Board of Directors

United Methodist Women Board of Directors Fall 2020: General Secretary’s Report

United Methodist Women Board of Directors Fall 2020: General Secretary’s Report
United Methodist Women General Secretary Harriet Olson at the March 2020 Program Advisory Group meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.

What a time we’re in. What a time lies ahead.

Friends, it’s an honor to bring my report to 2020 fall annual meeting of the United Methodist Women Board of Directors.

If you had a chance to see the video that I made for the United Methodist Women conference annual meetings for the fall, you heard some of my comments about “what a time we’ve had” in recent months.

I won’t repeat those comments in detail—Bishop Lee mentioned them, and you know them very well: a global pandemic, a postponed General Conference, the economic impact of the pandemic and the pressing need for racial justice.

So let me start by speaking about what a time we’re in. During the past six months, United Methodist Women’s national office made many changes in how we do what we do.

We are offering many more opportunities online, including Mission u, Faith Talks, various climate justice events as well as promoting and screening Zero Weeks, a documentary about paid family and medical leave. As has happened many times before, once again, the Mission u resource was very timely. Finding Peace in an Anxious World has been a blessing to so many during these days. And, of course, you are very familiar with the changes we had to make along the way with the jurisdiction leadership teams, to proceed with your elections. You’re also very familiar with the changes we’ve had to make to prepare for the meeting that we’re conducting today.  Thank you to Andris Salter for leading us in the work with the jurisdictions and to Susan Moberg for her work leading the team in preparation for today.

Also, as you’ll hear more about during our session, we were able to offer United Methodist Women members an opportunity to give to new, pressing needs through the Giving Tuesday Now campaign we conducted in May, and you’ll be interested to know that most of the giving was through online means. The staff and the board worked together to repurpose some unexpended funds to allow emergency grants to national mission institutions and long-term international partners responding to the impact of the pandemic in their communities. Thanks to Tamara Clark along with others across the organization who made these efforts a reality.

During this time, we have also kept the work of racial justice front and center before us. You have seen the various postings and actions. In March we began to lift up the enormous risk facing persons in prison, who are disproportionately persons of color, and calling for release of as many as possible. In May we spoke out after the news of Armaud Arbery’s shooting. In June we issued the statement “Black Lives Matter to God and Black Lives Matter to United Methodist Women.” And in July the board worked on a statement calling United Methodist Women to action on racial justice. Also in July we released a statement applauding a federal court ruling against the Dakota Access Pipeline that was opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and other indigenous peoples. There is so much going on in our world, and United Methodist Women members are very active!

Also during this time we knew as a staff that we would have to get used to doing things differently. And we had to make this change almost overnight. As soon as the stay-at-home directives were issued for New York in March we began to make arrangements to supply staff who needed it with equipment to work from home. We also instituted a practice of the senior leadership team connecting with the whole staff every week, alternating between an e-mail newsletter one week and online meeting in the next. This practice has facilitated communication about the work, about staffing matters and about personal celebrations and losses that has been critical for our work together as the staff and our morale during these challenging days.

I am happy to be able to share with you today that we have had no staff members contract the COVID-19 virus. However, many staff members have lost family and dear friends during this time, so we have found new, different ways of supporting one another as we grieve the loss of people who are dear to us.

We have announced that we will be in work-from-home mode through at least the end of this calendar year, but as restrictions have begun to lift in New York City, we are allowing small numbers of staff to come in several days a week in order to facilitate their work. Michelle Clemons and Wayne Moy have worked with the team to put proper protections in place and to help us manage this limited return to the office in a very significant and strong way.

During our time together, as you will hear from Tamara Clark, we are also managing expenses, and giving is down, but we still expect to end the year in a financially healthy position.

Much more could be said, and much more will be said during the course of our meeting, but I wanted to give you a snapshot of some of our view at the national office as we have adapted to this time we’re in. I also want to take a moment to express my thanks to the entire staff for their incredible work during this period, while navigating homeschooling, caring for family members and isolation. I particularly want to thank Michelle Clemons and the members of the senior leadership team for their commitment, wisdom and personal and spiritual support as we have navigated this time together. I thank God for them.

One of the things that we ask of you as board members is to support the staff through your prayers. This is important at any time, but even more so during these days.

Now let’s talk for a minute about looking ahead.

In the early weeks of the work-from-home requirements in New York I read an article that I would like to mention today that had a sobering assessment of the change that we would face in the next 12 to 18 months. It was published in March, and it was called “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup.” The authors made some analogies between how we prepare for a fierce winter storm, which may last days or weeks; the winter season, which lasts months in some parts of the United States and other parts of the world; and the actual work it would take to prepare for a longer-term event, which they referred to as a “little ice age.” Their proposition as they looked at Christian organizations was that every group would need to reassess its mission and its mechanism of serving its mission due to the impact of the pandemic. They suggested that while our core purpose, our central relationships and our vision of who God was calling us to serve and even our areas of focus would continue, what we do and how we do it would need to be reevaluated completely.

While on the one hand this sounds sobering, it is also very much in alignment with some of the work United Methodist Women was already doing in our strategic planning and vision casting. We are looking forward to becoming a more flexible, more nimble organization that women of every race and women from every generation want to be part of, to grow in faith and to affect the world for good through service and advocacy. You will hear more about our process in this work, some of what we’ve learned and some of the experimentation we are engaging in, through the planning assessment report and in the presentation from Sally Vonner and Simone Wilson.

Now the uncertainty that we face in The United Methodist Church could lead an organization to focus on maintenance, not make many changes and not look forward until it sees what will actually happen when the General Conference can be conducted. However, United Methodist Women is taking the opposite approach. We believe that God is calling us to press forward and giving us the skills and the determination to steer the course of the organization through these rocky seas. In fact, to use the bishop’s words, we’re journeying with hope.

We know that we have work to do to be the organization that we want to be, and with Sally Vonner’s leadership, we are continuing to take the steps necessary to evaluate our current practices and to build toward change. During the quadrennium to come, you as the board and we as staff will be studying and making decisions about some of the ways this process will move forward, including things like new meeting styles, how new members join the organization and how we can participate in ways in addition to our traditional circles and units. We will be talking about focusing our service and our advocacy, sharing broadly about the impact of our work and refreshing our look.

United Methodist Women has already made changes to the organizational bylaws to allow units and members in churches that choose to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church to remain connected to United Methodist Women. As you may know, churches are already beginning to disaffiliate—in small numbers now, and we don’t know what the future holds—but we are well positioned to answer questions from members about what this means for them.

We will of course continue to evaluate the plans before the General Conference, and, with Sung-ok Lee’s leadership, you will be a part of that work as we get closer to the new date. My understanding at the present is that there will not be a new timeline for submission of new legislation, but as we know from process of submitting the protocol and the Christmas Covenant, it is possible for annual conferences in their meetings in the spring to pass new legislation that would then be sent to the General Conference for consideration. We will be very attentive to any new plans and proposals that might be submitted in this way.

Friends, it has been said that the world has gone through five years’ worth of change in six months. I’m sure that you can relate to the volume of change that we have been experiencing. The need to make change at this rapid pace has been taxing for all of us, but I want to suggest today that it is also a moment of opportunity. It will allow us, it will equip us, it will undergird us as we move forward with hope.

We’ve learned that we can stay connected in ways that allow us to maximize our resources and redirect funds to places of great need. We have learned that United Methodist Women will respond to new ways of giving and of meeting. In the years ahead we must find ways to build on these learnings and to experience the newness and freshness that we seek as an organization while we hold tightly to our core identity.

We will continue to grow spiritually together. We will continue to learn in innovative ways. We will continue to engage in service and in advocacy for justice. Racial justice, climate justice, economic justice, gender justice—these are matters that have galvanized United Methodist Women members for years, many for generations. I believe that God is calling us to persist, to renew our efforts, to sharpen our skills with new tools and to find new ways to express God’s love on behalf of women, children and youth.

As we do this, it will also be our responsibility to care for and address the sense of loss we may also have as we normalize our online presence and as we institute other changes. Because there will be losses. I can say personally, losing the comfort that we have with the normal way of conducting this meeting is something that I’ve resisted in the weeks leading up to today’s time—notwithstanding how thrilled I am to be together today.

We will need to be alert for things that we must grieve and let go. The truth is that an element of loss is a part of any change. In fact, people say it is likely not the change we resist—it is the loss of the familiar. While recognizing that we will feel some of this, we are called as leaders to keep the vision of the future right before our eyes, to cultivate the hope that God has placed within us to speak to it, to demonstrate it, every time we have a chance.

The work is in our hands. We must hold loss and vision and hope together. We must communicate the excitement of a United Methodist Women built for these times as well as the urgency of the work to which we have been called. These days are important days. These four years will be important years. Together, staff and board, members and leaders, we can harvest the learnings that we have cultivated and the learnings that have been thrust upon us, with God’s help.

Friends, what a time we’re in, and what a time lies ahead. Thanks be to God!

Posted or updated: 10/20/2020 12:00:00 AM