By Tyler Schwaller
As I wait in the airport for my flight to Tampa for 11 days of engaging in conversation, song, prayer, worship, and the quadrennial business of the church with United Methodists from around the world, I appreciate this opportunity to reflect on my hopes for General Conference 2012. There may very well be a spirit of change in the air as the UMC confronts questions and issues that have long been central to the church at the same time that delegates have the immense responsibility of weighing new proposals aimed at institutional restructuring.
Both concerns and affirmations, at least of the idea of some kind of change, abound. I do not wish to engage the finer points of the debate right now. Honestly, I have no particular, detailed vision for what I would hope the church structure and its functions look like at the end of this General Conference. I can truly say I personally am open to a range of possibilities.
But–and this is the ‘but’ that takes me to Tampa–there are commitments that I earnestly hope the church maintains and even strengthens. I am going to General Conference primarily as a legislative advocate for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (though I am also a reserve delegate for the Iowa delegation). My role will be to answer questions and offer guidance, when invited, on GCSRW legislation, as well as other petitions that might impact women.
Since 1972, the UMC has been encouraged, supported, and challenged by GCSRW to include women fully and equally at all levels of the church. GCSRW has been asking, “Where are women? Where aren’t women? And why?” and proposing structural, policy, and programmatic changes to bring the church closer to its vision of gender equity.
As we consider restructuring the institutional church, I do not automatically discount any proposal that would merge GCSRW with another agency. There are legitimate arguments that the current structure may have served us well decades ago but is not adequate to equip the church for vital ministry in 2012. The agility and potential for increased collaboration within a new configuration might also better serve the global church (something the UMC is still struggling to figure out how to do well). I am open to considering the possibilities.
Yet, I would lament a church that does not continue its intentional commitment to the full and equal participation of United Methodist women throughout the world. Programmatic agencies directed toward nurturing “vital congregations” and “effective ministries” might be sexy; indeed, they might even empower a widespread witness to the gospel (may it be so!). But asking questions like, “Where are women? Where aren’t women? And why?” is just as essential to ensuring that the transformative power of faith is able to be lived out as the Spirit moves and calls through many kinds of bodies, regardless of gender.
And so I go to Tampa with hope that the essential ministries of GCSRW which have been empowering women throughout the UMC for 40 years (Happy Anniversary, GCSRW!!) will be carried forward in an intentional commitment to continue monitoring and advocating for the full participation of women at all levels of the global United Methodist Church.