Program Advisory Group

The Future Is What We Make It

General Secretary and CEO Harriett Jane Olson addresses the United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group March 29, 2019, in Nashville, Tennessee

The Future Is What We Make It
Harriett Jane Olson at the 2019 Program Advisory Group meeting.

The future of United Methodist Women is what we make it.

This season is a wonderful time of honoring our predecessors, reflecting on our relationships and giving thanks to God for all that has been accomplished over 150 years. For the last several years we’ve written countless stories, shared videos and art and testimonials, and still it seems that we have only scratched the surface of the effects and influences that have rippled outward from that long-ago meeting of a small band of women. Their tireless efforts to meet the needs they saw, to enlist other women to support it, and to recruit still others called to go and serve amaze us today. This summer we will have a chance to learn more from the mission study Women United for Change: 150 Years in Mission, and author Ellen Blue will tell you that she had countless decisions to make to decide what to leave out to keep the book to a reasonable size.

It is time to celebrate the way our predecessors responded to the call of God in their lives. In a context in which they had much less personal independence than we do, at a time when their ability to organize was sometimes constrained by law and certainly was challenged by church leadership and at a time when their work was truly groundbreaking, these women took the risk of following God’s call. And they also took the risk that their sisters would be able to support them.

Many of us have had a chance to celebrate, at Assembly, in our conferences, districts and local units, and we will continue to honor and learn from our history at Mission u this summer. It is right that we do this, that we tell stories of women from all 15 decades of our history, but we must not stop there.

The future of United Methodist Women is what we make it.

What do we learn from our predecessors that we can apply to different contexts, facing new permutations of some of the same issues and concerns that they addressed?

First of all, the work was rooted and grounded in prayer and in God’s love and in the understanding that the love of God and love of neighbor could not be separated. Today we ground our work the same way—we are beyond grateful for God’s love, and we are eager to reflect as we engage the world. Resources like the Prayer Calendar prompt us to pray daily, but we are also prompted to prayer when we connect with the work of our national mission institutions, with our regional missionaries, with the projects and programs that are made possible by our mission giving. We are promoted to prayer when we come to grips with the enormity of the work on interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, the need for a living wage, the urgency of changing our habits and our economy in the face of climate change and the unacceptable rates of maternal mortality in the United States. In these cases, as in so many others, we couple our prayers with action—serving, giving, organizing and speaking out. This reflects our United Methodist Women DNA.

Today, we also marvel at our predecessor’s risk-taking. They moved ahead, started work that failed and started work that had a life beyond their wildest imaginings—work that is still rippling outward today. They moved forward together, and they persevered sometimes through deep disagreements. Their internal debates must have been challenging and discouraging, but they found things they could agree on and they moved ahead.

We also know that they started projects that changed radically as they grew and that they began many projects that either failed or had limited impact. This is as much a part of their experience as the work that flourished. We do not really honor their work unless we realize that it was accompanied by struggle and setbacks. If we truly follow in their footsteps, we also need to start more work that fails. What? Well, of course, we wouldn’t start work intending to fail, but we should find ways to invest ourselves in making a difference in the church and in the world that no one has tried, or that we haven’t tried. This can mean organizing in new ways, connecting with new groups of members, working with national mission institutions and other organizations that we support to develop new ways of addressing continuing, intractable issues of poverty, racism, exclusion, hunger, health care and on and on. We must not let the strength that we admire in our predecessors hold us back from starting small or from the discipline of analyzing the work that we have “always done” and the way that we have “always done it.”

The future of United Methodist Women is what we make it. We can, and we must choose to build a strong, faithful future focused more on meeting today’s needs than on perpetuating prior methods, more on inviting persons who are not yet members than on the “regular” cycles of meetings and retreats that meet our needs. Now, hear me, I’m not suggesting that last year’s work is always in tension with next year’s desired results, but I am saying that this is a risk that we face that our predecessors did not. As they were building the organization, and as the church was expanding, they were making the patterns. As we are operating in a church that is declining in membership in the United States and are working in an organization with established patterns, we risk focusing on what we are doing rather than watching for the results we seek. Friends, this will never do. This is the time for bold thinking and action.

This is a time for United Methodist Women to break the mold, to work on new membership patterns, to recommit to our spiritual practices, to go deep in our work with our institutions, our relationships around the world and our priority issues. This is our way to honor the women who came before us and their legacy of commitment, and willingness to risk. Women, children and youth in our churches and around the world need prayerful, faithful support, and together we can respond with God as our guide and our help.

This is also a time of uncertainty and is likely to be a time of change in the church. With sisters around the world we are praying for what comes next as we look ahead to General Conference in 2020. My question for us today is, can we take this time as an opportunity to become more truly ourselves? In many ways, in the strategic plan, we find some guides in this direction, and so also do we find this in the commitment expressed by our board of directors to the important and countercultural work of staying together, focused on mission with women, children and youth. To do this, we will need to really go deep into our Purpose. We will need to stand with our LGBTQIA+ siblings, acknowledging their hurt and our own and standing for sacred worth, civil rights, human rights, protection from violence and bullying. We will need to deepen and strengthen relationships between women working for full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons and those who support the church’s current position.

As I have been reflecting on the responses across the church to the General Conference and also on United Methodist Women’s intention to support one another in our differences, I have thought about some of the shaping relationships in my life. I’ve reflected on the many teachers and leaders in the little evangelical church near my childhood home where I learned to read the Bible, where I first prayed out loud in public, where I collected newspapers for recycling with the youth group and participated in the church in ways you know and love. I am still in touch with my Sunday school teachers, and I know that we see the world very differently. I also know that they had a lot to do with who I am as a Christian and as a member of United Methodist Women, and I can’t imagine a church without them.

I also think about a woman who was the first female district superintendent in the former Northern New Jersey Annual Conference. I was honored to serve with her as a member of the General Conference delegation and to learn from her perspectives on the ordering of church life. I remember a sermon she gave at annual conference calling us to engage the world from a perspective of faith, lifting up the story of the 10 spies returning in fear from the promised land with the report that the people “appeared as giants in our eyes.” She was calling us to check our perspective. Sometime during her ministry she came to understand herself as a lesbian, but as I never heard her share this in a public space I am reluctant still today to call her name. I wish I could. And I cannot help but think about all the covered-dish suppers she attended alone, all the wedding receptions. She had such a significant impact on me and on the church—I can’t imagine a church without her.

To maintain relationships with our sisters with a range of opinions we will need to move to a new place of comfort with not having all the questions answered and of solidarity rather than tolerance. This business of “if your heart is as my heart, give me your hand” that John Wesley calls us to will be hard work in a polarized U.S. context. But it may be that this is the very learning point where God will pour out a blessing. What I am also sure of is that we must follow where God is calling, whether we feel ready or not.

The future of United Methodist Women is what we make it. Let’s choose bold, faithful, challenging ways to love each other and the world. Let’s participate as leaders in the church during this period, and let’s build the organization that we need and that the world needs.

Today I also want to remind you that in times like these, when there is uncertainty and likely change in the church, it is a time to be alert. You know the stories about the times we have been through. How in 1910 the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, directed the merger of the foreign and home mission societies to become the Women’s Missionary Council over the women’s objections, how in the merger of 1939, the consolidated women’s mission societies and associations of the merging denominations were made a division of the board of missions and how in 1964 the church transferred the administration of all that the women had built to the Board of Missions.

Last weekend at the New England Conference United Methodist Women event in Boston celebrating our 150th anniversary, Global Ministries General Secretary Thomas Kemper made brief and significant remarks. He traced the side-by-side experience of the church’s mission work with the women’s mission work and acknowledged that the women were an integral part of the growth of the church’s work. He also said the following:

“We recognize and repent of the ways in which patriarchy limited and constrained women’s work and the ways in which these injustices were reflected in the formal power structures of mission organizations. In particular we acknowledge and repent of the harm done to women and women’s work in the 1964 reorganization of the Board of Missions and the Women’s Division.”

Friends, we know this to be true, and it was powerful to hear this from Thomas at this significant place in our history. So of course I wanted to share it with you. You know, better than most, that United Methodist Women has been in the process of reengaging with our sisters in the Central Conferences after the split for these past 20 years. We’ve been in the process of reengaging with the national mission institutions and with deaconess/home missioner community for almost the last decade. The 2012 decision of Global Ministries and United Methodist Women to separate structurally has allowed us to move this process ahead, but we still encounter evidence of the broken relationships regularly. And, of course, no one can say what might have resulted from our work together if it had not been interrupted in 1964.

It is not my purpose today to dwell on the damage done. I share it because I want you to remember it and to share it with others as we look ahead so that we remember that times of uncertainty and change in the church can be risky for United Methodist Women.

United Methodist Women members are leaders across the church. We need to be working for the good of the whole church and our witness for Jesus Christ and we need to attend to building a strong platform for United Methodist Women into the future. Our members and those who understand and value our work and our history may need to speak up and claim our role in the days ahead. Today I remind you that our work calls for us to equip and support women leaders in our communities and in the church.

We need people serving in General Conference and in annual conferences and on boards and agencies across the church who know about how our Mission Giving affects the world, who know about how national mission institutions leverage our support to build thriving relationships with people in the communities they serve. We need representatives who can speak to the importance of our mission work in our key priority areas and our work to undergird women’s leadership around the world through regional missionaries, women’s desk leaders, scholarship recipients and others, representatives who can lift up the importance of seed grants for cutting-edge work. Think about the grant that we made long ago to End Child Prostitution and Trafficking organization as they began to peel back the cover on what we now call human trafficking. And we need representatives who can see the importance of this sort of exploratory, generative funding, as well as people who can see the importance of funding that’s flexible, addressing the needs of women, children and youth.

We can also attest to the importance of long-term partnerships like our participation with Shared Interest, engaging in microfinance and reinvestment in South Africa since the 1980s and now branching out to Mozambique and who we have connected to United Methodist Women there. The ability of the women organized for mission to follow the needs of women, children and youth with our prayers, our energy and our resources is integral to our work.

United Methodist Women, it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to celebrate our history and to do our part to build the future of United Methodist Women. So let’s do it—let’s celebrate, let’s claim a bold future, let’s invest ourselves in deepening and broadening our sisterhood of grace, and let’s be alert for ways to claim the space where United Methodist Women will operate in a changing church. The future of United Methodist Women is what we make it, with God as our helper. Let’s do it.

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

Posted or updated: 4/17/2019 12:00:00 AM