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. 

Cultivating the Roots of Best Practices

By Becky Posey Williams, GCSRW Senior Director of Advocacy and Sexual Ethics

WISDOM

ODonohue PhotoA tree is a perfect presence. It is somehow able to engage and integrate its own dissolution. The tree is wise in knowing how to foster its own loss. It does not become haunted by the loss nor addicted to it. The tree shelters and minds the loss. Out of this comes the quiet dignity and poise of a tree’s presence. Trees stand beautifully on the clay. They stand with dignity. A life that wishes to honor its own possibility has to learn too how to integrate the suffering of dark and bleak times into a dignity of presence. Letting go of old forms of life, a tree practices hospitality towards new forms of life. It balances the perennial energies of winter and spring within its own living bark. The tree is wise in the art of belonging. The tree teaches us how to journey. Too frequently our inner journeys have no depth. We move forward feverishly into new situations and experiences which neither nourish nor challenge us, because we have left our deeper selves behind. It is no wonder that the addiction to superficial novelty leaves us invariably empty and weary. Much of our experience is literally superficial; it slips deftly from surface to surface. It lacks rootage. The tree can reach towards the light, endure wind, rain, and storm, precisely because it is rooted. Each of its branches is ultimately anchored in a reliable depth of clay. The wisdom of the tree balances the path inwards with the pathway outwards.

–John O’Donohue (Eternal Echoes)

Rwth Anne Fuquay, a UMC elder in the Florida Conference recently shared the above writing of John O’Donohue. It is not unusual that I would resonate with most, if not all, of what he has to say. This piece was no different. I love it. As I read it, I was keenly aware of my work at The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women who, alongside the UMC Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force, are preparing for the next UMC sexual ethics summit, “Do No Harm: Best Practices for Health, Wholeness, and Accountability.”

This event gives each participant the opportunity to go deeper as individuals and collectively as the church, committing to look the problem and prevention of sexual misconduct within church settings/ministry in the eye. Through plenary sessions and workshops which range from addressing accountability and healing, transparency in communication, to exploration of our family of origins and the impact of setting healthy boundaries, may we truly honor the limitless possibilities to integrate the dark times and the bleakness that is the landscape of this problem.

May we choose to develop best practices that are rooted in Methodism and reflect a path of “do no harm, do all the good you can.”

May we never forget who we are and our call to live from a place of integrity and respect.

I hope you will join us October 15-17, 2015 at the Crown Plaza, O’Hare location in Chicago. To see the full agenda and workshop descriptions and presenters and to register go to www.gcsrw.org/DoNoHarm2015.

Week 2: 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 third Sunday of March will be posted to our blog on March 8th. PDFs of the sermon notes are also available here.


WEEK 2: March 8, 2015

Lectionary Texts

Living According to God’s Vision

Living according to God’s vision of things is not always going to be pretty. In the Johannine retelling, Jesus, visiting the Temple during the Passover season, creates a public scene. Jesus’ demonstration makes a theological point about God’s sovereignty (“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”) in the face of an oppressive Empire. In her commentary on this passage, Marilyn Salmon provides the helpful political and social context of this scene. The Temple was a complex and sophisticated nexus of religious leadership, worship and sacred rituals, a place of economic exchange and symbolism that had been annexed to serve the purposes—financial and otherwise—of the Roman Empire. A theological point, in this case, of God’s sovereignty over the sacred space of the Temple is a political point—God, not Caesar, has the ultimate say.

Jesus shoos the animals and the merchants from the place, overturns tables, and pours out the coins. As Salmon suggests, this was most certainly received, and noted by the Roman Empire, as defiance to its power. Jesus’ actions would have been assessed as foolish and insolent. And we know that the powers of the world reward such resistance with crosses.

Pursuing God’s vision will place disciples at odds with prevailing notions of respectability, in conflict with convention. God’s vision for what is just and good will stir action that goes against “etiquette” as defined by the powers-that-be.

The realities of sexism and gender essentialism (the belief that there are certain, inherent traits tied to a gender—an insidious form of stereotyping) are felt by women who exercise leadership, especially with the kind of boldness and courage displayed by Jesus. Women are often punished with violence in words and deeds, and with particular zeal, when they act “out of line” with standards of “femininity” set in place by patriarchy. Unfortunately, misinterpretations of Scripture have been used to glorify a certain type of female discipleship—one done in docility, subservience, and a saccharine politeness.

Discipleship Takes Grit

Discipleship requires us to advocate for the oppressed, and to take a stance against those in power who abuse their authority. That might involve “making a scene.” And those in places of power and privilege (in society, and alas, in the Church) will do its best to put disciples—particularly women, ethnic minorities, immigrants, those in the LGBTAI communities—back “where they belong.”

Shame is the first weapon of choice in the breaking of spirits and the cultivation of silence and passivity. Epithets, ugliness, and bitter words await those who dare to walk counter-stream. We are all aware of the names especially reserved to denigrate women who “do not know their place,” who speak too loudly or too persistently. Further, righteous indignation and anger, outrage at injustice, will be distorted as “unbecoming” or being “hyper-sensitive.”

As a note of caution, Andy Alexis-Baker, reminds us that this Gospel text has historically been misused to justify Christian violence. John Wesley was careful to observe in his notes to the New Testament: “it does not appear that [Jesus] struck even [the animals]; and much less, any of the men.”

Together, We Remember

We remember Rosa Parks who made a scene on the bus when she refused to give up her seat. I remember that a woman from a congregation I served, a professor at a local university, took to task the school administration when they neglected to fix a broken elevator. She was aware that a broken elevator means students and staff who were abled differently cannot participate in courses or meetings. No one else spoke up, so she did. I remember two women, active leaders in a different congregation, who were concerned about the environmental and health impact of an oil refinery that set up shop in their small town. They mobilized the members of the town and took political action for the sake of the environment and the children who would be most vulnerable to the chemicals that seeped into the drinking water.

I wonder what names these unrelenting women would have been called by those who felt threatened, annoyed, or offended by their assertiveness. We, however, honor them with names that ring with truth—beloved, daughters of God, ushers of the Kingdom. They are disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sources Consulted

Alexis-Baker, Andy. “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15.” Biblical Interpretation 20, no. 1-2 (2012): 73-96.

Bartlett, David Lyon and Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Vol. 2, Louisville: WJK Press, 2008.

Salmon, Marilyn. “Commentary on John 2:13-22.” www.workingpreacher.org.

 

For another instance of women “making a scene” for justice look into The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.


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.