Sexual Ethics Remains Vital to the United Methodist Church

By Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain

The month of April marks the commemoration of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women acknowledges the difficulty of this work and commits itself to the eradication of sexual misconduct within the United Methodist Church. As GCSRW continues to celebrate its 50 years of ministry within the UMC, it is necessary to give pause and also honor the tremendous work done by the agency in the area of sexual ethics during its years of service.

Within a decade of the establishment of GCSRW, the commission worked confidently out of an advocacy stance for women throughout the denomination. While working on eradicating discriminatory language, GCSRW advocated awareness of the issues facing racial and ethnic women in the church, focused on increasing women in leadership at all levels, and educated as many as possible on the gender dynamics within the church. By the 1980s, GCSRW shifted many of its trainings on sexism and eliminating oppression of people based on gender. However, the agency had to give attention to individual situations developing within the church that were diminishing opportunities for women to have equal access. (1)

In 1982, GCSRW began an investigation into allegations at Boston University of sexist personnel practices. Following its investigation, GCSRW recommended to both BU and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to monitor compliance at BU with the affirmative action goals it had created. This case initiated GCSRW’s work with sexual ethics, providing them with an opportunity to establish a process for defining sexual harassment and a process for dealing with complaints. Within four years of the institution of these processes, GCSRW reported that 80-85% of the queries were handled informally with a resolution. (2)

Following the 1992 General Conference, GCSRW reorganized and made sexual ethics one of the primary elements of its programmatic agenda. This shift reflected a surprising study promoted by the General Council on Ministries following the 1988 General Conference. The findings released in 1990 showed that of its respondents, 50.7% of clergy, 19.9% of laity, 48.2% of students, and 37.3% of employees “reported at least one sexual harassment experience in a United Methodist Church setting.” These startling numbers showed the agency that they had significant work to do in the area of sexual ethics. In response, they petitioned the 1992 General Conference to take on the work of sexual ethics with a vision to create a plan for the elimination of sexual harassment. (3)

Visit UMSexualEthics.org for more information.

As GCSRW celebrates its 50th Anniversary as an agency, this year commemorates 40 years of work in sexual ethics. The work continues today through a dedicated staff member of the agency, whose work has only increased since 1982 as harassment has become more prevalent throughout the denomination. There is no other general agency other than GCSRW with such a singular focus on sexual ethics. GCSRW remains the only agency and office providing accountability at a general church level for sexism and sexual harassment. All of the denomination’s resources around prevention and response to sexual misconduct come from GCSRW. As such, GCSRW sees this work as a crucial element of its existence and prioritizes the programming in this area. The work helps the entire denomination respond to our disciplinary calling to accountability and healing for those affected by sexual misconduct.

Throughout its existence, GCSRW brought several important milestones to the work of sexual ethics within the United Methodist Church:

  1. The Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force: The legislation that developed this interagency collaboration is crucial because it shows the work of sexual ethics does not remain just the responsibility of one agency. This collaborative group focuses on creating healthy places of ministry and its responsibility falls on all UMC agencies. This group helped initiate the Do No Harm summit and collaborated to create a central website for sexual ethics.
    • The Do No Harm summit is a training event held once a quadrennium that resources sexual ethics and boards of ministry teams with the resources and latest data for intake, processing, and resolving complaints.
    • The Sexual Ethics website is a central hub for information and serves as a resource for anyone seeking information regarding prevention and/or response to sexual misconduct in The United Methodist Church.
  2. Resources: The sexual ethics program staffer promotes a plethora of resources for the general church, local churches, and annual conferences. Not only are physical and virtual resources available for these processes, GCSRW offers a variety of training resources to annual conferences on sexual ethics information and on forming and maintaining response teams to deploy as necessary following complaints. Most recently, GCSRW launched a comprehensive guide to the complaint process called “Do No More Harm”, which provides all types of users the information they need to enter the complaint process.

While this work of GCSRW is laudatory, the necessity of this work brings us pause. Training is helpful in these situations, but training alone cannot eradicate the denomination of sexual misconduct. There remains a need for just resolution for so many complaints. There also remains a need to hold an institution accountable for the ways in which survivors are silenced or pushed aside. Additionally, there is a need to address and reframe the existing culture of shame that exists and is founded in traditional teaching and theology around gender differences and power. This work must take priority in order for accountability and healing to happen.

For now, GCSRW celebrates the significant legislation that has already been placed on the disciplinary books of the denomination, providing a standard of sexual ethics by which we abide and a systematic process for complaints and consequences for violations. We also hold in tension the immense need for wider work to be done throughout the global church in addressing gender equity and methods of power used to harass, assault, and subordinate others. Until then, GCSRW remains faithful to the work of sexual ethics and holds it as a priority, as it has done for the past few decades.

Bibliography:

(1) Carolyn Henninger Oehler, The Journey Is Our Home (Chicago: General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, The United Methodist Church, 2015).

(2) Oehler, The Journey Is Our Home.

(3) Oehler, The Journey Is Our Home.

About the author

Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain is a PhD student at Boston University, where she focuses on 19th and 20th Century American Christian History and the intersectionality of faith and gender. She earned her B.A. in History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007 and graduated with an M.A. Religion and M.Div. in 2019 from Claremont School of Theology. She’s an ordained United Methodist Deacon in the North Alabama Conference, and entered academia after serving for 9 years within the United Methodist Church where she worked in Connectional Ministries. Emily served as a reserve delegate to the 2016 General Conference and as a delegate for the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She has served on the GCSRW board since 2016.

Clergywomen Promote Hope and Healing

By Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain

In the life of Methodism, clergywomen have often been omitted from full participation in the life of the Church. Yet, clergywomen, and those who advocated for women’s right to the pulpit, carved out a significant space of equity for women in the pulpit. Because clergywomen are now visible and accessible, young women and girls have hope to see that there are no obstacles to the gift of prophecy and preaching. For fifty years, the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women worked diligently to maintain that crafted space for women, both in the pulpit and in the pews, as a way for women to be leaders in their churches and in their communities. The mission for GCSRW has not changed and it continues to provide the guidance for their work in the future.

There are a number of incredible women that contributed to the efforts for permitting women to preach. While John Wesley never condemned their presence outright, he also never gave full permission to equality of women and men. Yet, his attempts to persuade women to continue to develop their vocational calls and situate them within the cultural provisions gave hope for women like Mary Bosanquet Fletcher to preach without fear or failure and to advocate for other women to follow her.

The history of women’s admission to the clergy is one fraught with denial and refusal to see women as full persons within the Church. Through multiple General Conferences, memorials and petitions arrived to advance women to licensure to preach or to full connection of the clergy, but they lost steam or got caught up in contentious debate. By 1920, when women were afforded the right to vote in the United States, one specific woman sought to bring the issue of women’s preaching to rest, M. Madeline Southard.

M. Madeline Southard – Southwestern College of Kansas

Born and reared in Kansas, Southard learned how to advocate for women’s rights from one of the best organizers in history, Frances Willard. As a part of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union speaker’s circuit, Southard learned how to preach on soapboxes and street corners about the social ills of society and calling Christians to participate in their calling to social holiness. Her popularity gained her entré to local pulpits in Kansas, where she would fill pulpits of those congregations who also felt it was time for women to preach. Southard received enough votes to be a General Conference delegate in 1920 and 1924. Prior to the 1920 conference, she published her thesis, The Attitude of Jesus Toward Women and an article in The Methodist Review entitled “Woman and the Ministry.” She sent copies of her Review article to every General Conference delegate in 1920 with a personal letter requesting that they advance the right of women to the pulpit.

In 1920, her efforts failed, but the vote was a very thin margin. When the issue arrived back to the committee in 1924, the General Conference finally approved women’s licensure and ordination, but refused to give them full connection and an equal status to that of clergymen. Women had a right to the pulpit in the Methodist Episcopal Church until 1939, when it was revoked with the merger of the Northern and Southern branches of the MEC and the Methodist Protestant Church. The new Methodist Church took 17 more years to approve women to full connection within clergy ranks, with women’s ordination officially happening in 1956.

While it was a rocky road, the efforts of M. Madeline Southard and so many other men and women who joined her cause brought hope and healing to many women within the Methodist connection. Frances Willard always wanted to pursue ordination, but never saw the opportunity come to fruition while she was alive. Georgia Harkness assisted in Southard’s efforts until they came to full passage in 1956. Harkness even saw the advancement of GCSRW through legislative means to be an agency to hold Methodist structures accountable to full participation of women, lay and clergy, within the denomination. These women brought hope to those who came long after, because they removed so many of the hurdles that were keeping women from advancing their vocational calls. These clergywomen provided healing to so many who had been previously scorned by attempting to follow their calls.

The work of clergywomen continued long beyond 1956, as they sought full participation for women in all levels of the church structures, including the episcopacy. In 1980, the election of Marjorie Matthews as a bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction issued in a new era, one in which women had some type of access to the highest levels of leadership in the denomination. However, Matthews’s election also marked the first Protestant female bishop in American history. In 1984, Leontine T.C. Kelly received enough votes to become a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction, making her the first woman of color episcopal leader in American Christian history. Within twenty years of Matthews’s election, fourteen women would be promoted by election to the denomination’s highest office, including election of multiple women of color and one within every jurisdiction. In 2005, Rosemarie Wenner became the first woman elected to the episcopacy within a UMC Central Conference (Germany), with the election of Joaquina Filipe Nhanala following just three years later in the Mozambique conference.

A gathering of some of our UMC Bishops

Every Sunday, in pulpits across the world, clergywomen offer hope and healing to their congregations. They are empowered and uplifted by the work of so many of our foremothers who sought egalitarian means to match that of a theology based in the work of equality that Jesus offered. In this final week of Women’s History Month, we celebrate the clergywomen of Methodism, whether they were given the title officially or not, for their diligence to their vocational callings, but also to the generations that followed them. For their perseverance, women today have the hope to follow their calls with joy and zeal, offering the opportunity for healing to all people connected to the pulpits and congregations they serve. It is for this hope that GCSRW continues its mission for full participation of women in the life of the church, for while there is work to be celebrated, it is evident by our past work that there is still significant work to be done.

Bibliography:

Chilcote, Paul Wesley. The Methodist Defense of Women in Ministry: A Documentary History. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2017.

Craig, Judith, ed. The Leading Women: Stories of the First Women Bishops of the United Methodist Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2004.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. “Selfishness One Degree Removed: Madeline Southard’s Desacralization of Motherhood and a Tradition of Progressive Methodism.” Priscilla Papers 28, no. 2 (Spring 2014): 17–22.

Irons, Kendra Weddle. “M. Madeline Southard (1877-1967) on ‘Ecclesial Suffrage.’” Methodist History 45, no. 1 (October 2006): 16–30.

Noll, William T. “A Welcome in the Ministry: The 1920 and 1924 General Conferences Debate Clergy Rights for Women.” Methodist History 30, no. 2 (January 1992): 91–99.

Schmidt, Jean Miller. Grace Sufficient. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.

Southard, M. Madeline. “A Memorial.” Memorial to 1920 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Des Moines, Iowa: The Methodist Episcopal Church, May 5, 1920. MC647 / 9-6. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

———. Letter. “Letter from Madeline Southard to 1920 General Conference Delegates.” Letter, May 5, 1920. MC647 / 9-6. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

———. The Attitude of Jesus toward Woman. Stroudsburg, Pa: International Association of Women Ministers, 1999.

———. “The Ministry as a Vocation for Women.” The Woman’s Pulpit. October 1923, Vol. 1, No. 56 edition. The Records of the International Association of Women Ministers, 1922-2001. The Archive of Women in Theological Scholarship, The Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary.

Thompson, Patricia J. Courageous Past – Bold Future: The Journey toward Full Clergy Rights for Women in the United Methodist Church. Nashville, Tennessee: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the United Methodist Church, 2006.

About the author

Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain is a PhD student at Boston University, where she focuses on 19th and 20th Century American Christian History and the intersectionality of faith and gender. She earned her B.A. in History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007 and graduated with an M.A. Religion and M.Div. in 2019 from Claremont School of Theology. She’s an ordained United Methodist Deacon in the North Alabama Conference, and entered academia after serving for 9 years within the United Methodist Church where she worked in Connectional Ministries. Emily served as a reserve delegate to the 2016 General Conference and as a delegate for the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She has served on the GCSRW board since 2016.

Laywomen Promote Hope and Healing

By Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain

Within the life of Methodism, women have been the backbone of ministry. While they are often not front and center in the historical narratives, Wesleyan history always notes the women who have tirelessly exhorted, preached, served, and loved throughout the ages of the Methodist movement. The theological framework of the Methodist tradition drew women naturally into it, as it promoted sanctification through a variety of personal and public piety, as well as social holiness and public witness. In these spheres of justice and mercy, women tapped their natural inclinations of what Frances Willard called “mother-heartedness.” These emotional connections to humanity created a space for women to expand their ministry beyond domestic life and into the public sphere, attaching their theology to their physical capabilities.

Laywomen have been the driving force behind some of the most innovative evangelism and mission work in the denomination through the organizational ways of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS). Women fundraised in creative ways to encourage participation in the full life of the Church, encouraging other women to contribute in their best ways possible from time, labor, or finances. WFMS’s objective was to expand missional offerings beyond that of the missionary’s wife alone, encouraging women to acknowledge “God’s voice as speaking to us – for who can so well do this work as we?” WFMS launched women missionaries to the far ends of the globe and with an entrepreneurial spirit, while local advocates canvassed everyone they knew for support and to publicize the work of Methodist women in mission. Their hope became empowerment and emboldening of women and children within family systems across the world, by encouraging Christian growth and bringing hope to oppressed and marginalized peoples. The creation of the WFMS led to other parachurch organizations that encouraged women’s participation, including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (to advocate prohibition), the Young Women’s Christian Association (to advocate antiracism and fight poverty), and even organizations that became heavily involved in the local area’s politics to advocate for woman’s suffrage, antiracism, and education for all people. (1)

Founders of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society: Mrs. Thomas Rich. Mrs. E. W. Parker. Mrs. Thomas Kingsbury. Mrs. William Merrill. Mrs. William Butler. Mrs. Lewis Flanders. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

With the success of their missional undertakings, women then took their collective organizing and worked to tackle the problem of women’s representation within the denomination’s decision-making body, the General Conference. Within the ten years of WFMS’s initial operation, there were still no women serving General Boards, Agencies, or the General Conference. Instead, women served the Church in separate spheres than men, where their efforts were successfully funded and sanctioned by the denomination, but their leadership was left out of the larger body. The body’s Discipline solely referred to the laity as laymen, often precluding women’s participation in elections to representative bodies. They began petitioning as soon as the 1880s, and they garnered significant support. However, whenever the matter appeared before the body, it got voted down in reference to the Discipline’s male language. In 1888, four women were elected by their conferences to the General Conference to serve as delegates (and seventeen of them as reserve delegates), but they were denied their seats, referring once again to the male-specific language of the Discipline. Women continued to fight for their representative rights in the denomination, finally earning their recognition as included within the body of the laity in 1904. For the Methodist Episcopal Church South, women’s representation would take even longer, and women would finally be granted the right to representation if duly elected during the MECS General Conference in 1918. The representation of women in the highest decision-making bodies provided healing to those women who had been fighting for so long, while also providing hope for a greater impact to society with the inclusion of women’s voices toward the trajectory of the denomination. (2)

Jessie Daniel Ames (Courtesy: Center for the Study of Southern Culture at University of Mississippi)

Laywomen in the Methodist connection have continually advocated for antiracist policy to bring hope and healing to racially-marginalized communities, especially in the twentieth century. In 1930, a group of women, led by Jessie Daniel Ames, gathered to form the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. They drafted a statement as a foundation for the Association: “Lynching is an indefensible crime. Women dare no longer allow themselves to be the cloak behind which those bent upon personal revenge and savagery commit acts of violence and lawlessness in the name of women. We repudiate this disgraceful claim for all time.” By 1937, their organization branched into 109 organizations with more than four million participants. These Methodist laywomen engaged in antiracist behavior inside the church, as well. Prior to the 1939 Plan of Union that produced The Methodist Church, Southern Methodist women protested the creation of a segregated denomination. In 1936, during the 27th Annual Woman’s Missionary Council meeting in the MECS, the Committee on Interracial Co-operation Study Group presented their opposition to the upcoming plan of union, suggesting the planning commissions “did not make provision in the plan for more direct relationship between white and [Black] Annual Conferences and white and [Black] local churches.” In 1952, the Woman’s Division issued a charter on human rights, applicable to all Woman’s Division organizations and events, and encouraged for all Methodists in the connection. The charter stressed racial equality and compelled all Methodists to refuse to discriminate based on race, while also working to “enable the full participation of any racial group in any phase of the assembly program” on Methodist Assembly grounds. By affirming the whole person and their rights to full access to the Church, Methodist laywomen provide healing to those excluded and gave hope to their fellow Black Methodists that their voices were valued. (3)

Education was a direct outlet for women to enter in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Methodist laywomen engaged in multiple educational fronts for a variety of purposes. Many women launched training centers and Bible institutes for vocationally-called women so that they had ample opportunities for educating themselves and those within their homes and communities. Women also founded schools across the United States and throughout the world as a way to provide education to those who had little access to resources. One of the most famous Methodist educators is Mary McLeod Bethune, who became Methodist simply because they offered her a partnership opportunity. Bethune was seminary-trained and a graduate of Moody Bible Institute when she was preparing to take mission to Africa, but her denomination did not approve her application. After a while of visiting various educational training grounds, including that of Tuskegee Institute, she moved to Florida to establish a school for Black girls, and the Methodist Episcopal Church offered her financial support to open the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in Fall 1904. Eventually, she merged her school with the Cookman Institute, and became the first president of the Methodist-affiliated Bethune-Cookman Institute. As a delegate to the General Conference, she served as a member of the Methodist Board of Education and continually pushed the denomination to extend its ministry in education, as she had seen its positive impact in communities. (4)

Mary McLeod Bethune (Courtesy: National Park Service)

Incredible laywomen have also served for the entirety of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women’s fifty years. From board members to general secretaries to participants, laywomen have impacted the commission in ways that many could never have imagined and that cannot be ignored. Laywomen helped establish the very mission under which GCSRW serves the denomination, but they have also assisted in the creation of advocacy ministries that continually challenge the church to move toward the full participation of women in the life of the Church. In all of these ways, they bring healing to those wounded by damaging policies and structures, while seeking to bring hope of greater possibilities to younger generations. In partnership with United Women in Faith, United Methodist women leave an impact of social holiness in a variety of ways in today’s world, from mission to advocacy to ministries of caring. The ministry of laywomen is important to the hope and healing of the world we serve. Into the 21st century, laywomen stand on the shoulders of those who have served the denomination and the world before, affirming the great cloud of women witnesses, who acknowledged their calls to justice and mercy and boldly and faithfully marched forward to make their communities and their world a better place.

For additional Information on the General Commission of the Status and Role of Women, and their 50th anniversary, please visit the website at www.gcsrw.org.

References:

(1) The Women’s Foreign Missionary Society eventually became The Women’s Division of Christian Service, the predecessor to United Methodist Women, which is now named United Women in Faith as of March 2022; “An Appeal to the Ladies of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” The Heathen Woman’s Friend 1, no. 1 (June 1869): 1–3.

(2) Rosemary Skinner Keller, “Creating a Sphere for Women,” in Women in New Worlds: Historical Perspectives on the Wesleyan Tradition, ed. Hilah F. Thomas and Rosemary Skinner Keller, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981); Virginia Shadron, “The Laity Rights Movement, 1906-1918,” in Women in New Worlds: Historical Perspectives on the Wesleyan Tradition, ed. Hilah F. Thomas and Rosemary Skinner Keller, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).

(3) “Ames, Jessie (1883-1972): Lynching Is An Indefensible Crime,” History of Missiology: Boston University School of Theology, February 21, 2020, https://www.bu.edu/missiology/2020/02/21/ames-jessie-1883-1972/; “Methodist Women in the South Oppose Segregated Plan of Union,” 27th Annual Report (Woman’s Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1937 1936); “Woman’s Division Issues Charter on Racial Policies,” 12th Annual Meeting (Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania: Woman’s Division of Christian Service, January 8, 1952).

(4) Clarence G. Newsome, “Mary McLeod Bethune As Religionist,” in Women in New Worlds: Historical Perspectives on the Wesleyan Tradition, ed. Hilah F. Thomas and Rosemary Skinner Keller, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).

About the Author

Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain is a PhD student at Boston University, where she focuses on 19th and 20th Century American Christian History and the intersectionality of faith and gender. She earned her B.A. in History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007 and graduated with an M.A. Religion and M.Div. in 2019 from Claremont School of Theology. She’s an ordained United Methodist Deacon in the North Alabama Conference, and entered academia after serving for 9 years within the United Methodist Church where she worked in Connectional Ministries. Emily served as a reserve delegate to the 2016 General Conference and as a delegate for the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She has served on the GCSRW board since 2016. 

Deaconesses Promote Hope and Healing

By Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain

March is Women’s History Month, and we are taking a special focus on various women who have promoted hope and healing through the Church and beyond by means of their vocations, callings, and ministry to others. This series is also connected to the fiftieth anniversary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW), whose work seeks to enable full and equal participation of women in the life of the United Methodist Church, locally, nationally, and internationally. In celebration of fifty years of GCSRW, we also celebrate the many ways in which women have served others and brought hope and healing to families, communities, and congregations. This month, we ask you to consider how you might take inspiration from these stories and engage your own local ministry opportunities.

One of the first professionalized modes of ministry for women came in the role of deaconesses. The deaconess, modeled first by Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2, is a consecrated position for women. In various denominations, the deaconess has different functions and specializations. The modern-day movement of deaconesses really ramped up in 1830, following the implementation of the order by the Lutherans. Initially, the role required celibacy and avoiding marriage. Once a woman married, she was “retired” from deaconess service. In the Methodist tradition, deaconesses have typically been an office of laywomen. However, beyond the 1939 merger, when the north, south, and Methodist Protestants merged, they moved the office of deaconess under the Women’s Division for Christian Service. In 2004, they added the role of home missioner for men to have equal opportunity to serve in unique ways that did not require ordination. (1)

Deaconesses became a major outlet for Methodist Episcopal women in the late nineteenth century to serve the oppressed and marginalized of their communities while also expanding their capabilities beyond that of socially-constructed domesticity. In 1885, Lucy Rider Myer opened the first training school for deaconesses in the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Chicago Training School. At CTS, women could take courses in Bible, Bible history, medicine, music, church history, and pedagogy. One special area of the program focused on visitation, or practical experience, where students visited mercy missions, the poor, the ill, and the unchurched. Other schools began popping up across the United States. The New England Deaconess School opened in Boston in 1889. In the Methodist Episcopal Church South, Belle Harris Bennett started the Scarritt Bible and Training School in Kansas City, Missouri, with a $25,000 grant from namesake Nathan Scarritt. The school moved to Nashville in 1928. Scarritt College offered opportunities for southern Methodist women to also engage the same types of deaconess and missionary roles as those in the northern branch of the denomination. All of these training schools pioneered the development of a new area of social sciences: sociology. As deaconesses served their local contexts, they also researched the social problems occurring and provided programming for social services and education, while also searching and discussing the role of the Church in providing a solution. The training school movement eventually fizzled out, but the role and necessity of deaconesses did not. (2)

Lucy Rider Meyer (Photo Credit: GETS Digital Collections)
Chicago Training School (Photo Credit: GETS Digital Collections)
Belle Harris Bennett (Photo Credit: UMC)

During the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, churches shuttered and many social services were delayed. While canceling services kept people from gathering and spreading influenza while also refraining from doing harm and while continuing their faith practices confined at home, Methodists deaconesses across the country remained diligent to their call of service. At their 1919 meeting of the Women’s Missionary Council of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, there were many reports of activities happening amidst the influenza pandemic just in the area of Birmingham, Alabama:

At the Community House in Ensley, Alabama, Deaconness Dorothy Crim (head resident) spoke of 1918 being their “greatest year, because the work has been wider and more varied, presenting a greater opportunity for service, and we have been able to do more heart work… one of the greatest opportunities was offered during the influenza epidemic.” Over those three weeks, the women serving the house served as neighborhood nurses, assisted doctors, prepared food for the community, and cleaned and lended laundry. At the end of November, they provided a community-wide Thanksgiving service.

At the Avondale Wesley House, Deaconness Florence Blackwell requested an additional worker because of the increase in work. She and her volunteers were making daily rounds of the mill village to check in on people and offer service to those in need. A Deaconness serving the local First Church in Birmingham, Margaret Ragland, saw her task as carrying forward the work of the Red Cross in the area and making home visits, while also making sure the work of the church office continued. She wrote that the “year has brought much anxiety and sorrow and there has come to many of our people the baptism of affliction, binding us all in the fellowship of suffering that is now far-reaching and all-inclusive.” (3)

Graduates of the Chicago Training School deployed almost immediately in 1888, as Methodist deaconesses, Elizabeth Maxey and Katherine A. Blair arrived in Calcutta in 1888. Maxey served in India for thirty years as a superintendent of a Deaconess Home while Blair was an evangelist around the country. In just a few years in Calcutta, with the help of many more stationed deaconesses, many Indian women were consecrated as deaconesses. In the year 1890 alone, they baptized more women and girls than any previous year, and they worked to deploy 31 missionaries, 29 assistant missionaries, and 233 women Bible teachers. More than 1,200 women were learning to read, while another 7,000 received religious instruction. Medically, these missionaries were treating 22,000 in hospitals and dispensaries and training 13 medical students as well. Deaconesses served across the world and at missions within the United States. Western China received several deaconesses that oversaw Deaconess Homes and schoolhouses. Deaconesses organized a Temperance Legion in Mexico in 1900, and then developed a school that was ranked as the best school in the city and the “only Evangelical school for girls.” By 1928, Mexico saw its first homegrown consecration of a deaconess. (4)

In 1903, a deaconess training school opened in Manila, Philippines, while issuing in medical work in 1906 and dormitory work in 1914. Deaconesses expanded their work beyond Manila by 1906. When other training schools opened, the language around deaconess was not furthered, but instead, its graduates were called Bible women. Regardless of the vernacular, deaconesses were diligently expanding their witness and district superintendents suggested “that more than one-half our converts each year are the direct result of the work of our Bible women and deaconesses.” Deaconesses trained in the Philippines were in high demand by churches and they could never graduate enough women in time for the need. (5)

(Photo Credit: Archives and History)
Jennifer Ferariza-Meneses (Photo Credit: “Of Faith, Healing, and Wholeness)

Today in the Philippines, deaconesses continue to enhance ministry in the country’s missional context. One current Filipino deaconess and Executive Secretary of the Philippines Central Conference Board of Women’s Work, Jennifer Ferariza-Meneses, provides hope and healing to all of her peers through her narrated fight with cancer while serving in an advocacy role through United Methodist Women in the Philippines Central Conference.

Ferariza-Meneses affirms how she found healing through her community and women’s work:

I did not face this health battle all by myself. I am grateful for I have the privilege to receive the gift of family and community care and support. I experienced some of the very rich Filipino values of “pagtutulungan” (teamwork), “pagmamalasakit” (concern/care) and “pakikipagkapwa” (sharing oneself with others) which made this journey a very meaningful one. Family and friends have shared with open hearts whatever resources they have to extend help for my treatment and recovery. My Board of Women’s Work circle which includes my colleagues, mentors, partners, here and abroad, and all women’s organizations in The United Methodist Church – Philippines, have been very supportive from the day I was diagnosed. Both collectively and individually, they assisted me with my tasks and responsibilities at the office while I was undergoing treatment, provided financial assistance, free medical services and love gifts, and took time to pray for my complete recovery in their personal devotion and group prayer meetings/events. Some of my closest friends raised funds by selling merchandise and products like cloth face masks, shirts, bread, and pastries. One of our family friends asked for cash gifts for his birthday from his handful of friends and colleagues to cover some of my medical expenses. Others sliced some portion from their salary and allowance to chip in and purchase some food supplies online for my daily nutritional needs.

Healing is flowing. It is even overflowing. It flows naturally through the people’s value and love for life. I experienced the healing power of God which keeps flowing through people’s willingness to show compassion, love, and care in different and unexpected ways… Healing is communal. We, human beings, exist in this circle of life (in all its forms) interconnected with one another. In this healing journey, I have encountered the true meaning of “kapwa” in different circles of loving people and experienced a bond of support and solidarity. Our being “kapwa” is a recognition of a shared identity, an inner self, shared with others according to Virgilio Enriquez. It can create a circle of hope, a sharing space, a fellowship of love. My healing would not be my own victory but will be shared and celebrated with a community… Healing is forward-looking. Lessons of life from the past has been guiding me through a process of healing for a healthier version of my whole self. Life has been teaching me further to embrace all its movements gearing towards a direction and continuation of fulfilling a call to protect life, seek justice, love peace. I would let my days ahead unfold on its own, trusting this lifetime process of coping, adapting, changing and becoming as a person, as part of humanity and of God’s creation. (6)

Today, deaconesses and home missioners serve out of the United Methodist Women agency. In 2016, they received approval to become the denomination’s first recognized lay order of ministry. In the same year, they were also given ecclesiastical support in chaplaincy endorsement, making them the only lay order supported. Last year, the first woman, Leah Wandera of Kenya, in the Africa Central Conferences was commissioned as a deaconess, and she will receive consecration at the upcoming UMW Assembly. Wandera is just the first, though, as two more people (one home missioner in Zimbabwe and a deaconess in Kenya) are to be consecrated this year, and there are six more in candidacy. United Methodist Women and the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women are significant partners in ministry and affirm the ministry of women in all aspects of the life of the Church. With the groundbreaking work of Methodist women throughout the movement’s history, GCSRW can continue to focus on the increased representation of women within the denomination’s structure while United Methodist Women promote service, education, and mission opportunities to all people across the globe. (7)

Leah Wandera (Photo Credit: Drew University)

References:

(1) Hilah F. Thomas et al., eds., Women in New Worlds: Historical Perspectives on the Wesleyan Tradition (Women in New Worlds Conference, Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).

(2) Hilah F. Thomas et al., eds., Women in New Worlds: Historical Perspectives on the Wesleyan Tradition (Women in New Worlds Conference, Nashville: Abingdon, 1981).

(3) The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Ninth Annual Report of the Women’s Missionary Council of The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, for 1918-1919 (Nashville, Tenn.: Publishing House of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1919).

(4) Mary Isham, Valourous Ventures: A Record of Sixty and Six Years of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, Methodist Episcopal Church (Boston, Mass.: Methodist Episcopal Church Publication Office, 1936).

(5) Mary Isham, Valourous Ventures: A Record of Sixty and Six Years of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, Methodist Episcopal Church (Boston, Mass.: Methodist Episcopal Church Publication Office, 1936).

(6) Jennifer Ferariza-Meneses, “Of Faith, Healing, and Wholeness” (Self-published, October 1, 2021).

(7) I want to extend my sincerest gratitude to wonderful and resourceful people within the United Methodist Women organization who helped connect the dots on some of the Deaconess/Home Missioner program, including Mollie James-Vickery, Sung-Ok Lee, and Megan Hale. Your knowledge is wonderful, but it is your service to the women of Church and to the world that is so deeply appreciated by me and so many women, because you’ve blazed a trail for women to step into the public sphere.

About the author:

Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain is a PhD student at Boston University, where she focuses on 19th and 20th Century American Christian History and the intersectionality of faith and gender. She earned her B.A. in History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007 and graduated with an M.A. Religion and M.Div. in 2019 from Claremont School of Theology. She’s an ordained United Methodist Deacon in the North Alabama Conference, and entered academia after serving for 9 years within the United Methodist Church where she worked in Connectional Ministries. Emily served as a reserve delegate to the 2016 General Conference and as a delegate for the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She has served on the GCSRW board since 2016. 

The Foremothers of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women

By Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain

Note: In March GCSRW will promote blogs for Women’s History Month, following the national theme of “Providing Hope and Healing.” We will feature several Methodist women who have been exceptional in the Church’s history of providing hope and healing while also emphasizing the importance of women’s work in the Church.

The work of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women continues beyond its initial fifty years, but GCSRW’s existence does not constitute the whole of advocacy for women’s full participation in the life of the Church. As we continue to celebrate the pivotal role that GCSRW has modeled for Methodists, we also want to commemorate a few of the foremothers in Methodism who helped create a pathway for GCSRW’s institutionalization as a standing agency of The United Methodist Church. These women championed for equal acknowledgment of women in service and ministry to their congregations and communities and thereby empowered other women to follow their lead. Though structurally, women had limited official means to usher in a change in their status and role in the denomination, many women found significant ways to challenge the system through writing and speaking to Methodist women who sought their own expressions of ministry, while also seeking to confront social issues with a lens of intersectionality.

During Methodism’s first few decades, it faced a continual challenge: how to incorporate women into the life of the Church in the midst of a changing culture where women’s roles in society were evolving and expanding. Women sought the ability to have access to the same tools and responsibilities as men in Methodism, and one of the largest obstacles to remove became women’s right to preach. For years, while Methodism developed alongside democratic ideals of the Enlightenment, the leadership retained the post-Wesley leadership structure and relegated women to service and charity opportunities alone, despite women’s pleas that their calls were sound and their sanctification true. Many male Methodist preachers also advocated for women’s place in the pulpit. Although there was growing support for women to be licensed and ordained among their male counterparts, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church allowed no women in their official capacity of leadership, even refusing women delegates among the laity in the legal structures of the denomination. Lay women finally received the right to election into annual conference delegations in 1904 by virtue of the 1900 General Conference legislation. For many conferences prior to women’s entry to the conference floor, the delegates entertained several proposals regarding women’s work and placed them in a specific committee dedicated to its oversight, of which the membership contained only clergymen. (1)

The Holiness Movement to Drive Positive Transformation

The Holiness movement within Methodism called for several areas of theological adjustment and structural change, as they sought to inspire repentance and unleash the Holy Spirit across America for positive transformation. The Holiness movement adhered to Wesley’s belief in sanctification, in which a person could attain holiness of heart and life. Known as the mother of the Holiness movement, Phoebe Palmer wrote extensively about the doctrine of sanctification, and within her texts, while she felt that the clergy should be reserved for males alone, she shared her belief that women could be inspired by the Holy Spirit and “be allowed to preach and prophesy as did men similarly inspired.” Simultaneously, while the issues of women’s rights were debated within the Methodist Episcopal Church, women’s rights in America also emerged as a delicate topic, leading to the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The Holiness movement within Methodism sparked new conversations as America industrialized and modernized, but it shifted the theological foundations regarding sanctification, which provided space to increase the rationalization for women entering into ministry, including an experience-centered theology, a scripturally-based doctrine of holiness, a growing emphasis on the Holy Spirit at work, the freedom of experimentation, a central focus on sanctification with a partnering social critique, and an inclination toward sectarianism. (2)

Photo: Phoebe Palmer (Courtesy: Common License)

In response to the denial of women’s ordination at the General Conference of 1880, Frances Willard wrote a scathing response in her publication Woman in the Pulpit and voraciously defended the right of women’s preaching. Following a “Do Everything” mentality, Willard saw no reason why women could not serve in every avenue of the denomination, cleverly suggesting that perhaps women could do some roles even better than men. She claimed that the only reasoning for the denial of women’s right to the pulpit was because “men did not want to share power – especially sacred power – with women.” Willard not only criticized the General Conference’s denial of women’s ordination in 1880, but also the conference’s refusal to seat Willard and four other women who had been elected by their representative conferences. Willard’s composition “exposed in-depth the inadequate biblical exegesis of opponents of women’s public ministry,” as well criticizing the exclusive gendered language of the preachers. Willard emphasized that the source of church power and leadership came from Jesus Christ, not from Paul, arguing that expanding the office of clergy to women would empower the church and “give to humanity just twice the probability of strengthening and comforting speech, for women have at least as much sympathy, reverence, and spirituality as men, and they have at least equal felicity of manner and of utterance.” Willard gave significant progress to women in the denomination and women would soon earn greater rights within the Church. (3)

Photo: Frances Willard (Courtesy: Frances Willard House and Museum)

Driving Advocacy within the Church

By the end of the Gilded Age, women served in prominent roles of Deaconesses, a locally-based mission option for women to engage in justice ministries as single women. Many schools opened to train these women, including Scarritt College for Christian Workers (which eventually merged to become Scarritt-Bennett in Nashville). One such woman to be trained at Scarritt College was Thelma Stevens, who sought to be a Deaconess, but was denied the opportunity following her graduation in 1928 with a graduate degree. Instead, she focused her energies on advocacy issues that she felt were important, especially in regards to racism and misogyny in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Initially credentialed as a teacher from the Mississippi State Teachers College (now University of Southern Mississippi), she recalled her experiences of hearing students openly discuss the inhumane treatment of their Black family members. She committed herself to work to dismantle systemic racism in Mississippi and across the nation. In 1940, she took charge of the Women’s Division’s Department of Christian Social Reform, which gave her the chance to approach issues from a national level, engaging Methodist Women in many events of the Civil Rights Movement, including the Freedom Rides, voter registration in Mississippi, and demonstrations in Selma and Montgomery. Not only did she lead the Division in protesting the segregated conference system of the 1968 United Methodist Church merger, but she also kept the Division ahead on decisions that were pro-women. She retired from the Women’s Division in 1968, but her work for justice continued. She helped establish the denomination’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women, as well as crafting position papers supporting the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. She joined with the efforts of the United Methodist Women’s Caucus and wrangled support from across the denomination to petition for the agency’s creation in 1972, writing the legislation to create GCSRW while also serving as the legislative strategies coordinator for the Caucus at the 1972 General Conference. Of the times, she claimed:

The year 1972 finds a great many women tired of waiting to be full and equal and responsible participants in the total life of the church. Small tokens and symbols of power are not enough in the Church of Jesus Christ! Of course the United Methodist Women’s Caucus had to be born and named. Its roots are centuries old but oppression, visible, intentional and unintentional has dwarfed both tree and branches. The objectives today are much the same but clothed in new faith and hope in a day when justice and personhood are the overreaching hope of peoples everywhere, including the majority group – women.

Photo: Thelma Stevens (Courtesy: UM Archives and History)

Additionally in her retirement, she provided consultation for the Ecumenical Women’s Institute in Chicago and Church Women United. (4)

Barbara Ricks Thompson, Guiding the Formative Years of GCSRW

Photo: Barbara Ricks Thompson (Courtesy: UM Archives and History)

With the institution of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women in 1972, the agency needed a president. Serving in her first of many General Conferences as a delegate, Barbara Ricks Thompson was chosen not only to serve on the nascent Board of Directors but also to serve as the agency’s first president. A life-long Methodist, Thompson dedicated her life to social justice issues, even in her secular career with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Thompson brought a significant lens to the agency as a Black laywoman, focusing on the intersectionality of gender and race, which remained important to her throughout her service as president. In her first formative years, Thompson’s strategic issues became changing the culture to make it inviting for clergywomen and to increase the representation of laywomen within key roles of the denomination. Thompson claimed her proudest work as president of GCSRW was in evolving environments in local churches to make them more receptive to clergywomen appointments. Thompson formed a committee at GCSRW to be responsible for the agency’s addressing of racism and sexism, as well as creating interagency work for the task between GCSRW and the General Commission on Race and Religion. She mentioned in her retirement that this issue remained important in the 1970s because “there were not many women of color who were deeply involved in addressing women’s issues because they did not want to be perceived as diverting attention from issues of racism to issues of sexism.” In her parting words of her time at GCSRW, she emphasized, “The United Methodist Church needs both Commissions – Religion and Race and Status and Role of Women – to help in uncovering the manifestations of the ‘isms’ and in devising ways to overcome them. The ministry of these two agencies has helped the church to move forward, but there is still a great distance to go in achieving the multicultural community of faith I believe God wants us to be.” (5)

Thompson’s words describing her tenure at GCSRW still ring true. GCSRW remains necessary to continue the work of the UMC in having full participation of women in the life of the denomination and its local churches. These women bravely advocated for the marginalized peoples within the denomination, often giving the UMC incredible progress in some ways, but also displaying the stubbornness of centuries of Protestant patriarchy and hesitancy to evolve in egalitarian ways. Without the work of these women and so many others whose names many of us will never know, GCSRW would never be able to continue its work for the first fifty years of its existence. The future work of the agency and its contributors stand on the shoulders of many women who have desired women to be full and equal participants in the life of the UMC and never saw it come to fruition. As the agency celebrates its fiftieth year, we still desire the same and work diligently, knowing it may also be passed on to the next generation for fruition.

References:

(1) W.L. Harris and G.W. Woodruff, eds., Journal of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, N.Y. (New York: Nelson & Phillips, 1872).

(2) Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, The Defense of Women’s Rights to Ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church, Women in American Protestant Religion, 1800-1930 4 (New York: Garland Pub, 1987).

(3) Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, The Defense of Women’s Rights to Ordination in the Methodist Episcopal Church, Women in American Protestant Religion, 1800-1930 4 (New York: Garland Pub, 1987); Paul Wesley Chilcote, The Methodist Defense of Women in Ministry: A Documentary History (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, Cascade Books, 2017).

(4) Alice G. Knotts, Fellowship of Love: Methodist Women Changing American Racial Attitudes, 1920-1968 (Nashville, Tenn: Kingswood Books, 1996); Thelma Stevens, “The United Methodist Women’s Caucus: From Evanston to Atlanta,” The Yellow Ribbon, May 1972, Women’s Caucus, New England Annual Conference, Boston University Theology Library Archives; Janet Allured, “Thelma Stevens,” in Mississippi Encyclopedia (Oxford, MIss.: Center for Study of Southern Culture, April 26, 2019), https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/thelma-stevens/; Carolyn Henninger Oehler, The Journey Is Our Home (Chicago: General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, The United Methodist Church, 2015).

(5) Barbara Ricks Thompson, “From My Perspective,” The Flyer, Spring/Summer 1999, XIX, No. 2 edition, sec. Special Supplement Two, ResourceUMC.org, The Flyer Archives; Mark C. Shenise, “Guide to the Barbara Ricks Thompson Papers” (United Methodist Archives and History Center, January 15, 2019), African American Methodist Heritage Center, http://catalog.gcah.org/publicdata/gcah5924.htm.

Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain is a PhD student at Boston University, where she focuses on 19th and 20th Century American Christian History and the intersectionality of faith and gender. She earned her B.A. in History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007 and graduated with an M.A. Religion and M.Div. in 2019 from Claremont School of Theology. She’s an ordained United Methodist Deacon in the North Alabama Conference, and entered academia after serving for 9 years within the United Methodist Church where she worked in Connectional Ministries. Emily served as a reserve delegate to the 2016 General Conference and as a delegate for the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She has served on the GCSRW board since 2016.