General Conference

United Methodist Women Hosts Gathering for Central Conference Women Delegates to the 2019 General Conference

United Methodist Women Hosts Gathering for Central Conference Women Delegates to the 2019 General Conference
The Rev. Eunice Musa Iliya of Nigeria sings during a gathering of Central Conference women delegates in St. Louis, Missouri.

On Friday Feb. 22, United Methodist Women hosted a gathering for Central Conference women delegates to the 2019 special session of the United Methodist General Conference. More than 40 women delegates from around the world were joined by United Methodist Women members, delegates and staff at Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, for fellowship, encouragement and truth-telling. The Central Conferences are the seven United Methodist conferences organized outside the United States in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.

The program was organized and opened by Deaconess and Regional Missionary Emma Cantor and the Rev. Betty Kazadi Musau, secretary of the Central Congo Conference and conference communicator for the North Katanga Conference. After singing “Many Gifts, One Spirit,” commissioned by United Methodist Women for its 1973 Assembly, Filipina deaconesses led the group in a dance to “This Is the Day.”

Methodist women were first elected to General Conference in 1888, explained United Methodist Women General Secretary Harriett Jane Olson in her address to attendees. Five women were elected. On the first day of the conference delegates spent most of their time arguing about whether the women should be there.

“Perhaps you’ll not be surprised that the conference voted against them,” Olson said. “They decided the women could not vote or speak to the conference and invited them to sit in the balcony with the visitors.

“We’ve come a long way since 1888,” she continued. “My question for us today is: Do we act like we’re still in the balcony?”

Of the 864 delegates to the 2019 General Conference, 306 are women. Only 87 are women from the Central Conferences. Though General Conference constitutes equal lay and clergy delegates, more than half of the male U.S. delegates are clergy, and almost 75 percent of male Central Conference delegates are clergy. Almost 60 percent of all women delegates are laywomen.

United Methodist Women’s gathering brought women together from around the world to celebrate their leadership and the importance of their voices at this historic meeting of The United Methodist Church. Translation was provided for Portuguese, Swahili, French, Tagalog and English speakers.

Already at a disadvantage by underrepresentation, many women don’t have the same opportunities for training and experience in public speaking. Speaking at a microphone can be intimidating.

“Whether or not you speak to the whole conference,” Olson said, “you’ll have opportunities to speak to other delegates—those opportunities are also important.”

Musau and Cantor instructed attendees to introduce themselves to one another and share one gift the church has given them. Then women returned to tables to discuss the challenges of General Conference and why it is hard for women to speak. They also discussed their hopes as women leaders.

Attendees spoke of the social and cultural barriers that prevented women from speaking, including lack of access to education, being barred from church leadership and being expected to be quiet and supportive at all times.

Men hold decision-making roles in the home, society and church, said the Rev. Eunice Musa Iliya of Nigeria.

“We can educate, empower and affirm women,” she said. “Teach them gender justice and let them know they were created equal in the eyes of God. There are issues that have to do with women that only women can speak about.”

Other women spoke about working to overcome low self-esteem and the importance of women supporting other women. Some have even been told that becoming a General Conference delegate is based on the position you hold in the church, not elections.

“We need to read our Book of Discipline,” said Betty Katiyo from West Zimbabwe, encouraging women to learn the rules for themselves so they aren’t misled.

“And as women we should not be apologetic when we share our opinion,” she continued. “Women, we need to caucus. When we get to the floor, let’s do that. We need to state our opinion.”   

The time together ended with the delegates receiving prayer shawls made by United Methodist Women members from across the country. In just a few weeks’ time, members made and sent more than 600 shawls. The shawls not used by Central Conference women delegates were given to general secretaries, bishops, General Conference staff, the Judicial Council and the marshals and pages at the Dome at America's Center, site of the special session.

Women wrapped one another in prayer shawls, saying, “I honor the God in you, your loving presence and your leadership.”

“You’ve prepared. You’ve studied. You’ve listened,” said Olson. “And now you will have opportunities to speak.”

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Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 2/23/2019 12:00:00 AM

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