If the West Michigan Conference had to choose a TV show title for itself, it might well go with "The Biggest Loser."
The conference had six delegates at the 2012 General Conference, the United Methodist lawmaking assembly held in Tampa, Florida. But West Michigan was allotted just two delegates for the 2016 General Conference, to occur May 10-20 in Portland, Oregon.
"It's safe to say that most of us were shocked," said the Rev. Laurie Haller, who will be the sole clergy delegate for West Michigan. "We envisioned we might go from six to four. Nobody saw it going from six to two."
West Michigan, with a two-thirds reduction, is an extreme case, but many conferences will have smaller delegations in Portland because of the Commission on General Conference's decision to shrink the overall delegate count.
Meanwhile, the Philippines and Europe (including Russia) are essentially holding their own in delegates and will see increased voting power proportionally. Both have lots of small conferences that under church law get the mandatory-minimum of two delegates.
Europe will have 40 delegates, or 4.6 percent of the total, though it has less than 1 percent of the denomination's lay membership. Its total lay membership is about that of West Michigan's. But Europe will have 20 times more delegates.
Critics say delegate allotment is way out of whack, and want the process changed.
The United Methodist Church's constitution requires that even the smallest annual conferences get two General Conference delegates. This extends to missionary and provisional annual conferences, which typically are smaller still, some with well under 1,000 lay members.
Beyond the mandatory-minimum, allotment is done proportionally, as in the U.S. House of Representatives. The formula uses clergy and lay membership numbers. Conferences with large numbers of lay members and clergy (retired clergy are counted too) get more delegates.
There will be petitions at General Conference to change the church Constitution regarding how delegates are allotted.
Dixie Brewster, a lay delegate from the Great Plains Conference, has submitted one that would require a conference to have at least 5,000 lay members to get the minimum two delegates.
Another petition would keep the minimum two-delegate requirement, but have it apply to every episcopal area as opposed to every conference.
Both proposals would modestly strengthen representation overall in the United States and Africa, at the expense of the Philippines and Europe, according to an analysis by the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of the unofficial evangelical caucus Good News.
If a vote for change does occur, it'll likely be too late for the West Michigan Conference. It's set to merge with the larger Detroit Conference, pending approval this summer by the North Central Jurisdictional Conference.
Going out with just two votes at General Conference hasn't been a happy prospect for West Michigan's leaders.
"Emotionally, it's been a rough go," said Nichea Ver Veer Guy, the conference's lay delegate.
Sam Hodges, multimedia news reporter, United Methodist News Service
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