With another Annual Conference season wrapping up for U.S. United Methodists, we have seen yet again the good, the bad, and the ugly of The UMC's connectional polity. As in every year before General Conference, elections dominated AC agendas.
Many others have spoken passionately and eloquently about the need for balance among GC delegates: an equal number of men and women, sufficient inclusion of ethnic minorities, a chance for younger people to serve the Church in this way, etc.
I want to make a different point. Having observed several GC delegation election cycles (both up close and from afar), I notice a bias that (to my knowledge) few people have commented on or found problematic.
General Conference delegates skew hugely toward clergy's interests and the interests of the Church as an institution.
First, consider the clergy delegations. I would love to see solid data on this, but anecdotally it seems that district superintendents and conference staff are hugely overrepresented. Now, it may be true that these clergy are uniquely more qualified to be GC delegates because of their inside knowledge and their more visible and prominent career success. But I have met enough layfolk (and clergy) who view many of these positions with skepticism and feel that the people who hold these jobs have enough authority and prestige day-to-day that clergy delegations should not stack the deck with cabinet members and church bureaucrats.
But my main point concerns laity, not clergy. How many lay delegates are clergy candidates, employees of UM churches/entities, or the spouses or children of clergy? Though all of these people are, in fact, laypeople, they bring a very different perspective than laypeople with no vocational or financial interest in The UMC as an institution. Their desire to serve and lead is admirable. But it is foolish to think that, in the aggregate, the dozens (or 100+) of current and future church employees, as well as clergy's close relatives, are the same as laypeople who lack such intimate connections to the institutional church. The UMC should think about what difference, if any, these insider lay delegates make at GC.
These issues are quite different from the usual concerns about demographic representation. They are also somewhat separate from concerns about lay and clergy delegates who are elected quadrennium after quadrennium. People should understand the arguments for and against having the same delegates attend many General Conferences. I am inclined to think there is value in having experienced leaders who know the process and can teach first-time delegates. But, of course, the presence of so many veteran GC delegates prevents new people from being elected in the first place.
While there are, of course, other factors, name recognition and reputation seem to matter most. Perhaps this is what helps so many clergy relatives and well-known seminarians get elected to lay delegations. The Church should be aware of this dynamic and consider the implications.
One constant knock against mainline churches is that they often seem less compelling, creative, flexible, and innovative in their disciple-making because so much money and energy is consumed in nursing along an institution. In my view, so many insider lay delegates may tip the balance at GC too much toward institutional maintenance.
A final note: I am not a United Methodist. Everything I have said here could be completely wrong. Like untold millions of people raised in UM churches, I never made my way back to The UMC after I left. I study and write about institutional Christianity. My primary frame of reference for the observations above is the Florida Annual Conference, which I attended a few times in the mid-2000s. I still maintain an interest because I have a number of clergy friends there and in other jurisdictions. I have observed similar dynamics in other annual conferences. I wish nothing but the best for The UMC as it strives toward Wesley's goal: "To revive the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land."