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COMMENTARY: General Conference again unfair in delegate allotment Robert Sparkman, Mar 19, 2012
By Robert Sparkman Special Contributor
At the 1996 General Conference, our church became aware of a problem with the selection of delegates. People realized that areas of our church which had grown (or maintained membership) were acutely under-represented.
For example, a delegate from the Western Jurisdiction represented 5,000 members, a delegate from the South Central Jurisdiction represented 10,000 members and a delegate from the Southeastern Jurisdiction represented 13,000 church members. The growing central conferences of Africa were especially unfairly hit by the delegation selection formula.
At the 2000 General Conference, the church decided that proportional representation was the standard. This meant that the number of delegates to General Conference from each area should be proportional to the number of church members and ministers. This was simple and fair.
In 2004, boards, agencies and commissions were also made proportional in representation for U.S. Jurisdictions. In 2008, fair representation was affirmed and the language was editorially “cleaned up” for all relevant Book of Discipline paragraphs.
These three General Conferences affirmed this principle: representation should be proportional to the number of members and ministers within each area. The movement began to be called “fair representation” since the principle of proportionality was deemed to be “fair.”
The reason for this change was not simply to avoid sectional resentment. The reason was not solely to maintain a strong connection by ensuring that each area would feel that decisions were legitimate. It was not simply to avoid disenfranchising people in the growing areas.
The primary reason was vision.
We needed to represent more fairly and strongly the vision of the growing and vital areas of the church. Each General Conference of the last three has affirmed that we need to hear the voices of Africa and the growing conferences of the United States. Delegates in 2004 and 2008 seemed excited to be listening to these areas for a vision of growth, vitality, hope and effective ministry.
But in the last few years the whole system has become unbalanced once more. Areas which have grown are again under-represented. Some of the growing conferences have had their delegations reduced. Whenever an area is under-represented it threatens the legitimacy and support of the connection.
One solution to the new imbalance could be to re-examine our policy on provisional and very small annual conferences. By Book of Discipline definition a provisional annual conference “is a conference that because of its limited membership, does not qualify for annual conference status.” It can be set up with a minimum of 10 clergy members and with no minimum number of church members. Each of these provisional conferences automatically receives two delegates to General Conference! These provisional conferences sometimes become very small annual conferences— which have fewer members than many local churches in other areas.
One provisional conference has 933 members, another 343, another 330! Twenty-nine provisional and annual conferences have fewer than 5,000 members. These are really the size of local churches and districts, and bishops have between 4 and 10 of these provisional and small annual conferences. They are tremendously over-represented. Europe and the Philippines have 1.7 percent of the membership but 9.2 percent of delegates because of the automatic two delegates per provisional and annual conference.
Whenever one area is overrepresented, another is underrepresented. It hurts another part of the church and this unfairness diminishes the whole body. Delegates and board members should flow quickly to the areas of forward-looking vision for the church. The two delegate minimum should be applied to episcopal areas and missionary conferences, and not to the provisional and tiny annual conferences. (There are provisional conferences which receive two delegates based on membership, and they would not be affected by any changes.)
To restore fairness in representation, legislation has been proposed which would apportion an automatic allotment of two delegates to the episcopal areas and missionary conferences. The provisional and very small annual conferences would not have an automatic two delegates, but would be represented through the episcopal area.
If this proposal passes, many delegates to general conference would be re-allocated, some to growing areas. The provisional and small annual conferences of the Philippines and Europe would be represented by their episcopal areas and they would continue to be somewhat over- represented. When any of these provisional or small annual conferences received enough members, then they would receive two delegates.
The changes in the Discipline would be relatively simple, except one constitutional amendment would have to be passed. When one provisional conference with 367 members has two delegates to general conference, another conference is unfairly under-represented. Someone is disenfranchised who has worked hard and found a way to bring new people to faith and the church. To be fair to the whole church, provisional and small annual conferences should be represented by their episcopal areas until they are large enough to receive delegates based on membership.
Regional resentment, or the desire for more votes, are not the reasons for this change. The reason for change is to refine the vision of the church—a vision for revitalization. We must hear clearly the voices of hope and the future.
The Rev. Sparkman is pastor of First UMC in Hartselle, Ala., and a North Alabama Conference delegate to the 2012 General Conference.