February 22, 2011

Further Thoughts on Electing a General Conference Delegation

After my recent post on the potential for improvement of the way our Annual Conference votes on our General Conference delegation, I've found myself in a number of discussions about this issue with my friends and colleagues. I may be sensing an increasing desire to see the system improve. In light of those discussions, here are a few benefits that may come from inviting delegation candidates to answer questionnaires regarding their experience and their views on important issues. Let me remind readers that different Conferences do this in different ways, and my own experience is limited to my own Annual Conference.  My intention is not to fire off angry criticism against past practices, but to suggest legitimate possibilites for  significant improvement in the way we administer our voting. As Wesley reminds us, we are all going on to perfection. Perhaps we can apply that wisdom to our discussion on electing a General Conference delegation as we discern and prepare for the future of our denomination.

Increased Equity
I've heard the suggestion that the voting is largely based on appointment to prominent churches or name recognition. This doesn't necessarily have bad results, because in our Conference, pastors names are often recognized because they are doing faithful ministry, and their appointments are often prominent because they are effective. But this reality limits the number of electable clergy. Pastors of large churches and District Superintendents often get a lot votes because people know who they are. Also, there will usually be one female pastor selected and one from an ethnic minority.

If we knew up front, though, who was interested in serving on the delegation, it would be more equitable by giving minorities and lesser known pastors an opportunity to declare their interest and qualifications to serve. Whereas one female delegate is often selected, if we had a list with names and qualifications of other women who are interested in serving, there is an increased chance that more than one female might be elected. At present, though, it is simply the case that not many women clergy have been placed in prominent appointments. Indeed, our Conference has had only two female District Superintendents. This means that most of the women serving as elders in our Annual Conference stand little to no chance of being elected. If others had the opportunity to express their interest and qualifications, then more opportunity would be afforded to them to be elected. The same is true for ethnic minorities and younger clergy. Those who have less prominent appointments stand less of a chance of being elected; informational questionnaires published in the brochure of reports or on the Conference website would place more names on the table and increase the overall equity of the process.

Increased Responsibility
When we vote for representatives for positions in the government, we want to know where our potential representatives stand on the issues. The General Conference is the only body authorized to speak on behalf of the United Methodist Church. Should we not know where the delegates stand before we send them off to represent us and speak on our behalf and on behalf of our denomination? Having information ahead of time would allow voters to spend more time prayerfully considering those who would best represent them and make for a more responsible vote.

Increased Integrity
At this point, we already provide opportunity for those serving as lay delegates to provide information about themselves and their views. Not doing so for the clergy means that half our delegation is selected using one system and the other half using another system. This gives the impression that there is a double standard for clergy and lay delegates; it makes it appear that clergy and laity play by different sets of rules. Adopting an information sheet for clergy delegates like those used for lay delegates would ensure that all delegates are elected under the same rules and give our voting an increased level of integrity.

Are there other benefits from the proposed changes? Are there other ways that our voting system for the General Conference delegation could be improved? Are there any liabilities to giving clergy the opportunity to fill out questionnaires? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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