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.  

Expansive Language for the Divine: Come, Holy Power Within! Help us Thy Names to sing!

by Dr. Trelawney Grenfell-Muir

I was very excited when GCSRW invited me to write a blog about “expansive language for God.” Excited, honored, eager, motivated! The September focus on this newsletter issue sounds absolutely fantastic, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the articles! I’ve spent the past month happily working away on this topic. There’s just one problem…..

I’ve come to the realization that the word “God,” itself, is hopelessly, restrictively male. Words such as ‘Spirit,’ ‘Wisdom,’ or ‘Holy One’ seem flexible, able to symbolize female, male, intersex, or neutral divinity. But the word ‘God’ subconsciously translates to maleness. I wrestled with whether or not to admit this opinion— I do not want anyone to stop reading in horror or to dismiss everything I have to say because they disagree with this one conclusion— but I decided that perhaps if there are voices challenging the very use of the word ‘God,’ then some of the more moderate ideas gently urging consideration of the topic of expansive language might seem more attractive in comparison. If people dismiss me outright, maybe they will turn to more moderate proposals in relief, and we will make some progress, anyway!


Dr. Trelawney Grenfell-Muir

Patriarchal Origins

The Christian tradition did not inherit a specifically male ‘God’ by accident. The religious leaders of the early Hebrew communities chose a male deity in order to convince their adherents to stop worshipping local goddesses. Like any patriarchal culture, maleness was considered more powerful than femaleness, as well as higher in stature and social value. In addition, Tikya Frymer-Kensy notes, as the Hebrew community became monotheistic, Hebrew gender roles became more distinct and rigid, and the identity of the supposedly genderless YHWH became increasingly male.[1] Thus, the very choice of maleness as inherent to YHWH reveals the patriarchal violence present from the very beginning.

It makes sense, given the predominantly male language and symbolism for the divine in scripture, that in translating the Christian tradition to European languages, the religious leaders chose the inherently male word “God.” In a pagan polytheistic context with competing gods and goddesses (similar to the ancient Near East), patriarchal cultures continued the tradition of choosing, as their main symbol for their monotheistic divine being, a male word. And 2,000 years later, we still wrestle with the many injustices, wounds, and griefs that have arisen due to that originating, seminal[2] misogyny.

Efforts to save God

I deeply respect modern efforts to transform the word “God” into a symbol that allows women and men equally to claim the divine image, the imago Dei… but wait, “imago Dei” is also an inherently male phrase. To express being in the image of a female divine, one would have to say imago Deae. Perhaps a Latin scholar could help find a gender-neutral phrase, such as imago Numinis (in the image of the divine/Spirit). How can women truly believe we are equally in the divine image when even the words for “divine image” are male? When even our most progressive seminaries still use the term imago Dei, what hope have we for our churches?

Many self-identified “progressive” pastors occasionally pair the (male) word “God” with neutral pronouns in liturgy, but only in the unofficial parts, such as the Pastoral Prayer or Call to Worship. Scriptures, hymns, Eucharist, Psalms, and the Jesus Prayer remain predominantly or entirely male. Thus, worship services in our most progressive churches usually express the theology that the divine is decidedly male, but sometimes that maleness does not need to be explicitly stated.

Rarely, progressive pastors will pair the (male) word “God” with female pronouns— again, in the unofficial, less central/traditional parts of worship, and usually as a metaphor rather than a form of address (“God, who is like a mother…” rather than “Heavenly Mother, we pray for…”).  Often, these female pronouns combine with carefully gendered notions of female roles, such as mothering, nurturing, comforting, or gentle wisdom. These worship services express the theology that the divine is decidedly male, but sometimes (such as on Mother’s Day) certain disempowered traits that our patriarchal society defines as appropriately “feminine” can be attributed to our (male) “God.”

I do not mean to disparage these efforts. In fact, I applaud them as a necessary step forward from a time when even these minuscule hints would have been far more controversial than they are today. Furthermore, I have often paired “God” with female pronouns, and I have enjoyed and appreciated the scriptures, hymns, and liturgies that do so. But I wonder whether there is any point to these timid, barely perceptible nudges against the Mighty Patriarchal Monument.

For starters, people tend to translate neutral pronouns about a male word, to be male. Thus, we hear people say, “God is not male or female; He’s spirit.” Of course, this statement also demonstrates the use of male pronouns as generic – sometimes including women, sometimes not. Generic male grammar is just as violent as any other sexist language; it indicates the erasure of females to a subhuman category. English has largely moved beyond the use of masculine pronouns as generic in common speech because we finally figured out how violent it is. Our church can learn to do without it, as well.

Perhaps using only female language for the symbol “God” for a few centuries would tip the balance such that people would stop subconsciously interpreting the (male) word “God” as male. However, for that shift to happen, the idea of goddesses would have to vanish, and the word “god” would have to be used to describe all female divine symbols. With the rise of various forms of neopaganism, the phrase “gods and goddesses” continues to circulate. The word “God” will probably never transcend its inherent maleness

Why does it matter?

It can be hard to convince modern Christians, even progressives, even self-identified feminists or allies, that the issue of sexist language is worth rocking the boat. Very few pastors or laity want to touch this topic. So, why all the fuss? To help answer that question, I turn to a scholar commonly known as the “Father of Peace Studies,” Johan Galtung. Galtung developed a brilliant taxonomy of violence, which he divides into Cultural, Structural, and Direct violence. Direct violence is obvious violence, such as rape, infanticide, wife beating, honor killings, human trafficking, etc. Structural violence comes from systems that oppress, such as glass ceilings, wage inequity, and exploitation. Galtung defines Cultural violence as: “…any aspect of a culture that can be used to legitimize violence in its direct or structural form. Symbolic violence built into a culture does not kill or maim like direct violence or the violence built into the structure. However, it is used to legitimize either or both.”[3] Use of predominantly male language about the divine is violent.

When I read the GCSRW website, I am inspired and delighted by the way our Methodist Church is working hard on issues of sexual ethics: “Raising awareness, preventing sexual abuse, promoting healthy boundaries, bringing about justice and healing.”[4] Clearly, the UMC cares deeply about structural and direct violence against women. Does the UMC understand that all the goals of GCSRW, all the goals of the Sexual Ethics program depend on healing the cultural violence at the root of these problems? Our beloved UMC has a terrible disease right around its heart, which hinders and hamstrings our beautiful efforts. Our worship continually insists that the divine is, primarily, a male being with coercive hierarchical power; this cultural violence justifies and perpetuates every kind of violence in this world.

Power Plays

Even our best, most beautiful efforts to reject the violent strands of our tradition fall prey to being undermined by sexist cultural violence. For example, the beautiful book Worship in the Spirit of Jesus: Theology, liturgy, and songs without violence by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and Bret Hesla, which I highly recommend, argues that Jesus tried to teach his disciples that the “kingdom of God” is like a mustard seed – humble, tiny, everywhere. However, the gospel writers revised the message by insisting that the mustard seed grows into something big and powerful.[5] However, the authors never mention that the very use of the word “kingdom” is inherently violent, implying coercive, hierarchical power imbalances. The authors do change the word ‘kingdom’ to the nonviolent word ‘realm’ in most (but not all) of the worship resources they provide. Furthermore, while the authors exclude the “petitional prayer” from their liturgies because it implies that the divine is a being who grants favors to certain, chosen subordinates,[6] the liturgies include many phrases in songs and other readings, which exactly express petitionary prayer to an external being with superior, coercive power to grant favors.

The “kingdom of God” will never achieve the “realm of JustPeace;” nor will it achieve the “reign of Love,” nor the “commonwealth of divine wellness,” nor any other nonviolent prophetic vision of our ultimate purpose. The word “kingdom” itself undermines the ability of the reader/listener to hear the subversive, nonviolent messages Jesus tries to deliver. The word ‘kingdom,’ like the words ‘Lord,’ ‘King,’ ‘Master,’ ‘Ruler,’ ‘Governor,’ and even ‘Father,’ arose from a patriarchal culture in which those symbols represented a way to align oneself and one’s community with the most powerful strongman in order to pay for protection from the other mafia. Similarly, use of female pronouns for the church (similar to female pronouns for cars, boats, and Earth) represent femaleness as a disempowered receptacle to be dominated, driven, and directed by controlling males. This language is cultural violence, which reinforces and justifies the idea that the divine is a distant being with coercive power, and we are lowly supplicants along a hierarchical ladder of relative privilege and oppression.

Is this what we want to say? Is this what we mean? Do these violent ideas represent the theology we hope to announce as “Good News” to the world? If not, how do we say what we actually mean? Galtung’s theory of cultural violence is another way of understanding how language shapes reality. What reality do we want to build, and what language do we need as the right building blocks? What structures in our worship and church – power imbalances, distant authorities, separations – also fail to embody the “Good News”?

Why is it so hard?

These conversations hurt, don’t they? We Christians do not wear our Christianity as one of many groups we belong to, like pieces of jewelry we can take on and off. Being Christian is often at the core of our identity, our deepest and strongest sense of “who we are.” When central symbols of our faith tradition are called “violent” or “oppressive,” we have to work hard not to feel as though we, ourselves, are being called bad people for belonging to this tradition. That said, we’ve let go of many other violent strands of our tradition, yet progressives seem to struggle to admit or engage the issue of sexism more than they do with other injustices. I know scores, perhaps hundreds of moderate to progressive clergy who speak out about racism, homophobia, economic injustice, immigration, and environmentalism, and the ways in which our Christian tradition and communities have failed to live our faith commitments. They would never use prayers, hymns, or readings that expressed the idea that the divine is inherently white, but most pastors I know shy away from naming the sexism woven into our traditions, much less working with their congregations to move forward.


Why, when paintings of a white Jesus are no more historically accurate than paintings of a female Jesus, are our churches so empty of female Jesus paintings?[7]

Why, when the concept of Christ as eternal Logos comes from the Hebrew Bible’s female symbol for divine Wisdom, do we exclude female Christ language from our lexicon?

Why, when highly intelligent, articulate feminist theologians and biblical scholars have been writing for decades about the sexist violence of our language, have we made such minuscule progress in our churches?[8]

Why are we so terrified of Goddess?

We cling to male divine symbols for the same reason the Hebrew leaders decided YHWH had better be male: we want security. Part of the reason we want security is that life is terrifying and uncertain. If we can believe that among all of the other coercive/reward powers in Creation, we have aligned ourselves with the mightiest coercive/reward power, the King of kings and Lord of lords, we feel safer from the harm those other kings and lords can cause. The world has changed in the past few millennia, but we still live in a society that rewards power imbalance, and rich male oligarchs still run the show. Religious leaders still want power, too. Throughout the centuries, Christian leaders have taught us to be scared of losing power, based on the exact same basic power differential violent structural approach that caused them to define YHWH as male.

The other reason we want security is that we want to feel good about ourselves.        You know that expression, “the way you hear a song sung the first time, is the “correct” version.” Or something like that. We all know that feeling – the inner righteous indignation at hearing a “wrong” version of a song we love, but which someone else sings to slightly different words or music. I have been thinking about that concept recently because of the resistance to changing words in worship. I’m wondering how much resistance to inclusive language comes from this simple psychological phenomenon, and what it means. It seems to me that when we love a song, that song becomes part of identity. So if someone sings it differently, we can react as though we are being told that our version, our community, our ingroup identity, is “wrong” somehow. Maybe we associate the song with a certain group of people or time in our life, and that sense of belonging, solidarity, and security becomes tied up with the words and music as they live in our memory, a felt experience of safety and worthiness.

The Harvard Negotiation Project says that we each have three core identities that we want to believe about ourselves: I am good; I am competent; I deserve respect.[9] In our world, men with more coercive/reward power are generally still considered the people most competent and worthy of respect. Aligning ourselves with the King of kings and Lord of lords persuades us that, by association, we can see ourselves as sharing some of that competence and respect. When annoying feminists come along and tell us that those parts of our tradition cause harm, that idea challenges our core identity “I am good.” We want to believe that our tradition and customs are all good because then we can believe that we, ourselves are good. We have trouble separating our group identities from intrinsic goodness as beings in the imago Deae. Even if we can know, logically, that every community, tradition, and ideology, religious or secular, is flawed, imperfect, and heavily influenced by patriarchy, we struggle to believe, emotionally, that the flaws in our communities do not make us bad people. So we deny that flaws exist, minimize the harm they do, and dehumanize the victims of that harm.[10]

Finally, the reason patriarchy still has a stranglehold on Christianity (and most of the world) is that patriarchy has taught us all not to care about women. The problem is not that people do not understand that sexist language is sexist. The problem is not that no one has pointed out how violent sexist language is, or how much harm it still causes. The problem is not that seminaries, clergy, and laity cannot comprehend the concept of how cultural violence works, how symbols of coercive male dominance justify and reinforce coercive male dominance. The problem is that almost no one cares. They consider it unimportant, a low priority. Patriarchy, in protection of itself, has convinced society to deny flaws exist, minimize the harm they do, and dehumanize the victims of that harm. Women, as much as men, believe that the divine is more male than female, and that that’s okay. It is morally acceptable to have a coercive male divine only if women are not fully human. It can be okay for women not to be equally in the divine image, only if women are inferior to men. Patriarchy has convinced us that violence against women does not matter because women do not matter.

Where do we go from here?

We have two tasks before us, we who would heal the patriarchal violence of our traditions and our world. First, we must keep changing and refining our language and symbols for the divine. Second, we must meet people where they are, paint a vision of where we want to go, and connect the dots to help us journey there together.

To say that we human Christians cannot come up with expansive, nonviolent symbols and words for the divine that respect our tradition, embody theological truth, express poetic beauty, and satisfy spiritual needs, is to say that the Holy Spirit is limited and weak indeed. John Wesley would not approve! While we should never pressure individuals about their private devotional language choices, we can certainly ensure that the official liturgical language that unites and represents our faith in communal worship progresses steadily toward our most beautiful, faithful ideals. Seminaries and denominational leaders can provide resources with ideas for expansive language and how to help congregations accept changes— and be sure those resources are getting well publicized, distributed, and implemented. Clergy need support! They need to know that if they go out on a limb and change the Jesus Prayer, or Ye Olde Favorite Christmas Hymne, their denominational superiors will back them up all the way. And one of the best ways to help congregations is to invite them to go ahead and use their preferred version instead of what is printed in the bulletin. Reassure them that the choice is theirs, each and every time, so they believe it. Eventually, they will love to sing:

Hark! The herald angels sing, hear the heavenly anthems ring:

“Peace on Earth, and mercy mild; all the Earth is reconciled!”

Joyful, all Creation rise, join the anthems of the skies;

With th’angelic host proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! The herald angels sing: songs of Hope to us they bring![11]


As Paul Tillich has pointed out, our limited, finite language and symbols for the divine can never entirely capture the infinite divine mystery. Tillich defines idolatry as replacing the infinite divine with a finite symbol.[12] Use of exclusively male pronouns for the divine, the symbol of “Father,” and even the inherently male word “God” become idolatrous when they try to substitute for the infinite, unknowable, eternal mystery of the divine, who is male, female, both, neither, and every other possibility. Allowing any one symbol to replace that open, indefinable mystery will limit our ability to access divine wisdom and healing. For modern Christianity, use of the symbol “Father” has become idolatrous. Jesus, the Jewish reformer, saw that his community had gradually symbolized the divine as increasingly transcendent, such that they had lost touch with the truth of divine intimacy. He taught his disciples to pray to “Abba” in order to help his tradition find truths they had lost.[13]

Jesus was not telling us to call the divine “Abba” forever and ever, Amen; rather, he was modeling how to be faithful. Jesus’ use of “Abba” teaches us that when we realize our symbols are inadequate, we must change them. The most faithful way to pray the Jesus Prayer is to call it the “Jesus Prayer” rather than the “Lord’s Prayer,” and to open the prayer “Our [Something More Expansive And Liberative Than Father].” Whatever symbols we choose may someday need to be replaced again. As James R. Lowell wrote in 1845, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth; They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.” You may recognize those words from the old Methodist hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” That hymn did not make it into the “new” 1989 version of The United Methodist Hymnal, most likely because of the sexist use of “man” as generic. Lowell’s own hymn became obsolete because of the exact changing nature of truth he describes in his hymn.

The most faithful way to honor Lowell’s work, and the work of every writer of songs, stories, and prayers, is not to let their work die with the changing consciousness of time. Instead, we can tell yet another Garden of Eden story (there are two different versions in Genesis already):

Then Mother God/ess came and realized that Eve and Adam had chosen to eat the fruit. She sighed. “OK,” she said, “I guess maybe you were ready. I wanted to keep you as my sheltered little children awhile longer, but I guess it is time for you to be free to learn and grow in wildness and wisdom. I want to warn you that sometimes it will be very, very painful. But I will always be with you, and my healing Love will always surround you. You are very brave already, and I know you will grow more and more wise and strong. I am so proud of you. I love you so much. I give you my blessing, always.”[14]

And we can sing “Once to every soul and nation, comes the moment to decide/ In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side…” Just as Jesus did, we can change the words, all the words that time has made uncouth. Hymns, prayers, scriptures… just as the biblical writers did, we can change them, wash away the mud of patriarchy to help our communities access the pearls of divine inspiration inside. We will keep the versions that were handed down to us and discuss how we have changed them; thus, we will continue to learn from our heritage and the living Spirit, speaking now.  “God” can become “Goddess” half the time, and God/ess,[15] and new words we have not even created yet. Kingdom can become kindom,[16] a realm of kindred liberation, equality, inclusiveness, and JustPeace. This work is our “new duty,” as Lowell writes, and it is indeed a choice between truth and falsehood.


The kingdom of this world is become

The kindom of all Love, and of all Life, and of all Life!

And Peace shall reign for ever and ever!

Kin, all kin! And Love, all Love!

And Peace shall reign forever and ever![17]


Change is usually scary and challenging because every change always involves some kind of loss.[18] Thus, one of the most important jobs of any prophet is to paint a vision of our destination. For example, men may lose significant privilege in the kindom, but they gain something much more valuable: their full, beautiful, divine humanity. Men suffer terribly under the violence of patriarchy. High suicide rates among young men represent the poison of teaching boys not to cry, not to need help, not to be soft, caring, or sensitive. We must not continue to harm men by defining female attributes of the divine as emotional, “nurturer” and “comforter” while defining male attributes of the divine as rational, aggressive, violent, hierarchical, or emotionally remote. Our symbols can heal the wounds of patriarchy as they enable us to reject societal gender roles in order to affirm femaleness and maleness as equally holy.

I think fear of change ultimately comes from fear of our own mortality and finitude, fear of death and nonbeing. So I wonder how much resistance to different versions of songs we love comes from the fear that if we change these songs, these symbols of a community that has survived the ravages of time and will endure when we are dead, we are chipping away at the continuity of the community in a way that erodes our own ability to cheat death.

So I am wondering whether modeling an embracing attitude toward change, can help children sidestep this “my version must be the right version” mentality a bit. I remember when I first learned about inclusive language – I agreed with the theory. But I did not want to change the words to my favorite songs. That felt painful. Those songs held such memories! But my children are different (so far)…. they change songs all the time. We’ve really encouraged that idea, without consciously intending to model an embracing attitude toward change. When we hear a song, we talk about whether we want to change any parts of it. Sometimes we sing it one way for a long while and then change it based on a suggestion from any of the four of us. Same thing with stories – we change endings we don’t like, we add characters, change names, genders, all kinds of things. We play with all of it, nothing is too sacred to change. In fact… it is BECAUSE stories and songs are sacred, that we change them.

That is what the Bible does – it presents multiple versions of stories and songs, the products of writers who decided that the version they received needed tweaking in order to convey the truest Truth. We’ve lost that idea, somehow, that empowered freedom to claim stories and songs as our own, as for us, gifts to be treasured and used to their fullest potential.

I like it when the “original” (as best we can guess) versions are kept on record somewhere, and when changes and edits are acknowledged as such. And I like it that my faith teaches me not to seek the living among the dead…. it is not there. Living songs and stories are symbols of the most basic messages of my faith: Life is stronger than death, Love is stronger than hate, Good is stronger than evil.

All privilege, all chosen-ness must pass away in the kindom; that includes false symbols that pretend humans are chosen above otherkind, somehow separate from other animals and the rest of the natural world. “Nature” is not out there somewhere; we are Nature. Our symbols of the divine must include all the messy glory of our cycles of life, death, and rebirth: the holy, mysterious Womb, which is both our Eternal Creator and the living soil beneath our toes; the mighty, divine Vagina, which is both our Reconciling Christ, through whom we are born again, and the towering tree friends, who connect Earth and Sky.[19] At first, releasing our privilege to embrace our natural kindred may feel awkward or frightening; but, it will soon become a tremendous relief of liberation and joy. Through reconnecting with these lost symbols of Nature in the imago Numinis, God/ess will help us move beyond tidy, fearful anthropocentrism and the ecocide it causes. We will learn how to grieve again, honestly and authentically, as our communities hold us, and our messy, wild tears mingle with the rain streaming from our hair down to the mud on which we sit.

Every eye shall now behold it,

All Creation’s majesty;

See the Earth as one, united,

Welcomed, reborn, healed, and free,

Deepest healing, deepest healing, deepest healing,

Joins the Earth in unity.[20]


Change is indeed difficult; however, change comes, will we or nil we. While Christianity is still flourishing among oppressed and underprivileged peoples of the world, mainline churches in the USA flounder. Younger generations look elsewhere for community, activism, and spiritual growth. Membership in the United Methodist Church has been declining for decades; if we keep declining at this pace, our church will be gone in just a few decades.[21] What have we got to lose? Why be timid? Why cling to our violent, respectable path toward extinction? Again I turn to Lowell’s timeless message: “Then it is the brave one chooses while the coward stands aside, Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.” Change will always, always, always come. Sometimes it can be painful and scary. But the living stories and songs of my faith can keep me grounded in hope and strength, able to face forward into the future with courage and joy.

People are as hungry as ever for meaning, community connectedness, and tidings of comfort and joy. Can we yet announce the kindom in a compelling, honest, living voice? Churches have enormous potential: to be centers of community in natural disasters and in the coming unstable climate and economic insecurity; to teach a repressed, fearful, porn-addicted society the beauty of healthy, nonviolent sexuality; to spread liberation, hope, and healing. Perhaps, just as Jesus shocked the respectable folks of his day, it’s time for Jesus-followers to shock ours. Perhaps it is time to be bold, to be fools for Sophia-Christ. If we are unafraid, if we have the courage to step forward without shame, we can weave the kindom of JustPeace for all Creation.

Rewriting hymns, liturgies, scriptures, creeds, and bible stories can be quite challenging and tricky. However, we must choose between “challenging and tricky” vs. “violent and oppressive.” We must not accept the exclusion of half of humanity, dismissing it as too challenging to fix. I look at the incredible, beautiful richness of our tradition, and I believe it is worth saving. I do not want to abandon our tradition to the violent, patriarchal mistakes of leaders long dead. I want to honor their best impulses, the times they got it right, the parts of their work that truly represent divine inspiration – these liturgies deserve to be liberated from their patriarchal chains and set free to soar in glory and lead our church forward into a new promised land. And the Goddess of Sarah, Ruth, and Mary will guide us: “Let the word of Sophia-Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to the Holy One. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of our Beloved Jesus, giving thanks to the Eternal Womb and Form and Breath of Creation:”[22]

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;

Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,

Love, you stand within the shadow, ever watching o’er your own.[23]

[1]Frymer-Kensky, Tikva  In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Mythin. New York: Free Press, 1992, p188-89.

[2] Seminal is, of course another inherently male term, coming as it does from the word “semen,” meaning “seed.” But semen is not a seed, as Aristotle and others thought. It is half of a seed. In this case, my use of the word is intended as irony.

[3] Galtung, Johan. Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3) 1990, p291.

[4] visited 27-August-2017

[5] Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack, & Hesla, Bret. Worship in the Spirit of Jesus: Theology, liturgy, and songs without violence. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005, p60.

[6] Ibid., p97.

[7] For some wonderful artistic depictions of female Jesus, see

[8] For example, see:
Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse. New York: Crossroad, 1993.

Moltmann-Wendel, Elisabeth, & Moltmann, Jurgen. God: His and hers. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1991.

Ramshaw, Gail. God Beyond Gender: Feminist Christian God-Language. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon, 1983.

[9] Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999.

[10] Castano, Emanuele. (2008). On the Perils of Glorifying the In-group: Intergroup Violence, In-group Glorification, and Moral Disengagement. Social and Personality Psychology Compass,

2(1), 154–170.

[11] For this hymn and more inclusive rewrites by Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee, see

[12] Tillich, Paul. Theology of Culture, p53-67, c.f. Neville, Robert C. The Truth of Broken Symbols. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996., pxi n.

[13] Neville, Robert C. The Truth of Broken Symbols. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.


[15] Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon, 1983, p45-46.

[16] First made public by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, who learned it from her friend Georgene Wilson, O.S.F

[17] For my complete rewrite of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, see

[18] Dr. Carrie Doehring taught me that in her Pastoral Care course at Boston University School of Theology.

[19] For a more expanded discussion of the concept of Christ as a Cosmic Divine Vagina, see:
Grenfell-Muir, Trelawney. “Christ, the Cosmic Vagina: Liberation and healing from Christian Violence of Fear, Power Imbalance, and Separation,” in Alvizo, Xochitl & Messina, Gina, Women, Religion, Revolution. Cambridge, MA: FSR Inc., 2017.

[20] Original hymn is “Lo, He Comes With Clouds Ascending” by Charles Wesley (1758), verse 2: “Now redemption, long expected, comes in solemn splendor near; all the saints this world rejected thrill the trumpet sound to hear: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! See the day of God appear!”

Rewritten by Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee:


[22] Col. 3:16-17, which I have revised with expansive language for the divine

[23] For the complete revised version of this hymn, see

Dr. Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. Previously a fellow at the Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and at the Earhart Foundation, Grenfell-Muir has conducted field research in situations of ongoing conflict in Syria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland.  Her dissertation explores the methodology, constraints, and effectiveness of clergy peacebuilders in Northern Ireland. She has been an invited speaker in community settings and at MIT, Boston University, Tufts, and Boston College on topics of gender violence, economic injustice, and religious or ethnic conflicts and has also moderated panels on genetic engineering, cloning, and other bioethics issues. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.


Divine Omnipresence and Human Language

by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Ph.D.



About 35 years ago, when I was about 50 years old, I was carefully applying what I had learned about interpreting literature from my Ph.D. studies at New York University. As part of my cautious breaking free from fundamentalist “certainties” about the Bible, I was researching and writing about the Bible’s various images of God as female: images of human birthing, breastfeeding, and mothering, as well as images of God as a woman named Wisdom, or as mother eagle, mother bear, mother hen, and the like.

Nobody in the church of my youth had ever mentioned that God could be imagined as female in any form whatsoever. I was taught that the Bible referred to the Holy One as God, never Goddess, and used exclusively masculine pronouns concerning Him, completely in line with the male supremacy of its era – and our own.

But after seeing the female depictions of God in the Bible, and after learning that the culture surrounding the Hebrew Scriptures did indeed have males holding most of the power in homes, in religion, and in society generally, I began to wonder. Why would it even have occurred to a male author to use images about God that honored Her as a powerful female? I wondered whether this unusual imagery, shining nurturantly against a field of authoritarian, militaristic and domineering God-imagery, might be a clear sign that the Scriptures really were divinely inspired. Why else would a male writer, surrounded by a society controlled by powerful men, suggest that God could be imagined in the form of a female? Wouldn’t the authors question their own sanity for choosing such unusual and humbling depictions of God’s nature? Unless… Perhaps they wrote in the confidence that they were being inspired by something or someone larger than themselves!

Gradually, the Bible studies I was researching and writing were published in the Chicago-based Christian feminist magazine called Daughters of Sarah. And eventually I gathered them and added additional chapters to build my 1983 book The Divine Feminism: Biblical Imagery of God as Female, soon translated and published also in German, French, and Italian. It was also published online at and republished in 2014 by Wipf and Stock in Eugene, Oregon.

Once my research had convinced me that the Bible really does encourage us to imagine and speak of God in female as well as male manifestations, I got up my courage to use enhanced and inclusive language about the Holy One. I stuck with the male term God because I did not want to appear polytheistic, as the female term Goddess would certainly imply. And as an English language professor, I was aware that language rarely changes by simply inventing new spellings, such as Godde. So I say God, but use exclusively female pronouns for Her.

At the time my 1983 book was published, I thought that once people understood that the Bible really did depict God as female and male, they would be glad to affirm the entire human race in their words about the Holy One. In this way, for no financial expense, people could make a significant contribution to justice for everyone. After all, it is hard to abuse an adult or a child once that person has become associated with the Divine Presence.

Unfortunately, I soon found out that even though many Christians claimed the Bible as their only rule for faith and practice, the Bible’s use of female God-imagery did not matter to them one little bit. I was disinvited from churches when they realized that I would advocate for enhanced God-language. A man railed at me for calling one of my books Women, Men and the Bible, thus “getting the order wrong.” A woman bawled me out for undermining God’s holiness by associating Him with female embodiments. Four times Christianity Today printed claims that I believed god to be literally “a woman,” until finally I wrote to them asking whether their masculine pronouns proved that they literally believed God to be “a man”!

When the National Council of Churches released its Inclusive Language Lectionary, members of the press could not believe that people thought God was literally a man. But they changed their minds when people on the streets assumed that because God is “He,” God is probably a man. Of course, the pronoun “He” inevitably and automatically delivers a male image. So Mary Daly was correct when she warned that in our minds, “If God is male, then the male is God.”

And now, 35 years from the earliest rumblings of enhanced language, there are available some excellent study guides such as GCSRW’s God of the Bible. Nevertheless, the vast majority of pastors still speak about God in almost exclusively male images (father, king, warrior) with masculine pronouns to match.

Meanwhile, girl children and grown women continue to do most of the world’s work and own very little of the world’s wealth. Southern Baptist women are commanded to “contently yield” to the will of their husbands. Plymouth Brethren women may not speak in church and must wear hats to signal their subordination to any and every male, even their own sons. Catholic women are told by the Pope that they will never, ever be eligible for ordination to the priesthood.



When I submitted my 1983 book to Crossroad (a Catholic Press), my title was simply Biblical Imagery of God as Female. I was embarrassed when Crossroad changed the title to The Divine Feminine and printed the book that way without telling me, let alone asking my permission. Why was I so embarrassed? Because I have never believed that there is any such thing as a wispy disembodied “feminine” (or “masculine”) concept. Bodies can assume traits that match such designations, but there is to my mind no filmy eternal category of divine gender traits. Rather, as Genesis 1:27 states, both males and females are made in God’s image, as also was the Earth Creature who subsequently was divided into male and female to provide companionship (Genesis 2:20-23). So God’s image includes all human genders because God extended Herself to include people of every possible human designation. If we ever hope to be fair and just and mutually respectful as a global community, our language must reflect God’s enormous diversity.

What many of us do not realize is that our language shapes our categories of thought. It also sets the boundaries that limit our imaginations. Most of us know that God is Spirit – and that Spirit is not limited to men or women, but is an energy that “flows through all things.” We acknowledge that God’s Being is beyond anything we can describe. She has created millions of stars and planets and creatures beyond the understanding of any one human being. Yet if we persist in calling God “He,” we have put down a boundary that cuts us off from honoring over half of the human race. Calling God “He” persuaded us that we have penetrated the “cloud of unknowing” with an actual fact about God’s nature (namely, that God is “masculine.”) This unrecognized assumption then governs our behavior toward human males (superior) and females (inferior). And thereafter our own behavior strengthens our original assumption. Male superiority becomes so obvious that it would be silly to question.

Study of history shows us that in the first and second centuries of Christianity, believers’ focus on the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the stories of Jesus and the teaching of the Gospels and the apostle Paul, caused an uptick in gender equality that temporarily subverted the inequities of the surrounding cultures. Jesus himself was free of all male power prerogatives: he was not a husband, not a father, not a politician, not a warrior; just a low-paid craftsman.[2]

But as the centuries wore on, the actualities of Jesus and his Judaic reform movement tended to lie forgotten. The church fathers spun stories of Eve and Lilith as examples of women’s corruption and inferiority. (For instance, Sr. Albertus Magnus wrote in the 13th century that “woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his… One must be on one’s guard with every woman as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil”).[3]

So here we are in the 21st century, faced with the job of transforming our imaginations and behaviors by transforming language. Ungendered language (such as repeating the word God to avoid pronouns) does nothing to transform a mind already burdened by centuries of androcentric assumptions. (And besides, God is already a masculine form). Facing these facts, we know that there is no hope for human justice unless and until we are willing to smash through our former boundaries. We must repeatedly and consistently utilize images and pronouns that depict God as female, in order to counteract the domination of androcentric language.



According to John 1:18, “Nobody has seen God at any time,” although Jacob saw God as a wrestler during a dark night (Genesis 32) and Moses was with God in the “thick cloud” of Sinai (Exodus 19). The biblical point is that the nature of God is beyond human knowledge. God is mysterious, and therefore must be described through the use of images, stories, similes, and metaphors. The fact that the Bible uses a wide range of such images, stories, similes, and metaphors gives us, believers, permission to do the same.

We deceive ourselves when we pretend we know for sure what God looks like or what God thinks of certain groups, or why God “causes” certain things to happen. All of these “certainties” are part of human “knowledge” and will, therefore, vanish away when faith, hope, and love are all that will remain (I Corinthians 13:13).

So we must never forget that all of our language about God is metaphorical language and that we must choose what kind of metaphors we want to utilize. Will we choose stories and comparisons that support human justice for all? Or will we choose stories and comparisons that marginalize and injure certain groups of people?

Whether we want to or not, we must take responsibility for the choices we make as we speak about God in relationship with humankind. I have noticed that although omnipresence is routinely taught in Sunday schools as one of God’s basic attributes, our treatment of other human beings often constitutes denial of that attribute.



My Big Question to pastors and priests and Christians everywhere is this: if you do not care enough about fair treatment of girls and women to change your language (something you can do free of charge), then how can you expect me to believe that you care about respecting the Divine Presence in everyone? Do you believe that God is omnipresent? Even in girls and women? For those who don’t love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen, how can they possibly love God whom they have not seen? (I John 4:20).

And yes, our language matters. Enormously! It either reflects divine Love, or it doesn’t. And Love is the most worthwhile investment I know anything about because Love is eternal.

So here I am, 35 years later, still pleading for expansive language about God that honors the sacred core of every creature. May we never give up, until little girls and grown women are honored as manifestations of God’s female aspects, just as little boys and grown men are honored as manifestations of God’s male aspects. And the same for all non-human creatures everywhere. That is what God’s omnipresence is all about.

[1] Christian Century (Dec. 7, 2016), p. 9.

[2] Stan Goff, Borderline (Cascade Books, 2015), p. 65.

[3] Stan Goff, Borderline, p. 67.

Why We Need a Non-Gendered God

by Rev. Debra Jene Collum

When I entered seminary a quarter of a century ago, I was searching for a way to break out of a fundamentalist system of oppression and patriarchy that would never affirm the gifts and graces I was given for ministry. While I did a great deal of ministry, it was always ‘under the authority of the elders’ and subject to their scrutiny and control.

Announcing my plan to enter seminary and pursue full-time public pastoral ministry meant that I was excommunicated from a group of people I had been in fellowship with for over 15 years. My children lost playmates, I lost friends, and my Christmas card list was cut to almost nothing.

professional photo higher resolution

Rev. Debra Jene Collum


My first attempt at seminary admittance found me applying to a Baptist seminary that required their students to sign ‘lifestyle’ statements promising to refrain from all sorts of ‘un-Christian behaviors.’ I refused to sign and was not admitted to the seminary. My next attempt was the other end of the spectrum, the very liberal UCC seminary. I was readily accepted and assured that there were no written rules that I had to adhere to in order to be a participant in the student life of the seminary.

I was quite taken back when, at my orientation session, I was informed that if I didn’t write my papers in inclusive language, including language for God, I would fail my classes. So much for no rules…

Having come from a patriarchal system, you would think that I would embrace the idea of a genderless God. However, at the time, I didn’t know how else to refer to God. And it was God, ‘my heavenly Father’ who had stuck by me and continued to affirm my call to ministry when all others, including my family, shunned me. I wasn’t ready to talk about God or name God in any other way. Not yet…

So, I ended up at a Lutheran seminary where I flourished and grew and learned and became intimate with a God of many names, characteristics, moods, and purposes. And where I learned that what I needed for me, and for the people with whom I would one day journey with as their pastor, was a non-gendered God. A genderless God who was so much more affirming in God’s many ways of being and interacting with the Universe than any gendered, mythical god.

This naming of God without reference to gender has become so much a part of me that I cringe when I use the male pronoun to refer to God in moments when my mouth is going faster than my mind.

And singing the hymns of the church can be very uninspiring for me as I realize how much we perpetuate the myth of a gendered God through the words of our hymnody.

I continue to struggle with how to nurture the spiritual journey of my parishioners when so much of our language for God is gendered male.

I have not gone so far as to call God, ‘It’ as Shug does in ‘The Color Purple’. But I do affirm her reasoning, “Yeah, It. God ain’t a he or a she, but a It. But what do it look like? I ast. Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.[1]

You see, to me, a genderless God is a bigger God. A God that is not limited by human failings and not subject to the human inability to love unconditionally. Not a mythical god who is only given power as we are able to imagine God’s power, but a God that overcomes our shortcomings to call us into the More that we are able to be.  A genderless God is able to be both intimate and transcendent. A genderless God is able to journey with us and call us out of our limited understanding of ourselves so that we can be present to others. A genderless God can be powerful without the trappings of gendered expectations. This is the sort of God, I believe, we need in the time we are living now.

A time when human power seems more corrupted and more ambiguous and more capricious so that we long for the mythical gods of superpowers to come among us. We know they aren’t real, yet, we continue to hope that they will spring to life and save us. And when our Christian gendered God doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job at saving us in the way we expect gendered gods to save us, we are left with nothing at all.

Whereas, a non-gendered God who embraces all that God is in scripture, in the Universe, in Creation, in the best of the human spirit, in peace, in mercy, in justice, in whatever it is we need; a God who is not limited by any human design, capriciousness, ambition, or ambiguity; this is the God who can save us to the uttermost.

It is this God who can teach us, as we are being daily saved into our best selves, how to guide others into the pathway of God revealed through all humans, all the Universe and all Creation and more, who is already among us waiting to reveal the Kindom of God here and now.

We need a genderless God so that we don’t get in the way of all that God is and can be for the whole of the human race.

We need a genderless God because only then will all people be able to be drawn into the circle of God’s embrace.

[1] Walker, Alice. The Color Purple (pp. 202-203). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

Rev. Debra Jene Collum is an ordained elder in the Minnesota Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is appointed to the rural town of Chatfield serving Chatfield UMC. Pastor Collum is the co-chair of the MN Annual Conference Commission on the Status and Role of Women. She has taught Lay Servant courses on expanded language in public dialogue and worship and will be teaching the workshop “Naming Our God—From Patriarchy to Radical Purpose” at the Women and Spirituality Conference this fall.

In Celebration of Annual Conferences

By Rev. Leigh Goodrich

May and June are among the most welcoming months of the year.  They coax us outside without benefit of coat or jacket to breathe in the fresh smells of opening blossoms and freshly mown grass.  Among United Methodists in the United States, it is a time set aside for annual conferences to make plans, set rules, worship, reunite, and reignite with colleagues and friends.

photo of Leigh

Rev. Leigh Goodrich


The past annual conference season was notable for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women as we watched and witnessed discussions around an amendment to Paragraph 4, Article 4 of the Constitution that would guarantee women’s membership in the Church.  However, we observed so much more.

In the Mississippi Annual Conference, a sexual ethics training preceded the annual conference session.  The planning team recreated a fictitious sexual misconduct scenario, capturing the dynamics and complexity of the complaint process for about 800 participants. Questions poured out of the audience as they quizzed each of the characters in the story.  The comments revealed victim blaming, shaming, and church protection.

The following morning, before opening worship, a young clergyman requested a moment of personal privilege and made these remarks:

“Thank you for the ethics training.

I think it exposed many problems that clergy face and how easy it is to blame victims, particularly women.  As a male pastor who considers himself a feminist, I have been shaped by many clergywomen, many of whom are in this room and I want to say I’m sorry. Yesterday I heard sexual harassment in many of the questions that were asked and I was not cognizant of the pain many of my friends and colleagues felt, particularly clergywomen who heard that they were predators and responsible for the misconduct that happens to them.

There are women in the room who have experienced sexual misconduct by powerful men in the Church and their experiences were dismissed and diminished by us, their own colleagues….they heard that they were to blame.  There continues to be a male-centric perspective, and that can unintentionally marginalize the female experience and perpetuate unhealthy attitudes.

We all have our own experiences and we all felt different things yesterday, and our feelings and our own personal experiences do matter, and so we need to acknowledge that many of our words and inability to call out harassment was indeed hurtful.”

This pastor’s confession was followed by opening worship, in which Bishop Swanson appropriately preached about caring for the pains and suffering of the world. He told us that we have all the resources we need for that…our hearts.

Sensitivity to the hearts of all people seeking a more expansive God was evident in the Michigan Area Annual Conference.  Bishop Bard’s masterful use of inclusive language was notable throughout the ordination sermon, which focused on dismantling racism and sexism.  He even used the term “Mother God” in the liturgy. Bard went so far as to correct a quoted theologian who used the term “himself”, without including “herself” in relationship to God.  Bishop Bard modeled for us what it truly means to open ourselves to a God that is so much more than simply male.

Female-led worship was a marker of the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference.  Never before have had so many women participated in annual conference worship!  During his sermon, Bishop David Graves apologized for the racism and sexism that he has witnessed in the Church.  This year’s Alice Lee award, presented by the Annual Conference COSROW and named for the author of the influential novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, went to the director of a groundbreaking ministry for Alzheimer’s patients.  Perhaps most powerful were the heartfelt remarks of Rev. Libba Stinson as she passed the torch by the retirees to the ordination class, marking the first time a woman had ever represented the retiring pastors in that capacity.

In the New England Annual Conference, there was much discussion about the aforementioned amendment guaranteeing women membership in the Church.  It was Fay Flanary, a deaconess and former GCSRW board member, who gave a rousing speech in favor of the amendment, explaining that GCSRW had been trying to establish women’s right to membership for over 28 years.  She clearly explained how women’s membership continues to be unprotected in The United Methodist Constitution and appealed to the body to simply let this “crack open.”  When she sat down, 28-year-old Rev. Sara Garrard rose to speak.  “Friends, we have been trying to protect women in The United Methodist Church for as long as I have been alive.  Isn’t it time?”

It is time for all of us to stand against the sexism that plagues The United Methodist Church and stand up for the rights and protections women deserve.  The annual conferences that we attended showed promising signs of a denomination moving closer to equity for women.  However, this is only a small sample.

We invite you to tell us the stories from your annual conference.  How were women lifted up and encouraged?  How did women share in “the full and equal responsibility and participation…in the total life and mission of the Church, sharing fully in the power and in the policy-making at all levels of the Church’s life?” Tell us tales of women being empowered in your annual conference.

Rev. Leigh Goodrich is Senior Director 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.  Email her at 


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.