Disappearing General Conference Delegates

By Walter Fenton –

As the majority of United Methodist annual conferences in the U.S. prepare this spring to elect delegates to the 2016 General Conference (GC), many are discovering they will have fewer delegates to elect.

At its Fall 2013 meeting the church’s General Commission on General Conference (GCGC) voted to make a 12.5 percent reduction in the number of delegates that will attend GC 2016. In 2012, 988 delegates gathered in Tampa, Florida. When GC convenes in Portland, Oregon in 2016, there will be a total of 864 delegates charged with setting policy for the 12.5 million-member worldwide denomination.

Annual Conferences in the U.S., which are grouped into five regionally defined jurisdictional conferences, will absorb most of the loss in the number of delegates. In 2012 the U.S. accounted for 606 delegates or 61 percent of the 998 elected. In 2016 the U.S. delegation will consist of 504 delegates or 58 percent of the 864.

Each annual conference elects an equal number of clergy and lay delegates, with a minimum representation of two delegates for every conference. Twelve of the 57 annual conferences will have four fewer delegates this quadrennium. The West Michigan Annual Conference will be the most adversely affected; its delegation will drop from six to two for a two-thirds reduction in representation.

Despite losing four delegates each, the North Georgia and Virginia Annual Conferences will send the largest delegations, with 22 apiece. Both the conferences are from the Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ), which is considerably larger with 188 delegates than any of the other four U.S. jurisdictions. The South Central Jurisdiction with 108 delegates, the North Central with 92, the Northeastern with 86, and the Western with 30 will follow the SEJ. Five of the eight Western Jurisdiction annual conferences have now dropped to the minimum representation of just two delegates.

Joe Whittemore, a layman from the North Georgia and elected to serve as a delegate six times, thinks the reductions in the number delegates is being received well in his conference. However, he said, “The minimum of two rule needs changing so we do not have over 100 delegates representing 50 or more extremely small conferences.”

Most worldwide regions will also see reductions in the size of their delegations, but all of them will see slight to moderate increases in their percentile representation at GC 2016. Delegates from the annual conferences in Africa represented 28.5 percent of total GC 2012 delegates. In Portland they will compose 30.1 percent. That 1.6 percent increase is the largest for any region, followed by the annual conferences from Philippines where representation will increase from 4.9 to 5.8 percent. The European and Eurasian area will see a slight 0.3 percent increase in representation.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 9.54.13 AMSince the creation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, the General Conference delegation has hovered around 1,000 delegates. The General Commission on General Conference has cited a couple of reasons for the unprecedented reduction in the number of delegates. Judie Kenaston, the commission’s chairwoman said, “A smaller General Conference [would] allow for a slightly better sense of community and a better chance to provide an environment for Christian conferencing.”

Tom Junk, a layman elected six times from the Oklahoma Annual Conference, is pessimistic the reduction will “make the logistics any more manageable.” Junk also noted the imbalance in representation that is created when very small conferences are guaranteed two delegates. “Here in Oklahoma we have gone from 20 delegates in 2008, to 18 in 2012, and now 14 in 2016. Other conferences, despite significant membership loss, will still have two delegates.”

The Rev. Geri Reist, Secretary of the General Conference, noted that the reduction could be the first of two or three further reductions. It is believed that a smaller GC delegation, somewhere closer to the minimum of 600, would allow for a future GC to convene, for the first time, outside of the U.S.

While a future GC in Africa, Europe or the Philippines would be historical, it could come at a high price if it meant reducing the total delegation to approximately 600. Key findings coming from a 2010 report prepared for the Call to Action Steering Committee noted that a lack of trust between people in the pews and the general church was a major problem facing the denomination. It also noted that the church’s “Complex structures and processes have created a greater distance and thus a weaker connection between and among the people (members, attendees, pastors, and lay and clergy leaders).”

“The reduction in the number of delegates,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette of the Virginia Annual Conference, “will be problematic at several levels.” Boyette, a former member of the church’s Judicial Council, attended the 2004 and 2008 General Conferences. He said he believes “fewer of the rank and file will be represented in delegations, particularly from the United States.”

“Most delegations are predominantly composed of institutionalists (district superintendents, conference staff people) on both the clergy and lay sides,” Boyette said. “It’s simply a factor of name recognition. As the number of spots are reduced, the likelihood of pastors of local congregations or lay people not serving on a conference staff to be elected is reduced.”

Presently, 11 of the 57 U.S. annual conferences will send one clergyperson and one layperson to GC. Pushing the total number down to 600 would almost certainly result in 36 annual conferences with just two representatives.

The rising cost of paying for General Conferences is often cited as one of the primary reasons to reduce the number of GC delegates, although commission members have repeatedly stated money is not a driving factor in their bid to reduce the number of delegates.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.

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