Response: December 2016 Issue

God’s Mighty Force for Good

United Methodist Women puts faith, hope and love into action for The United Methodist Church and world.

God’s Mighty Force for Good
On Mother’s Day, Bishop Hardt tells a Sunday school class that the first Mother’s Day was celebrated in 1908 at a Methodist Church in WV.

“The United Methodist Women is one of God’s mighty forces for good,” says retired Bishop John Wesley Hardt, who turned 95 this year. Only three United Methodist bishops are older.

Mr. Hardt says the person who has influenced him most is a United Methodist Women member: Martha, his wife of 73 years.

“Martha has always been my confidant, counselor, comforter, encourager, partner and best friend,” he said.

The Hardts have lived in Dallas since retiring in 1988.

For a decade, Mr. Hardt was bishop-in-residence at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and he is now bishop-in-residence emeritus.

In addition to his work at Perkins, he has preached, taught Sunday school, written and helped others write about Methodism, and helped lead a churchwide campaign to raise $25 million to fund pensions for Methodist ministers in conferences outside the United States.

Busy as the Hardts have been, they have made time to enjoy their four children, eight grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. And United Methodist Women has always been a part of their lives.

A remarkable legacy

A few months ago, Mr. Hardt spoke to two circles at First United Methodist Church in Dallas.

“As members of United Methodist Women, you have a remarkable legacy to cherish!” he told them.

“You are part of the largest denominational faith organization for women in the world,” he said. But he told them what amazes him most about United Methodist Women is how it embraces all kinds of people in all kinds of places in all kinds of ways and enables them to experience God’s love and abundant life in Jesus Christ.

Near the end of his talk, he held up recent copies of response and New World Outlook and told them reading these United Methodist publications would keep them informed and ionnspired about United Methodist Women.

Doris Marshal, a member of Hannah Circle at First United Methodist Church in Dallas, says Mr. Hardt spoke first to the Sarah Circle.

“Sarah Circle members told us his talk was just what they needed to hear, so we invited him to speak to us. He reminded us of what a great gift we have received from United Methodist Women members who came before us, and he inspired us to follow their example by serving faithfully.”

Not only has Mr. Hardt talked to United Methodist Women circles about United Methodist Women, he’s also praised United Methodist Women in other settings.

This past spring, Aldersgate Sunday school class at First United Methodist in Dallas invited him to speak on Mother’s Day.

He says he decided to speak to the class about United Methodist Women for two reasons: First, the first Mother’s Day service was in a Methodist church—St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia, in 1908. A Methodist woman, Anna Jarvis, planned the service as a memorial for her mother. Ms. Jarvis, he went on to say, was a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the U.S. Civil War, and she helped influence Woodrow Wilson to sign a proclamation in 1914 making Mother’s Day a national holiday to honor mothers.

Second, he said, was since the Sunday school class was made up of men as well as women, it was a good setting for him to make an often forgotten point: Even though United Methodist Women is a woman’s organization, it does not benefit only women. United Methodist Women fights for causes that help people and fights against causes that hurt people—regardless of their sex, race, nationality or other distinguishing factors.

John Gould, a member of the class, said Mr. Hardt talked about John Wesley’s mother, Susanna.

“He pointed out that Susanna’s influence on her children—especially on John—influenced his beliefs, and his beliefs helped shape United Methodism. He called her ‘the Mother of Methodism.’ Her influence on history, he said, demonstrates the far-reaching impact mothers have on their children.”

Mr. Hardt says one important lesson Mr. Wesley learned from his mother was that God can and does work through and with women as well as men. And he said Mr. Wesley never forgot it.

A powerful force for good

During the 1980s, when Mr. Hardt was episcopal leader of the Oklahoma Area, he appointed me director of communications for Oklahoma Conference. We worked together closely during the remaining seven years he was in Oklahoma, and we’ve kept in touch ever since.

During recent conversations, he told me how much he enjoys speaking about United Methodist Women. I have not been surprised. I remember how he respected and relied on United Methodist Women when he was in Oklahoma.

He discussed with me several reasons why he believes United Methodist Women is one of God’s mighty forces for good. United Methodist Women has been a mighty force for good in his life.

“I was born under the influence of what is now the United Methodist Women,” Mr. Hardt says.

Both of his parents grew up in Methodist homes.

“What my mother and father taught me shaped my life and ministry,” he said. “I’m sure their high respect for the Methodist women’s organization contributed to how I feel about United Methodist Women.”

But Mr. Hardt says his parents’ influence was not the only reason he grew up appreciating United Methodist Women.

Throughout his childhood and youth, Methodist women in churches where his father was pastor improved his family’s living conditions.

“They saw to it that our parsonages were livable and that we had the essentials,” he said with gratitude.

He pointed out that Methodist women who cared for his family were following the example set by Methodist women decades before and that United Methodist Women still strive to make clergy housing livable while also working to make all conditions livable for women, children, youth and families everywhere.

Mr. Hardt says he grew up wanting to be and to do what God wanted him to be and do. When he felt certain that God was calling him to ministry, he accepted.

In 1940, during his junior year at Southern Methodist University, he became a student pastor.

He says during his student pastor days Methodist women’s groups nurtured him in many ways, including frequently inviting him into their homes for lodging on Saturday nights and for dinner on Sundays.

“Throughout my ministry, I have counted on United Methodist Women, and they have been among my strongest supporters,” he said. “They helped make me more effective as a pastor, district superintendent and bishop. They helped elect me to the episcopacy.”

Proclaiming God’s love for all

After Mr. Hardt finished seminary at Perkins, one of the first sermons he preached focused on the hymn “O Zion, Haste.” The hymn’s refrain is “Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace; Tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.”

“O Zion, Haste” became and still is his theme song. He says it could be United Methodist Women’s theme song, too, because it sums up one of the main missions of United Methodist Women: to share God’s love for all people to the entire world.

“I have seen United Methodist Women publish glad tidings of Jesus on every continent,” he says. “I’ve seen United Methodist Women members—with their words, through their relationships and by their actions—live out the first stanza, which says: ‘tell to all the world that God is Light; That God who made all nations is not willing one soul should perish, lost in the shades of night.’”

Good in the lives of people in need

Nearly 150 years ago, faith in God and compassion for people in need motivated women at Tremont Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston to establish the Methodist Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, which has grown into United Methodist Women.

On a rainy night in March 1869, a small group of women at Tremont heard two guest speakers—Mrs. William Butler and Mrs. Edwin Parker—tell about women in India who critically needed help.

Mrs. Butler and Mrs. Parker, both wives of missionaries to India who were home on furlough, said male doctors in India could not treat females because of cultural restrictions, and girls had few, if any, educational opportunities.

They told the Boston Methodist women that women in India needed trained and dedicated women who could do medical and educational work.

“Those Methodist women in Boston didn’t just say, ‘We are sorry and we will pray for them,’ and they didn’t wait until the men would do something about it,” Mr. Hardt said.

“Like John Wesley, they believed the world was their parish. And they did everything they could to help people far away.”

The Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society voted to send two women to India as missionaries. About six months later, Isabella Thoburn and Dr. Clara Swain sailed to India.

With God’s help, they did what they believed God wanted them to do, Mr. Hardt said. Ms. Thoburn started a school with six young girls; it grew into the first women’s college in Asia. Dr. Swain provided health care for women; her practice became the foundation for the first women’s hospital in Asia.

“And deep faith in God and genuine love for all God’s people still motivates United Methodist Women to be a mighty force for good locally and globally,” said Mr. Hardt.

A force for good in congregations

Mr. Hardt says he has seen United Methodist Women help congregations demonstrate God’s love in ways that recipients never forget.

“The meals they prepare, the showers they give, the funds they raise, the gifts they send students—these are a few of the countless acts of hospitality and compassion local United Methodist Women make without fanfare,” he said.

But the impact United Methodist Women make on congregations is not limited to what some people classify as “woman’s work.” Many times United Methodist Women members help set the agendas for local congregations.

Reflecting on his 75 years as a minister, he thinks of dozens of United Methodist Women leaders who have become key leaders of congregations, districts, annual conferences and the global church. One United Methodist Women leader who stands out in his memory is Kate Vernon Mills, a member of First United Methodist Church in Beaumont, Texas, where he was pastor 18 years.

“Ms. Mills led our congregation into becoming a strong supporter of mission.

“She inspired a Sunday school class of young adults to reach out to children at a Methodist mission in Liberia. In 1951, the gift that a 16-year-old boy, Bennie Warner, received was The Gospel of John. While reading it, his life was transformed.”

Mr. Warner went on to become bishop of Liberia Annual Conference and vice president of Liberia. He attributes his accomplishments to United Methodist Women for supporting him through the village school and beyond.

A force in the lives of members

“United Methodist Women members study together, share together, pray together, and serve together. Bonds of mutual support embrace them and enrich them socially, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

“They grow in their understanding of God, of themselves, of life and how to live. They become leaders, and their leadership often extends beyond their United Methodist Women circles.

“I have seen United Methodist Women members become mighty forces for good in the lives of their families, friends and associates. I have seen their leadership reach far beyond their local church and communities and even impact future generations.”

Mr. Hardt says countless United Methodist Women members have told him what he knows is true: “The more we give, the more we grow.”

The Rev. Dr. Boyce Bowdon is a retired pastor and former director of communications for the Oklahoma Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Posted or updated: 11/30/2016 11:00:00 PM