Board of Directors

United Methodist Women Board of Directors Fall 2019 - General Secretary’s Report

United Methodist Women Board of Directors Fall 2019 - General Secretary’s Report
L. to r.: Sung-ok Lee, Daryl Junes-Joe, Cynthia Kent, Harriett Jane Olson and Shannon Priddy at the board of directors meeting.

A friend of mine who was raised Lutheran often says that as soon as she learned about the quadrilateral, she knew that The United Methodist Church was the place for her. Someone else recently told me that the social justice activism they participated in in youth group is still one of the most formative experiences in her life of faith. Our sisters who are seeking commissioning as a deaconess can each tell stories about that “snap” or that moment of clarity or that experience of the warmed heart that is quintessentially Methodist.

As we had conversations over the past few years about the future of The United Methodist Church, our members talked about what was meaningful to them about being a United Methodist. Not surprisingly for us, participation in mission (both service and advocacy) ranked very high. So did other key aspects of Methodist belief and practice, like the experience of God’s grace, belief in God’s previenient grace, combined with the experience of grace in relationship with God, and the grace that undergirds and surrounds our journey toward holiness. So much about grace.

The core doctrines of the church are important to our members: Understanding God in three persons, the creeds, and the sacraments of baptism and communion were mentioned. Our worship together is shaped by sacraments and prayer and by our powerful tradition of hymn writing and hymn singing. These are practices that shape our faith—means of grace for us, when we have a deep sense of God’s presence.

Then there are things like the General Rules: Do no harm, do good, attend on all the ordinances of God, or, as Bishop Job said it, stay in love with God. It’s important to us that our faith is lived, that it shapes what we do and that we are actively engaged in growing and deepening our lives as believers and followers of Jesus. The Social Principles were also on the list. They are the way we speak about what the general rules look like in action. Then of course, there is my friend’s favorite: the quadrilateral—Scripture, experience, reason and tradition. There is a Methodist way of thinking about our faith that is not a detached or abstract process but involves all that we are, especially our experience of the love of God, in shaping our understanding.

Then there are the people. Equal valuing of laity and clergy, our commitment to diversity and the acknowledgment that we have much work to do to live out our aspirations in this area, and, of course, the ordination of women.

These are all things that are part of our DNA. The question I want to talk about with you is how God calling us, United Methodists with this DNA, to organize to live out our faith in the years to come. I believe that we have a heritage and a way of being the body of Christ that can be good news to a divided world. Just as England did in Wesley’s day, we have deep political division, an increasing wealth gap in the United States and changes in the economy and technology that threaten the way of life we imagined. Despite our increasingly connected world, we know that loneliness and addiction are rife throughout the age span.

Our denomination, for all its great heritage, feels very fragile right now. In some places we hear United Methodists mourning what may be ending and in others we see people scrambling to shape what is emerging in order to “solve” the conflict as they see it. But what if we took this difficult time as an opportunity to shape the church to meet the needs of our communities and our world? How would we organize communities of believers to both build each other up and launch efforts that responded to the needs of the poor, for example? What if we invested ourselves in eradicating racism from our own structures and practices as a church and if we brought those same efforts to our communities? What if we created places of welcome for people who might never be comfortable in our worship services but who might come to know and believe that God loves them because someone cares about them? What if we came together to address some of the other great justice issues of our day, disassembling systems that oppress, from health care to wages to schooling to government support for extractive and exploitative industries and the treatment of indigenous people—in the United States and around the world? What if the church was actually organized around loving our neighbors?

How would we approach our music, our buildings, our leadership, our ways of meeting if we were focused on the people around the church as much as the people within it? What could galvanized and supported agencies, pastors and people accomplish together?

Our heritage is a heritage of adopting new patterns when the former ones cease to serve. Wesley and field preaching, lay preachers, revival meetings, classes and bands, lay women missionaries—you know the stories.

I’m very grateful for my history of Sunday school, vacation Bible school, camp meeting and summer camp and a long series of choirs. I was surrounded by practices of piety and practices of mercy, and I believe that young people need that still, but I am sure that the methods will need to change. I have attended two different city churches, in two very different cities, who have struggled with their buildings and their aspirations to serve their communities in a way that a dispersed membership can support. Some of the ways we do church will need to change so that we can serve our communities and so that our own souls are fed.

What would it look like for an emerging Methodism to take on some of the pressing matters of our day and to take long-term, committed efforts to change the tide? I’ve been impressed by Jewish brothers and sisters and their repeated protests at immigration detention centers. Their faith and their history have galvanized them to action. What if we came together around that or another issue—not because it was good to do or because it might capture the attention of social media for a few days but because we felt God calling us to act. United Methodist Women is attempting to do this sort of thing by focusing on our social justice priorities. Not just to have a program on it or to press for adoption of a particular piece of legislation but to make a difference, to walk with local leaders, to address multiple aspects of these issues and to allow God to guide our hearts and our work on behalf of women, children and youth and the world that God loves.

I admit that it may be a bit unrealistic to think that what seems like a time of crisis could be a time of revival and new life, but friends, faith isn’t about what is realistic. Faith is about what is real. God’s love is the most real thing. That I can know that God loves me, is grace beyond understanding. That God could use me in work for God’s own purposes in the world is hard to comprehend. What is real to me as I read the news, as I walk past people asking for money on my way to work, as I look at statistics about climate, is how much work there is to do. Surely, this part of the body of Christ has a role to play in this world. What if our organizing and planning were all about how to find those ways? Can we evaluate the plans coming before the General Conference for this sort of missional effectiveness? For responsiveness to the needs of the world? For their ability to call forth a bold new movement of Methodism that lives out our DNA of piety, service and action, that builds strong disciples and that works to relieve suffering and break down injustice?

I long to see that kind of passion and purposefulness in whatever future God has for The United Methodist Church.

My heart is stirred when I see that sort of passion and purposefulness in our own United Methodist Women. As your staff we are also praying and working for that to be more and more evident. Reaching new women, more diverse women and women across generations will require us to imagine new things as well. Our own slice of the Methodist DNA—spiritual growth, leadership development, service and advocacy focused on women, children and youth has used different methods and mechanisms over time, as those of you who have taken or led the history study know very well. We’ve changed how we do things to respond to the needs of the time and the call of God. We will need to do so again, and again and again, as God continues to call us. We also are in a period where we will have the opportunity to try new things and take some risks, inviting new people to participate and letting them help shape how we do our work.

As we are meeting here, we have a pilot project being initiated by regional missionaries and women’s leaders following up on our conversations with Central Conference women. Last week at the Korean Network United Methodist Women event I met five leaders of a Cambodian United Methodist Women group that is forming, interest in the deaconess/home missioner movement continues to rise, and bishops and clergy tell me that they notice how the social justice priorities are catching the attention of members new to United Methodist Women in their areas. Our planning and learning work is continuing, and staff, board members and members of the program advisory group will continue to be enlisted in various parts of these initiatives as the work moves ahead.

Just as I believe God is calling the church, I believe God is calling United Methodist Women to hold tightly to our DNA but loosely to our patterns. This is a time of opportunity. It can be an impetus for us to be more fully who are as Methodists and as United Methodist Women. If we allow ourselves to be so moved by the needs of the world and so passionate about women who are not yet members that we will try new things, we can create a new energy, a new momentum—a new chapter in the history of United Methodist Women, turning faith, hope and love into action on behalf of women, children and youth around the world.

May it be so.

Harriett Jane Olson is general secretary and CEO of United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 10/14/2019 12:00:00 AM