At Ask The UMC, we continue to answer questions from congregations wondering about the future of The United Methodist Church, whether they should consider disaffiliating from it and what happens if they do.
This eleventh installment in our series addresses questions we have recently been asked about the process of voting on disaffiliation in local churches. All of the articles in the series are available here.
We welcome your questions and invite you to contribute to future articles in this series by sharing what you are hearing about the process of disaffiliation or the future of The United Methodist Church. Write to [email protected].
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37. Requiring that only professing members of the local church, and all professing members of the local church, are eligible to vote on a motion to disaffiliate at a called church conference?
Yes and yes, subject only to different rulings by annual conferences within their ability to setting specific terms provided under Paragraph 2553. (South Georgia Conference has ruled differently).
Paragraph 2553.3 states “The decision to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference.”
This appears to means two things (and another we’ll address in the next question).
First, only professing members of the local church have vote on this question. Clergy, affiliate members, associate members and persons who are baptized but have not become professing members do not have vote. Only professing members of that particular local church do according to the language of this paragraph. Again, some bishops or conference trustees may rule otherwise under the authority given to bishops to determine matters of law under Paragraph 419.10 and to conference trustees by Paragraph 2533.4 of the Discipline.
Second, all professing members present at the meeting have vote. There is no distinction here between “active” or “inactive.” There is no additional provision about being “in good standing.” Indeed, none of those terms applies to lay members of local United Methodist congregations in the local church membership categories set by the General Conference. Persons either are professing members of the local church or they are not. All persons on the rolls of the local church as professing members are eligible to attend the called church conference and vote, even if they moved far away 30 years ago, and have neither attended nor provided any support to your congregation during that time or longer. If they are still on your rolls as professing members, they are eligible to attend the called church conference and vote on this question.
This is why we find these words in the same section of Paragraph 2533: “[S]pecial attention shall be made to give broad notice to the full professing membership of the local church regarding the time and place of a church conference called for this purpose and to use all means necessary, including electronic communication where possible, to communicate” (emphasis added).
38. Requiring that persons be present at the church conference in order to have vote on a motion to disaffiliate?
As noted above, Paragraph 2553.3 states, “The decision to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church must be approved by a two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the professing members of the local church present at the church conference” (emphasis added).
This paragraph makes no provision for proxy votes for persons not at the meeting. Either one is present at the meeting or one does not have vote.
39. Counting votes to abstain as votes against the motion to disaffiliate?
The Discipline nowhere speaks about how to handle abstention as part of a voting process.
So the answer depends either on rulings from the annual conference or on the version of Roberts Rules of Order being used.
The current 12th edition specifies that when there are voting requirements based on the number of members present (as in this case), an abstention can function as a negative vote. This is because in these instances, per Robert's (12th Edition), the total number of votes to be counted is based on the total number of eligible voters (professing members) present at the meeting at the time of the vote. However, in Robert's Rules of Order in Plain English, and in several previous versions of Robert's Rules, a vote to abstain is simply not counted as a vote at all. Thus, different conferences may rule differently on this matter. South Georgia, following the 12th Edition, counts abstentions as, in effect, negative votes, as one case in point. It appears a number of annual conference chancellors are advising in accordance with the 12th edition. However, a final ruling on this matter would rest with the bishop or the conference board of trustees.
To be clear, some conferences do not list abstention as an option on the ballot. The ballot requires a yes or no vote on the question of whether to request disaffiliation. The option to abstain does not appear on the ballot. Abstaining is still possible in theory, but it would involve turning in a blank ballot. Blank ballots function as abstentions, and thus how to count them depends on the version of Robert's Rules and the ruling of the bishop or the conference board of trustees.
In conferences where abstention is listed as an option on the ballot, and where the plain English version or some previous versions are used, the vote to abstain has the same effect as not turning in a ballot at all or turning in a blank ballot. That ballot is not counted toward the total of eligible ballots cast (subject to different readings by the conference).
So, let’s say that the conference uses the plain English version, and out of the 100 professing members present, 60 ballots are marked in favor of the motion to request disaffiliation, 30 ballots are marked against the motion, and 10 ballots are left blank or marked as abstentions. The total of ballots cast is 90. Sixty votes are needed to reach a 2/3 majority to pass the motion. The motion prevails.
Similarly, let us say out of 100 one hundred professing members present, 59 ballots are marked in favor of the motion to disaffiliate, 30 ballots are marked against, and 11 are left blank or marked as abstentions. The total of ballots cast is 89. Sixty votes are still needed to reach a 2/3 majority to pass the motion. The motion fails.
Thus, even when votes to abstain do not count toward the total of votes to be considered, we see in this example how they may affect the outcome. The shift of one vote from yes to abstain changed the result from approving to rejecting a request for disaffiliation.
In the case where the 12th edition is being followed, however, the outcomes would be different.
In the first case (60 ballots for, 30 against, 10 abstentions), the total number of ballots to be considered is 100. This requires 67 votes to reach the 2/3 majority required to pass the motion. The motion fails. For the same reason, the motion also fails in the second instance (67 votes are still required).
To consider the effect on a closer vote, if there are 100 votes, 66 for, 33 against, and 1 abstention, the abstention means that the required 2/3 majority of those present (67) is still not reached, and so the motion fails.
40. Validating voters as eligible to vote?
While this is done in different ways by different conferences, most require a church requesting a called church conference to send a list of all persons on the congregation’s current roll of professing members to the district office as part of that request. As persons arrive to vote, they may be admitted into the place where the vote will be held only after they have been duly certified as being on the list provided by the church. What is required to establish identity may vary by annual conference. Once admitted to the voting area, certified voters may not be permitted to leave that area until all ballots are cast and collected.
If you have questions about the voter validation process in your conference, ask your district office.
41. Requiring a written, secret ballot?
And the question to appear on the ballot, and in some instances a sample ballot, may be sent to each professing member as part of the requirement to notify all professing members of the time, date, location and topic to be considered at the called church conference at least 10 days in advance of the scheduled meeting.
42. Providing for the security of the ballots cast?
While the exact procedures used to ensure the security of the ballots themselves may vary from conference to conference, the following process appears to be commonly followed.
Only ballots distributed at the meeting are used.
A count of the persons in the room is taken before the vote to validate the total of possible valid ballots that may be cast.
Ballots for the vote are distributed to the voters.
The ballots are collected and counted by persons designated by the district superintendent or by conference policy, with the result announced to the body at the conclusion of the count.
The collected ballots become the property of the annual conference as evidence of the result of the vote.
If you have questions about the process to ensure the security of the ballots in your conference, ask your district office.
This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.