Diverse Voices: Measuring the Potential for Non-Americans to Express their Views at World Conference

In a variety of previous posts I have reflected on the implications of the Community of Christ’s decline in its traditional geographic ‘core’ of the American Midwest, and growth in the ‘periphery’ of Latin America, Africa and Asia. I have also reflect on the ways people express discontent in the church, using the economic model of “Exit, Voice and Loyalty.” However, I haven’t really had any meaty data to work with.

This week I had a rushed visit to the Community of Christ archives for a couple hours and tried to get a little more hard data. It is necessarily inadequate because I didn’t have a lot of time. Nonetheless I think it tells an interesting story of the way “Voice” is changing in the denomination. There is a slow, but definite trend, of World Conference becoming a venue of increasingly diverse voices, while the USA and Canada remain dominant.

I went through all the Bulletins for every World Conference since 1958, when the church expressed its desire to become a “world church”, and counted how many World Conference Resolutions proposed by field jurisdictions were from each area of the world. I did not count the resolutions that came from the headquarters leadership. A less rushed scholar would have looked at how many of these resolutions had ‘policy success’ by actually being passed by the chamber and avoiding amendments — maybe one of you Saints Herald readers can take up that challenge! (See the asterix at the bottom for some methodological notes).

Proportion of Proposed Resolutions from Field Jurisdictions, by Region

Looking at the data, it seems to divide into six fairly distinct eras:

1958-1964: In this era, unless I read the Bulletins incorrectly, it appears that all proposed legislation came from the church leadership  — Voice was very centralized in a few powerful men.

1966-1978: In 1966, the Council of Twelve presented the watershed “Statement on Objectives” to the church, calling for greater decentralization of power. This seems to have resulted in many more resolutions coming from around the church. The vast majority (84 proposed resolutions) were from the USA and Canada (6), with one from Australia in 1968.

1980s: In the 1980s one sees increased voice from outside the USA — with around 25% of proposed resolutions coming from the rest of the world. Seven of the 65 total proposed resolutions came from Europe and three from Australia and New Zealand which seem to have ‘punched above their weight’ in terms of their proportion of world membership. The 1980s see the first proposed resolutions coming from the South Pacific and Africa.

1990s: For reasons that are not clear to me, the proportion of resolutions coming from outside the USA decreases in the 1990s, though there is the first resolution from Latin America in 1998 and another from Africa in 1994.

Early 2000s: I think the decision in 2000 to give proportional representation to jurisdictions that had difficulty sending their quota of delegates (for visa and cost issues) has made a significant impact. I probably should admit that though I critique the church heavily for its North American-centric attitude, things are improving. The 2010 conference was the first where a slim majority of proposed resolutions (19 out of 36) came from outside of the USA and Canada. Prior to 2000, many delegations that struggled to send sufficient delegates were filled with people from North America, giving North America disproportionate voice in the conference chamber. This can be illustrated with reference to the Haitian delegation:

Proportion of Haiti World Conference Delegation with Names that Appear to be Haitian

Surprising, however, in the entire period of 1958-2010, there have been no resolutions from several areas of the church where there are significant numbers of members, including Haiti and the entire continent of Asia. The following table shows the total number of proposed resolutions from each region from 1958-2010.

USA: 195

Canada: 16

Latin America and the Caribbean: 14

Australia & New Zealand: 10

Europe: 8

Africa: 5

South Pacific: 3

Asia: 0

To measure this a little more accurately, I compared the impact of each region compared to their proportion of church membership. Below I have calculated an ‘Influence Factor’ that looks at the proportion of proposed resolutions to the regions’ proportion of church membership.  One can see that there has been a significant increase in the influence of regions outside North America but Africa and Asia remain underrepresented, while Australia has disproportionate influence.

It would be interesting to hear from people what they think the impact will be of this slow, but important shift in ‘expressed voice’ from outside North America in church policymaking.

* Methodological Note: I did not include resolutions from  1970, which was missing from the shelf for the Archives. Detroit International Stake, which spanned both Canada and the USA, was counted as being in the USA, even though that was a somewhat arbitrary decision. For the Haiti delegate graph I counted names based on my judgement of whether they sounded Haitian to me. If it seemed difficult to tell, I counted it as Haitian.

The influence factor is calculated by dividing the number of proposed resolutions by the numbers of members in that region and then re-calibrating the scale so that the USA and Canada represent 1.0. USA and Canada were included together since there are so many mission centers that are cross-border. The cross-border USA/Mexico Mission Centers were included in Latin America.

I have posted my full dataset here if you wish to use the data, check my numbers, etc. Feel free to use is as you wish, but if you want to use it in publication, please cite me appropriately. Click here for the dataset.


4 comments on “Diverse Voices: Measuring the Potential for Non-Americans to Express their Views at World Conference

  1. Ricktopher says:

    While we may be getting better at ensuring World Conference reflects the diversity of the church, I fear that it’s role, and the role of ordinary members is being diminished. We’re now at one conference every 3 years, a lot of legislation gets referred to church leadership, the tone of members at World Conference towards leadership seems to be pretty passive and few even think to challenge legislation from the leadership.
    I’d be curious to know if the stats reflect my fears. Maybe sometime I’ll have to do my own rushed visit to the Library-Archives.

  2. Matthew Bolton says:

    Yes, I too am not impressed with the passivity of recent World Conferences and what appears to me to be an increasing tendency to refer legislation to the leadership. I think one of the bigger cop-outs at the 2010 decision to refer the resolution on nuclear weapons. It seemed an indication of the body’s irrelevance if it could not take responsibility for one of the most pressing existential questions of all time.

  3. Ricktopher says:

    I think a lot of people go to World Conference as a delegate when they only want to attend it as a fun event.
    I also think that the culture of the denomination has been shifting from one of widespread participation towards one in which the members look to the paid ministers to provide ministry and leadership. The church’s leadership has done nothing to stop it and in fact encourages it (whether it be purposeful or not).

    How often do you see articles from non-staff in the Herald? How many of the “sermons-on-demand” feature local lay preachers? (The very idea of a sermon-on-demand, in my opinion, only fosters less participation in local ministry, as members substitute local preaching for video-sermons by paid-staff from World Church).

    Anyway, I don’t want to distract too much from a discussion on World Conference. Suffice to say, I see the perceived importance of members in guiding the life of the church dwindling.

  4. I think this latter point – that WC isn’t truly a legislative body – is more salient than the ratio of resolutions by country. With the increased ability to easily transport foreign delegates, better translation services, and better technology in general, this will necessarily occur.

    But it is more than just pure passivity that has lead to WC becoming more of a “retreat” than a legislative body. Take a look at the “substantive” resolutions over the last few conferences. There just aren’t that many.

    Those that are brought are either dismissed (ala 164) or referred. In the rare instance a substantive, non-leadership introduced resolution is passed, it is generally ignored. Leadership pushed pretty hard against a resolution several conferences ago to create each publication in the three main languages of the Church. While translation has improved, it’s not like this legislation is followed.

    The anti-discrimination resolution passed by WC should certainly be considered in connection with the current debate on homosexuality, but it’s ignored.

    While trivial, perhaps, the unilateral moving of the dates for the next World Conference is a recent and stark example. These dates were set at the last WC. There were amendments introduced and voted on, and finally passed. Notwithstanding, leadership merely changed them on a whim, without any consideration of, or explanation of their institutional authority to do so.

    So it’s not just passivity at WC, but passivity by the general membership at the lack of parliamentary procedure obvserved by the leadership. When substantive resolutions are referred (ie. disappeared) or ignored, why should they be brought in the first place?

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