By Heather Hahn*
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.
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, Fla., 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.
In addressing the question of representation, Reist pointed out that the United States has a population of more than 300 million people, and yet relies on a federal legislature of 535 inidviduals — slightly more than half the size of the typical General Conference.
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 (regional) 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.
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 Upper New York 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 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 the Sierra Leone 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.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.