At Oklahoma’s United Methodist Annual Conference on the campus of Oklahoma City University in May, Conference Members (delegates), both clergy and laity, used a new electronic keypad voting system for the first time, finally abandoning the old paper ballot system. The results were not encouraging. Despite fairly clear-cut (eventually) instructions on how to use the keypads, the percentage of spoiled ballots was pretty large for both voting groups. Indeed, on some ballots up to 15% of those voting, and rarely less than 10%, were not able to register any of their choices. By comparison, in the disputed and controversial balloting in Florida in the 2000 General election in which George Bush defeated Al Gore, only 1-3% of the ballots were either disputed or not counted. Yet, in the presidential election a big deal was made about claims of disenfranchisement. Religious leaders were among those expressing concerns. And yet there was barely more than scattered murmurings and rustlings among Oklahoma’s United Methodists as they pondered choices for General and Jurisdictional Conferences.
I see a parallel when it comes to national health care, pensions, and more. Many of Oklahoma’s UM’s will express dismay that national health care costs are so high or that pensions are so uncertain. Yet we don’t have the same kind of generous arrangements for payment of health care premiums for lay employees of churches as we do for clergy. Similarly, it wasn’t until recently that churches were required to make provisions for lay employee pensions at all. But again, the arrangements are less generous as compared to clergy. Then there is the matter of compensation. Many local churches have been allowed to pay basically minimum wages to youth workers, church secretaries, custodians and such while the denominational body often condemns the government’s failure to raise the minimum wage. From that standpoint, the Church is often in the position of criticizing governmental bodies while not really taking prophetic action itself.
Further, the denomination will take strong stands in favor of workplace accessibility for the differently-abled while looking the other way as local churches often fail to address accessibility issues. I’m one who believes that government has some role in providing for the needs of its citizens, that is, beyond streets, schools, fire control, and police. Yet I have to admit there is something inconsistent in the standards we may seek for government and the standards we set for ourselves. This is true at the very same time that United Methodists, on average, have higher incomes than the members of many other denominations. Our denominational leaders often criticize education funding as lacking. And yet many of the denomination’s churches provide for very little funding for their own educational programs. Indeed, significant Sunday school programs and Bible studies are missing from many of our churches.
As a denomination, we often complain about how workers, nationally and globally, are treated. And yet in many cases our own churches don’t have well-defined personnel policies. We frequently hire without providing contracts, dismiss without going through anything approaching a fair evaluation process, or discipline without due process.
For a denomination to both take prophetic stances on a variety of social justice issues and do so with integrity and a straight face, how much better must it do in organizing its own resources toward fair play? What would that look like for a denomination?