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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

“I’m Not a Y’all; I’m a We”

By Garlinda Burton

In a conversation about possible restructure with a white, male U.S. delegate, I raised a concern about the fact that the agencies concerned with advocacy for inclusion of women and people of color (GCSRW and GCORR) were the only ones being recommended for merger and dimunition.

When I suggested the injustice of this issue, and the fact that the women’s advocacy agency budget is less than $1 million a year (only 1 percent of the World Service Fund that supports all agencies), my brother in Christ pointed at me and said passionately, “Y’all (plural for “you” in the U.S. South) need to put your interests aside and do what is best for the church!”

I was stunned for just a second, but I rallied. I replied, “I’m not a y’all; I’m a we.”

My response took him by surprise, so I explained, “You just referred to me as ‘y’all,’ like I’m outside the church. I’m reminding you that we—I drew a circle in the air to include him and me—“we all need to do what’s best for the church.”

In that exchange, I was reminded that, though I am a fifth-generation United Methodist, African-American women and leader in my congregation and denomination, I’m still viewed by the majority of my church—particularly in the Unites States—as “the other.” In the eyes of a United Methodist layman who shares my faith, I was reduced to a “y’all.”

The clear implication was (and is) that sisters and brothers from Central Conferences, U.S. people of color, members of the GLBTIQQ community, and women who assert equity and justice too vehemently are assumed to be self-serving and meddling outsiders.

But the God who created us, the Christ who redeems us, and the Spirit who guides us–this Holy Trinity—declares in one voice that all shall become one. Not that we all agree, not that we are all the same, and not that we all don’t have great gifts AND significant foibles.

Until and unless we embrace justice, equity and full participation of all, and until those in the majority or dominant culture, class, race-ethnicity, gender, economic status and language realize that “we” includes all people, Christians will continue to be viewed with suspicion, derision and mistrust. Unless our walk about inclusiveness begins to match our pious talk, the United Methodist Church will dissolve into an irrelevant, dead sect, as founder John Wesley warned us against.

So far, the General Conference has:
a) added another layer of bureaucracy to our general agency structure, which includes little attention to ensuring a place, particularly for young people and women of color;
b) eliminated guaranteed appointments for elders without instituting protections against gender/racial/age and other discrimination in the appointment process; and
c) collapsed the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the General Commission on Religion and Race into a single entity with no executive and less power to challenge and address bias.

People from beyond the United States, women, young people, and U.S. people of color were poorly represented among the major architects of proposals to restructure church agencies and chart the course for disciple-making and mission in the name of our God. White U.S. men, who are a minority in the world, are still clearly in charge.

Y’all, we need to speak up, lest our church become an exclusive, closed country club.

Being a Global Church is Hard Work

By Tyler Schwaller

After finally adopting rules of order to govern the proceedings of General Conference (as they were proposed by the rules committee), committee work began yesterday afternoon. I will be serving as a resource person from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women for the Independent Commissions committee. This committee deals with petitions and resolutions related to the UMC’s commissions (GCSRW, Religion and Race, Archives and History, Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, Communications, and UM Men), as well as ecumenical concerns.

Yesterday’s business involved electing officers. Once it got underway, the process went relatively smoothly. However, it was abundantly evident at the start that how we function as a global church is still a growing edge.

It’s hard enough to keep up with parliamentary procedures for English speakers. It must be extraordinarily difficult for those who follow translations transmitted through headsets, especially when people speak quickly and move swiftly from one action to another.

And how do one ask “Does everyone who needs translation have translation?” when the only language one knows is English, which is the language the people who needs translation doesn’t speak? It also took time to recognize that some delegates could not complete their first ballot because they didn’t know how to spell in English the name of the person for whom they wanted to vote; the names had been written on a sheet of paper in the front of the room, too small to see from the back.

I describe these scenes because we in the United States must be reminded that the United Methodist Church is a worldwide connection. We are used to conducting business in English among English speakers. But when we gather together with our sisters and brothers from around the world, patience and sensitivity must be exercised to the extreme.

I also share because I was moved by the efforts of a woman who is a board member of GCSRW and Women’s Division, along with a few volunteers from the Common Witness Coalition, who called attention to the needs of the African delegates. My fellow GCSRW board member said to me, “I know we’re not supposed to say anything from the gallery, but somebody has to make sure these delegates can participate!” By getting the attention of the pages and other voting delegates, eventually the issues were raised and the proceedings paused until the challenges could be addressed and all votes counted.

As the elections proceeded, it occurred to me what a beautiful thing it was that no one who spoke up for fair process hesitated to think about how those delegates might vote, to think about whether or not they’re “on our side.” The only issue that mattered was that all people be brought fully into the conversation and all voices be heard. Making room at the table was the first and only priority!

As Methodists, we are part of a tradition rooted in the idea that the right methods practiced over and over again, perfected through mutual accountability, will cultivate right attitudes and relationships. Being a global church is incredibly hard work! Therefore, may we practice inclusion again and again until our table is properly set and inviting for all.

Whose Stories Are Told?

By Tyler Schwaller

Significant time at General Conference on Tuesday was spent in preparation for the work ahead through orientations and various legislative briefings. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, General Commission on Religion and Race, Division on Ministries with Young People, and Women’s Division (United Methodist Women) hosted a joint orientation Tuesday morning with the theme of intersectionality.

As individuals, we are characterized by intersecting identities that shape our experiences of the world. We are never our gender alone or our age or race or ethnicity or class, etc., but the fullness of our selves is brought into dynamic interplay with complex others. How then do we honor the vibrant intricacies that constitute our being, affirming the whole humanity of all persons as each has been created by God? This is one of the significant challenges that faces the church in any age.

In this age, we encounter a society that is increasingly young, female, ethnically diverse, and in which more languages are spoken. But the United Methodist Church largely does not reflect this shift. The joint orientation posed to delegates what might be the defining question for a church in transition: how will we prepare now to be the church of the future, a church that makes space for and values the rich intersections of diversity?

Following worship and some thought-provoking presentations on this theme, delegates were given time to meet with others who will be serving on the same legislative committees so as to begin making connections and forming circles of support.

Afterward, the four sponsoring organizations separated for their own legislative briefings. In the women’s briefing hosted by GCSRW and Women’s Division, delegates again met in groups according to legislative committees. Significant time was given to discuss how it is that officers are selected to lead committees and who among those present might be interested in being nominated and serving as officers. The fact of the matter is that, as much as we want to be “good church folk,” this is a political process, and doing effective work requires effective strategy. The real value of this time together was to have honest conversation about how the committee process functions and to begin collaborating so as to foster support for policies and practices that will empower women throughout the church and world.

As an observer, it was heartening and inspiring to recognize a spirit of support and encouragement. I did not get the sense that these women were hoping to manipulate the process toward their ends, nor was there expectation that all would agree on everything. Rather, the gathered women delegates shared their questions and wisdom in order that they might do their work together faithfully and with confidence.

And this is what GCSRW and Women’s Division do: they work to equip women (and men too) to serve fully in the church and world. They do not force opinions but instead encourage critical thinking that starts by asking questions to identify the issues and areas of need. Whose voices are heard? Whose are not? And how do we create space for the sharing of stories yet untold?

GCSRW and Women’s Division truly model for the whole church–not just delegates at General Conference but all persons and congregations–how to ask the questions that will unveil unmet needs and can then lead to transformative action that serves, equips, and empowers all.