Months after a bruising 2019 special United Methodist General Conference, U.S. annual conference voters elected a significantly different slate of delegates to make big decisions in 2020.
Bottom line: More U.S. delegates now publicly oppose the Traditional Plan than did so during February’s gathering, when the plan prevailed by a vote of 438-384. However, advocates from various perspectives agree the shift is unlikely to be big enough to overturn the plan that strengthens bans in the Book of Discipline on same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.
This prediction assumes African, Filipino, Eastern European and Russian delegations to next year’s multinational legislative assembly offer the same overwhelming support for the plan as they did this year. Most of the denomination’s annual conferences — church regional bodies — have already elected their delegates.
The 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis will have 862 delegates overall, equally split between clergy and laity. That total is two fewer than the number elected to 2019. Of the 2020 delegates, 55.9% will be from the U.S., 32% from Africa, 6% from the Philippines, 4.6% from Europe and the remainder from concordat churches that have close ties to The United Methodist Church. Compared to the 2019 session, the U.S. will have fewer delegates overall while African delegations gain 18 and the Philippines two.
Still, the U.S. votes indicate the Traditional Plan faces strong resistance to enforcement — including in conferences where restrictions related to LGBTQ ministry have faced little pushback before.
“The power of governing comes from the consent of the governed, and clearly there is not consent to the Traditional Plan passed by the General Conference,” said Lonnie Chafin, a re-elected General Conference delegate and treasurer for the Northern Illinois Conference. He has been tallying the number of fellow U.S. delegates who, like him, oppose the Traditional Plan.
The Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, one of the primary authors of the Traditional Plan, also has been keeping his own U.S. delegate count.
“Obviously, there will be a tighter margin of those voting for a Traditional Plan approach to the denominational conflict,” said Lambrecht, vice president of the advocacy group Good News. “That may make it more difficult to strengthen the accountability provisions in the Discipline or move forward with other reforms we hope to make.”
Chafin and Lambrecht differ in their final estimate of where each of the 482 U.S. delegates stand but do agree on the overall trajectory of the elections.
By Chafin’s count, 118 support the Traditional Plan; 10 have an unknown stance and 354 oppose the plan. That represents a 21-vote gain in the U.S. for the plan’s opposition and means about 73% of U.S. delegates oppose the Traditional Plan, he said.
Lambrecht counts a higher number of elected U.S. Traditional Plan supporters with 130 definite and more possible. He estimates a 19% drop among U.S. traditionalist delegates, all on the clergy side.
Chafin, however, counts fewer traditionalist lay delegates heading to GC2020. By his estimation, there are 38 U.S. delegations where at least 80% of both lay and clergy members oppose the Traditional Plan. A number of delegations also have more openly LGBTQ members.
At annual conferences, clergy elect clergy delegates and lay voters elect lay delegates. Both Lambrecht and Chafin agree that in conferences that saw big shifts in their delegations, the lay were likely to go in a more traditionalist direction while the clergy were likely to go against the plan.
But ultimately, the two men’s vote tallies — based on delegates’ public statements and, in many cases, advocacy group endorsements — are speculative.
Until they vote, delegates remain free to change their views. And in any case, General Conference will consider many more policies than those regarding the status of LGBTQ individuals — including the general church budget.
But General Conference is not the only place where delegates have an impact. U.S. conferences also made a shift in the delegations that will elect at least 12 new U.S. bishops during next year’s five jurisdictional conferences.
By Chafin’s estimate, at least 70% of the delegates in each of the five jurisdictions oppose the Traditional Plan. Usually, jurisdictions require around a 60% vote to elect a bishop.
“I think it means there will be jurisdictions that will only elect bishops who refuse to implement the Traditional Plan,” Chafin said.
Lambrecht agreed that “it appears that most of the jurisdictions will have the ability to elect bishops who oppose the traditional definition of marriage and favor the ordination of practicing LGBT persons.”
“Given that reality,” he added, “it may mean that many annual conferences will not hold clergy accountable to abide by denominational standards and that it may be unrealistic to expect the Council of Bishops to hold its members accountable to the Discipline.”
Delegate elections weren’t the only signs of resistance to the Traditional Plan. At least nine U.S. conferences commissioned or ordained openly LGBTQ individuals including Baltimore-Washington, Michigan, North Texas, New York, Northern Illinois, Oregon-Idaho, Desert Southwest, Mountain Sky and California-Nevada.
By Chafin’s count, half of this year’s annual conferences also passed resolutions that rejected the Traditional Plan, apologized to LGBTQ community or suggested an alternative approach. In at least five conferences, similarly worded petitions either did not pass or had the denunciation of the Traditional Plan amended out.
Randall Miller, California-Nevada jurisdictional delegate who helped Chafin’s calculations, said he did not expect the outcry against the Traditionalist Plan.
“After the called session of the General Conference, there was a lot of churn in the church and a lot of anger,” he said. “But after each General Conference, that tends to die down. This only seemed to build.”
In the U.S. elections, he said, he sees “a new wind of hope.”
The Rev. Forbes Matonga, delegate from West Zimbabwe and leader in the advocacy group Wesleyan Covenant Association, also sees reasons to celebrate. Given the denomination’s demographics, he expects support for the Traditional Plan to only grow in the future.
“Africa is growing in membership as the USA is declining,” he said. “This means Africa will determine the future of the UMC.”
He noted that most conferences in Africa are returning the same delegates to 2020 as served in 2019. And while he has heard of some in the United States threatening to withhold funds to African ministries, he has faith God will provide. He is the pastor-in-charge of Nyadire Mission.
But even as people in different parts of the world celebrate, it’s hard to say what the growing divide between the majority of U.S. delegates and those in other parts of the church — especially Africa — means for the denomination’s future.
Closed-door conversations are happening among leaders across the denomination about developing General Conference proposals to divide the church or completely restructure it into different theological expressions.
The Rev. Sky McCracken, a Memphis Conference delegate to General Conference 2019 who chose not to run again, cautions in a blog post that the denomination is not neatly divided into theological and ideological extremes.
The senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tennessee, told UM News most people in his congregation are center-left or center-right.
“They are mainly quiet and when they feel yo-yoed, they will vote with their feet,” he said.