What Might Heraclitus Think? : Some Thoughts on Our New Female Episcopal Leaders

by Rev. Leigh Goodrich

Heraclitus was a pre-Socratic philosopher from Ephesus, famous for his insistence that change is an always present and fundamental quality of the universe. He is famous for two sayings. The first, “No man [sic] ever steps in the same river twice.” The second saying reflects the unity of opposites, “the path up and down are one and the same”.  It seems the results of the recent episcopal elections in The United Methodist Church in the United States would not come as a surprise to our friend Heraclitus.for leigh bishop blog

After two relatively static quadrennia, a change in the gender composition of the Council of Bishops might seem overdue. From 2008 to 2012, 28% of our episcopal leaders in the United States were women, and from 2012 to 2016 that percentage dropped four points to 24%. While this number roughly reflects the percentage of women serving in ordained ministry in the U.S., it does not come close to representing the nearly 58% of women who call themselves United Methodists in this country.

However, the recent episcopal elections promise to change the landscape of the United States’ representatives on the Council of Bishops. The addition of seven new female bishops to the nine female bishops remaining after retirements, brings the total number of women bishops to 16 for the next quadrennium. This means that the percentage of US women bishops on the Council of Bishops jumps from 24% to 35% for the next four years. This is a significant increase in female episcopal leadership both nationally, and in the five U.S. Colleges of Bishops.

The Western Jurisdiction continues to lead all jurisdictions in percentages of female bishops, moving from 40% to 60% with the election of one woman. The Northeast follows, electing two women, and jumping from 33% to 44% female bishops. The Southeast also elected two women, moving up from 23% to 38% women bishops.   The North Central Jurisdiction also elected two women, jumping from 22% to 33%. Only the South Central College experienced a decline in female episcopal leadership, moving from 22% to 10% with the retirement of Bishop Huie. In terms of raw numbers, the Southeastern Jurisdiction has the most female bishops with 5, followed by the Northeast with 4, North Central and Western with 3, and South Central with 1.

Perhaps the greatest change will be seen at the Annual Conference level. At the local level, a new female bishop can provide a model and foundation on which other talented women, both lay and clergy, might develop skills, find a mentor and discover their unique voice in their Annual Conference and beyond. All of our bishops, regardless of gender, have the potential to significantly impact the future of the Church, since their choices of District Superintendents and Directors of Connectional Ministries, as well as appointments to large churches, often prepare clergy for the episcopacy, while their suggestions and promotion of jurisdictional and general church board members create new opportunities for both lay and clergy. It will be interesting to see the influence of women clergy in this process. Will it vary significantly from their male counterparts? Will their influence change the overall demographics of United Methodist leadership?

photo of Leigh

Rev. Leigh Goodrich

Our philosopher friend Heraclitus would probably say yes. From the perspective of 2,500 years, he might tell us that the one thing about life that never changes is change. The river continues to flow, morphing into a new river with each passing second, complete with new life and new streams. So it is with our Church, which moves and changes into something new regularly, although it may seem barely discernible to some. Heraclitus would also remind us that the path up is the same as the path down. The future of The United Methodist Church rests on the willingness of our episcopal leaders to groom talented people in their Annual Conferences for leadership positions, just as they were groomed.

We will have to wait and see the impact of more women on the Council of Bishops and the Colleges of Bishops. However, it is our hope that these significant shifts will continue to guide us on the journey toward “the full and equal responsibility and participation of women in the total life and mission of the Church, sharing fully in the power and policy-making at all levels of the Church’s life.” May it be so.


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 or email her at lgoodrich@gcsrw.org. 

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Week 1: Sermon Resources for Women’s History Month

For Women’s History Month 2015, GCSRW is pleased to offer a series of sermon preparation notes and resources for the month of March. Written by Rev. Hyemin Na and following the lectionary texts for March, the sermon preparation notes and resources for the second Sunday of March will be posted to our blog on March 1st. PDFs of the sermon notes are also available here.


WEEK 1: March 1, 2015

Lectionary Texts

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 | Psalm 22:23-31 (UMH 752) | Romans 4:13-25 | Mark 8:31-38

Introduction

The richness of meanings we find in the Lenten color of purple—especially the calling to mind the experience and perspectives of those who are rendered abject among us—provides a powerful lens to understanding the Gospel text for this Sunday. In A Feminist Companion to Mark, Joanna Dewey cautions the reader from approaching Jesus’ admonition to “deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (NRSV, v 34), without giving proper attention to the cultural, historical, and narrative context. Modern and Western readings of this iconic statement have often interpreted Jesus’ emphasis on discipleship as “a glorification of suffering and an encouragement to become a victim: one is to deny oneself, sacrifice oneself, wipe out any sense of self, and to embrace the cross, that is suffering in general” (23). Dewey acknowledges that too many women “failed to develop her own identity and strengths and has embraced or endured suffering that could be alleviated because she has come to believe that such a way of life is pleasing to God and an imitation of Christ” (23). To simply read this text as a valorization of suffering and victimization is a gross misreading. This text defines faithful discipleship as aligned with the realities of God’s Kingdom, even in the face of persecution from those in power. Ultimately, disciples are encouraged to seek life—true life—as defined by Jesus.

A Lenten call to repentence involves turning away from destruction of self, and towards life in Christ.Christian churches once made a common practice of instructing women to return to an abusive husbands (by clergy, no less!), and often thus to her death, because suffering was understood as a God-sanctioned way to “deny themselves and carry their cross”! This counsel still happens today, but a better interpretation directs these women to seek safety, counseling, help, possibly a restraining order, and communities of support and love. The “cross” for abused women to bear would have been the path toward a sense of self defined by God’s love and building up a new life free of abuse. A Lenten practice of “self-denial,” for an abused woman, for example, might involve the denial of lies and a claiming of her worth, value, dignity and giftedness as a beloved and most cherished child of God. The Lenten call to “repentance”—which from the Greek means to turn away from a formerly held belief, or to change one’s mind about something—would involve turning away from destruction of self, and toward life.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth is a powerful example of how women can live faithfully as a disciple of Christ. Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in Ulster County, New York, around 1797. When she was around nine years old, she was sold to another slaveholder, and away from her family, for $100 at an auction. In her adulthood, as a free woman, Truth worked tirelessly for almost 40 years until her death as an evangelist and social reformer. She traveled all around the North, East, and Midwest preaching and giving lectures on the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, temperance, and after the Civil War, for the general welfare of black communities as the freed slaves transitioned into a new way of life. Despite voices denouncing her and her work, from fellow Christians at that, Truth understood Jesus’ calling to discipleship correctly, and lived it faithfully. She refused to “bear the cross” of racism, sexism, slavery, or other modes of oppression—as she was told to by much of society and the authorities of the Church. Instead, she listened to God and took up the cross of courage to preach the gospel. Sojourner Truth was able to denounce the lies of the world and worked for liberation from oppression, even in the face of persecution.

In the purple season of Lent, may the Holy Spirit guide us, our congregations, into true forms of faithful discipleship – discipleship that liberates, brings more love, shines light in places of darkness, and pulses with life. May we take up our crosses of courage and deny the power of oppression to silence the gospel.

Sources Consulted

Dewey, Joanna. “‘Let Them Renounce Themselves and Take up Their Cross’: A Feminist Reading of Mark 8.34 in Mark’s Social and Narrative World.” In A Feminist Companion to Mark, edited by Amy-Jill and Blickenstaff Levine, Marianne, 261 pages: The Pilgrim Press, 2001.

The brief introduction to Sojourner Truth is from the following biography:
Murphy, Larry G. Sojourner Truth: A Biography. Greenwood Biographies. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood Press, 2011.

Resources for those interested in womanist theology

Townes, Emilie Maureen. A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil and Suffering. The Bishop Henry Mcneal Turner Studies in North American Black Religion.

Williams, Delores S. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.


Hyemin Na, a cradle Methodist, is an ordained Elder in the Northern-Illinois Conference and is currently a Ph.D. student in Homiletics at Emory University. She is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (M.Div) and Harvard (A.B.). She is interested in exploring how preaching is done faithfully and well in our postmodern society, with an ear on the ground for the voices of religious “nones,” and an eye out for visual culture. She makes her home in a suburb of Atlanta with a couple of old time prophets: Daniel, a fellow UMC Elder and spouse, and Elijah, of her womb.

Introduction: Sermon Resources for Women’s History Month

For Women’s History Month 2015, GCSRW is pleased to offer a series of sermon preparation notes and resources for the month of March. Written by Rev. Hyemin Na and following the lectionary texts for March, the sermon preparation notes and resources for the first Sunday of March will be posted to our blog on February 22nd. PDFs of the sermon notes are also available here.


Introduction

In this season of Lent, many worship spaces and visuals are marked by purple. In the Church, the color purple has traditionally been used to symbolize two emphases of the Lenten season. First, purple symbolizes mourning and penitence, in response to the pain and suffering of Jesus in the passion narrative. Second, purple, which in the Roman Empire was a color worn by the Emperor and others in places of authority, symbolizes the royalty of Jesus, and his ultimate victory over death and evil.

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 1.33.34 PMCoincidentally, the color purple connects us to the thematic lens of this Lenten commentary series—celebrating the experiences of women, in honor of Women’s History Month. Along with white and green, purple was used to represent the cause of the suffragettes beginning in the early 20th CT, and was incorporated as a visual marker in the long struggle against sexism.

In her collection of essays entitled, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” writer Alice Walker reframed women’s struggle against sexism through the imagery of color. Introducing the term “womanist,” a word anchored in the linguistic tradition of the black community, Walker opened the door to articulating the differing experiences and levels of oppression existing among women. Here is an excerpt of Walker’s definition:

1. FROM WOMANISH. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “You acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown-up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.

Walker ends the definition of “womanist” with: “Womanist is to feminist as purple to lavender.”

This distinction in the hues of purple brings to light the additional dimensions of racism and socio- economic marginalization experienced by black women. Embracing Walker’s term, black female theologians have challenged our understanding of theology by speaking of their experiences as those who have experienced sexism from black men, racism from white women, and suffered the systematic socio-economic and political consequences of such oppression. Purple has come to symbolize the anguish and struggles of black women, and broadly, all those who seek to survive and thrive in the midst of multiple modes of oppression. The tradition of womanist theology seeks the holistic flourishing of all people, especially those who are most vulnerable of all gender identities. As such, the color purple simultaneously symbolizes the strength and creativity with which those from the underside of society seek life.

This month’s sermon notes will all arise from the wider theme of hearing God’s word from the experiences of women’s stories and proclaiming the call to live out the gospel.

Hyemin Na, a cradle Methodist, is an ordained Elder in the Northern-Illinois Conference and is currently a Ph.D. student in Homiletics at Emory University. She is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (M.Div) and Harvard (A.B.). She is interested in exploring how preaching is done faithfully and well in our postmodern society, with an ear on the ground for the voices of religious “nones,” and an eye out for visual culture. She makes her home in a suburb of Atlanta with a couple of old time prophets: Daniel, a fellow UMC Elder and spouse, and Elijah, of her womb.