UMNS Photo by Mike DuBose
Justice for Women
M. Garlinda Burton, top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, speaks about proposed church restructuring. Her agency was eliminated, and then restored, by structure votes at General Conference.
By M. Garlinda Burton
Even though I’m glad General Conference turned out like it did, I want The United Methodist Church to know that at least one agency exec has heard your frustration with the general church machine. This is what I heard from delegates, at least with regard to the GENERAL COMMISSION ON THE STATUS AND ROLE OF WOMEN (GCSRW):
• Women—and men—in local congregations feel disconnected from our work.
• Our mandate to address sexism and assure women’s full and equal participation is often not viewed by some laity and clergy in congregations as part of Christian disciple making.
• Most United Methodists around the world are unfamiliar with GCSRW’s purpose and mandates.
• Our agency, best known for “monitoring” at meetings, is not engaging with the concerns of laity and clergy in congregations.
• Countering injustice is complicated work, and it must be done well in order to be effective.
Many General Conference delegates who spoke and voted in favor of dissolving GCSRW and the General Commission and Religion and Race, and replacing them with a Committee on Inclusiveness (the agency restructure was subsequently ruled unconstitutional and the agencies were restored), expressed extreme dissatisfaction with all churchwide agencies.
Individually and collectively, delegates spoke of inefficiency, duplication of services, perceived waste of funds, and a dearth of resources and services to undergird local churches in their vitality, growth and Holy Spirit-fired work in nurturing people in the faith and transforming the world.
It would be easy to dismiss these opinions, as many of them came from persons who are routinely anti-women, and who embrace racism, classism and xenophobia. But dismissing all criticisms would be a mistake, because we hear the same comments from GCSRW true-believers, those who pray for us and support our work.
GCSRW was established 40 years ago this year to challenge The United Methodist Church to help move the church toward full and equal participation of women in every aspect of the mission, ministry, administration, leadership and Christian teaching of our denomination. One of our first actions was to push for expanded rights for women in ordained and licensed ministry—including working to elect the first women bishops in 1980 and 1984.
A second priority of the early GCSRW leaders was to monitor church structures for inclusion of women. Using a “coding” process, the Commission encouraged annual conference and local-church women and men to track the number of women versus the number of men involved in leadership, from ushering to leading international church agencies.
That was then; this is now Monitoring for inclusion of women and advocacy for clergywomen are still essential components of GCSRW’s work. The 2012 General Conference removed the guarantee of pastoral appointments for clergy. GCSRW and the General Commission on Religion and Race will continue to review and evaluate the implementation of this policy change to ensure women, U.S. people of color and central conference persons are protected from discrimination.
Institutional sexism and other issues still persist in preventing women’s full participation, but the face of those discriminations and barriers have changed. In some ways, GCSRW’s method of addressing them have not kept pace. And GCSRW has, frankly, dropped the ball on some of the ever-emerging issues needs of churchwomen, including:
1. Helping congregations make discipleship and church involvement more accessible to young women.
2. Learning from United Methodist women from beyond the United States on how to support anti-sexism work and advocacy for laywomen and clergywomen leaders in their cultural contexts.
3. Challenging congregations, particularly in the United States, to be more welcoming of women on the margins (i.e., differently abled, poor, abuse survivors, lesbian/bisexual/transgendered women, single mothers with children, women with no previous church experience, newly divorced women).
4. Exploring the changing roles of women and men, in families, congregations, mission context, ordained ministry and the workplace.
5. Assisting laywomen and clergywomen how to work together as sister-disciples in congregations and annual conferences.
6. Bringing women into bridge-building conversations to surmount racism, xenophobia, classism, heterosexism and other barriers to true Christian sisterhood.
We can do better I’m not apologizing for who GCSRW has been. Our groundbreaking work has transformed The United Methodist Church—and beyond. Because of GCSRW, all U.S. annual conferences are required to have policies on prevention training and justice-making to counter the harm done by ministerial sexual misconduct.
Because of GCSRW, we have effective women bishops, superintendents, pastors, mission workers and laity leading the denomination in Africa, Europe and the United States.
Because of the faithfulness of our founding mothers and fathers, the number of women delegates to General Conference has increased by 30 percent during the past 40 years.
Because of the faithfulness of GCSRW, women ignored and wounded by other churches came to The United Methodist Church and found a spiritual home.
Because of GCSRW, men and women have learned to live together, share power and responsibility, and build better congregations, ministries of presence in their communities and relationships with Christ and one another.
And I strongly believe that a congregation that fails to confront sexism and racism cannot be “vital,” and true Christian discipleship requires us do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
But, some of the angst of General Conference seemed to me a call to do better as a single agency and as a participant in the work of our entire church. So I’m sharing some ideas I have to improve the work of GCSRW and to engage more women and men in the ministry of bringing wholeness and equity to and through The United Methodist Church. We will work harder to:
Bring together young women, women of color, poor women and central conference women—and go where they are—to discover the contemporary challenges women face as they seek to live out faith and calling. Celebrate and assist men in doing their own work to address sexism, privilege and sexual violence. Sexism is not “women’s work,” and men who “get it” must be engaged as partners in countering discrimination and institutional bias. Expand our work with laywomen and clergywomen on how to work effectively together. A dirty little secret in our denominations is that laywomen and clergywomen often compete with and undermine one another—some call it the “queen bee” syndrome. Part of our work in countering institutional sexism is to help women understand how we are often complicit in our own oppression. Coming together in faith, humility and openness can help women forge alliances to improve the total life of the church. Nurture women who are new to church leadership. Engaging new women is key, particularly women who are often marginalized in church leadership (i.e., local pastors, young women, single moms, low-income women). Last quadrennium, GCSRW wanted to bring together 200-plus women from around the world for a “congress,” where we worshiped, shared in a mission project, learned church polity and history, and pledge to learn and mentor one another in small online groups. We did not have the money to do it. We’re going to try again this quadrennium. Talk about hard issues as women. Sexuality and sexual orientation, faith and money, racism and classism, relationships, stress, divorce…these are hard things to talk about. But people of faith must provide space to discuss these issues if we are to help women apply their faith principles to “real life.”
These are just a few of my ideas. I would welcome yours. If you have an idea of how GCSRW can increase our visibility and relevance to women in congregations and draw a clearer connection between Christian discipleship and our mandates to battle sexism and sexual abuse in the church, please email us at email@example.com, or call in the United States, 312.346.4900.
Thanks to everyone who weighed in at General Conference and beyond.
–M. Garlinda Burton is general secretary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.