Wanted: Women in Mission
At a meeting of United Methodist Women at Epworth United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., I addressed the topic of United Methodist Women membership nurture and outreach. My speech was titled: "I Don't Do That Anymore": Why I See United Methodist Women Differently.
Let me explain my title. The first part, "I Don't Do That Anymore," refers to comments I've heard from women who no longer participate in United Methodist Women, believing that a group for women within the church is now unnecessary since women gained equal opportunity to serve in church leadership positions, including clergy, in the 1970s.
The second part of my title says that I see United Methodist Women differently. After observing and then participating in the separate women's mission groups since my mother and maternal grandmother were members of the Woman's Society of Christian Service (one of the predecessor organizations of United Methodist Women) in the 1940s, I believe that the separate mission organization of women is as significant for the 21st century as it was for the 19th and 20th centuries.
A prophetic voice
As a historian of American women and religion, I know that in the long and difficult—and ongoing—struggle for equality in Methodism, clergywomen and laywomen needed and still need the strong support of the large, well-funded and politically savvy woman's mission organization. Make no mistake: All United Methodist women owe a huge debt of gratitude to United Methodist Women, whether or not we have personally been members. And we are not past needing its creative and unfailing advocacy in the present and in the future.
United Methodist Women and its predecessors have helped save The United Methodist Church from the nearsightedness that sees only the needs and interests of one's own group. Time and again United Methodist Women has led the church on significant national and international issues. In 1939, when the white (and predominantly male) Methodist church established the Central Jurisdiction, separating black Methodist churches everywhere from white churches, the Methodist women's mission organizations refused to follow the church structure and instead organized into integrated regions, holding meetings only at places where all could attend. If the white and black Methodist women had had a say then, Methodism would not have established the Central Jurisdiction, which remained in place until 1968.
A history of advocacy
As University of North Carolina historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has shown in her book Revolt Against Chivalry, Methodist mission women had already become the mainstay in the 1920s of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, founded by a Methodist mother and daughter in Texas to train women to insist that their county sheriffs protect the legal rights of black people accused of crimes. United Methodist Women wrote the Charter for Racial Justice now adopted by the whole church, and when the organization united all of the predecessor Methodist women's mission organizations in 1972 it chose a talented, strong and charismatic black woman from Arkansas, Theressa Hoover, to become the organization's first and longtime executive.
United Methodist Women has a long history of studying Christian mission in preparation for doing Christian mission. The organization's adult education program is one of the best continuing education programs in the world. Each year United Methodist Women prepares and offers three mission studies: An issue study, a geographic study and a spiritual growth study as well as children and youth studies. In planning and promoting the mission studies, United Methodist Women demonstrates relevance, foresight and courage, as was especially evident in our study of Palestine and Israel several years ago.
In short, for these reasons and others, I continue to find financial support of and participation in United Methodist Women an essential part of my life and that of The United Methodist Church. I believe United Methodist Women is a gem, a pearl of great price, to be treasured and nurtured!
Norma Taylor Mitchell, Ph.D., is a member of United Methodist Women at Epworth United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C. She is a former member of the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History and former chair of the Women's History Project of The United Methodist Church, and she served on the Scarritt-Bennett Center Board of Directors for eight years.