The 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore., will have about 15 percent fewer delegates than recent gatherings of The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking body.
The Commission on the 2016 General Conference on Friday, Oct. 18, voted 14 to 2 to set the target number of delegates at 850. That number is not exact. It could vary by a few people either direction to meet representation requirements under church law.
General Conference, which meets for nearly two weeks every four years, has lawmaking authority “over all matters distinctly connectional.” Half of the delegates are lay, and half are clergy. It is the only body that can officially speak for the global denomination of about 12 million professing members.
|Delegates to General Conference 2012 cast ballots on major decisions for the denomination, including guaranteed clergy appointments, agency restructuring and whether to continue the stance that homosexuality is "incompatible" with Christian teaching. 2012 photo by UMNS.|
Since the merger that created The United Methodist Church in 1968, the number of delegates at each General Conference has remained closer to 1,000.
Previously, the General Conference secretary has set the target number of delegates. The 2012 General Conference in Tampa gave that authority to the full commission.
The reduction will save the church around $600,000, Sara Hotchkiss, General Conference business manager, told the commission. Before the vote, the projected costs for the 2016 General Conference were more than $10 million.
More significantly, the reduction in delegates begins to smooth the way for The United Methodist Church to hold its first General Conference outside the United States, said the Rev. L. Fitzgerald Reist II, the General Conference secretary. That move could happen as early as 2024.
“At the present time, there is no one willing to host us because of what is involved in moving General Conference outside the United States,” he told the commission. “One of the changes that will probably need to be made is in the size of the delegation. I think it would be a mistake to move outside the United States and reduce the size of the delegation at the same time.”
The 2020 General Conference will be in the North Central Jurisdiction. The specific site has yet to be chosen.
What it means for Florida UMC
The precise effect of the decision on the number of delegates to be elected from the Florida Conference for 2016 was not immediately available. Reist said by email Tuesday he hoped to have concrete numbers about individual annual conferences to share next week.
Florida sent 22 delegates -- 11 lay and 11 clergy -- to General Conference in 2012. The conference is scheduled to elect 2016 delegates at the 2015 Annual Conference meeting in Daytona Beach.
Regardless of whether the commission’s action shaves Florida’s total by two or four, it will reduce the voting power of larger conferences and potentially strengthen the influence of smaller ones in the U.S. that have the minimum two delegates and will remain unchanged, said Mickey Wilson, Florida Conference treasurer. He was a lay delegate to General Conference in 2008 and ’12 and plans to seek election again in 2015.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” Wilson said of the decision.
|"It becomes even more important that we elect effective, forward-thinking, spiritually mature delegates.” --
Florida Conference lay leader
Delegates are assigned according to the size of conference membership, he said, but small conferences – many in the Western Jurisdiction -- are guaranteed at least two delegates. The net effect will be to strengthen the voting power of those conferences while the large conferences of the Southeastern Jurisdiction will lose representatives with voting privileges.
Wilson said a few votes can sometimes affect major decisions.
“It tends to be a more liberal representation on the West Coast than it does in the Southeast,” he said.
Wilson said he applauded the effort to save money but wished the commission had instead set a maximum number of delegates to be funded by the General Church and left it up to annual conferences to pay for additional delegates that would be allotted under the previous guidelines.
Russ Graves, Florida Conference lay leader and a past delegate, said the move seemed to be “more symbolic than cost-effective.”
“Cost-cutting is appropriate, but to take those that do the work of the [General] Conference and eliminate 150 votes, while maintaining costs in other nonproductive areas, is less than well-thought out,” Graves said.
“Nevertheless, it becomes even more important that we elect effective, forward-thinking, spiritually mature delegates,” he said, adding that the Board of Lay Ministry is looking for candidates and encourages suggestions from Florida Conference members.
The commission’s vote came after hours of discussion that touched on stewardship of the denomination’s resources, the need for adequate representation and the balance of power in the denomination.
“Part of our goal is to move incrementally, but our intention is to move toward a smaller General Conference,” said Judi Kenaston, the commission’s chair and conference secretary of the West Virginia Annual Conference.
What church law says
The denomination’s constitution sets a range of 600 to 1,000 delegates and a ratio for representation based on an annual conference’s membership. Each annual and missionary conference is allowed to send at least one lay and one clergy delegate. Annual conferences elect their delegates.
A proposed constitutional amendment to increase the minimum to 800 delegates got majority support at the 2012 General Conference, but fell short of the required two-thirds of the vote.
|Delegates gather for the closing session of General Conference 2012 in Tampa. Regional conferences from around the globe sent nearly 1,000 delegates to decide major issues before the church. 2012 photo from UMNS.|
The 2012 General Conference had 988 delegates from around the globe. It cost about $8.4 million.
Hotchkiss pointed out that some fixed costs for General Conference would remain or increase no matter how steeply the number of delegates decreased. Such costs include interpreters in multiple languages. For example, the 2012 General Conference voted to require that starting in 2016, General Conference materials must now be translated into Kiswahili.
Based on the membership numbers used for the 2012 General Conference, no U.S. jurisdiction would lose or gain more than about 1 percent of its representation at the 2016 General Conference, said commission member Stephanie Deckard Henry, a member of the New England Annual (regional) Conference. Also based on the figures for the 2012 General Conference, U.S. delegates still would comprise nearly 60 percent.
Reist did note that a reduction in delegation size would increase the proportionate representation of smaller annual conferences as well as the central conferences — church areas in Africa, Asia and Europe.
Initially, the commission considered a motion to reduce the number of delegates to 750. But ultimately the board approved an amendment to increase that number to 850.
“This was a compromise,” said the Rev. Diane Wasson Eberhart, the commission member who proposed the amendment. She is an ordained deacon in the Iowa Annual (regional) Conference.
“I was on the fence about the issue because I feel strongly that we have a lot of voices that need to be heard, but I also feel strongly that we need a culture of change. If we do the same thing over and over again, we’ll get the same results.”
A number of United Methodists have denounced the 2012 gathering as the “do-nothing” General Conference. The Judicial Council — the denomination’s top court — overturned an effort to restructure the church’s general agencies and overturned other legislation to eliminate guaranteed security of appointments for ordained elders in good standing. The wider General Conference ran out of time before it could consider a number of petitions approved by legislative committees.
Some commissioners expressed the hope that a smaller General Conference also might increase the efficiency in handling petitions.
The Rev. Francis Charley, a commission member and district superintendent in Sierra Leone Annual (regional) Conference, said a delegate count of 850 still would give many people the chance to participate in the lawmaking assembly.
“It’s a learning experience especially for those doing it for the first time,” Charley said. “One of the things I have been contemplating is increasing the amount of training in the central conferences before General Conference, so delegates can have the right kind of perspective.”
Reist said he plans to calculate the number of delegates for each annual conference this week, and will notify each conference secretary and bishop of the numbers in their areas.
“It will be based on the most recent figures we have for each annual conference,” he said.
As permitted by the 2012 General Conference, some annual conferences plan to elect their delegates next year. Others will wait to 2015.
In other action:
- The commission reduced the number of legislative committees at the 2016 General Conference from 13 to 12. The commission voted to combine the work previously done by the Higher Education and Ministry Committee — which deals with petitions concerning seminaries, ordination and clergy — and the Superintendency Committee — which deals with petitions concerning district superintendents and bishops.
- The commission set a daily schedule with an adjournment of 6:30 p.m. most days. The one exception is the Saturday of General Conference, the last day when legislative committees meet. On that day, legislative committees would have the option of finishing their work during 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Susan Green, managing editor of Florida Conference Connection, contributed to this story. Originally posted Oct. 20, 2013, and reprinted with permission. To see the original version of this story and make comments, click here.