Last week we got the news that the executive committee of the Council of Bishops has identified 29 nominees to the special commission on A Way Forward but that only 8 of them, a piddly 28%, are lay persons. As a response to that news, I joined with other lay colleagues to launch and sign an open letter calling out this lack of lay representation on the commission and expressing the need for more laity.
Many people had expected that this commission would be made up of approximately 50% laity and 50% clergy. I, on the other hand, find our preoccupation with such a 50/50 split to be intriguing. Historically, it derives from our origins of annual conference and general conference representation being made up exclusively of clergy. I take note of these historical details in order to provide some perspective. We have this history because clergy are members first of the annual conferences (and annual conferences are represented at general conferences) and laity are members first of local churches, and along our historical way it was recognized that we needed to have laity representation in our top decision-making bodies in part in order to make good decisions. Because the church is ultimately made up of laity, and laity have a vested interest in what happens to and within the church.
In terms of this special commission, however, there is no special rationale for why we need to have a 50/50 split. On the contrary, The United Methodist Church is made up of >99% laity. There is no particular justification for bishops and other clergy getting equal representation to laity on this body, way out of proportion to their composition of the membership of the UMC.
With that said, I’m no proponent of proportional representation by membership, which in my experience is a politically-motivated idea, but it is worth noting that laity make up >99% of the membership of The UMC in order to get some perspective on just how ludicrous it is to stack this commission with over 70% bishops and other clergy, thereby squelching the voices of the laity.
Bishops and other clergy may feel that they spend their days steeped in the church and thus have a tremendous stake in its future, whereas laity can come and go, from one church and denominational affiliation to another, or even to no church at all. I, however, am a home missioner, part of the deaconess and home missioner community, and we have committed our lives to ministries with marginalized communities in settings largely outside the local church but always maintaining a relationship with the church. This experience of being in ministry in non-local church settings–for me, that has meant nonprofit settings–often in contexts where we are surrounded by people who are not active members of local churches, if they are members of a church at all, gives us particular perspectives. Specifically, it gives me a lot of time to think about what it means for the church to try to be relevant to the world of people outside the church, most of whom think the church is irrelevant to the world today and that the church utterly lacks credibility due to scandals and hypocrisy. Focusing in on such matters is critical to the church’s existence and purpose and critical to the church’s future.
By not spending the overwhelming amount of our time within local church settings, many laity come to gain perspective on such matters that can often be different from that of clergy, and especially different from that of bishops.
We stack the commission with bishops and clergy, giving laity an almost token minority position, to our peril.
So, to the topic of why did I sign the laity open letter? I signed because I am passionate about the future of this church. I am passionate about the church’s relevance and credibility. I am passionate about the importance of the voice and perspective of laity in church decision-making in order to make good decisions as we look toward crafting a path toward the future of The UMC.
And I also signed because I am passionate about how we live out Christ’s ministry to the marginalized. How we live out Christ’s message of God’s character being one of love, justice and compassion and how we are called to be likewise. I am passionate about the grave harm done to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual children of God at the hands of the church. I find this grave harm to be unconscionable, and I recognize that Christ would view it as a grave sin and he would have a blistering message to the church today over it, like he did with the Pharisees in his own day.
Stacking the commission with individuals vested in the institution of the church, rather than with people passionate about the church as an expression of seeking to follow Jesus’ message about God’s character and live out his example, is a recipe for bad decision-making. This commission needs people willing to take risks, not people invested in protecting the church’s assets.
It is my hope that more lay voices would provide balance in perspective, helping us to best take advantage of the wisdom of our ordained church leaders while also protecting against institutionalism. It is my hope that more lay voices would lead to more willingness to take risks to follow God’s will wherever it may lead, keeping an eye on a certain degree of protecting the institution of the church from those who would do it harm, but not substituting the institution of the church for God.
Click here to sign the letter today!
Kevin M. Nelson is a home missioner and activist who works to use his white, male privilege for righteous insurrection against unjust power structures that serve to marginalize other individuals and communities.