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COMMENTARY: Agency’s faulty reporting obscures real percentages Thomas A. Lambrecht, Mar 6, 2012
Thomas A. Lambrecht
By Thomas A. Lambrecht Special Contributor
In 1891 Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke came up with the phrase “there are three degrees of untruth—a fib, a lie and statistics.” Statistics can be valuable, but one must be careful about the conclusions one draws.
This is nowhere more apparent than the latest flyer put out by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. The headline reads, “Women and U.S. people of color lose representation at General Conference.” If that were true, it would most certainly be worth our attention.
From the headline and tone throughout the article, one would assume that women had a lower percentage of the General Conference delegation in 2012, compared to 2008. One has to read to the fourth paragraph before discovering that the percentage of U.S. female representation at the 2012 General Conference actually went up slightly from 43 percent to 44 percent. The headline should have read, “Female representation increases for 2012 General Conference.”
The GCSRW is bemoaning the fact that the total number of female U.S. delegates declined in 2012 (as did the total number of male delegates by an even greater number). However, this decline is due to the fact that the total number of all U.S. delegates declined in 2012, thanks to the decline in membership in the U.S. and increasing membership in Africa.
With all due respect to the GCSRW, it appears that, rather than celebrate good news, the commission wanted to create bad news, perhaps in hopes that delegates would agree that GCSRW is still needed as a separate agency to promote women’s equality in the church. After all, one major proposal before General Conference would subsume GCSRW into the new Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry.
There is the danger, too, that resentment may be building in the U.S. against our brother and sister United Methodists in Africa. The increasing number of African United Methodists means fewer delegates for U.S. United Methodists, which again reduces the power of U.S. delegates to unilaterally set the direction of the United Methodist Church. The Methodist Federation for Social Action and others are again advocating that the U.S. be split off as its own central conference, so that we can run our own affairs unhindered by the voices of our overseas brothers and sisters. (So much for being a “global church”!)
General Conference is a representative body, which implies that the delegates ought to be representative of the United Methodist membership. With that in mind, what is the state of female representation at the 2012 General Conference?
Female clergy make up 39 percent of the 2012 U.S. clergy delegates (up from 2008), while female clergy are 24 percent of all U.S. clergy.
Lay women make up 50 percent of the 2012 U.S. lay delegates (unchanged from 2008), while lay women compose approximately 55 percent of all U.S. lay members of the United Methodist Church (figures for this were not given in the article).
So women are overrepresented on the clergy side and slightly underrepresented on the lay side. Overall, these figures are encouraging. What about the representation of people of color?
Overall, people of color make up 22 percent of the 2012 U.S. delegation, down from 25 percent in 2008. Clergy delegates of color make up 25 percent of U.S. clergy delegates, down from 28 percent in 2008; lay delegates of color make up 20 percent of U.S. lay delegates, down from 22 percent in 2008.
The representation of U.S. people of color did decrease in 2012. However, the GCSRW article mentions that people of color make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. United Methodist membership. Persons of color are therefore well represented at the General Conference.
The GCSRW argues that the United Methodist delegation should be more representative of the ethnic population of the U.S.—35 percent and growing. I heartily agree that we should give full support to the National Plan for Hispanic/Latino Ministries, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, the Korean-American, Asian-American and Pacific Islander Plans, and the Native American Comprehensive Plan. This is one of the key ways our church can become more vital.
However, no one has shown that increasing our number of ethnic delegates leads to increasing our number of ethnic members. In fact, as the percentage of ethnic delegates has increased over the past 20 years, the percentage of ethnic UM members has DECREASED. Having more ethnic U.S. delegates does not cause our church to increase in ethnic members.
We should also note that the 2012 General Conference delegation will have the most people of color of any General Conference delegation in history. Because of the delegates from Africa, the Philippines, and Central America, fully 469 of the delegates will be people of color—nearly 47 percent! In 2016 we should pass the point where a majority of our delegates will be people of color. That will make a great headline!
Let’s be clear: It is in no one’s interest to silence or minimize the invaluable voices of female or ethnic persons at General Conference or within the UMC at large. But let’s not get sidetracked by faulty statistical analysis.
It doesn’t matter that our General Conference delegation is not representative of the U.S. population, since the delegation represents the church membership, and not the population. However, it does matter that our church membership is not representative of our U.S. population. As our church membership becomes more diverse, our delegation will become more diverse.
It is imperative that we combat the abuse of women and work for women’s equality in terms of clergy appointments and salaries. But the battle for equal representation for women in our General Conference delegation has been won. We can celebrate the progress that has been made!
The work of the General Commission on Religion and Race and the various ethnic caucuses is valuable, as well, in keeping us focused on ensuring equal opportunity and equal dignity for persons of all ethnic backgrounds. That work can continue, either as part of the General Board of Church and Society or as part of a Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry. We do, however, need to get serious as a denomination about ramping up efforts to evangelize and minister to and with ethnic populations in the U.S.
So let us focus on the “adaptive challenge” of creating and sustaining vital congregations. That will truly be good news worth celebrating!
The Rev. Lambrecht is vice president of Good News, an unofficial conservative caucus within the UMC.