S. delegates declined in 2012 (as did the total number of male delegates by an even greater number). However, this decline is due to the fact that the total number of all U.S. delegates declined in 2012, thanks to the decline in membership in the U.S. and the increasing membership in Africa.

With all due respect to the GCSRW, it appears that, rather than celebrate good news, the commission wanted to create bad news, perhaps in hopes that delegates would agree that GCSRW is still needed as a separate agency to promote women’s equality in the church. After all, the restructure proposal would subsume GCSRW into the new Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry, which would take away its independence and perhaps diminish its power within the denomination.

There is the danger, too, that resentment may be building in the U.S. against our brother and sister United Methodists in Africa. The increasing number of African members means fewer delegates for the U.S., which again reduces the power of U.S. delegates to unilaterally set the direction of The United Methodist Church. The Methodist Federation for Social Action and others are again advocating that the U.S. be split off as its own central conference, so that we can run our own affairs unhindered by the voices of our overseas brothers and sisters. (So much for being a “global church!”)

General Conference is a representative body, which implies that the delegates ought to be representative of the United Methodist membership. With that in mind, what is the state of female representation at the 2012 General Conference?

• Female clergy make up 39 percent of the 2012 U.S. clergy delegates (up from 2008), while female clergy are 24 percent of all U.S. clergy.

• Lay women make up 50 percent of the 2012 U.S. lay delegates (unchanged from 2008), while lay women compose approximately 55 percent of all U.S. lay members (figures for this were not provided).

So women are overrepresented on the clergy side and slightly underrepresented on the lay side. Overall, these figures are encouraging.

What about the representation of people of color?

• Overall, people of color make up 22 percent of the 2012 U.S. delegation, down from 25 percent in 2008.

• Clergy delegates of color make up 25 percent of U.S. clergy delegates, down from 28 percent in 2008.

• Lay delegates of color make up 20 percent of U.S. lay delegates, down from 22 percent in 2008.

The representation of people of color did decrease in 2012. However, the GCSRW article mentions that people of color make up less than 10 percent of the United Methodist membership. Persons of color are therefore well represented at the General Conference.

The GCSRW argues that the UM delegation should be more representative of the ethnic population of the U.S. — 35 percent and growing. I heartily agree that The United Methodist Church should be even more intentional and committed to growing ethnic non-white churches and ministries in the U.S. We should give full support to the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministries, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, the Korean-American, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander Plans, and the Native American Comprehensive Plan. This is one of the key ways our church can become more vital and growing again.

However, no one has shown that increasing our number of ethnic delegates leads to increasing our number of ethnic UM members. In fact, as the percentage of ethnic delegates has increased over the past 20 years, the percentage of ethnic UM members has decreased. Having more ethnic U.S. delegates does not cause our church to increase in ethnic members.

We should also note that the 2012 General Conference delegation will have the most people of color of any General Conference delegation in history. Because of the delegates from Africa, the Philippines, and Central America, fully 469 of the delegates will be people of color—nearly 47 percent! In 2016 we should pass the point where a majority of our delegates will be people of color. That will make a great headline!

Let us be very clear: It is in no one’s interest to silence or minimize the invaluable voices of female or ethnic persons at General Conference or within The United Methodist Church at large.

But let us not get sidetracked by faulty analysis of statistics. The GCSRW has a number of valuable programs. These can continue, either as part of the General Board of Church and Society or as part of a new Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.

It is imperative that we combat the abuse of women and work for women’s equality in terms of clergy appointments and salaries. But the battle for equal representation for women in our General Conference delegation has been won. We can celebrate the progress that has been made!

The work of the General Commission on Religion and Race and the various ethnic caucuses is valuable, as well, in keeping us focused on ensuring equal opportunity and equal dignity for persons of all ethnic backgrounds. That work can continue, either as part of the General Board of Church and Society or as part of a new Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. We do, however, need to get serious as a denomination about ramping up our efforts to evangelize and minister to and with the ethnic populations in the U.S., including enhanced recruitment and training of ethnic church pastors and lay leaders.

It doesn’t matter that our General Conference delegation is not representative of the U.S. population, since the delegation represents the church membership, and not the population. However, it does matter that our church membership is not representative of our U.S. population. As our church membership becomes more diverse, our delegation will become more diverse.

So let us focus on the “adaptive challenge”: creating and sustaining vital congregations in the U.S. and around the world. That will truly be good news worth celebrating!

Thomas A. Lambrecht is vice president of Good News. This commentary first appeared in The United Methodist Reporter. Reprinted with permission.