Doing General Conference Math
By Thomas Lambrecht
Supporters of the One Church Plan are considering a number of options in the wake of the decision by the 2019 General Conference to adopt the Traditional Plan. One of those options is to come back in 2020 to the General Conference in Minneapolis and attempt to reverse the result, adopting the One Church Plan in place of the Traditional Plan.
One commonly hears the statement that there were “only” 54 votes separating the two sides in 2019, which means that 28 delegates would need to change their minds and vote for the One Church Plan in order for it to pass. Those 28 delegates would most likely come from the U.S., since it is unlikely that OCP supporters will gain more adherents among the central conferences than what they already received in 2019.
But the task in 2020 for OCP supporters gets more daunting. For starters, there were 31 delegates from Africa who did not obtain a visa to attend the General Conference. If all of them are able to gain visas in 2020 (or there are replacement delegates who can), that will likely add at least 28 votes for the Traditional Plan. OCP supporters would then need to gain 42 new votes in the U.S. (half of 54 plus half of 28).
But the delegate totals will not remain the same in 2020 as they were in 2019. Due to changes in membership, Africa will gain an additional 18 delegates in 2020. That will most likely add at least 16 votes for the Traditional Plan. OCP supporters would then be up to 50 new votes required (half of 54 plus half of 28 plus half of 16).
That is not all. The U.S. delegation will lose 22 delegates. If two-thirds of U.S. delegates generally support the OCP, then the OCP would lose a net total of 8 votes. (7 votes lost would be offset by the 7 votes that the Traditional Plan would also lose in the U.S.) That means OCP supporters would then be up to 54 new votes required (half of 54 plus half of 28 plus half of 16 plus half of 8). This would be offset by potentially 5 new votes from African delegates, bringing the total new votes needed for the OCP from U.S. delegates to 49.
This means that OCP supporters would need to either convince nearly one-third of U.S. Traditional Plan supporters to change their mind, or elect OCP supporting delegates in place of TP supporting delegates. That would be a tremendous swing in votes and highly unlikely to happen.
Another way of doing the math is to look at the various constituencies and estimate what percentage of them would vote for the Traditional Plan. The totals could look something like this:
33 percent of U.S. delegates (482) equals 159.
80 percent of Filipino delegates (52) equals 42.
90 percent of African delegates (278) equals 250.
50 percent of European and Eurasian delegates (40) equals 20.
The Total for the Traditional Plan would then be 471, which would leave 391 delegates supporting the OCP, a difference of 80 votes.
Based on this second method, OCP supporters would need to “flip” 41 delegates in order to gain a bare majority. This represents one-fourth of U.S. Traditional Plan supporters who would have to change their vote. Again, this would be a very significant shift.
There are of course some variables in all these math “problems.” But the bottom line is that a lot of circumstances would have to break one way in order for the OCP to gain the votes needed to reverse the results of the 2019 General Conference.
Of course, the OCP supporters could still try to delay and obstruct the will of the General Conference, as they did in St. Louis. But why? As Africa continues to grow in membership and the U.S. continues to decline, the numbers will only get more daunting for OCP supporters.
And the prospect of another public legislative battle, with all the vitriolic rhetoric that came from the progressive side, would only continue to damage the church. I have read numerous remarks by people on social media saying their relationships with persons on the “other side of the aisle” had been damaged by the process at St. Louis. At least one newspaper described what is happening in The United Methodist Church as a “civil war.” Is that what we want to perpetuate?
Based on the public responses from many on the moderate to progressive side, they cannot continue to serve in a church that does not allow them to perform same-sex weddings and ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. They desired unity in the church, as long as it meant that they could engage in ministry the way they wanted to do so. But faced with a choice between unity and denying their principles, they are choosing to adhere to their principles, even if it means disunity.
So would it not be more productive for persons across the theological spectrum to agree on a way to separate from each other, freeing everyone to engage in ministry the way they believe God is leading them? An equitable way could be found to divide assets and provide for the continuation of vital ministries such as UMCOR, Wespath, GBGM, Communications, and Archives and History.
Freed from the need to continue fighting one another, the resulting new denominations could devote their whole energies to evangelism, church planting, discipleship, missions, and social action – all according to each group’s theological perspective. In areas where there is agreement, the new groups could continue to cooperate on joint projects and mission endeavors.
In the end, The United Methodist Church does not face a math problem, but a spiritual problem. Is it now possible to choose a different path, one that leads to a constructive future, rather than a destructive one for the church? Can we not work toward a different form of unity that allows for both the separation needed and the possibility of cooperation where warranted? The former United Methodist Church is already dead. We are in the birth process of something new. Can we work together to create that new reality in as painless and Christ-like a way as possible?
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.