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Fall Board Meeting 2011

Report of the Deputy General Secretary


On Friday October 7, Women’s Division Deputy General Secretary Harriett Jane Olson addressed the Women’s Division board of directors at their annual fall meeting. With the message “Shaping the Future,” Ms. Olson spoke of how the current work of United Methodist Women shapes the Church and the world and how the organization plans to keep doing such work in order to “influence the future.” Providing opportunities for spiritual growth, integrating action with advocacy and advocacy with action, offering education that begins with personal change, providing leadership development, and growing a flexible organization are some steps Ms. Olson explained that the organization is taking in order to best meet its goals.

“United Methodist Women is women organized for mission,” Ms. Olson stated. “This is our position in the church and in the world. This has lead us to the express the vision of our organization turning faith, hope and love into action on behalf of women, children and youth, around the world.” Ms. Olson highlighted some the of ways United Methodist Women is currently living into our vision: mission and spiritual growth studies, Schools of Christian Mission, Brighter Future grants, buildings repaired thanks to Call to Prayer and Self-Denial funds, Mission Giving support of national mission institutions and institution executive director training, September’s prayers for peace, National Seminar, World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women leadership, and staff work toward streamlining more efficient finance procedures and new ways of communicating and nurturing.

“Friends, we are building the organization that we want to belong to and that our nieces and granddaughters want to belong to,” Ms. Olson shared. “We are moving toward the vision that you as the board of directors and the staff have worked so hard to express.”

The full text of Ms. Olson’s address appears below.


In some ways, United Methodist Women is attempting the impossible. Throughout much of this quadrennium we have actively sought input and evaluated and stated a vision and five key outcomes that we have chosen to focus on in order to shape the future. We have undertaken this work with full knowledge that we don’t control the future but with the expectation that we can influence it.


We have come back together again this afternoon, after the amazing opportunity to hear from Leymah Gbowee, who was named a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this morning. Leymah shares the prize with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia (and a United Methodist) and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. Ms. Gbowee was prompted to act and was undergirded by her faith not because she thought she could control the future but because she was committed to influencing it.

We’ve been reminded of this already this fall as we have lost several people who were outstanding leaders. Wangari Maathai, also a Nobel Laureate, offered great leadership organizing grass-roots efforts to plant trees, preserving Kenya’s soil and making a difference in the preservation of God’s good earth. She could not have predicted the results of her actions, the way the world would (eventually) acknowledge her, or that it would be cancer that would end her life rather than the powerful enemies she faced down in a violent world.

Similarly, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth died this week. His powerful leadership in the Civil Rights movement contributed to amazing changes in the condition of all people, most particularly black people, in the United States. He didn’t engage in all of that work and action from a sense that he controlled the future, but he was determined to influence it!

Also, Professor Derrick Bell, law professor and activist, who has been a leader in uncovering the way racialized perspectives underlie seemingly nonracial laws and legal decisions died this week. Mr. Bell took and left an improbable number of significant jobs during his lifetime because of restrictions placed on him or exclusionary practices. One of those places was Harvard Law School, and debate swirled there as the community came to grips with his assessment of how they lived their principles and his willingness to speak to that with his career.

Finally, we think of Steve Jobs. He didn’t risk his life in Africa or at lunch counters in the American South. He revolutionized how humans and computers interact. By breaking down the perceived need to separate engineering from design and by relentlessly pressing forward, Steve Jobs led Apple to become a vertically integrated, proprietary software megalith off-shoring jobs and depending on rare earth metals that its customers love. Unlike Amazon or Microsoft or Google, which are respected for their many contributions, Apple fans love their hardware-software-lifestyle mashup. Mr. Jobs was not deterred by something that had not been done that way before. He was impelled forward by a vision of the possible and had the ability to build a company to make the possible into reality.

Does that sound at all like United Methodist Women? We have been working on our vision statement and formalizing our desired outcomes to help us in our effort to shape the future—not because we think we control the future but because we sure want to influence it.

To do this we start with a vision. Each of the leaders I’ve mentioned had a vision. They were animated by what they saw around them and what they saw as a better future. It’s a powerful thing to “see.” We say, “I see,” meaning we are learning or perceiving something new. We indicate that our view of the world has shifted, if only a little bit. And of course, what we see and who we see is affected by where we sit or stand. It is sometimes said: position is perspective. This is certainly true in the physical world. I went to a church event recently with friends whose children were singing in a large combined choir. Audience members moved around, deciding where to sit so that they could see the children and get the best angle for photographs, similar to our experience today in the Interchurch Center chapel with Ms. Gbowee.

This reminds us that some of what we see depends on what and who we are looking for. Women know this well. For many years we were invisible, even if we were in the room. So many women appear in the biblical narrative who are not named! This unnamed status allows them to fade into the background—like the woman caught in adultery, or the Samaritan woman or the woman with the issue of blood—while the action swirls around them. Perspective affects how the event is reported.

Our perspective affects how we report events too. As United Methodist Women members and critical thinkers, we tend to notice how names and titles are used. Full name? Name and title? Name, title and pedigree? It can affect how comments are heard. Some of you were at the last General Board of Global Ministries board meeting and heard Bishop Hans Växby plead with the members to address him as Hans. He sees the repeated use of the title “bishop” as a privileging of his remarks that is not healthy for the work.

Our perspective also affects who we see as being at risk. Not too long ago I was at dinner with some friends and several of us fell into a discussion about hitchhiking. Two of the white males at the table agreed that they would never pick up a female hitchhiker they didn’t know. I was very surprised. When I asked why, the response was: you never know what might be said afterward. I was stunned. Who would really be at risk in an event like that? A woman hitchhiking alone or the white male driving by? Of course, there are some risks for both. The woman might not actually be alone, or she might be armed. I’m not advocating hitchhiking or picking up hitchhikers, but my male friends’ risk analysis was so different from my own that I was reminded: position is perspective.

Another illustration is the recent litigation about Alabama’s new law addressing undocumented people. Bishop William Willimon and several other faith leaders participated in a lawsuit addressing aspects of the law that they asserted would criminalize some of the acts of compassion to which the church is called for all people, whether they have documentation or not. Since the law is an attempt to address issues arising from the broken U.S. immigration system, which is a subject of concern for United Methodist Women, I went to the North Alabama Annual Conference website and scrolled through some of the comments. The comments covered an interesting array of opinions from “thank you for doing this” to “why do I have to read about my church in the newspaper?” But I was struck by one writer who asked, “After you have participated in this lawsuit, how would the governor [who signed the legislation in to law] feel about visiting a United Methodist Church?” I ask you: who is really at risk here? Is it the governor? Is it the churches with feeding ministries? It’s really not. It is families of people whose choices are between a failing economy somewhere else and a United States economy that depends on their labor but is not willing to document them. It is also the farmers of Alabama who cannot find workers willing or able to undertake the hard physical work of harvest since this law was enacted, and it will be consumers who depend on those farmers for food and the low wages they pay for artificially low priced food. Position is perspective.

United Methodist Women is women organized for mission. This is our position in the church and in the world. This has lead us to the express the vision of our organization turning faith, hope and love into action on behalf of women, children and youth, around the world. As you know, we have several key outcomes.

We will undergird spiritual growth.
Just as Ms. Gbowee shared with us that her faith was a constant source of strength for her during the women’s peace movement and still today, our faith is at the center of our experience as United Methodist Women. Forgiveness and reconciliation is the latest of our spiritual growth topics, and it is helping us to think about brokenness and reconciliation both for ourselves and for the world. The Journey is a powerful study. I hope that many of you who participated in this study at Schools of Christian Mission will be willing to lead it in your circles or your congregations. One of the things that I am privileged to do is to participate in United Methodist Women conference annual meetings from time to time. Last month in Mississippi I heard a wonderful report from a School of Christian Mission first-timer. She said, “Whenever you get the chance: just go.” She had a powerful experience of God’s love for her and in the safety of that community was able to reach out toward a different future. Cheryl Trent has been leading us toward a proposal to make the setting of Schools of Christian Mission even more powerful.

Some of you may have been touched by participating in September’s prayers for peace effort led by Glory Dharmaraj. I’m not sure if it is because of what I learned at the peace conference I attending in May, or because of the work of my colleagues at the Church Center for the United Nations on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, or being in New York City for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, or the shifting middle east alliances following the Arab Spring, but my own yearning and prayers for peace have been particularly poignant this summer—I find myself repeating with hymn writer Max Miller: “And grant us Lord, in this our day … a world of peace remade” [from “Behold a Broken World, United Methodist Hymnal no. 426].

Our faith is our core identity, key to our becoming whole persons, and key to our ability to see ourselves and the world as God would have us see. This is a vital outcome area.

We are integrating action with advocacy and advocacy with action.
Not only do we advocate with the United Nations and state and federal legislatures to continue funding for women and children, we also have a whole network of partners who receive grants from us directly—national mission institutions, international institutions, new programs launched with Brighter Future grants and buildings repaired and restored as a result of last year’s Call to Prayer and Self-Denial. Occasionally, when our treasurer is out of the office, I get to sign vouchers. One afternoon I approved the release of half a million dollars for our national mission institutions. What an amazing and humbling moment. Few if any of these organizations rely only on United Methodist Women for funding, but we help, day in and day out, to feed hungry children, train and equip women, and advocate for change.

Friends, we are now receiving calls regularly from our national mission institutions about the impact of state and federal government decreasing funding for education support and nutrition programs for our nations neediest children. Some of you are making weekend backpacks for these children because you know that during the week the meal that they receive at school and the healthy snack at the afterschool program keep them from going hungry. You have stepped in to keep them from going hungry on the weekends.

What our national mission institutions tell us is that needs are increasing at the very time grant funds are decreasing. We need to increase our ability to give in this area. We also need to speak up to preserve programs like these that serve children. We must not pay the nation’s deferred cost of war by letting children starve in our own neighborhoods.

Nor should we be addressing the deferred costs at the expense of women and children around the world. I had the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., two weeks ago and meet with persons working on the budget on Capitol Hill. Did you know that U.S. contributions to programs aimed at reducing poverty and improving education outside the United States equals one half of 1 percent of the federal budget? Even if this account was zeroed out, as some have proposed, we would hardly notice the impact on the debt. More than this, it is the wrong strategy. One of the people I was with at the Capitol is a veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. She wanted a chance to communicate to legislators that nation building needs to be done so that military deployments can be curtailed. It was interesting to hear her speak about the power and importance of positive diplomacy and the almost uncontrollable expense of addressing this with a military presence. She told about being deployed to a team that was assigned to clear the roads of mines. Every morning, they would go out with a one million dollar machine and make the road safe. Then every evening local residents would come back and set new mines. She told us that this is not because the residents didn’t like our country or our religious diversity but because they were paid for this work and they needed to feed their families. Her commanding officer recognized early on that this way of going about the project was not going to obtain the objective. We need to be about the work of nation building and not extending our military presence.

We offer education beginning with personal change.
Our work in the world is serious work. In fact, United Methodist Women members take living as faithful disciples pretty seriously too, so we have a great need to learn. We don’t just need information—we need to learn in such a way that we grow and that we take effective action. It’s a little glib to call it “information, formation, transformation,” but saying it this way helps us remember that we’re engaged in a process. What you know is that United Methodist Women is powerful in this regard. I want to share two stories. First, from the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference United Methodist Women. At their annual meeting last weekend I was privileged to hear one member tell the leaders gathered there that she is not the same person she was when she joined United Methodist Women one and half years ago. She came to a meeting “to see what was going on,” and she has been drawn into learning the hymns in her own Euchee language and culture and to finding spiritual strength to tackle issues that matter to her. What a blessing for me to hear her speak! What a testimony to the work of the leaders who have nurtured her in her conference and to the work of all the staff and directors at National Seminar who nurtured her there. Another person who recently testified to this personal transformation is a young woman serving as a resource person dealing with the environment at National Seminar. She was amazed to see the participants’ dedication to the issue, their commitment to learn and to learn from folks on the ground. As a result of this experience she has undertaken additional research and plans to engage in further advocacy with what she has learned. In addition, she reports she has hope that more people are working to care for God’s creation. Wow! Information, formation, transformation. And she was a presenter! Thanks to Sung-ok Lee and the whole team for this amazing work.

We provide leadership development.
One of the aspects of vital congregations identified by the Call to Action report is a regular pattern of rotating positions of lay leadership, specifically measured as between 25 and 50 percent of the membership having had a leadership role in the past five years. This is interesting when you think about United Methodist Women, isn’t it? While we don’t want to “recycle” leaders in a way that leaves others out, the high number of our members who have taken on some kind of leadership responsibility is very likely related to the strength of our organization. It’s a strength we want to enhance. The leadership development committee will be talking about a new pattern for equipping leaders by jurisdiction that will provide more contact with more of the leaders in our organization. We are also exploring what part online training and online mission education can play in recruiting and equipping all of us, particularly younger leaders. At the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women meeting this summer Heasun Kim provided the leadership development for several young women through the Helen Kim Scholars program. She is also leading us in developing leaders through the Scranton Women’s Leadership Center in Seoul, Korea, and through the Wesley Center in Tokyo. We are engaged in a deliberate pattern of leadership development as Andris Salter and her team provide training for new executive directors and board chairs of our national mission institutions. One of the New executive directors took me aside at the end of the training in August and confessed that she had really not wanted to come. She has been in place for a while and she didn’t think she had much she could learn from us. She says she was wrong! The content was great and the connection with the other executive directors was energizing, and she was very glad for the experience. This is also what we are attempting to do when we bring women to the United Nations for the Commission on Status of Women meetings. These women from around the world have expertise to share, of course, but they learn so much from one another and from the experience that their leadership is enhanced as well.

We are growing a flexible organization.
The work that you as directors have done in revisioning how our board could be configured and how our members can be affirmed and freed up to imagine the work in their own place is amazing! I want you to know that Martha Knight and the finance team are leading a very important process of transition to new software that will be the backbone of efficiencies throughout the organization. Selby Ewing and the communications team are helping us stretch into new areas of social networking and connection. With the Voices event for language coordinators and all we learned there, and through rethinking our participation in various United Methodist networks, Sally Vonner and Membership and Leadership Development are helping us to think about welcoming women of many cultures, including our many cultures of church.

Friends, we are building the organization that we want to belong to and that our nieces and granddaughters want to belong to. We are moving toward the vision that you as the board of directors and the staff have worked so hard to express.

As we live into the vision, we will move to a new position and we may gain some new perspective. By 2020 or so, we may need to ask some of the core questions again, and the directors serving at that time and the staff serving at that time may need to state our desired outcomes again. But for now, United Methodist Women, this is how we are living into the vision. This is how we are shaping our future. How does it look from where you sit?

Last Updated: 04/10/2014

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