Legislation is the product of the influence and resources of interest groups. So said my political science professor at the University of Wisconsin. He said to understand governing, you have to understand that it moves at the interactions of small groups.
Years ago when I first started observing General Conference, the "small groups" were mainly the boards and agencies of the general church. Those were the people who stood before the plenary, giving reports, explaining legislation, and providing the "stuff" on which the plenary acted. The legislative committees included many of the members of the agency whose legislation was before the conference so there was already at least 40 percent support for agency petitions before any votes were taken and those same delegates usually had in mind who they would nominate for the chair position. It was handled off-handedly as if it were spontaneous and most legislative committees went along with it. The democratic processes which provided some checks and balances came when the reports hit the plenary and were discussed and voted upon.
One of the oldest lobbying groups is Methodist Federation for Social Action which long and effectively sought social justice. A cluster of conservative lobbying groups formed over the years, such as Good News and the Confessing Movement. While they appeared to be countering the social issues of MFSA, they were constantly working to gain power within the structures of the Church. To many observers, the conflict betwen wings also has been a conflict between Wesleyan and Calvinist theologies.
Delegations from the U.S. South seemed to be especially active in gatherings and somehow largely rejoiced in having gotten their own elected to chairing legislative committees. So next to the two social issues caucuses, it seemed that the most potent caucus was the southern. Southerners were on all the boards and agencies. The other jurisdictions were interested in programming issues that served their respective annual conferences. The Southerners seemed more interested in the administrative processes and how to get decisions in their best interests, mainly directing financial resources back into their jurisdictions.
Then the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the first women bishops were elected. Women became the agency executive secretaries. As everyone else was busy with their agendas and efforts to influence, the women had become very effective in electing delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences and getting women elected to the episcopacy. The new powerhouse actively changed the face of the leadership of the denomination. They countered the "good ol' boy" networks.
Further into the 1990s, again as these "small groups" were doing their things, a new small group entered the playing field. Because transportation and communication became so much easier in the US, bishops found more time to work together in the Council of Bishops. Where the General Conference had before prevented bishops from speaking on the floor, presenting legislation, or voting on it, thus keeping the legislative and executive branches of the denomination separate, now there was a developing new caucus that found ways to exert its interests.
Two things happened. First, the General Conference passed legislation that gave bishops the authority to supervise boards and agencies because of alleged turf wars and other questionable practices. Bishops became the presidents of each program and administrative body of the denomination and had four or more fellow bishops added to their respective governing boards. Second, to get around the sanctions against bishops petitioning General Conference, they worked closely with the bodies under their leadership to get petitions favorable to the Council of Bishops' interests.
It appeared to become more urgent that those petitions be on the top of the pile that was referred to the legislative committees to be dealt with first. Under the rules of General Conference, once a particular paragraph had been changed by the legislative committee, all the other petitions related to that passage were put on the consent calendar as items for non-concurence. Individuals' and annual conference's petition quietly disappeared. Even those referred to a board or agency for consideration and report back to the following General Conference often disappeared as well.
Reading the current rules of procedure for General Conference shows that all those dynamics can persist to this day with one addition I hadn't noticed before: Rule 25, which says that if the legislation has not been dealt with, it remains unfinished. While much of the conference's tempo and effectiveness is in the hands of the presiders, the possibility of leaving "certain" reports and petitions unfinished has to be a great temptation.
The bishops not only preside in the legislative body of General Conference, they have become parliamentarians for legislative committees, and even now openly sign petitions to General Conference on behalf of assorted committees and agencies they chair. Their standing as the most powerful interest group was unchallenged until this year.
Into these competing small groups have come a surge of delegates from Africa and the Philippines. The Africans were courted by Good News quite successfully so that by 2008, their tendency to align theologically with Good News on social issues helped them legislatively. Free meals and free cell phones for the Africans paid off.
Coming into 2012, two other small groups took shape and entered the fray of competing lobbies. One, a coalition for mega-church pastors joined the bishops in providing support for a series of down-sizing proposals called the "Call to Action." Boards and agencies under the presidency of the bishops were seen to be overlapping, ineffective, and expensive. Entrepreneurial pastors were to be encouraged by the removal of the guaranteed appointment. And a new "set-aside" bishop was to be established to help coordinate things.
Their proposal may have been a Trojan horse because savvy observers saw a reaction to it would occupy the minds of the delegates.
That may have succeeded in damping the emergence of the second major caucus that began in earnest at this General Conference, the Africans. Just months before Tampa, the electronic infrastructure in Africa was upgraded considerably because of the economic conditions in the peaceful areas of the continent. Had that occurred four years ago, there is no telling how much more influential they could have been this year. As it is, they elected two members to the Judicial Council, elected one to the University Senate, impacted votes on social issues, and came out swinging against the Call to Action.
The interactions of these various caucuses has been both alarming and fascinating to watch. As each competes and becomes more sophisticated, the counter-moves will most likely continue to direct denominational resources upward. The needs of local churches is drifting further and further from the concerns of General Conference. Maybe the experience of the emerging conferences in Africa and other parts of the third world may remind us all that we are the servants of the people in the pews.
Maybe the fruits of the efforts will be seen in whose perks and pensions are preserved rather than in whose souls have been touched by Jesus Christ.