Board of Directors

Report of the General Secretary: What a Time We’ve Had

Report of the General Secretary: What a Time We’ve Had
United Methodist Women General Secretary and CEO Harriett Jane Olson

What a time we’ve had!

In preparation for this meeting, I spent a little time looking through the journals of the past quadrennium. What a time we’ve had!

Our very first session in Houston, organizing the board and the program advisory group seems like a long time ago. Bishop Huie set us out in the right direction. Barbara Moore of the Muskogee/Creek peoples reminded us of the native peoples who were dispossessed from that region by violence and deceit, and we laid a foundation for our work together. There were lots of reports! We installed officers and organized committees and began to get to know one another. A delegation of our members represented us at the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women meeting at which Alison Judd was elected the world president, which has made her a member of PAG.

What a time we’ve had!

Since then, the PAG has been in ongoing conversation with elements of our strategic plan. You’ve focused your work on membership, identity and relationship. We’ve focused on our identity in Christ—women becoming whole persons through Jesus Christ and tending to our own spiritual rootedness and growth. We’ve claimed our identity as women who listen and learn and as women who act—in giving, serving and advocating. We’ve engaged in empowering women through scholarships, leadership development and in elevating women’s voices. We’ve raised our own voices in the church and in our communities and continue to stand with our global sisters as they do the same.

What a time we’ve had!

We’ve learned about and engaged in our social justice priorities and continued our work on elimination of institutional racism at each PAG session. You and our staff have helped us focus on these critical focuses in many different areas—the Reading Program, Mission u, Assembly and more. We have been growing our partnerships (or relationships, in the language of the strategic plans) in these areas of emphasis to connect us to other knowledgeable leaders and to broaden our impact. You’ve participated in letter writing, local action and in sharing information about these efforts inside and outside the organization. As I’ve said before, people are noticing! Bishops mention this to me, local United Methodist Women leaders are reaching into their communities along these same issues. And it’s replicated over and over again.

What a time we’ve had!

And then there was Assembly! You helped plan and shape an inspiring, challenging, spiritual event—the Power of Bold! It brought thousands of women together in St. Louis—no! Columbus! We remembered the powerful action of our foremothers who moved the 1942 Assembly from St. Louis to Columbus because of their commitment to racial justice. This is part of our identity! You and other United Methodist Women leaders offered workshops and engaged in learning and relationship-building, including relationships with some of our foremothers. Did you get to meet Isabella Thoburn, Kathryn Maurer, Martha Drummer, or maybe Mary Scranton?

What a time we had!

Then there was this 150th anniversary celebration! We launched this at Assembly, and we’ll follow it all the way up to our jurisdiction meetings. It’s no small thing to celebrate 150 years, and you have been the leaders during this moment.

You also guided the Legacy Fund, including the setting of an ambitious target, to ensure that the 150th celebration would not only be a time of looking back but would also be a time of looking forward and preparing for a future that we can’t quite see. That’s leadership! I know that you will carry this commitment beyond your term of service on the PAG, and you will continue to support the fund as we move into a sustaining phase of the Legacy Fund.

What a time we’ve had!

While all of this has been going on, the board has been a careful steward of the organization’s assets. With the guidance of counsel, they have been mobilizing a multitude of small and old endowments for organizations that had closed or projects that are no longer active so that they can be used for today’s mission. They’ve collected funds for the future—not just for current operating expenses. This was the commitment the board made on the Alma Mathews House sale. This has allowed us to renovate our office space, which hadn’t been renovated in decades, preparing us to do work for the future. In our space, where we have the most favorable rent, we share the space and cost with New York Justice for Our Neighbors, World Day of Prayer USA, Ewha Foundation and others. We’ve also been through a staff reduction which was hard, and we still feel it, but it was necessary and positions us for the current time of uncertainty in The United Methodist Church.

What a time we’re in.

As the church demonstrates over and over again that we are not all of one mind regarding how to welcome and honor the LGBTQ siblings in our midst, UMW has said, we welcome and honor the LGBTQ siblings in our midst. While we also are not of one mind regarding ordination and marriage, we are clear that we can work together in mission for and with women, children and youth, and that we have a role in supporting efforts that stand against bullying and seek to address the horrendous rates of suicide among LGBTQ youth.

We have also amended our bylaws for every part of our structure to make clear how units, districts and conferences can stay connected and offer their leadership in United Methodist Women, even if churches or conferences chose to separate from The United Methodist Church. We began this work before the special session last year and once we see the results of this year’s session, we’ll look at it again to see if it covers where the church comes out.

In the past 10 years, United Methodist Women has made a desire for regionalization explicit. We are organized as a national office of United Methodist Women with powerful global connections. We’ve had regional consultations with women in Africa and the Philippines listening to how they shape their work and imagining together a connected future. We’ll have a similar consultation later this year in Europe. We hope that this common work will eventually find expression in a global book of discipline. Those of you who are following the General Conference work will know the Standing Committee on Central Conferences is presenting a status report on the global book of discipline but not anything for adoption. Describing the structure of United Methodist Women around the world will be work taken into the next quadrennium as well.

We’re planning for the future.

We’ve built a foundation in prayer, stewardship, identity and relationships, and we’ll be gathering today to engage in work about membership. Along with women who are not currently members of United Methodist Women, we are imagining a future that includes them and includes their preferred styles of meeting and connecting and serving as well as the patterns that serve the existing membership. We may have units that organize by lifestage, by mission interest, by activities, digitally, and in ways I can’t even imagine. All of us can remain focused on mission with women, children and youth, no matter how we gather. And our connection will make us stronger than staying in the current patterns would allow. We will strengthen our global ties to United Methodist women organized in other places—not with rigid structures but through relationship. We will trace the implications of our faith for how we are called to alleviate suffering and advocate for justice.

So, as we think about how the work will go on from here, we might ask ourselves: What’s my role? At the end of this meeting, what’s my role? Can I be one of the people who help my conference cultivate younger and more diverse leaders? Can I start a new unit or circle that experiments with a fresh approach? Can I ensure that United Methodist Women is recognized for our work—not because we need applause but because there is such a need for good news and focus on alleviating suffering and speaking up to change systems.

You all know that nominations for the program advisory group come through the conference channels, but they are also open to others. We get nominations from leaders across the country, from staff and from the annual conference process. You can help us by thinking about people in your conference who could make a contribution as part of the program advisory group, who would bring to us diverse experience, would help us to imagine the United Methodist Women that is to come because their experiences are broad, who will help us move the conversation forward. Please think about who could contribute to this leadership group and for whom the program advisory group might be a place of growth and joy. Send their names and information to Andris Salter and help us to continue to represent the diversity that is important to being who we aspire to be.

Your legacy giving, your service in your conference and your advocacy for creating just systems in church and community will continue to spread and build the legacy of United Methodist Women in every place.

It’s a story about change and a story about constancy.

Our organization will change, but our Purpose will remain steadfast. Our relationships with partner organizations and with one another will change, but our relationship with God through Jesus Christ will never waver. Our giving model and grant-making practices may evolve, but the fact that we are funding the work that grows out of our commitments will continue. The tools we have available for advocacy and for the urgent causes of the day will change, but we will continue to speak up for justice especially for women, children and youth. The types of service we engage in will expand with the creativity of our members and the needs of the moment, but we will continue to put faith, hope and love into action.

Dear ones—what a time we’ve had! What a time we’re in! What a future lies ahead of us!

Thanks be to God for your work and for the work of God, who calls us, pushes us and equips us to press on, to pray on, and to keep on on behalf of women, children and youth around the world.

Harriett Jane Olson is General Secretary and CEO of United Methodist Women.


Posted or updated: 3/30/2020 12:00:00 AM