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How are General Conference delegates chosen?

Bishop Warner H. Brown preaches at the opening worship for the United Methodist 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore. File photo by Maile Bradfield, UM News.
Bishop Warner H. Brown preaches at the opening worship for the United Methodist 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore. File photo by Maile Bradfield, UM News.

General Conference is the highest legislative body in The United Methodist Church. Every four years, delegates gather from all over the world to make decisions on behalf of the denomination.

Where are delegates from?

Each annual conference in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States elects an equal number of clergy and laity to be among the 600 to 1,000 delegates to General Conference. Other voting delegates come from autonomous churches with which The United Methodist Church has a concordat relationship. For example, the Methodist Church in Great Britain sends four voting delegates to each General Conference. The 2020 General Conference will have 862 delegates, two fewer than in 2016.

A formula, based on lay and clergy membership, determines the number of delegates from each conference. Every conference is guaranteed at least two — one clergy and one lay.

Around 44% of the 2020 delegates come from outside the United States. Thirty-two percent of delegates come from Africa, 6 percent from the Philippines and 4.5% from Europe. Fifty-six percent of the delegates are from the United States.

In 2020, the largest delegations are from North Katanga (Congo) (50) and Côte d’Ivoire (32). The largest delegations in the United States are from Virginia and North Georgia (22 each). Most of the conferences in Europe and the Philippines have two delegates, as do 12 conferences in the United States. 

All delegates are listed alphabetically and by conference in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate.

What are the requirements to be a delegate? How are delegates selected?

To be a General Conference delegate, a lay person must be a professing member of The United Methodist Church for two years and active in The United Methodist Church for at least four years. Often those elected as lay delegates are active in their local church as well as annual conference committees and events. At the time General Conference meets, a lay delegate must be a member of the annual conference that elected them (¶ 36, 2016 Book of Discipline).

All ordained clergy in full connection are eligible for election as delegates at General Conference. In each annual conference, clergy members elect clergy delegates, and lay members elect lay delegates.

Most conferences also elect alternate delegates who participate in General Conference as needed to assure that each annual conference is fully represented throughout the session.

What is a delegate’s responsibility?

Being a delegate to General Conference is an honor and privilege. It is also demanding work!

Delegates give generously of their time, volunteering to spend two weeks at General Conference and many hours preparing. They meet regularly with their delegation for prayer and conversation and spend time reading all legislation to fully understand the issues and potential impacts of the proposals about which they will vote. In a typical General Conference, delegates can expect to address up to 1,200 individual items of legislation.

Delegates consider revisions to church law and policies, changes to church structure and organization, changes or additions to official church ritual and denominational statements. The delegates also set missional priorities and the church-wide budget for the next four years.

Every delegate is assigned to a legislative committee, which deals with specific topics and related sections of the Book of Discipline.

Delegates spend the first week of General Conference reviewing legislation in their assigned committees. During the second week, the full body of delegates debates and votes on all items approved by committees. 

Delegates are not representatives. That is, they are not sent to “represent” the views of their conference, local church or any particular constituency. The annual conference delegates authority to each person elected to vote their conscience, as moved by the Holy Spirit, about the matters before them, seeking what is best for the life and witness of the church of Jesus Christ and the entire worldwide denomination.

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This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.