“Stand Erect, Lift Your Head, Let Your Voice be Heard”

“Another world is not only possible,

 She’s on  the way.

And on a quiet day,

If you listen very carefully,

You can hear her breathe.”

-Arundhati Roy

by Erin Hawkins

As the General Secretary of an agency of the Church that stands for the embrace of cultural difference in all its forms, I am confronted daily with words, actions, and beliefs that serve as an affront to the way of Christ which is peace, love, and justice. In too many places the feelings of fear and hopelessness that arise due to division within the human family is palpable.  But these feelings of despair are not everywhere. Just as I am confronted with the grim realities of exclusion, discrimination, and oppression, I am simultaneously comforted by the beautiful truth that abundant love, joy, and hope are present all around.  I see it in the faces of heroes and heroines known and unknown that represent and defend the power of women to change the world.  I hear it in the cries of our young people advocating for change.  I feel it in the urgency of the times, the insistence that a better way of living together is possible and must be found.  I wholeheartedly believe that role of leadership especially that of women in the Church at this time is to proclaim in the face of anxiety and despair that God is… love is… hope is…  We are called to be bearers of hope.

GS Erin Hawkins 2 (1)

Erin Hawkins

My journey of leadership within The United Methodist Church began as a child whose discipleship and leadership formation started at a very early age. At Christmas and Easter, I was given a speech to memorize and recite in front of the congregation. Every day as my parents would drive me to preschool, then kindergarten, and then elementary school, the routine during these times of year would be the same, “Put on your seat-belt and let me hear your speech!”  When Easter or Christmas Sunday would come I knew to stand erect, lift my head, and project because there were numerous “coaches” in the church, mostly women, who “educated me” in the finer points of oratorical exposition. I laugh as I think back to those sessions that at the time felt like pure torture. One year, after reciting a particularly long and complicated speech, not typically given to one of such a young age, one of the elder church women came to my mother and said, “That girl is gonna’ be somebody!” The seeds of leadership were planted. This story may resemble the story of many people raised in the church but it is particularly representative of the Black Church experience. The Black Church, one of few havens for African Americans enduring slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, segregation, and the legacy of systemic discrimination and racism that continue even today, was and in some places still is the fertile soil where the seeds of gifting are nurtured and refined.  And while my childhood during the 1980’s seems far removed from those difficult historical realities, the culture and legacy of excellence in the Black Church was alive and instilled into me. Laywomen played a critical role in my development.

I moved from Christmas and Easter speeches, to serving as liturgist during worship, to participating in my local, district and conference MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). My senior year in high school, I was the speaker for the youth service at the California-Pacific Annual Conference.  My experiences would eventually lead me into the world of diversity where wonder and creativity as well as conflict, division, and disappointment were sure to find me.  Through it all, those early lessons – stand erect, lift your head, let your voice be heard would hold me in good stead.

After college and graduate school, I moved to Washington D.C. to work as a staffer for a member of the US Congress. My professional aspiration was to have a career in politics (an aspiration I now realize I have unwittingly succeeded in fulfilling as a General Secretary in The United Methodist Church!). While working as a Legislative Assistant, I was writing a grant application to the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) for my home church back in Los Angeles, CA.  I reached out to one of the Associate General Secretaries of GCORR at that time (Ms. Constance Nelson Barnes) for assistance with the application. Connie was a lay person when we first met via phone conversation.  At some point during our multiple exchanges she informed me that she would soon be leaving the staff and encouraged me to consider applying for the position she was vacating.   I applied and in nothing less than what I believe was a move of the Holy Spirit, I was given the job. I was a lay woman in her early twenties, with no prior General Church experience when I became an Associate General Secretary of a General Agency. I had no professional contemporaries at that time and those early years were tough as I learned “on the job”.  There were many people- male and female, clergy and lay- who mentored, encouraged, and assisted me as I grew as a church leader.  The number of laywomen, however, who nurtured the seeds of leadership within me by helping me as well as challenging me are too numerous to count or to name here. They gifted me with courage, confidence and a thick skin so that when the time for me to assume the role of General Secretary came, I would be ready.

Looking back over my journey to this point, I am clear that as a young child reciting her Christmas and Easter speeches, not only was I being formed as a leader, I was a leader.  I was a leader because through the expression of my gifts I gave the people in my church family hope.  Hope that the struggles they endured for access and opportunity would not be in vain.  Hope that the next generation would indeed take the baton and carry it on the next leg of the race, striving for the liberation of all people.  Those early childhood experiences have done more to cultivate my leadership and to open doors for me than most of the formal leadership development experiences I have had.  I say this because for every opportunity that I have been given in this church, a door had to first be opened in my mind and heart which would allow me to step into the possibilities being presented to me.

In every church all over the world there are young girls and boys whose gifts of self-expression are yearning to the recognized and nurtured.  Girls in particular face daunting obstacles to charting their own course and fulfilling their God-ordained destiny.  In my opinion, one of the greatest things that The United Methodist Church can do to cultivate, affirm and engage lay women’s leadership is to be a global movement reminding girls and young women to stand erect, lift their heads, and let their voice be heard. We must encourage girls in every way we know how, to stand in the sure knowledge that they are worthy, valuable, honorable, and able. We must celebrate young women so that they know how to hold their heads high when others seek to diminish them in any way.  We must carve out time, space, opportunity, and protection for women to express themselves and their leadership in ways that are authentic for them rather than insisting that they do it in a way that is acceptable to the status quo.

There is no better time than now to take on the task of encouraging and lifting up the importance of the leadership of laywomen of all ages.  There is a cloud of fear and anxiety that is currently enveloping our church and I believe that laywomen are in a prime position to be bearers of hope in the midst of despair.  Laywomen who have historically been the engine behind the Methodist movement that established the schools, hospitals, missions, community centers that met the needs of people all over the world are a vital resource as the church seeks to find its way toward being a movement again.  No matter the fate of The United Methodist Church as we know it, a new reality and way of living together as the body of Christ and the human family, indeed another world, is on the way.   We are on edge but we are also on the edge, of something new and beautiful.  I believe women hold the key to the future and we will assist in the birthing of this new world when we stand erect, lift our heads, and make our voice heard and as we teach our children to do the same.

Ms. Erin M. Hawkins is General Secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR). Ms. Hawkins is dedicated to building the capacity of The United Methodist Church to be contextually relevant and reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people by providing practical resources and support to leaders throughout the Church to help them engage and embrace the cultural diversity present in our congregations and communities. Ms. Hawkins works to share lessons in creating holy relationship with God by, “holding in tension our capacity for greatness that calls us, as Christians, to persevere in the struggle toward becoming our better selves, and to combat our worst tendencies, of racism, sexism, and classism.”

Ms. Hawkins earned her master’s degree in Organizational Development from American University in Washington, D.C., and her master’s degree in Public Policy from Indiana University. She credits these educational opportunities in providing her with an awareness of how system processes can perpetuate the sin of racism and carry from the local to the global arena.


Leading from the Pew—“Why Not?”

by Dawn Wiggins Hare

Managing $22,000,000,000 (yes, that’s billion) for the financial security of our dedicated UMC clergy and lay staff, organizing  laywomen across the world for focused missions, building bridges across racial divides, and helping lead the #MeToo charge across the Church: these are just a few of the tasks assigned to women in leadership roles in The United Methodist Church.  What do they have in common?  These tasks are carried out by female professionals who answered the call to ministry, but not ordained ministry.  This month we have celebrated Women’s History Month by focusing on laywomen leaders in The United Methodist Church.  We include in that group the laywomen who serve as General Secretaries.  They lead from the boardroom….and from the pew.


“Are you on the Administrative Council?”  It was an innocent question posed by Reverends Libba and Judd Stinson, my pastors at First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, Alabama, thirty years ago.

“No,” was my eye-rolling reply.

dawn headshot

Dawn Wiggins Hare

“Why not?” was their snarky retort.

That is the moment in time when my path as a laywoman on the journey to serving as General Secretary for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, one of the thirteen General Agencies of The United Methodist Church, began.

I grew up in another denomination with my mother playing piano, and  my father leading the singing (the choir tended to be an impromptu chorus with everyone who could/would sing walking up to the choir loft for the musical selection).  I learned to hear and sing harmony, witnessed lives of service, and grew to feel responsible for the operations of the church.  That setting is where I first realized that church did not magically happen.  Church was a community of laypersons, women and men, who maintained the building, visited and prepared meals for the sick, nurtured the children and youth, educated the young and old, and maintained the loving ministry of Christ as pastors came and went.  A life of service was not taught to me.  It was modeled for me.

When I was a young college student, Rev. Dr. Ed Hardin, the pastor of The First United Methodist Church of my hometown (Brewton, Alabama), stopped by my parents’ Western Auto store where I was working and hired me to sing alto in the choir for the summer.  My summer job ended, but my tenure in The United Methodist Church began.  I still remember talking to Dr. Ed, telling him that I did not know what I was going to major in or what I was going to do with my life.  I can still hear him saying, “Dawn, where the needs of God’s people intersect with your gifts and talents, that is where you are supposed to be at that moment.”  I know that quote did not originate with Dr. Ed, but I like give him credit for it anyway.

My husband Chip and I married in that same church in 1987, with Bishop Lawson Bryan officiating (obviously during his “pre-bishop” days).  Chip and I settled in Monroeville, Alabama, (his hometown) where I once again found my community in singing, playing hand bells, teaching Sunday School, and directing children’s and adult theater productions at First United Methodist Church of Monroeville.  In retrospect, I probably over-volunteered, but I both enjoyed serving and I knew church did not magically happen.  We had two sons, Nicholas and Eli, and having them grow to be loved by a church family, to have a solid foundation, to learn to serve, and to know the church was their home, was a driving force in my endless volunteerism.  Our family was rocking along just fine when the inquiry noted above was made to me by Libba and Judd, our clergy couple co-pastors.  (On second thought, maybe it was not so innocent.)  Which brings me to my second point.  Clergy are in perhaps the best place to see the members of the congregation, to assess the gifts of the laity, and to coach them into service where their gifts fit.  The key is to find the perfect match of respecting and honoring the talents that a person brings and finding how those fit naturally into the needs of the church, the community, and the congregation.  (You will notice that I never volunteered to chair the stewardship committee.  I REALLY hate asking for money, which in my current position proves God has a sense of humor.)

While I was being coerced by my pastors, little did I know that another female lawyer in town, who happened to have a famous sister, who was our annual conference delegate, and who had been the first woman to lead the Alabama West-Florida annual conference delegation to two General Conferences, had her eye on me.  I did not stand a chance.  Miss Alice Lee became my friend, my mentor, and my example.  She taught me to love the workings of the church.  She put faces to stories of gender inequality and racial injustice.  She filled me in on behind-the-scenes church policies and politics as I sat in her law office with my annual conference brochures.  When I was elected as a reserve delegate to Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in 2004, and two women were elected to serve as bishops, one of Alice’s dear friends (and Alabama-West Flordia UMM chair) insisted that I call her right away.  Alice was practically deaf, and I had to call her law partner who went to her home to announce the news.  When I was elected as a General Conference delegate in 2008, I sat in Alice’s office again and we walked page-by-page through each piece of legislation.  At the close of each day of General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, I would email  another of Alice’s partners with the events of the day.  Her partner would print and read my emails to her, and email me back her thoughts.  It was magical.  Alice’s love of The United Methodist Church at all levels from service in the local church to service at General Conference was contagious.  Which brings me to my next point.  Lay leaders must mentor future lay leaders.

While some folks live double lives, mine has been a parallel life.  Lawyer, assistant district attorney, judge on one hand.  Sunday school teacher, choir member, Staff-Parish Chair, Lay leader, annual conference delegate, general conference delegate, on the other. [To this day I have two resumes…the legal one and the church one.]  The common thread– love of family, love of community, love of Christ, and love of the church. In 2012 I was faced with questions about my future life’s work.  The change in my career path occurred coincidentally on the first day of General Conference in Tampa.  A couple of months later, an ad appeared announcing an opening for the General Secretary of The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.  Graduate degree—check. Knowledge of women’s issues—check. Knowledge of employment issues—check. Knowledge of The United Methodist Church and The Book of Discipline—check. Located in Chicago—uh, oh…

This southern girl did not own a winter coat.  What did I do?  I called Reverends Libba and Judd Stinson.

“Are you applying for the position?” …..”Well, why not?”  I could feel the eye-roll through the phone.

I am reminded of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25.  I believe that the talents for which we have responsibility are both the gifts we have within ourselves and those that we see in others within our circles of influence and encouragement.  Many are the gifts, the talents, the passions, and the life-giving ministries of our laywomen.  As I have traveled around the world and across the connection, I am continually amazed at the humble, brilliant souls serving, and those longing to serve.  Sometimes all these laywomen need is to be encouraged.  Perhaps failing to ask a laywoman to serve in a capacity where her gifts and talents can shine is analogous to burying our talents, for she is part of us, a part of that with which we, the church, have been entrusted.   Let us use all of our talents, especially through nurturing and encouraging those gifts we see in others.

And if we are met with any resistance, all of us should be prepared to roll our eyes and ask, “Well, why not?”

Dawn Wiggins Hare is the General Secretary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women of The United Methodist Church. Dawn has love for music, musical theater, children’s ministry and a passion for justice. 

Finding Our Voices—A Path for Women

by Barbara Boigegrain

Serving as a lay leader of a United Methodist Church general agency informs the essence of who I am as a woman, business professional, and person of faith. From my earliest memories, I was a “preacher’s kid” (PK) blessed with a large extended family of caring parishioners. The Church shaped my lifelong values of connectionalism, community, inclusivity, and service to others. Years later, my role as general secretary of Wespath Benefits and Investments (Wespath) brings my journey as a PK full circle, as now I am a steward for the financial security and well-being of others who serve this Church.

My journey has taught me that while the path for each woman is unique, women share in common the important roles of advocate and leader.

B.Boigegrain portrait-reduced size.jpeg

Barbara Boigegrain


From Corporate to Church—A Curved Road
My personal journey to becoming a lay leader within the Church followed an unplanned path that brought me back to my UMC roots. I was a working mother of young children, juggling the commitments of a household while navigating the corporate world.

Then I heard the calling for the unique opportunity to lead the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits (renamed Wespath Benefits and Investments in 2016). I was challenged by the opportunity to be an agent of change for the Church.

My role as general secretary blends my roots and faith as an ardent United Methodist with my business experience in consulting, insurance, and benefits. My daily work allows me to serve and make a difference in other people’s futures and in the future of this Church.

I am honored to serve as the first female general secretary of this agency. We have reshaped Wespath into a financial services institution that is a recognized leader in corporate advocacy for responsible, sustainable investment and among the top 100 pension funds in the U.S.—yet firmly grounded in values of The United Methodist Church. We are honored to secure the long-term sustainability of the pension plans and retirement savings for more than 100,000 clergy and lay employees of the UMC, and for our UMC-affiliated institutional investors.

I’m also pleased that Wespath recognizes women as valued leaders. Women comprise more than 40% of our agency’s senior leadership and management roles.

Women as Leaders in the Church
Women make up the greater share of UMC local church membership: outnumbering men 4:3[i] according to 2016 data from GCFA. By sheer numbers, laywomen have a voice in the UMC. We’re the ones who get the family to church on Sundays; who welcome families into a new church community; and yes, who cook for the infamous church potlucks.

But more noteworthy: women lead committees, community service outreach and missional initiatives in churches large and small across the country. We cultivate grace and justice. Like Susanna Wesley three centuries ago, women of the UMC bring strength and structure to today’s Church and inspire tomorrow’s leaders.

Women in History
When I think of women using their voices and positions to promote justice and positive change, I call upon history to inform the present. These strong women come quickly to mind:

  • Susanna Wesley—the mother of Methodism, who inspired sons John and Charles to become spiritual leaders and launched the concept of calling on lay people to lead prayer when no minister was available. Susanna Wesley’s Bible study sessions were well-attended and well-respected.
  • Georgia Harkness—ordained decades before female ordination was accepted in the Church and the first woman to teach theology in a U.S. seminary, she used her voice to condemn racism.
  • Lydia Patterson—who championed the education of immigrant children who otherwise were hidden in the shadows.
  • Lucy Rider Meyer—a female physician (when most medical schools banned women) and a Methodist deaconess, Meyer’s commitment to eradicating injustice through faithful connections led her to establish an orphanage, which evolved into multi-tiered advocacy for children through today’s ChildServ organization.
  • Coretta Scott King—while not a Methodist, she was nonetheless a pastor’s wife. In partnership with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and after his death, she was a powerful voice for social change, human dignity, nonviolence, and protecting the needs of the poor and disenfranchised around the world.

I say to women of any age: use your voice wherever you feel called: at your church, in your local community, at your children’s school, on the political field, in the business realm, or wherever your passions lead you. My adult daughters use blogs and other social media avenues to drive change. Other women may feel more comfortable sharing their voices in small-group discussions—or in huge multi-city marches—or somewhere in between.

However you express it, you can use your voice to advocate for whatever you believe to be right and righteous. Your voice will be heard, and your actions can make a valued impact on someone else’s life.

[i] 2016 Membership by Ethnicity and Gender, UMC General Council on Finance and Administration, gcfa.org.  [women: 4,007,523; men: 2,917,949]

Barbara Boigegrain has served as the chief executive of Wespath Benefits and Investments (formerly known as The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits), a general agency of The United Methodist Church since August 1994. Under her leadership, a strategic approach for the organization has been established to secure the long-term viability of pension plans, retirement savings programs, and health and welfare benefit plans for more than 100,000 clergy and lay employees of the worldwide Church. In addition, the agency added an institutional investments arm in 2011, increasing assets by $3 billion.
As general secretary, Barbara oversees all fiduciary services and administrative operations of Wespath, which has over $24 billion in assets under management.
Barbara is active with a number of professional associations including the Church Benefits Association, she is the Chair of the Church Alliance, and serves as a board member and Compensation Committee Chair with First Midwest Bancorp, Inc.
Prior to joining Wespath, Barbara spent 11 years with Towers Perrin. Earlier in her career, Barbara held positions with Dart Industries in the group insurance benefits function and with KPMG Peat Marwick tax practice. Barbara received her B.A. from Trinity University and completed graduate coursework at the University of Chicago and UCLA.

“…the Church and I are stronger for it.”

by Judi Kenaston

I am on a plane on my way to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire and chatting with my seatmate who asks why I’m going to Africa. I give her my brief answer, “I am a United Methodist and we have churches all over the world. I am going to work with other United Methodists to plan how we are in ministry with one another.” But the question makes me think, how did I, a laywoman from West Virginia, end up on this plane on my way to Africa?


Judi Kenaston

My first realization of service beyond my local church came in college where I was involved with campus ministry. My campus pastor, the late Rev. Martha Loyd, was a pioneering supporter of women in ministry and the first leader of our Conference’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women. I didn’t know that then – I just knew that she was the first woman I’d ever known in ordained ministry. Martha nominated me to be on the Conference Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry. Eight inches of snow meant my first scheduled meeting was changed to a conference call. I remember sitting on my bed listening to strangers I could not see conduct a wide-ranging conversation about full-time and part-time ministries, and hearing words for the first time like “apportionments” and “payout shortfalls.” The next meeting came at the end of the semester. It was several hours away, I didn’t know anyone going, and I was busy preparing for finals, so I considered sending my regrets. And then a laywoman on the Board called and told me she’d pick me up and take me to the meeting (I don’t recall her asking!) After that, Miriam always checked to make sure I had transportation and that she expected me to attend. I also recall eating a meal with the board in a restaurant and ordering the smallest dish I could afford. No one had told me that the cost of meals would be reimbursed. Even so, having cash available was a challenge for a college student!

Marriage and graduate school took me out of the conference for several years. When I came back, I was asked to chair the Division of Campus Ministry. So at age 29 and a mother with young children, I was responsible for the coordination of our conference’s five full-time campus ministries. Our conference didn’t provide childcare at the time (they do now!) so I had to be creative in order to make site visits and meetings. I learned a lot about leadership and accountability by being a young woman in a church still dominated by men.

I went to Annual Conference and began seeing where I could plug in. I wrote for the Conference newspaper; I was part of the Resolutions Committee; I assisted the Conference Secretary. I headed a task force to update the Parsonage Standards, turning the church on its head by recommending that our churches no longer provide furniture. I learned about negotiating through passionately opposing positions – a skill that would become useful many more times. When our conference chose a quadrennial Stewardship Emphasis, I was asked to recruit and chair that group. During this time, Bishop Ives nominated me to become the Conference Secretary, replacing Dewayne, a clergyman who had been conference secretary for 30 years. As he moved into retirement, he mentored me along the way and never hesitated to show his pride that I was the first layperson and the first woman to be conference secretary in our Annual Conference. Now I’m one of the longest-serving Conference Secretaries in the denomination (although not challenging Dewayne’s 30 years!)

In 2004, I was elected as a reserve delegate to General Conference and in 2008, I was elected for the first time as a delegate to General Conference and also an 8-year term on the Commission on General Conference, including four years as chair preparing for General Conference 2016 in Portland. My world suddenly got bigger. I met and worked with so many people while chairing the Commission. When I stood on the platform to welcome the delegates in Portland, I was overawed by the sea of faces. But I was also amazed by how many of the people I knew without the aid of name tags! And I held in my pocket notes of support from people that had been nurturing me along the way.

I have a great deal of respect for the people I have worked and served with – women, men and young people who came from backgrounds wildly different from mine but who love The UMC. We didn’t always agree, but when I sat at the table I began to see that my voice mattered: That a laywoman from a small conference has something to say. I have learned so much I didn’t know: about The UMC, about our faith, and about listening to God’s voice in the midst of the pressing matters before us.

It has been my joy to work with and encourage other women of all ages and from many places to speak up and be heard. Being a leader isn’t always easy. Sometimes the tasks we are given suit our natural inclinations and we are well received. Many times we are asked to do things that push us well beyond our comfort zones and there are certainly moments of discouragement. When I pray Wesley’s “Covenant Prayer,” I ask to be employed or laid aside in whatever way best serves God. Even so, I am sometimes surprised and amazed at what is put before me. The work I have done would not have been possible if I hadn’t been given an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and then be supported when the road wasn’t easy.

I’m so grateful for the many areas where I have been able to serve. I love campus ministry, but I am glad that it wasn’t assumed that was my only interest. If I had been asked to list all the areas I would like to serve when I was 20, I doubt I would have known what to include. I’m pretty sure that there are things I have done that I would NOT have included because I didn’t know that I was capable in those areas. I’m glad that no one put me in a box and made me stay there! Are we looking for women, lay and clergy, whom we can nurture and support for the future UMC? Are we taking care of impediments to their serving, such as childcare, transportation and helping them feel included? Do we offer travel reimbursement without making a young mother feel like she’s being selfish? Do we remember to tell the college students how to be reimbursed and make sure they can pay the money upfront? And, perhaps most importantly, are we giving her time to grow into her position and at the same time accepting that she already has something to offer, even without previous official experience?

Now the plane is landing in Abidjan where, as a member of the Connectional Table, I will meet with the Committee on Central Conferences Matters to talk about the proposed general Book of Discipline and how that impacts the US churches and their decision making. Although I’m prepared, for a moment I feel alone. But then I recognize that I am surrounded by those people who have nurtured, encouraged and trusted me: a campus pastor, a determined laywoman, a retiring conference secretary, a former chair of the Commission on General Conference, an entire Annual Conference, several bishops, my sisters and brothers around the world that I have come to know as friends. We all get off the plane together and the Church and I are stronger for it.

Judi Modlin Kenaston grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, one of four sisters in an active United Methodist home. She earned a B.A. in Counseling and Rehabilitation and an M.A. in Education. She has taught in a variety of settings. She has been active in the West Virginia Annual Conference for her entire adult life. Since 2002, she has been the Conference Secretary and Journal Editor for the Conference. Judi and her husband are also certified in Marriage Enrichment leadership.

Judi was elected a lay delegate to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and as a reserve to General Conference in 2004. She served as Head of the West Virginia Conference delegation in 2016 and in preparation for the Special Session in 2019. She was elected to the Commission on the General Conference in 2008 and served as the chair of the Commission from 2012-2016, planning the General Conference in Portland, OR. She currently serves as vice-chair of the World Wide Nature Working Group of the Connectional Table.  In the Northeastern Jurisdiction, she has served on the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee since 2012.

Judi met her husband, Joe, at a West Virginia United Methodist high school youth camp and they were married six years later, proving that occasionally church camp romances DO last! They have been married for 36 years and have three grown children. They have lived in Chicago; Manchester, England; and several places in the West Virginia Conference, where Joe now serves as a district superintendent. Judi is a member of United Methodist Temple in Beckley, West Virginia. She enjoys spending time at their camp on the Greenbrier River, walking the dog, backpacking and adding pins to the map showing places the Kenaston family has traveled.

A Laywoman’s Journey

by Ruby L. Blake

As I look back over the many years of service at Union UMC and the New England Conference, my first leadership role was as Church School teacher.  I taught Church School because I had young children and I felt that I needed to help out. A few years later, I was asked to take on the role of the Superintendent of Sunday School.  I served in that role for several years.


Ruby L. Blake

During my participation in conference-wide activities, I learned of a district-wide Lay Academy that was held for laity interested in becoming Lay Servants.  I took the Basic course for Lay Servants and became a Local Lay Servant. I continued to take several advanced courses to become a Certified Lay Servant. In the meantime, I was asked by the pastor of our church to become the Lay Leader, which I accepted. During those times spent at the Academy, I was approached by the District Superintendent to become a Co-District Lay Leader.  In this role, I not only helped to plan the Lay Academies and other trainings conference-wide, but I also taught the Basic course for many years.

In earlier years, Lay Servants were encouraged to preach.  After attending the Lay Academy, I knew from the beginning that my calling was not preaching. My strengths were, and still are, organization and helping others realize their gifts and strengths. I encourage other laity to participate in their local churches by chairing ministries and in chairing, own the ministry that they are doing.

These gifts have been further put to use in the past year. I have been appointed to the position of Co-Lay Leader of the New England Conference.  This allows me to work closely with the Conference Lay Leader and all of the other District Lay Leaders. We work to make laity strong and productive in all the churches in New England.

My leadership roles have been undergirded by my prayer life.  My belief is that all things are possible through Christ who strengthens me. Whenever possible, I participate in Bible study.  I am encouraged on a daily basis by my prayer partner and participating in a small group ministry.

It is crucial for there to be women in leadership at all levels of The United Methodist church.  For many years, women were not seen as leaders or there were certain positions and roles that were not open to them.  As we know, women are the backbone of most churches.  Whether the role is large or small, the women can be counted on to carry out the vision and tasks of their churches.

In order to do a better job of engaging lay women across all lines of The United Methodist Church, it is necessary to increase awareness and communication with the clergy.  If the clergy has a better understanding of the role of laywomen and the potential that they hold for churches, a larger number of women would be willing to step up and lead. Clergy also needs to be willing to support laywomen.

I would not have been able to lead and remain in a leadership role without the help and encouragement of the pastors of my local church.

Ruby L. Blake is the Co-Lay Leader of the New England Annual Conference. She attends Union United Methodist Church in Boston, Massachuttes. 

Journey of Leadership in the Church

by Harriett Jane Olson

Leadership is a matter of opportunity as well as gifts and experience.  In writing this piece, I realized several things.  One is how much change there has been in some of these places, quickly followed by the realization that we have a long way yet to go.  Another was to see how the doors were held open by others, and how each opportunity built on the last.  The church made a way for me to contribute my own voice and prepared me to feel as if I belonged at the table, even if gender barriers arose in the process. I didn’t follow any “normal” path, but I’m very grateful for the journey.


Harriett Jane Olson

My earliest experience as a leader in church was probably being asked to serve as the youth representative to the Administrative Board in my local church in Oaklyn, New Jersey.  I don’t have a clear recollection of anything earthshaking that I brought to the Board, but it was an introduction into how the congregation was organized, how the members related, and how important it was for the pastor and leaders of the various committees to receive both feedback and support for the work.  It was very clear that the lay members were deeply invested in the life of the church, as was the pastor, and that their roles were different.

I brought that understanding with me when I returned to New Jersey after graduation and started practicing law in Morristown. There I joined The United Methodist Church on the Green where I still hold my membership.  Because I was reading and having various conversations about women, our image of ourselves and the range of biblical images of God, our associate pastor suggested I get involved with the Conference Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Rev. Shirley Oskamp is the first clergywoman I knew personally, and the blessing of having a woman pastor and learning even a little about her journey shaped my own. Serving on COSROW was not only a chance for me to learn and see the workings of the Annual Conference for the first time when I served as a monitor, but it also opened up another step in my spiritual journey as I studied and then taught using the resource “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal” that had been jointly produced by GCOSROW and the Women’s Division.  It seems to me that my own journey has always been enhanced by the positions in which I was able to serve.  I remember testifying before a Bar Association Committee on women and minorities in the profession, that although the church had not erased the impact of sexism or racism, at least we had strategies that were designed to create change, addressing membership on committees and opportunities for leadership experience.  I might have been overly optimistic about the impact of those strategies, but the point remains that my spiritual life and my professional life and the way I was seeing the world were all profoundly impacted by the places I served.

The Conference staff person working with COSROW was Grace Risley, a Christian educator.  Out of the blue, Grace called me to ask if I would be willing to let her put my name out for nomination to General Conference.  When I asked what that would require, she assured me that I was unlikely to be elected, but that it was important to get my name in the mix.  As it turned out, the unlikely happened and I was privileged to be able to represent the Conference to General Conference in 1988, 1992 and 1996.  I don’t know if Grace was surprised, but I certainly was! Only later did I learn that Grace had not only nominated me, but she also supported me, recommending that others in the Conference meet me as the voting was going on.  What I learned from this is how important it is to be looking out for people—young people, women, people of color—who can be supported for positions, even if they haven’t come up through the ranks, and what a great impact current leaders can make beyond their role or job description.

I also saw the importance the leadership of lay women as I served on various Conference committees and through the Morristown United Methodist Women.  We have perspective and expertise from our experiences that is important to good decision-making, and we are sometimes willing to take up issues or to speak about issues that some of our male colleagues and our clergy brothers and sisters may not see or may find harder to address. It is important that we not be put off by the technical complexity or the history of an issue, but that we are in positions in which we can bring our gifts into the mix.

I am so grateful to have served on the Discipleship Legislative Committee at the 1988 General Conference that considered the “new” hymnal, and to have been a member of the board of directors of the General Board of Discipleship for 8 years.  Here too, I learned so much, including about the Baptism study and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  Bishop Woodie White asked me to chair a new budget subcommittee there and that took me in a new direction—learning more about the finances and the financial processes of the Church. I’m sure that I was not the most business savvy member of the Board, so this is a role I assumed with a fair amount of trepidation.  I will be everlastingly grateful to Mr. Ike Brown, the Board’s treasurer, for his patient tutelage. This gave me an opportunity to work in an area in which I depended on the expertise of others and to realize that I still had things to contribute.

That stood me in good stead for a huge transition in my life.  In 1996, I became the editorial director of The United Methodist Publishing House.  The hope was that my experience in the various aspects of the Church would strengthen our ability to serve the church—I hope it did.  I know I was part of a great community of experts, each of whom was integral to bringing materials to publication. The role also included the titles Editor for Church School Publications and Book Editor.  The Book Editor has particular responsibility for the production of the Book of Discipline, and I was the first woman to serve in that role.  We did not say much about that, or about the efforts that Publisher Neil Alexander was making to diversify the leadership, but I thought about it.  While some of the very male dominated aspects of the publishing world reminded me that there was need for much more progress in work on gender, I did not find this to be a significant issue for the formal work of the Book Editor.

This was another role for me in which God seemed to be bringing disparate things together, even though I had not sought it or planned it.  While it was a big decision to give up being a partner at my law firm (and I’m sure it felt like a risk for Neil and the team as well), I grew immensely from working with my colleagues, the chance to learn more about curriculum and Christian Education, and the chance to hear papers and lectures by authors and potential authors.  I especially loved the chances to use my high school Spanish and love of music to connect with those parts of our publishing work.

Coming to the Women’s Division (now United Methodist Women) also was a big change.  It was yet again a different kind of work, I was again taking up a role without coming up through the ranks, and I was sure that both mistakes and some new thinking would be part of the experience.  Again, I found great colleagues, some of whom are still here, and some of whom are not.  I want to mention the late Lois Dauway, in particular, who served as interim during the search to fill the position and who informed, supported and challenged me as appropriate once I arrived.  I have also been supported by our board and elected leaders through things they request, questions they ask, and things they affirm. It is true here as it is everywhere that appropriate risk-taking is important, change is both essential and challenging, and that God is calling us to faithful action.  As women shaped by grace in a Wesleyan way, we recommit over and over again to express God’s love for women, children and youth around the world through both service and advocacy for justice. As a leader among leaders, I am constantly growing, learning and listening to God and others.   I hope that I’m also on the lookout for ways to open doors for other women for the good of the whole church and the world that God so loves.

Harriett Jane Olson serves as General Secretary and chief executive officer of United Methodist Women’s national office. She joined the staff of the then Women’s Division in 2007. Her lifelong passion is supporting spiritual growth that equips and impels people to works of mercy and works of justice.

From 1996-2007, Ms. Olson was senior vice-president for publishing, editor for church school publications and United Methodist Church book editor at the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, TN. Her responsibilities included supervision of book, curriculum and music publishing as well as the production of the Book of Discipline. A Harvard Law School graduate, Ms. Olson practiced real estate and environmental law in New Jersey from 1983-96, before working for the church full-time. 

Ms. Olson has a bachelor’s degree from Houghton College in Houghton, N.Y., where she serves on the board of trustees.

Reflection on South Carolina COSROW’s “Violence in Relationships”

By Rev. Cathy Mitchell

South Carolina COSROW’s domestic violence workshop was very powerful, informative, yet, heart-wrenching.  When Easter LaRoche, the keynote speaker of this event and Victim’s Advocate for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, asked for those in attendance who had been a victim or one otherwise affected by domestic violence to raise their hands, it was the majority of those in attendance.  Often, people don’t feel the need to educate themselves about issues that do not affect them directly.  I thank God for Easter LaRoche, who is also a member of the church I pastor.

cathy mitchell

Rev. Cathy Mitchell

Easter’s compassion for this ministry and the forethought of bringing a victim before our congregation to give their testimony about their experiences during our annual worship service dedicated to Domestic Violence Awareness was brilliant. Danielle Richardson, who told her story in this workshop, was one of my church’s speakers for our Domestic Violence Walk a few years prior to this program. Danielle’s story ignited a deeper and more urgent desire in me to educate others about domestic violence.  Hearing the story about how she and her brothers, listening to their mother’s screams, locked in their bedroom from the outside by her father, while her mother was being stabbed to death on the other side of their bedroom door, was quite different from just reading about it or hearing about it on the news; it became a vivid reality.  Learning that her mother died from bleeding to death, because even though the paramedics arrived,  policy states that the paramedics could not enter the home while the assailant was still inside.  Danielle is now a Victim’s Advocate and writer, who has written a book about her story, that I now share with others whom I have learned are victims of domestic violence.  The book is called, “God Heard My Cries, The Deliverance.”

Danielle’s testimony was so compelling, we began to invite other victims to give their testimony each year before the congregation, which included a mother whose daughter was killed and left at the foot of her stairs in her home, where her daughter’s husband left her to die, dropping one child off to her grandmother, and taking the other child with him.  The little one left with her grandmother said to her, “My mommy is bleeding at home at the bottom of the stairs.” After this gripping testimony, the floor was opened for others in the congregation to share their stories of healing and recovery from domestic violence.  You would not believe the persons who came forward to share their stories, people whom you would have never imagined had experienced such horrors.  One woman shared with the congregation her story of being attacked in a car, on an interstate at a fast rate of speed with her small children in the back seat of the car.  Another woman came forward to tell her story of her husband holding a gun to her head, and actually pulled the trigger, but thanks be to God the gun did not go off.

The last victim that spoke to my congregation was a young man whose mother and all of his siblings were killed by his mother’s boyfriend, while he, the oldest child, was in college.

My prayer is that more churches will invite victims of domestic violence to come and tell their stories before congregations, freeing other victims to seek help and to make others aware of the facts associated with domestic violence; reasons such as why victims stay in these types of relationships, other than the common misconception that they want to, but because of things like fear, and financial dependence on the abuser, just to name a few, that prohibit them from leaving. I would encourage pastors and other agencies to seek out advocates like Easter LaRoche to assist them in hosting awareness programs such as this one that brings the church face-to-face with this awful reality.

I would like to commend, Sheila Haney, the chair of SC’s COSROW and the committee on a job well done!

To read more about the “Violence in Relationships” workshop hosted by South Carolina COSROW, click here.

Rev. Cathy D. Mitchell is an Ordained Elder in the SC Annual Conference.  Rev. Mitchell currently serves as the pastor of Wesley UMC on Johns Island and the Vice President of General Commission on the Status and Role of Women’s board.