by Stephanie Arnold

The team knew we wanted to make a significant difference with our time serving on the North Alabama Commission on the Status and Role of Women. We all knew that women weren’t really getting their ‘fair shake’ as clergy or laywomen within many of our churches.

We began by working hard to plan our COSROW breakfast at Annual Conference. The team didn’t know that I had a personal story to share when they asked me to be our breakfast speaker last year. Yet, when we gathered to plan and as I shared that I had my own experience of sexual harassment, it became evident that many of the lay and clergywomen in the room had their own stories or knew someone who did. We talked about the ways that when these events happened to us we didn’t know what to call it, who to turn to, or if anything could even be done about it…often we just took the abuse. But what we did know is that it wasn’t right! So we decided to form the COSROW breakfast around storytelling, sharing the experiences of women in our Annual Conference and developing an honest, powerful narrative around these issues to remind us that if we could come together around this cause, we could affect change in dramatic and life-giving ways.

We sent a conference-wide email to women asking them to share their confidential stories of abuse, harassment, and discrimination, promising to protect their identity. We received far more stories than we could possibly share at one time! Then we recruited male allies in the conference who would read these women’s accounts in the first person as if it was their own personal story they were sharing.

During the breakfast, one by one, the men shared the accounts of abuse, harassment, and discrimination of some of the women in our Conference and the room grew silent. Eyes welled with tears. People audibly sighed. Our Bishop and some members of the cabinet were with us in the room listening to the experiences of women in our Annual Conference. It was as if something was breaking loose, or better yet, breaking free! Our stories were exposed, and, collectively, we told the ugly truth that had been hindering and wounding us for decades even as we had been carrying on masked in our smiling service to the Church. We left the breakfast with hope that now that we had named the abuse, harassment, and discrimination we faced daily as women, maybe we could begin to heal.

At our next COSROW team meeting it was expressed that many people were asking if we had recorded the breakfast. We had not. Then we considered redesigning it from a ‘talk’ into a resource for our Conference, churches, and others to use for training purposes. We felt that perhaps this video could help clergy and laywomen address the issues facing them without having to risk retaliation and isolation for bringing it up without support and statistical evidence of its validity. We wanted to turn our collective struggle and pain into a tool to empower and equip others to have healthier experiences.

So the team got to work! We rewrote the script, developed the shots, inquired with local churches to allow us to video on their premises, invited other lay and clergy persons to be in the video, and began editing it all together. I am not going to lie…it took more hours than we can count. We lived and breathed this project for months. We combed through personal stories, read the Discipline, listened to music to underlay on the video, memorized line by line of text to be spoken, and scheduled multiple days of shooting video.

When we completed the editing process we drafted The Book of Discipline appendix, discussion guide, and church assessment. All of these were part of the package to enable persons or churches to ask tough questions about their experiences and challenge assumptions and internal bias.

Once it was all ready the team had a plan in place to get it on our Annual Conference web page, social media, and send via email to as many people in our Conference as we could possibly reach. As we sent it out, we invited everyone in our networks to share the video with others, and if they had a story of abuse, harassment, or discrimination they felt they could share, to do so with the hashtag ‘#HerTruth’. We wanted to break the silence and spark a movement in our Annual Conference that we were not going to idly sit by and continue to be talked about inappropriately, objectified, abused, paid less, and given less opportunity without shining a spotlight on it for what it really is: abuse, harassment, and systematic discrimination. There is no place for sexism in The United Methodist Church and we were no longer going to be complicit to its prevalence!

The response has been overwhelming for our North Alabama COSROW team. While we are glad this work has touched so many and given voice to their pain and struggle, it has proven what we all experienced around the table that Saturday morning when we first planned the breakfast. Despite our condemnation of it in The Discipline, sexual abuse, harassment, and discrimination continue to be widespread, even in our beloved UMC. Bringing an end to sexism in all its forms is part of the ‘charge to keep’ we ALL have as United Methodist. Please join the fight!


View the #HerTruth video and resources here.


Our Call as United Methodists to Eradicate Sexual Harassment

by Becky Posey Williams 

In the beginning, God created all of us in the image of God. It’s such a simple statement, right?

Unfortunately, at some point, one decided to have dominion over another. It seems almost always the dominant person has more resources and, therefore, more power. The resources may include greater physical strength, more money, more land, more education, more prestige and higher positions within the workforce, etc. For some, the position of greater resources and dominance supports a belief that this is a free ticket to belittle, demean, and/or degrade a person with fewer resources.


Becky Posey Williams

Within The United Methodist Church, I see this happening in the name of sexual harassment. Though people of all genders are harassed, the majority of victims reaching out to The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women for answers and support are women. According to a report from Vanderbilt Law School, most victims are younger women, oftentimes in lower-level positions, and frequently supervised by the opposite sex. Within the Church, we know you do not have to be employed to be harassed. Laity are often the ones calling for help and/or filing formal complaints. Clergy also experience harassment by laity. The Vanderbilt report also notes harassment especially prevalent in organizations with male-dominated structures.

To prevent and respond well to this problem, it is important we understand the definition. According to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. It also includes gender directed offensive comments. Paragraph 161 (I) in The United Methodist Church 2012 Book of Discipline, page 112, defines sexual harassment as “any unwanted sexual comment, advance, or demand, either verbal or physical, that is reasonably perceived by the recipient as demeaning, intimidating, or coercive. Sexual harassment must be understood as an exploitation of a power relationship rather than as an exclusively sexual issue. Sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to, the creation of a hostile working environment resulting from discrimination based on gender.”

The prevalence of this problem is rampant in our society. I open the Chicago-based newspaper, RedEye, and see this headline, “Taking a Stand: Women in improve comedy detail a culture of sexual harassment and silence”, January 29, 2016. I log on Facebook to catch up on old friends and read one’s latest post on Representative Jeremy Durham’s scandal of power and sexual harassment as reported by The Tennessean newspaper, February 16, 2016. I hurriedly open the New York Times on Sunday morning where I will vicariously travel to in the “Travel” section, but first stumble upon “Why Women Quit Science”, March 6, 2016. These stories share common themes of women being approached by men in positions of power over them and being sent unwanted email, texts, verbal messages recognizing her physical appearance and subsequent attraction to her. In some cases there were unwanted physical advances. Regardless of the behaviors, it seems all were left with feeling deeply uncomfortable and sexualized. As a result, fear and anxiety dictated how she would respond. In every case, each victim describes feeling shocked and confused and left wondering how she will face him at work tomorrow. What about her next assignment and what will the impact be if she reports? Will she be invited to doubt herself, even feel embarrassed for not being able to be a “tough woman” and take it? Will there be retaliation for the duration of her career?

Within the Church, I can add that for laity and clergy the questions are often around their relationship and presence within the congregation. How will I continue to worship in this congregation? Will people think I provoked this? If I report this will I be believed or will it be minimized to “he said, she heard” thinking? If she chooses to report immediately, often she may hear this is not enough to warrant a formal complaint and no accountability is provided. If she doesn’t report it immediately, the first question is often, “Why didn’t you say something when this happened?” And most disturbing to me, is the victim’s decision to often leave the church completely.

The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women is mandated to provide services aimed at eradicating the problem of sexual harassment in our church and society. Today, as we move toward General Conference, I am asking you to take an active stand. I am asking you to take the risk of being uncomfortable in speaking up to say this behavior is unacceptable and pledging to not be a silent bystander.

In your conversations with your annual conference’s or central conference’s 2016 General Conference delegates, please encourage them to readopt Resolution 2045. Our work has never been more important in the life of the church and world. The courage modeled by victims in reporting sexual harassment begs us to respond better. We must. It is the right thing to do for God’s world.

Sexual harassment is fueled by deeply rooted attitudes about power, authority, and gender. It will be prevented when these attitudes are challenged and overhauled!

Becky Posey Williams is the Senior Director of Sexual Ethics and Advocacy for GCSRW. She loves the outdoors and actively seeks opportunities to be in nature. Becky is a native Mississippian and proud mother of Rebecca.

Advent Through the Eyes of Women: The Innkeeper’s Wife

by Rev. Leigh Goodrich

“She gave birth to her firstborn, a son; she put him in a simple cloth wrapped like a receiving blanket, and laid him in a feeding trough for cattle, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

 – Luke 2: 7 (The Inclusive Bible)

It is odd how one small phrase can set free the Biblical imagination.  For example, how many Christmas pageants have you attended in which Mary and Joseph knock on the door of the inn and encounter a grouchy, disheveled innkeeper, accompanied by a silent wife? Gruffly the innkeeper tells the expectant couple, with little or no explanation, that there is no room for them at the inn, and abruptly slams the door in their blessed faces.  However, nowhere in the scripture is an actual innkeeper, or an innkeeper’s spouse, mentioned.  The Bible just tells us “there was no room for them at the inn.” Perhaps Mary and Joseph simply found a “No Vacancy” sign posted on the door, or received no response at all to their frantic knocks.

photo of Leigh

Rev. Leigh Goodrich

However, the innkeeper role is one that allows us to explore the human condition in greater depth.  In my childhood, the innkeeper was a part coveted by the boys in my Sunday school class.  It was an opportunity to participate in the obligatory Christmas pageant without having to spend too much time in front of the congregation, or dress in an angel or animal costume.  At the same time, they might get to express their “coolness” by slamming a door really hard.  On occasion, the shiest girl in the class would pose as his wife, standing by idly through the insult of the holy and expectant family.  Hence, the Christian Midrash of the innkeeper and his wife.

So if we allow our Biblical imagination some additional freedom, we might wonder what happened after the innkeeper closed the door.  Would the silent wife remain silent?  Would she push back against her excluding and uncaring spouse?  Do the two simply go back to bed? Do either of them take food or blankets to the hungry and shivering young couple preparing to welcome their first child in a bed of straw?

Here is one rendition of the couple’s exchange.  I encourage you to consider a few of your own.

“What are you looking at?” mumbled the innkeeper to his spouse.

Quickly she averted her eyes, looking at the floor.  She had seen him turn others away in the night, but there was something different about this couple.  The man was travel-worn and his spouse doubled over, seeming to be experiencing pain.  Judging from her clothes, she might even be pregnant.

“I asked you a question,” he provoked.

“Nothing,” she mumbled, eyes still staring at the dirt floor.

He started to walk past her, through the small area where food was prepared, to the back sleeping rooms.  Then he heard her speak.

“This just feels different,” her small voice uttered before she even knew she had said anything.

“Don’t question me,” he retorted. “What do you know about this?  You don’t run this business, or make a single mite to keep this family fed. I break my back every day keeping this business going.  You don’t know anything.”

“But I think the woman might be pregnant and even in labor,” the wife said, lifting her eyes to see if this observation had escaped her already irate spouse.

 “Are you questioning my decision?” His voice grew louder.  “Who are you to question me?  That woman is with child and could render this entire house ritually unclean if she stays here. All of the clients will leave, I will have to refund their money, and my reputation as an innkeeper will be ruined forever.  We will have no money and be out in the streets begging because you wanted to be merciful to some strange women and her unborn child.”

His anger always frightened her, although he had never actually hit her.  Still she persisted.

“Would your God, our God, the God of our ancestors, want a woman to give birth in a cold cave among the cattle?  Is ritual cleanliness that important to God?  What about hospitality and compassion?”

Now his face was bright scarlet.  He turned and backed her into a corner of the kitchen, grabbing her arms so she could not escape. 

“Now you question God,” he roared down on her.  “Never question me or God!”

With that, he grabbed some kitchen rags, binding her wrists.  He put another across her mouth, gagging her. 

Stomping out of the kitchen, he passed two sets of horrified eyes.  “You’ll be next,” he growled.  “I just need some peace.”  With that, he went back to the bed, leaving his two daughters to huddle in fear next to their mother for the night.

But he never actually hit her.

peace on earth_photo

This family Christmas photo caused waves across social media last week. The women in this family have tape over their mouths, bound in Christmas lights as the men stand over them, a thumbs up and a sign declaring “Peace on earth”.

When we pray for peace on earth, what are we asking for?  For some it means silencing the voices that are uncomfortable to hear…the voices that keep us from our “silent” night.  Nagging spouses and tired children might ruin a peaceful night’s sleep.  Still, peace on earth cannot happen if we are only concerned with what is “ours”: our inn, our money, our property, our economy, our security, our comfort, and ourselves.  True peace on earth starts with the restraint we practice when we are willing to hear all the voices, even those that might seem vexing or whiny.  It starts when we listen to the marginalized with the same interest and attention as the powerful. It happens when legislators and leaders yield their power to make room for the voices of women and children.   Peace on earth happens when we are in relationship with people of all genders, all races, all religions, all abilities, all ages, all ideologies and all classes.  Peace on earth happens when we treat all humans with dignity and respect.  It happens when the loud and powerful lion makes a safe place for the timid and vulnerable lamb to lay.  Peace on earth begins with each one of us, in our homes and in our families. 

During the holidays, stress and alcohol abuse can break the peace of our families and incite domestic violence.  If you are a victim of domestic violence, or you suspect that at friend or relative might be, we encourage you to call your local domestic violence hotline.  Or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800)799-SAFE (7233).  They provide confidential and anonymous counseling in 170 languages.    

Leigh Goodrich is Sr. Dir. Of Leadership and Education, and the newest member of the GCSRW team.  She is a second-career clergyperson from the New England Annual Conference, and frequent blogger for GCSRW.  You can read more about her here.

Spotlighting the Need for Providing a Just System

by Becky Posey Williams

I must admit, there are days when I choose to not read a paper or watch the news.  I deliberately avoid websites which offer stories reflecting the worst of our humanity.  I suppose it is one way to not face the harsh reality of life. So when my co-workers thought it a good idea for me to see the movie Spotlight, I cringed.  It seemed too much like work, but at the same time, a movie I must see.


Becky Posey Williams

I walked away with two words clearly formed from the movie:  intimidation and courage.  In a nutshell, it is the story of the investigative journalism of the Spotlight Team from the Boston Globe and the decision by leadership to uncover cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area.  In an atmosphere highlighted by native Bostonian colleagues who had worked together for years, the invitation to second guess and doubt the decision to move forward with the story was met at every level.  The team was regularly reminded that 53% of The Globe’s customers were Catholic and were asked to remember all the “good work” done by the church in the community.  It was downplayed by many as nothing more than “he said-she said” gossip.  The investigators were regularly told to “leave it alone” and reminded that disclosing would only make things worse.  The decision to go forward with the story remained steadfast, even in the heat of intimidating comments aimed at silencing anyone who dared to speak out.

The “shift” in the movie happens immediately upon the reporters hearing the individual stories from victims who were now adults.  They described a common theme of feeling special when shown attention by the priest and affirmed as being good in the eyes of God when all they knew were struggles in life.  I sat in awe as I listened to stories of courage in their decisions to step forward and share the nightmare of sexual abuse by Catholic priests whom they trusted.  I listened to the description of sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse perpetrated by a person in a position of power.  Feeling as if I had been punched in the stomach as I listened to these victims’ stories, I found new breath and energy each time the Boston Globe would renew its pledge to one another to press on in its focus on the institutional practice and policy of the church.  Ultimately, the story reveals the multi-layered cover-up by the Catholic Church and legal consultants of hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse.

I walked away from the theatre reminded of our call to provide a system within The United Methodist Church to prevent and respond with accountability and healing in every complaint of sexual misconduct within the Church.  I realized clearly how this work must involve collaboration and must not be done alone.  And today, I breathe deeply in my commitment to this work as I remember the words of Sojourner Truth, “Truth is powerful and it prevails.”

Becky Posey Williams is the Senior Director of Sexual Ethics and Advocacy for GCSRW. She loves the outdoors and actively seeks opportunities to be in nature. Becky is a native Mississippian and proud mother of Rebecca.