Program Advisory Group

Believe It!

General Secretary and CEO Harriett Jane Olson addresses the United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group during its spring 2021 meeting.

Believe It!
Harriett Jane Olson at the spring 2020 Program Advisory Group meeting.

In our theme Scripture from 2 Timothy, Paul reminds Timothy of his reasons to believe and of the authenticity of Timothy’s faith. Paul reminds Timothy of the depth of the relationship between them—Timothy’s tears bearing witness. He asserts with confidence that Timothy has authentic faith. He reminds Timothy of his legacy of faith from Lois and Eunice and he urges Timothy to revive or rekindle the gift so that he may not be timid, but powerful, loving and self-controlled.

If we were asked to summarize this admonition in just two words, it might be: “Believe it!” Or if we had three words for our summary, we might say, “Remember and revive.”

So, what do you and I mean when we say “believe it” to someone? Of course, we are conveying that we believe it, that we have confidence in what we are saying and we think there is good reason for our listener to believe it as well. Paul is saying to Timothy, your authentic faith is strong, and God’s gifts to you continue. Believe it! Our relationship is important. Believe it! Your legacy grounds us, your legacy grounds you. Believe it! You can draw strength from this solid foundation so that your actions are not timid, but powerful, loving and disciplined. Believe it. And you can rekindle your confidence in God’s gift.

How appropriate these admonitions are for United Methodist Women in these times!

United Methodist Women, remember the power of the creative, supportive fellowship that characterizes our structure. It is strong. Believe it! Remember the power of the Gospel, the fact of God’s love for you, for me, for every person we encounter and for the world. Believe it. Remember the call of God to do justice and love mercy, to care for the sick, the prisoner, the oppressed and to stand for justice. Believe it. Remember the history of faith and action in which we stand—our foremothers crossed boundaries, innovated, raised funds, started over, started over again and persisted in spreading God’s love. And so can we. Believe it.

Now wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do was remember? Paul’s letter to Timothy reminds us that from time to time we also need to do the work to rekindle the gift. He called Timothy to remember these foundational principles because something was awry. Paul’s letter is to nurture, to support and to strengthen Timothy in his calling. It reminds us that this fervency of belief is not a constant state.

This might bring to mind the father in Mark 9 bringing the child to Jesus for healing. The father declared: I believe! Help thou my unbelief. It is human to need to rekindle our confidence from time to time. This is part of the Christian life and part of the story of United Methodist Women—we need to pause from time to time to remember the reason for our confidence, to regroup around what we are called to do and to rekindle our own and our organization’s confidence in God’s calling and in our ability to follow.

As we collectively vision during this meeting and during this quadrennium about the future of United Methodist Women, and as you think about your own call to leadership as part of the program advisory group, we will not be focusing on how to tweak or optimize the activities that our foremothers developed. Instead, we will be looking deeper to ask: What are we called to today? What are the needs of women today, both members and non-members?What are the needs of children today? And where are we called to serve and to advocate for the needs of women and children today?

We will be asking ourselves: how should we organize so that women are finding in United Methodist Women a place to deepen their faith? How do we go about providing space in which women regularly build relationships that carry them deeper into Christian Community—a community that is so focused on Jesus that it can add new women as they join? How can we help women to hear the cry of the needy in such a compelling way that they are impelled to join in collective action to counter forces of injustice? And how can we support strategic action to rekindle the gift of God in our own beloved organization to make a difference in the church and in the world?

These are important questions. We won’t answer them all today, but we’ll be grappling with them during this meeting and during this quadrennium.

I also want to note that belief is not purely a matter of the will. The call to believe is not a call to marshal our determination and affirm the matters we have mentioned. Belief is action—belief is a matter of the heart as well as the mind. Over and over again Scripture refers to believing with our heart. We use the word both ways in English in the United States. We say, “I believe” that something is accurate, meaning “Yes, I think that’s correct.” But we also say “I believe it” to mean I am confident that this is true.

One of the dictionary definitions of “belief is “a firm or wholehearted conviction.” So when we talk about our work today, let’s approach it in that wholehearted way. We believe that we’re called to be leaders. We believe that this is time for United Methodist Women to go deeper and wider and fuller into God’s calling.

After all, we don’t just think that God loves the world—we believe it! I don’t just think that God loves me—I believe it! We don’t just think that United Methodist Women is called to serve and to advocate for women, children, and youth—we believe it! We don’t just think (possibly, maybe) there is a role for me to play, a role for us to play—we believe it!

This has implications for us both as a group and as individuals. Let’s remember the stories of our past. When Belle Harris Bennett believed that God was calling for better training for deaconesses and women missionaries, she got herself to a meeting of the Women’s Missionary Society’s executive body in 1889 and made a proposal (with fear and trembling we’re told) for a national training program.

The Women’s Missionary Society caught the vision! They approved the plan and asked Belle Bennett to begin the fundraising. Please note they did not wait for the funds to be raised to approve the plan. Nor, on the other hand, did they begin spending money that they didn’t have before the funds were raised. They believed and they trusted that God would guide them at every step of the way.

They retained this conviction when the Methodist Episcopal Church South leadership directed that they move the National Training School to Nashville in order to more closely supervise these unreasonable women. They believed when they encountered various difficulties and challenges along the way. They followed God’s guidance, step by step.

Not so long ago, the national office had a consultation with women in Africa. Every Central Conference was represented, and our regional missionaries and national staff coordinated the time together. We spent several powerful days worshiping together, learning together, and listening to one another. When all was said and done, we were clear that the connection between the national office and our sisters in Africa was important, that the women in Africa valued the opportunity to connect with one another, and that all who attended had many shared aspirations. We heard, very clearly, the need for livelihood programs to help women help their families and their communities to grow and thrive and the need for leadership development so that women could take their rightful place as leaders in the church. Our sisters want the chance to bring their skills and gifts to their churches, families and communities. This is the genesis of the pilot projects. If you attended or watched the first Voices from the Field event, you know more about this.

We believe that we are called to stand with our sisters in the Central Conferences—to listen and plan and support.

Since the onset of the pandemic, many of our members all around the world have shown with their actions that they believe they are called upon to make a difference. United Methodist Women contributed to the May 5th Giving Now event to help our national mission institutions respond to unprecedented need around them.

United Methodist Women members believed that they were called to act and made masks. Many masks. Thousands of masks! Masks for local school children, for national mission institutions, for the Navajo Nation and for mission organizations and charitable institutions around the world. They began this work with consultation and invitation. They responded to changes as we learned more about what was needed, and they acted—they believed they could make a difference—and they did.

During this quadrennium, we will be engaged in our own version of this process. We will look, seeing the needs and hear women’s stories. We will consult with women on the ground and in the know. We will plan, believing that we can make a difference. We will raise funds to support the work, believing that this is our calling, and believing that God will use us for good in the world.

In addition to acting as a group we will act as individual leaders. Your story like my own may be full of examples of believing, listening, planning and changing course.

Many of you know, that I practiced law in New Jersey. My area was real estate, and I ended up doing a lot of environmental compliance work—and for me it felt very connected to my calling in Christ to caring for creation. After a while, however, my heart became restless—wasn’t there something more directly connected with God’s work in the world that I could contribute to? Eventually I followed this desire to serve God to the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville. While I was there, I began to feel God stirring in my heart again. It began to crystalize when the United States withdrew from the Kyoto Climate Accords, which had been supported by own former governor, Christi Todd Whitman, when she was tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Wasn’t there more that I could do?

At the Publishing House we published some resources, we participated in calling for a renewed “In Defense of Creation,” which the Council of Bishops handled, but I was still restless. The invitation to apply for the role of staff leader for United Methodist Women came to me in the middle of that searching. God-given restlessness. God-given opportunity.

United Methodist Women presented me the opportunity to speak out on matters I believed in that were grounded in my love of God. United Methodist Women were already invested in the work on the environment, and I have been proud to be able to support the development of the work to the place that we are today. The contributions I have made as an individual, however, are not as powerful as the contributions that we make as an entire organization. God weaves our experiences and our callings together to create a movement—a movement for justice, a movement for women, a movement for children, a movement that’s grounded in faith and action.

Your service as a member of the program advisory group at this time is invaluable. God is moving in your hearts. Maybe, as with me, you have a feeling of restlessness. Maybe you have a feeling of conviction. Maybe you have the inkling of something powerful that will emerge in our midst together. I believe God is at work—in you, in me, in all of us together.

So during our time we will reflect on God’s gift. We will remember our relationships—those with one another and those relationships we have with those we serve and with whom we serve. We will remember our legacy of faith and action and the leaders who have gone before us. We will remember God’s love for us and for the whole world.

Sisters, now is our time to remember and rekindle and to believe that God is at work.

Thanks be to God.

Posted or updated: 3/23/2021 12:00:00 AM

Give Thanks. Give Now.

Video: A report from General Secretary Harriett Jane Olson

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