They Buried The Lead

In journalism school, we were taught to not “bury the lead.” Whatever the most important fact of a story is, don’t stick it way down in the middle. Put it right at the start, so everybody can read it clearly.

Heather Hahn is out with a story on an updated survey on United Methodist views on homosexuality and same sex marriage. She buried the lead. Frankly, the survey buried the lead too.

The story is here, and if you must read it, fine. But, be warned, it’s terrible journalism, based on a survey that is even more statistically pointless. All of which, I will get to in a moment.

But I don’t want to bury the lead like Hahn did. In fact, Heather didn’t just bury it. She fairly well cremated it and scattered the ashes.

Both sides of the debate about homosexuality are reading this story/survey and drawing the wrong conclusions. Conservatives are crowing. Liberals are crying.

Both are wrong.

Because neither side is talking about the most important lead-fact of the story/survey.

So, let me not repeat Hahn’s mistake, and the survey’s omission.

Here’s the lead: This survey shows, despite 40 years of debate, that United Methodists once again expect General Conference to lead on the issue of homosexuality in the church.

In the last paragraphs of the story, Hahn says this: 

“…67 percent of pastors and 64 percent of leaders said they want the lawmaking assembly to discuss sexual orientation and same-sex marriage. That is a statistically significant jump in interest — by 13 and 14 percent respectively — over what both groups told pollsters last year.”

Friends, there are all sorts of other statistics cited in this story/study. NONE of them show a 13-14 percent JUMP.

surveystatsThat, by definition, makes this statistic the most interesting of the entire story/survey. But, in both cases, these statistics are buried. In Hahn’s story, it’s one of the final (not first) paragraphs In the study, it’s on the next to last page.

Friends, it’s clear from the data: There is a statistically significant jump in the number of clergy and lay leaders who want the United Methodist Church to talk about issues of homosexuality at the next General Conference.

The only other social issue getting more support for discussion was “discrimination against ethnic minorities.” And the percentage difference between these two issues was within the statistical margin of error for the survey itself.

In other words, those two issues —together— form the core of what both clergy and lay persons believe we should talk about at the next General Conference.

Think about this result for a moment….

Because we have talked about homosexuality before. Every year since 1972.

Don’t you imagine, by now, that all sides would be so weary of this debate that they’d want to NOT talk about it? Wouldn’t common sense tell you that stat might even go DOWN?

But it didn’t go down. It went UP. In fact, it went up at a higher percentage than did the issue of “discrimination against ethnic minorities.” So, while “discrimination against ethnic minorities” ranks technically higher, by a statistically insignificant amount, the increase in those who believe we should talk about homosexuality increased more, on a percentage basis.

Both these two issues, by the way, far outstrip any other social issue —by ten to twenty percent or more— in the minds of United Methodists, as the most important issues General Conference should take up.

I’m not surprised by this. I truly and deeply hope that the General Conference takes up both issues.

My point here, however, is that this is the lead of the data!! But it was neither the lead of the story or the survey.

The survey asked questions that I, or anybody else with a brain, could have answered before a single responder answered them.

In general, the survey asked two broad questions:

  1. “Should United Methodist polity bend to the will of the Supreme Court decisions?”
  2. “Do you support the current United Methodist polity?”

Let’s take the first question: “Should United Methodist polity bend to the will of Supreme Court decisions?”

I’m clearly in the progressive camp on homosexuality. But if you asked me this question, generally, devoid of any specific issue? I’d probably answer, “No.”

In fact, I’d probably answer, “Hell no!”

And most United Methodists would too. Most United Methodists, like most religious people, strongly believe in the Separation of Church and State. Most United Methodists believe our polity is something that should be determined by the tools of our faith, not the tools of our courts.

So, we should find it unsurprising that most United Methodists do not support changing our polity based ONLY on the Supreme Court.

But! The survey definitely said that we have growing support for talking about the issues once again. United Methodists do not believe we are “settled” on this issue, in terms of our current polity. They don’t want a polity based only on the Supreme Court. I believe they do want a polity that changes.

But that leads us to the second question: “Do you support the current United Methodist polity?”

The survey asks this question more specifically. It breaks out several issues related to homosexuality, and pulls out specific language that mirrors the Book of Discipline; and asks responders about each. And in every case, unsurprisingly, the result is that folks support the current polity.

You see, this survey is a classic example of how the framing of questions, and the framing of the journalism about the results, shapes reality….literally makes reality. Jeremy Smith unpacks this in his blog out today, on all these same issues.

Unlike the crowing conservatives and crying progressives I hear, I don’t think the results of the survey is all that surprising at all. That doesn’t mean I like it, btw. I just find it unsurprising.

And it gets to a greater point I’ve been trying to make about “rules” in conversations with my progressives over the past few months….

On average, most human beings are “rule followers.” Church people even more so. In most cases, and in most surveys, since most people are rule followers, almost every time the answer will be “yes” to questions like, “Do you support the current rules?” Because most people don’t want to be seen as rule breakers.

But for reasons that no doubt frustrate all of us on the Left, people in the middle will not move until the actual church law moves. I wish this were not the case. But, as I have been saying to many progressive friends, United Methodist moderates are willing to support changes in our polity. But they will not pre-break with the rules, before the rules change. Again, aggravating, I know.

But as Progressives, it means that engaging in serious discussions about “the rules,” engaging the legislative process at GC 2016, is more important than it’s ever been.

I’ve heard Progressive lament that “nothing has changed” within the UMC in the past four years. But this survey shows that’s simply not true. the survey shows an increased willingness to again, despite the failures of the past, engage in this polity discussion at General Conference. Moderates are looking for Progressive partners to take up these issues again. We must not miss the chance to do so.

So, my summary what should have been the lead:

— On the main, UMs support the current rules now, because they are the rules.
— UMs don’t want church law to change, just because civil law changes.
— But United Methodists want us to discuss the polity at General Conference, by a statistically significant jump…the only real statistically significant jump in the survey.

I would argue that, taken as a whole then, this survey points to precisely what I’ve been saying for many years now. The vast majority of United Methodists are in the center on these issues. They will support the church polity whatever it is. Which means, if it changes to become more progressive and tolerant, they will support that too.

So, let’s read past the headlines. And, frankly, let’s put aside this pointless survey, which asked and answered questions with totally unsurprising results….except for the one nobody’s talking about it.
Despite 40 years of history, the survey shows that United Methodists want us more than ever to talk about these issues at General Conference.

So, I am left with the same question I have, over and over, these days:

How will moderate Bishops and church leaders lead us in this effort? Where are their voices, boldly suggesting possible ways forward? Change will come from them, not from either conservatives or progressives.

When they decide to have the will to change, the church will change. Period.

How will they lead us, on these issue that, “survey says,” United Methodists want us to talk about and act on? We await their leadership.

That’s the real “lead.”

In every way I can mean that word.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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