My denomination (United Methodist) functions as a representative democracy. In other words, we like to vote on nearly everything.
I have seen committees take a vote on whether to paint a room pink or purple. I've sat in meetings where they voted on whether or not to pay the electric bill. I've endured votes over whether to allow people to drink coffee in church. One church I served even voted on whether I should be allowed to leave the city limits unless they voted to let me go each time.
I am reminded of the only time a vote was held in the Bible. Paul and his shipmates were safe in harbor and arguing over whether to strike out on the next leg of their journey. It was nearly winter and seafaring was fraught with dangers. Paul thought they should stay put. They eventually decided to settle the issue by taking a vote, and the majority desired to set sail right away. So, off they went. Sad to say, the ship ended up getting wrecked in the weather. Democracy doesn't always get it right.
One of my childhood churches (Dalton City, Illinois) held an annual vote on every job in the congregation. The nominating committee prepared a ballot where two people were named to run against each other for every role in the church. As I recall, there were about 25 different positions listed on their ballot, ranging from church treasurer to Sunday School Superintendent to piano player for worship to chairman of the noodle dinner. For every position: always two names. So of course, only one winner. It also meant that there were about 25 guaranteed losers in that church by the end of the day. I was only ten, but listening to my elders, I discovered that such an election was not just a way to pick the best people for the job...it was also a way to get back at people you didn't like.
By the time I became a pastor, in the early 1970s, we were supposedly doing it a better way. A nominating committee would meet behind closed doors, with everyone sworn to secrecy, (a smoke-filled room without actual smoke) and make out a line-up card, trying to put people in positions to best help the church. We would try to replace people who were ineffective, keep any one person from getting overloaded, respect term limits for positions, and look for ways to get new people involved. We would then come up with a slate of willing volunteers and present the recommendations to the whole congregation for a vote. Everyone ran unopposed, thus avoiding embarrassing losses on election day.
Of course, the Methodist church has been declining in membership ever since we switched over to this new way, but I'm not sure yet whether that's the cause.
While running unopposed is now the norm for elections within a United Methodist congregation, that is not the case at the upper levels of our system. We still have vigorous competitions at the levels of the Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, and General Conference. Here's kind of how that works:
Each local congregation elects someone to represent them at the next level of conferencing...the Annual Conference, a regional organization of United Methodist clergy and elected lay persons. The exciting politics begins at the Annual Conference, where people "run" to represent everyone else at the Jurisdictional and General Conferences. There are usually about ten times the number running than our Annual Conference is allotted at those upper level conferences. So each time our Annual Conference elects its delegates to the Jurisdictional and General Conference, there are quite a few losers. It can be a real ego popper.
The most interesting elections we have, however, are the elections for bishop. They occur at what we call the Jurisdictional Conferences. There are five jurisdictions in the United States, each one covering a super-region. These jurisdictional conferences meet every fourth year. Their primary function is to election new bishops to replace active bishops in the jurisdiction who have retired or died. The elections are highly competitive, involving far more electioneering than church members realize.
Here in Illinois, we are in the North Central Jurisdiction. We have nine active bishops in our super-region. The other jurisdictions in the U.S. are: Northeast (9 bishops), Southeast (13 bishops), South Central (10 bishops), and Western (5 bishops). Click here if you'd like to see a map of how we are organized into these jurisdictions.
Once a bishop is elected by a Jurisdictional conference, she or he will be assigned to one of the Annual Conferences in that jurisdiction, usually not the one the person came from.
Our jurisdiction has two bishops retiring this year, but we will only replace one because of membership decline. So far, five people have already declared their candidacy for this one spot, including two from our own annual conference. I've already signed on to help one of them over the next five months, so you'll probably hear more about that from me. (The election will be in July.)
Like our country, our denomination is sorely divided these days. The truth is, the hateful political divisions in our country have seeped into our churches and infected us as well. Whoever is elected as a new bishop will immediately have to contend with the urgency of these divisions.
Have you noticed how often the word "fight" keeps showing up in the vocabulary of everyone who is running for national or state office? Everyone who is running for anything these days is promising to "fight" for us. What they mean by that is they will neuter all the people we blame for causing all our problems. It seems that everyone is fighting each other these days. And the fight is spreading everywhere: to our communities, our churches, our families.
The state of the country, and the state of United Methodism, can be summed up in the words of
George Washington University law professor. While giving testimony before a House impeachment hearing last year, he said, "
We are living in the very period described by Alexander Hamilton, a period of agitated passions. I get it. You're mad. The President is mad. My Republican friends are mad. My Democratic friends are mad. My wife is mad. My kids are mad. Even my dog seems mad."
As we elect both a bishop and a president this year, we risk electing just another fighter. A fighter may appeal to us during the election season. But after the election, the winner has to govern, (whether it is in the nation or the church.) If you get elected as a fighter, you will be relegated to governing over a corpus mired in an incivil war. In both our church and country, we keep electing people who can get very little done, in part because each negative attack made on the opposition erodes the winner's power for effective governance.
Our national corpus is in deep trouble if we don't select new leaders who can effectively reverse climate change, voter suppression, rising hostilities toward women and minorities, a growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else, violence in our classrooms and churches and marketplaces... The list goes on. But if you get elected as a fighter, you'll have to govern as a spent cannon. So, if any of my dear readers decide to throw their hats in the ring: keep your powder dry during the election. If you know you will have to fight to make peace and progress once you're elected, then run your campaign as as a bridge builder.
Even Jesus had to eventually take on his enemies. But he was smart enough to know that it would do no good unless he could genuinely understand and love them first.