By Liza Kittle
At the 2012 General Conference, the Women’s Division (the leadership organization of United Methodist Women) will petition the worldwide church to become their own separate general agency called United Methodist Women, Inc. If this action is passed, the impact on women and women’s ministry in the UM Church may be dramatic.
Currently under the mantle of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), the Women’s Division has operated somewhat autonomously throughout its history. They have raised and managed their own monies, set their own policies and procedures, and virtually monopolized women’s ministry options for women within the church.
While becoming a separate agency will prove beneficial to GBGM, which has experienced oppressive control by the Division for many years, its effect on evangelical women seeking other forms of women’s ministry cannot be ascertained.
United Methodist Women is the only officially recognized women’s ministry within the church. For nearly 40 years, membership has declined from 1.35 million in 1974 to the present level of less than 600,000 members. This number represents less that 15 percent of the total women in the UM Church. Attempts for official acceptance of other women’s ministries at General Conference have repeatedly failed due to intense lobbying by the Women’s Division.
Even in the midst of the church’s new focus on building vital congregations, offering choices for women continues to be resisted by the Women’s Division. It is a frustrating dynamic, especially considering the ideals of diversity and inclusiveness that are so valued by the denomination, and the fact that UMW is reaching a very small audience of women.
Regardless of the organizational changes that the Women’s Division is pursuing, their theology remains the same. Their emphasis has been on changing the world social order, rather than promoting the personal healing and transformation that can be experienced through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
The spiritual teachings will undoubtedly remain based on feminist, womanist, and mujerista theologies. The social justice agenda will remain politically partisan, embracing a liberal, progressive worldview.
How do we know this is the case? We know this through the track record of the Women’s Division, including: the resources produced, the Bible studies offered, the activism undertaken, and the speakers invited to United Methodist Women events.
At the recent 2011 National Seminar held in Birmingham, Alabama, in August, the featured Bible study teacher was Dr. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. She is one of the leading advocates of mujerista theology, an offshoot of feminist theology that emphasizes the liberation of Latina women under male-dominated power structures and injustice.
Central to the concepts of mujerista theology is what Dr. Isasi-Diaz calls “the kin-dom of God.” She replaces the biblical references of “the kingdom of God” with this new phrase, explaining that she rejects the word kingdom for two reasons. “First, it is obviously a sexist word that presumes that God is male. Second, the concept of kingdom in our world today is both hierarchal and elitist.” She prefers the word “kin-dom” because it “makes it clear that when the fullness of God becomes a day-to-day reality in the world at large, we will all be sisters and brothers—kin to each other.”
The concept of “kin-dom” of God is evidently supported by Women’s Division leaders, as Deputy General Secretary Harriet Olsen used the terminology in her closing address at the 12th Assembly of the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women held in Johannesburg, South Africa on August 15, 2011.
Redefining key biblical terms is a common practice of feminist theologians. Dr. Isasi-Diaz rejects the biblical meaning of “repentance” as a turning away from sin towards holiness. She explained that “it is not a matter of regret, guilt, and shame…because to demand admission of guilt and repentance before forgiveness may well throw us into a cycle of death and violence.” She said that “the Christ” had two goals:”radical inclusivity and upsetting hierarchies.” She is thankful that feminism “carried out the social gospel Great Commission and helped revert power to the community.”
Is this the theological foundation women within the UM Church are looking for? Is this the avenue of deliverance for lost and hurting women? Is developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ no longer in the language of the Women’s Division? Unfortunately, evangelical and conservative women within the UM Church have virtually no official outlet for pursing other women’s ministry options.
According to a new Barna study, The State of the Church 2011, “no population group among the sixty segments examined has gone through more spiritual changes in the past two decades than women.”
Church attendance by women has dropped by 11 percentage points, down to 44 percent. Weekly Bible reading has plummeted by 10 points down to 40 percent. Women’s involvement in volunteer church activities has fallen 9 points and Sunday school attendance has fallen 7 points.
The only religious behavior that increased among women in the last 20 years was becoming unchurched—that rose a startling 17 percentage points.
Women still define most of the family traditions; thus, a drop in church attendance by women means a drop in attendance by men and children as well. This significant change must be addressed by our churches. Reaching women means reaching families for Jesus Christ. Reaching women is one essential key to church vitality.
There is now, more than ever, a need for alternative, Biblically-based women’s ministries within the United Methodist Church to reach this declining demographic. This is a need Renew and other women’s ministries stand ready to help meet. The time has come…thy Kingdom come
Liza Kittle is President of the Renew Network (www.renew-network.org), P.O. Box 16055, Augusta, GA 30919; telephone: 706-364-0166.