The Press and the UM Amendments Debacle

NOTE: when I say "UM Amendments" I'm referencing specifically the Amendments dealing with the Inclusiveness of the Church and the Worldwide Nature of the Church.

Two days ago, this blog reported on a story published by USA Today that reported that the Amendments had been defeated even though not everyone had voted yet and some Annual Conferences had yet to vote. I wrote and called them "dumb" because the UMNS story it was based on didn't say that. In retrospect of me and other bloggers, our ire perhaps should have been directed elsewhere.

Per my request, Daniel Burke from the Religious News Service (which syndicates to USA Today) contacted me regarding the accuracy of the article. He explained the UMNS had changed the article that RNS had referenced since publication. Further, he explained how the reported voting tallies yielded an impossible passage of the UM Amendments and thus the reported facts in the article are accurate. I thank him for his candor and response and apologize for my complaint against RNS.

In other words, UMNS had reported the Amendments defeat, RNS had reported on the UMNS report, UMNS had changed the story because of the Bishop's concerns, RNS refuses to change the story even though the reporting by UMNS has changed, and now we are stuck with it all.


So let's be clear about the facts regarding the numbers of the UM Amendments. I appreciate the work of HX reader Chuck Russell who posted a comprehensive evaluation of the numbers here. His work is fair and should be read. It basically says that even though the numbers are not all in yet, and indeed the total numbers are unknown, it would take a statistical improbability for their passage. I'm not a person who sticks their head in the sand, so I'm inclined to accept his conclusions. Done.

However, the result of all this reporting is that Annual Conferences (primarily international conferences) that are yet to vote feel a bit like Hawaii on voting day: unimportant and irrelevant because they vote late. For the caucus groups who take such pride in care and concern for the international community, it is unfortunate that their repeated requests for voting tallies have yielded that the international community feels again like they are at the kids table and irrelevant.

This situation didn't have to take place. Before the voting began, the Council of Bishops agreed to not disclose the vote totals until after most of the conferences had voted. This was so that early voting didn't influence votes in upcoming conferences. I publicly supported this because, like them, I didn't want people to feel irrelevant in the process. Afterword, Bishops and/or annual conferences decided to buck this agreement and disclosed the that time, I heard plenty of tweets and comments about a "lack of transparency" if the numbers were withheld. Those voices apparently prevailed at the annual conference level.

It makes me wonder how in a democratically-influenced church that this situation might have been avoided that the international community has been left out of important conversations. This will change in 2012 when the international conferences will have 40% of the vote rather than their current 20%, but for the moment, disenenfranchisement served cold. So I understood where the Bishops were coming from in promoting non-disclosure because of the presumed effect on the international community.

I write a lot about transparency and accountability, so it may come as a surprise that I supported non-disclosure on this. Here's why: even though we are structured like the US Government, we don't have to operate like them and value transparency above individual dignity. We don't need to idolize transparency above all other concerns when accountability is in place. We can opt to non-disclose so that out of mutual admiration and care for one another that all feel welcome at the table. We opted not to do this, to our shame.

Is it any wonder that in the very process of voting down the inclusivity of the church that we expose that we are not inclusive in our voting process? Irony served cold.

Thoughts on this process, or ways that we can be better in the future?

  • Maybe USA conferences should have voted last and let the international community lead us in voting?
  • Maybe there should be an official counting service which tabulates the results rather than individual conferences leaking the votes to their glory?


Matt Algren August 5, 2009 at 1:36 PM  

To be honest, I was surprised that the tallies were being made available, especially when I learned that individual votes count in the final decision rather than an electoral college system.

Not sure about your first suggestion. I'm afraid that would lead to intense politicking at Annual Conferences from both sides, ending up in another situation where the US count is emphasized over the international conferences.

I like the idea of an outside service taking the votes until they're official. Outside everybody voting on the same day (obviously impossible) it seems like the most balanced reporting mechanism that shows a respect for the value of each voter.

Luke,  August 5, 2009 at 11:10 PM  

Something I wrote in an e-mail exchanage about reporting vs not reporting:

"I had not considered the positive impact that sharing those results could have on skeptics of the integrity of the entire process or connectional work in general. It gave me something to think about. However, with more thought, I still think that reporting results does more harm than good. It has the potential to reinforce encroaching regionalism that divides our church. People are almost certain to say things like, "well my conference voted this amendment up." This reflects a distinct and perhaps dangerous misunderstanding of our polity and degrades our unity. I don't view not reporting as withholding information necessarily, but rather acknowledging that the vote is incomplete and that to share the results represents a distortion of the process that belongs to the whole Church (members of the annual conferences; historically the clergy and now lay representatives) rather than the annual conferences themselves. Annual conferences are not analogous to US states in this regard."

I think the last point is KEY. The process does not belong to the annual conferences. It belongs to the members of the annual conferences. Reporting results is not like reporting the winning of a state in a presidential election, but like a running tally on top of a voting booth.

Creed Pogue,  August 6, 2009 at 1:21 PM  

The running tallies were available and were being commented upon in a number of places. I have to wonder where you'd be if the results were reversed.

You go off half-cocked, but still want to blame everyone else.

Instead of wrangling over the reporting process, perhaps we need to RETHINK the underlying propositions involved.

Chuck Russell,  August 7, 2009 at 12:26 PM  

I would be supportive of withholding the results only if the voting was conducted by an outside accounting firm (Think Academy Awards).

I had great concerns that even at the local level when I realized how easy it would be to alter results - throw away votes that aren't in line with the Teller's view, etc. It is naive - I think - to believe that this would not happen.

Typically the Amendment votes are not things of such monumental consequence, but these Amendments were of extreme importance - so the likelihood of malfeasance escalated.

I was greatly disappointed that the results in my AC were not reported - I wanted to know my vote counted, and there was no opportunity to object to results if they seemed fishy or unusual.

So it seems to me that we need a scheme where people can trust the authenticity of the results, AND where results do not influence other voters. So lets hire the Accounting firm of Price Waterhouse :)

Rev. Jeremy Smith August 7, 2009 at 12:49 PM  

@Chuck, I'm glad that you also share the value of authenticity and voter independence. I like that idea as well: an independent counting service that can be activated on such sweeping changes like the WWN amendments.

It is hard to consider subterfuge on these matters, but we are broken people after all. So the less variables in place, the better.

Glenn August 7, 2009 at 1:55 PM  

Our Bishop stated clearly that the Council of Bishops took no position on the reporting of results leaving the decision to each Bishop/Annual Conferences. He went on to state that in the absence of guidance, he was releasing the results. You are reporting that the Council of Bishops agreed not to release the information. Can you provide more documentation?

You raise valid concerns about early release, but I have always preferred transparency with its ills to the appearance of secrecy which breeds distrust. No method is perfect, but I prefer to release information as it becomes available.

The UMNS and RNS are correct to call the election, but they need to be more clear that they are projecting a winner. The original UMNS article sounded more definitive than speculative.

Rev. Jeremy Smith August 7, 2009 at 5:07 PM  

@Glenn it seems like it is an episcopal issue then. Out bishop stated that the Council had agreed to not release the results until the end of July. Perhaps it was an unofficial agreement rather than a unanimous position, and thus some bishops felt they could wriggle out of it. Why else would 18 conferences decline to report unless it was previously discussed? Will post if I can find a credible source.

I value transparency but I also value human dignity. The current nature of the system cannot value both and needs change.

Creed August 7, 2009 at 6:35 PM  

You are creating a false "choice" between transparency and human dignity. While we were in "annual conference season" which is pretty much the same in the jurisdictions as well as the central conferences, there wasn't much discussion of how one conference voted and whether that would influence another conference. According to the (admittedly incomplete) calendar posted by GCFA, the only conference that hasn't voted yet is Serbia.

Even if you are correct and there was an "agreement" not to release the results until the end of July, well it's past the end of July now! So, why haven't those conferences that "held" the numbers released them??? Does anyone think it is really going to affect how Serbia's 50 votes will go???

Obviously, 50 votes isn't going to make a difference. After all the fracas and misinformation that has been put out all over the place, it would seem wisest to move the process of RETHINKING ahead sooner rather than later.

Matt Algren August 10, 2009 at 3:00 PM  

Obviously, 50 votes isn't going to make a difference.

And what does that say to the UMC in Serbia? Isn't that the reason for this post? That mentality and the diminishment that it brings need to be considered by the Church for the ongoing health of the church.

I daresay that's why the 2008 BoD doesn't permit the Council of Bishops to present the official up-or-down results until after all votes are counted.

Creed August 11, 2009 at 4:26 PM  

Neither you nor Jeremy can seriously say that you'd be annoyed if the announcement had come out that Amendment One has passed before Serbia voted. This is simply whose ox is gored, not principle.

This is a distraction from discerning where the next steps should go.

Matt Algren August 12, 2009 at 3:52 PM  

This one? Probably not.

But as a general principle, it makes more sense to wait until all voices are heard.

Creed August 12, 2009 at 5:23 PM  

"This one? Probably not."

PRECISELY. My point exactly.

We can go on about hiring accountants to hold onto the results (talk about an utter waste of money!), but the current system works well enough when we don't try to put our bias into it.

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