Times are changing quickly and global United Methodism needs to start reflecting those changes. Over the last twenty years, the number one shift within our denomination has been the steady decline of membership in the United States and the ever-increasing growth of membership on the continent of Africa. United Methodism is found in at least 16 African nations.
Consider the fact that more United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of Congo (3 million) than in the combined North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions in the United States (2.3 million).
The leadership of our denomination should reflect our current reality. That is why we need to reconfigure our outdated representation model to a more just and equitable configuration. And it needs to start at the Council of Bishops.
Currently, while the U.S. has 56 percent of the total number of church members, the U.S. has 70 percent of the number of bishops. This gives the U.S. bishops a dominant role on the Council of Bishops. The African central conferences have 43 percent of the church members, but only 20 percent of the bishops. This yields a dramatic underrepresentation of African perspectives on the Council of Bishops.
When the Council acts, as it did recently in endorsing the One Church Plan, we need to see that action as primarily an American decision not reflective of the true makeup of our denomination’s membership.
How we got where we are
In the U.S., the number of bishops allocated to each jurisdiction is based on a formula. The first 300,000 members yields five bishops for a jurisdiction. In fact, no matter how few members a jurisdiction has, anything less than 300,000 members still entitles a jurisdiction to five bishops. This part of the formula favors smaller jurisdictions, such as the Western Jurisdiction. For every 300,000 members over the original 300,000, an additional bishop is allocated. (This part of the formula is rounded up, so that 1.6 additional bishops equal 2.)
The result of this formula is that the larger the jurisdiction, the relatively fewer bishops it has. For example, the (smallest) Western Jurisdiction has roughly 61,000 members per bishop. By contrast, the (largest) Southeastern Jurisdiction has roughly 210,000 members per bishop. Part of the justification for this is the need to cover large geographic areas, particularly in the West. But it results in a fundamental unfairness.
In the central conferences outside the U.S., the number of bishops is determined by a number of factors: missional potential, number of local churches and clergy, geographic size of episcopal areas, number of annual conferences, and number of church members. There is no set formula.
This approach for the central conferences worked well when these areas were small mission areas still heavily dependent upon the mother church. As the mission field has matured and the churches outside the U.S. have become more self-governing, and particularly as the church in Africa has grown in numbers, the allocation of bishops has not kept up with the need.
The number of members per bishop vividly illustrates the discrepancy. In the U.S., the average number of members per bishop is 151,000. In Africa, the average number of members per bishop is 407,000. The most egregious underrepresentation is in the Congo, which has only four bishops for 3 million members. The number of members per bishop in the Congo is 750,000, five times the U.S. average! There is no way that a bishop can effectively supervise that many members.
Another way of viewing the unjust disparity in representation is to know that the Congo covers an area as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River. In the U.S., there are 29 bishops covering that amount of territory. In the Congo, there are four bishops covering the same amount of territory. And the last statistic I saw was that there are only 500 miles of paved roads in the Congo. (I believe this means intercity roads, excluding streets in a city.) So the ability to get around and travel to the churches is much more difficult in the Congo compared with the U.S.
Where we can go from here
One step forward would be to apply the same formula for allocating bishops in the central conferences as we use in the U.S. That would yield a much fairer distribution of bishops. It would not reduce the number of bishops in the U.S. beyond what the formula already calls for. But it would increase the number of bishops where they are desperately needed.
Applying the formula to the central conferences would add one bishop for the southern and eastern Africa area, which already has five bishops (Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola, and South Africa). It would add six bishops to the West Africa Central Conference (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire), bringing their total to ten. And it would add ten bishops for the Congo, bringing their total to 14.
This approach would yield a much fairer distribution of bishops. The U.S. would have 54 percent of the bishops and 56 percent of the members. Africa would have 38 percent of the bishops and 43 percent of the members. Europe and the Philippines are overrepresented in the Council of Bishops (5 percent and 4 percent respectively) due to language, cultural, and geographic needs of the different areas. Their allocation of bishops would not change under the formula.
The 2016 General Conference voted to add five bishops for Africa in 2020. Where they will be assigned is still being determined by the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. This is a start, but it does not come close to adding the seventeen bishops that are needed to bring equity. Perhaps we could add five more in 2024 and five more in 2028.
Generally speaking, the cost of a bishop in the central conferences (particularly Africa and the Philippines) is about half the cost of a U.S. bishop. Both the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions stand to lose a bishop in 2020 under the formula. That would pay for four African bishops right there. And the South Central Jurisdiction also stands to lose a bishop, if not in 2020, then in 2024. That would pay for two more in Africa.
Of course, all of this will need to be reconsidered in light of the actions of the 2019 General Conference, which may result in a loss of members (and maybe even annual conferences) in the U.S. Under any of the three plans, there will need to be a reconfiguration of annual conference boundaries and perhaps jurisdictional boundaries, as well.
In the meantime, it would be well to consider that the actions of the Council of Bishops are primarily a reflection of the U.S. bishops, not a globally representative body. And as we configure the United Methodist Church of the future, we should give attention to treating the central conferences more fairly as equal partners in a global church, rather than as “junior” partners or mission stepchildren.