A harbinger of General Conference 2012

By Liza Kittle

Over the past few months, annual conferences of the United Methodist Church have been meeting all over the world. Although delegate elections for General Conference 2012 have been the primary focus, many pieces of legislation have been considered for submission to the quadrennial gathering of worldwide United Methodism to be held in Tampa, Florida April 24-May 4, 2012.

Several conferences adopted legislation to once again challenge the church’s historical stance on homosexual practice being inconsistent with Christian teaching. The Minnesota, Northern Illinois, and New York Conferences either adopted resolutions to change the church’s current policy on the ordination of non-celibate homosexual clergy, or issued signed clergy statements revealing their intention to officiate at same-sex unions. These actions, coupled with the lenient decision of the Rev. Amy DeLong church trial, present a harbinger of the battle before the church at General Conference 2012.

Another impending battle will involve the Women’s Division, the leadership organization of United Methodist Women, as it attempts to become a separate agency within the United Methodist Church. Many important issues and considerations need to be discussed and discerned before this major structural shift is allowed to move forward. One of the most important questions this change will raise is the impact this action will have on the status of women’s ministry within the UM Church.

Currently, the only officially sanctioned women’s ministry in the denomination is United Methodist Women (UMW). The most current statistics available from the General Council on Finance and Administration indicate that less than 600,000 women are members of UMW, representing only 13.4 percent of the total female membership of the church. The organization continues to lose thousands of members each year and yet claims a membership of “over 800,000” women.

Since General Conference 2004, Renew has been in the forefront of a movement to change the church’s stance of having only one officially recognized women’s ministry option in the UM Church. Legislation to allow supplemental women’s ministry was first introduced by a local UMW member at the 1996 and 2000 General Conferences. The Women’s Division has fought this movement strongly, using questionable tactics at General Conference and beyond to maintain control over women’s ministry in the church.

No other population in our  church has been restricted in such a manner. In a time when inclusiveness and diversity are championed, the women of the church find all supplemental women’s ministries they form officially unrecognized by the General Conference. The Women’s Division’s solid power base, savvy financial acumen, and uncanny ability to politically maneuver throughout the hierarchy of the church and General Conference have been a formidable obstacle in preventing other women’s ministry options.

Will granting the Women’s Division separate agency structure allow them to further control the women of the United Methodist Church? When and how will the church encourage, equip, and enable other vital women’s ministry options to bless the denomination? Shouldn’t access to a variety of officially recognized women’s ministry options in order to build vital congregations be an utmost priority at General Conference 2012?

At the 2011 North Georgia Annual Conference, Renew submitted a resolution on “Building Vital Women’s Ministry in the Local Church” with a provision for the legislation to be submitted to General Conference 2012. Unfortunately, the resolution did not pass. Instead of the ensuing debate being centered on the importance of empowering local churches to explore and develop fruitful women’s ministries, it became a defense of United Methodist Women.

Renew has never denigrated the faithful work done by United Methodist Women at the local level. The concern of the thousands of members of the Renew Network has always been with the controlling organization of UMW, the Women’s Division. It is the leadership of UMW at the national level that has turned the historic legacy of our foremothers into a platform for feminist theology, radical social justice, and partisan political activism.

Women all across our denomination are doing vital, important work as disciples of Jesus Christ. Hearts are being changed and lives transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit. Why would any church fail to officially recognize such vital women’s ministries?

The time has come for the General Conference to pass legislation in support of supplemental women’s ministry in the United Methodist Church. I encourage you to lend your support to open this door to expanded ministry within our denomination. You can do this by contacting your General Conference delegates to support legislation endorsing this initiative. Help this vital cause that will help build vital congregations!