Photo Credit: “Blackboard” by David O’Kane

One of the more amusing floor statements at the recent United Methodist General Conference involved a New England clergy delegate insisting that the denomination would do well to allocate additional representation and resources to its fastest-declining areas. Arguing that the church should reward shrinking areas like the church’s Western Jurisdiction, Rev. We Hyun Chang of Belmont, Massachusetts suggested it was sensible to give more representation to those areas in which the church needed to grow.

Many observers would argue that rewarding decline with more representation was putting the cart before the horse, and that churches in decline should look to the practices of growing congregations if they themselves are to grow (Chang was essentially making a “rocky soil” argument that it is hard to evangelize in the Western Jurisdiction. Never mind that Evangelical Christians seem to be doing just fine in the Western United States.)

Proportional representation is important: it is a reason why liberals are gradually seeing their influence within the UMC slip, and why orthodox United Methodists in the global south are finding themselves empowered.

Pastor Chang isn’t the only one to argue against the UMC’s proportional representation system. In May, Rev. Anthony Tang argued on the website of the similarly fast-declining Desert Southwest Conference (hat tip to John Lomperis) that per capita giving to General Conference apportionments is the highest in the West, and that the West has the highest participation per membership role.

It’s fun to watch liberal United Methodists scramble to try to find a coherent argument on why more representation should be allocated to their declining jurisdictions, instead of to places like sub-Saharan Africa, where United Methodism is vibrant and experiencing rapid growth.

Basing representation on a rate of highest participation per membership role is ludicrous. The entire Western Jurisdiction comprises about 4 percent of the church (about the size of the North Georgia annual conference), and they have a participation/membership ratio of 0.515, compared to a participation/membership ratio of 0.409 in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. This more favorable ratio doesn’t account for much if the Southeastern Jurisdiction has an exponentially larger membership.

Here’s an illustration that IRD Adjunct Fellow Alan Wisdom once used: his alma mater, Rice University, has 6,000 students. The University of Houston has almost 40,000 students. If Rice and Houston were to play one another, a much higher percentage of Rice students usually show up for the game (say 3,000 — that’s half of enrollment). Houston students attend at a much lower ratio — let’s say 15 percent of enrollment. Even though a larger percentage of Rice students show up for the game, they are still swamped by 6,000 Houston students, because Houston is a significantly larger school.

Bringing it back to the UMC proportionality argument, the Southeastern Jurisdiction and the African Central Conferences have such large pieces of the pie that it doesn’t matter if the participation ratio is slightly less. Tang is stretching to say that such a small jurisdiction deserves larger representation, just because a relatively tiny group of people show up at a slightly higher rate. It’s like arguing that New Hampshire deserves more electoral votes because it has higher voter turnout percentages than California.

IRD’s Luke Moon posited his own fanciful calculus to justify increased representation from declining jurisdictions:

If you multiply the number of people who attend by the number of people who are members, divide it by the number of bible passages that we read on Sunday, squared by the number of times we talked about the need for salvation, add the number of references to Mother Earth, excluding the song about Mother Earth in the song book… you will see that the Western Jurisdiction exceeds all other jurisdictions in the UMC.

There you have it. Tang alleges that “representation based on proportionality is backward thinking,” but what he means to say is “we don’t evangelize any more, our revisionist theology has decimated our church membership, and we don’t want the consequences of that.”