Finding Our Self: United Methodist Women in the Next Quadrennium
Deputy General Secretary Report by Harriett Olson
Plano, Texas—Women’s Division Deputy General Secretary Harriett Jane Olson addressed the Women’s Division Board of Directors March 16, 2012, at their semiannual spring meeting. This meeting was the final board meeting of the 2009-2012 quadrennium. As United Methodist Women said goodbye to current directors and celebrated the work of the past four years, Ms. Olson asked those in attendance to look to the future and discern how United Methodist Women can best fulfill its PURPOSE as an organization, as part of The United Methodist Church and as part of the body of Christ as a whole.
The General Conference of The United Methodist Church meets this April to May in Tampa, Fla., where delegates will make decisions on the policies and organization of the church, including proposals for a restructure of United Methodist Women as an organization separate from the General Board of Global Ministries. Ms. Olson explained that United Methodist Women can best serve its members and women, children and youth worldwide as an independent organization within The United Methodist Church, while intentionally staying connected in mission to Global Ministries.
Like the apostle Paul instructed the faith community of Corinth, Ms. Olson asked the community of United Methodist Women to know their identity in Christ, their identity in creation and their identity in the body. She encouraged members to live a life that “becomes the gospel” and so work to ensure that United Methodist Women remains a prophetic organization working for the transformation of the world.
Report of the Deputy General Secretary to the Women’s Division Board of Directors
March 16, 2012
As always, it’s a privilege to be with you and to offer this report and reflection.
We are living in multiple states at the same time—not states of the United States but states of mind. On the one hand, we are coming to the close of the quadrennium, so we will participate in various reflection and assessments this week. Looking back over the past four years, we may be surprised about how much has been done—how many children fed, how many women touched, how many young people supported in their education and their experience. We may also be surprised to find, in reflection, that in every step we took, God was present. Like the people of Israel, sometimes we might have felt as though we were wandering, but there was the presence of God—a pillar of fire by day, calling us to ways of justice and mercy—and a column of fire by night, keeping watch, holding steady. As we reflect we celebrate the relationships, the commitments and the time together. We also share sorrows of losses during this quadrennium. So there is a state of reflection, somewhat bittersweet, as we prepare for new assignments and duties.
There is also a state of energy and attentiveness to this meeting’s work. As the cabinet initially talked about this meeting it seemed good to build some time for fellowship into the agenda. Between meeting at new and different sites and wanting board members to get to know some of the work of United Methodist Women and The United Methodist Church in mission in this area, and also knowing that we would all need some time for hugs and thanks and blessings, time for fellowship seemed wise. [Scheduling such time was hard due to some] important 11th hour work to be included: an investment committee meeting needed to be added to the agenda, the policy committee would be receiving substantive proposals, and we needed to prepare for Regional Schools in June and take stock of our work in eliminating institutional racism and our growing work in national and international settings. If you the staff with a bit of a glazed look, I invite you to offer a smile or a word of encouragement. There is a lot going on, and they are offering amazing leadership and skill under pressure.
We are also in a state of anticipation. Women’s Division and the General Board of Global Ministries have made historic decisions this quadrennium, and very soon we will know if the General Conference is willing to affirm them. As Thomas [Kemper, general secretary of Global Ministries] and I have traveled around and as I have heard from many of you, there seem to be only a few questions being raised about our proposals. Part of this is likely because of the magnitude of some of the other proposals that General Conference will also be considering, but I hope the lack of questions of this is mostly because there is support for our plan to become structurally separate while working on even more intentional connection in mission. As you have heard me say before, we remain hopeful that the joint proposal from Women’s Division and Global Ministries will be acted on (and approved). However, like all large groups, General Conference has its own way of coalescing around ideas. I have seen the conference move to study matters if questions surface that are not answered to the delegates’ satisfaction. I can imagine calls to study the organizational proposals this year. You and I know that neither the church nor the world would “hold steady” for the next four years if the conference were to wait to make a decision regarding our proposals, proposals that evolved before the restructure proposals of the Interim Operations Team [put together by the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table of The United Methodist Church]. You may ask why the Women’s Division and Global Ministries want to separate structures when the movement elsewhere is to combine.
You could simply dismiss this question as a simplistic desire for conformity, but I would like to use it to point us to a little deeper thinking. You all know that we are looking ahead to a vital future for both of our organizations, and this is the driving force of these proposed changes.
The women of Second Grace United Methodist Church in Detroit recently invited me to preach at their Women’s Day celebration and offered me the topic of “Separate but Connected” and the text from 1 Corinthians 12:12-20. Hear these familiar words:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
I have understood this text as a text about unity—the one body. I have also thought about it in terms of the amazing work of the Holy Spirit creating the one body through baptism and the blood of Christ in the communion. However, as I look at these familiar verses in light of our question of both separation and connection and in light of the multigenerational, multilingual, multicultural, multiracial generative, fruitful and inspirational community we want to be and become, I read something else in the text. It does issue a strong and demanding charge to allow the work of the Spirit in us and among us move us toward living as the one body. However, to do that, Paul instructs the members not to desire to be what they are not or to deprive the body of its full functioning by devaluing their role.
Signing out of my office building recently, a visitor was also signing out. In these books visitors sign out on the same line they’ve signed in, so at the end of the day it often means flipping back a few pages to find your name. As I waited for my turn to sign out, the visitor apologized for keeping me waiting, saying, “I’m trying to find myself.” I replied, “That’s the work of a lifetime!” I thought about that exchange when I began to prepare for Women’s Day at Second Grace and read some of the commentaries on the Bible passage.
Paul was instructing the members of the community of faith at Corinth to “find themselves”:
- To know their identity in Christ.
- To know their identity in creation—not gods but beloved children of God.
- To know their identity in the body and to live a life that “becomes the gospel.”
You’d think that we would be skilled at this in our individuated, independent society. However, I am very amused sometimes to notice the college students in my neighborhood seem to come as matched sets:
- Three young women all wearing Ugg boots and jeans.
- Four young men wearing jackets of similar cut with small color variations.
- A pair of tall girls.
- A brace of short men.
Perhaps media saturation pushes us toward conformity rather than individual identity. How many times do you see the same humorous picture in a week on Facebook? Or how many times does the same article appear in your Twitter feed? Not only is conformity the backlash of fashion and social networks built on shared appreciation, but we do it to ourselves in ways that make it confusing when we begin working on our true identity.
This has long been a struggle for laity in The United Methodist Church, and perhaps most particularly for laywomen. Several in the church have raised the concern about smaller “competency based” boards that are being discussed. Laity have scope to demonstrate their leadership in a variety of areas, but younger people and women of all ages tend to be underrepresented in those venues. Women are more likely than men to invest significant amounts of time in child rearing or elder care, even stepping out away from paid work for a while, or women juggle those demands with a job that doesn’t evoke their leadership ability. This is what we see in corporate boards in the United States and in our elected representation in Washington, D.C. We know something about how those criteria can operate to exclude. This text would remind us that the body needs us to be present and to speak our knowledge if it is to be healthy.
We also know something about the appreciation of multiple gifts—the way local church, district and conference teams can accomplish so much more than their individual members acting alone. United Methodist Women members know and appreciate the value of the connection. We are inherently suspicious of enterprises built on the personality and charisma of a single individual, whether it is the Crystal Cathedral (now in bankruptcy since it has not been able to gather around another generation of leader) or a top selling video-based study series or a ministry enterprise. We know that our diversity is challenging, but we believe that it is part of our identity—to stay together at the table. This is why we oppose fragmenting women in congregations into other women’s organizations. United Methodist Women is the women of The United Methodist Church organized for mission—we are because it is our identity. It is our call. It is what we are to contribute to the body. Special attentiveness to the needs of women, children and youth calls forth our desire to change systems and fires our passion for service because justice and mercy are part of God’s passion for the world.
It is why we are working on organizing ourselves in a way that will enhance our ability to speak our knowledge and our passion to the church as well as the world. For many years, Global Ministries has been charged with expressing the concerns of women organized for mission. At the 2012 General Conference, as a part of our joint proposal, Global Ministries is asking that their responsibilities be changed from “expressing the concerns of women organized for mission” (on our behalf) to “addressing” those concerns.
United Methodist Women, this will place a great importance on our listening, so that we can speak well. We will listen to God through study, prayer and worship. We will listen to one another and to others in the churches through Christian conferencing. We will listen to the hurts of the world, particularly the hurts of women, children and youth. Then we will be “finding our self” for this generation.
This is not the generation in which women rose up all over the church with a willingness to be engaged in “useful work” because of the needs of women and children in zenanas in India or favelas in Brazil or ethnic territories in the Philippines or ghettos in Eastern Europe. It is more than women’s needs that impels us today.
This is also not the generation in which women rose up all over the church to work for the education of freed slaves or Native Americans or women and children in urban slums or in rural isolation in the United States. It is more than racism and desperate poverty that impels us today.
This is also not the era of postwar confidence when bigger consolidated boards with staff specialists seemed to be the way to express God’s love in the world. It is more than efficiency that impels us today.
It is also not the era when one corporation-like structure can be expected to carry the identity of women around the world who are Methodist, United Methodist and Uniting Church women who are following God in the work of service and advocacy around the world. It is more than structural neatness that impels us today.
It may be the era in which progress for women is made in dramatic ways around the world as aid and development organizations begin to take advantage of women’s capacities. It may be the era in which women in the United States are called on to reassert themselves to prevent gains made in the past 40 years from being undermined in the drumbeat of scarcity and fear.
Today, our work is to express our identity—to find ourself. To be the ear, eye, foot, hand, that God is calling us to be for this time. To build connections of mutuality in mission where our identity does not disappear but complements the whole body. To find new ways to learn from all the other parts of the body that are seeking to be connected.
It has been, and will be, a journey. We are addressing ways in which United Methodist Women is a movement as well as ways in which the organization is an institution. These two ways of organizing will collide from time to time. We will act as individual members of the body at times when we should be acting like parts of the system, and we will defer to the system at times when the body actually needs the gifts that we are called individually to offer. We will make mistakes. However, we know that God is with us. The Holy Spirit is at work in us and in the whole body to further God’s work of redeeming and restoring the whole world. God’s expression of identity in and through us is not random, as was the case with the deities of the region of Corinth. God’s work in and through us is purposeful. It requires that we express our true identity—as children of God, as women, as sisters in Christ, as United Methodists, as people longing to be made whole, as members of the body of Christ. Thanks be to God.