About 60 Annual Conference leaders gathered in Nashville recently to learn more about their role in achieving full and equal participation of women in the total life of the United Methodist Church.
After breaking bread together, exploring women’s theology, studying history and mandates, and getting to know the new General Secretary and other staff of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, they left 48 hours later with specific action items for their Annual Conference committees.
“The training renewed me and gave me a new sense of purpose,” said Rev. Gina Gile of the Kansas East Conference. “It reminded me that our work is far from over.”
Since 1972, GCSRW has been charged with monitoring, research, education and advocacy to eradicate sexism in the United Methodist Church. The UMC Book of Discipline requires each of the church’s Annual Conferences to have a Committee on the Status and Role of Women — commonly referred to as COSROW (pronounced KAHZ-row) — or at least a group that performs those functions.
The general commission’s new General Secretary, Dawn Wiggins Hare, led the group though some of the founders’ hopes for the commission, from supporting clergywomen to broadening women’s vision in local congregations to the desire to be accepted without stereotyping.
“Have we done that?” she asked the group after reviewing each item on the list, then: “Is there still more to do?”
Usually, the answer to that second question was a resounding yes.
At GCSRW’s inception in 1972 – 16 years after the UMC’s General Conference approved full ordination of women — less than one percent of UM clergy were women, and no woman had been elected bishop. Today, about 27 percent of appointed UM clergy are women, and 17 percent of the active bishops are women, said Audrey J. Krumbach, GCSRW director of Gender Justice and Education. Women are more than 50 percent of church members, she said.
Those attending the training sessions were a mixture of clergy and lay members of varying ages and ethnicities, including one representative from the Central Conferences. The group was 90 percent women.
Several members of the
GCSRW board attended, just two weeks after they had met in Birmingham, Ala., to begin setting their priorities for the quadrennium, which included leadership development.
Rev. Liz Lopez led worship and communion to start the training event on March 14. She preached on the text of the syrophoenician woman, who asked Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus initially refused, telling her it wasn’t right to give the children’s food to dogs, but after the woman countered that even dogs are allowed crumbs from the master’s table, he praised her faith and told her that her daughter was healed.
The text can be problematic for some, and Lopez agreed that Jesus’ words could be seen both as racist and sexist.
“I know these words,” she said. “I have felt them in the core of my being.”
But she embraced the story, saying it shows that women must be daring and defiant in confronting injustice and be persistent no matter whom they are confronting.
“The work in the church for wholeness is never done,” she said.
Her words were echoed by Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, who offered the committee leaders a theological framework for their mission by speaking of the women unnamed in or missing from the Bible.
“Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence,” Levine said, suggesting Jesus used women in ministry but many of them were later written out of the stories.
“It is the job of women to challenge those conventions,” she said.
Inspired by the words of both those women, participants moved on to discussing UMC structure and GCSRW’s goals, mandates and vision. Hare discussed how Annual Conference COSROW committees could help achieve GCSRW mandates.
“We will not be a whole church until there is full inclusion,” Hare said.
The group was divided into smaller groups so they could learn about GCSRW work in sexual ethics, gender justice, monitoring and ways to better communicate the agency’s goals and successes.
The morning of Saturday, March 16, was spent thinking strategically about Annual Conferences and developing action plans so the delegates could hit the ground running when they returned home.
“I came away with a broader understanding of the work of COSROW, not only on the conference level but also what we might be doing on the district level as well,” said Linda Jewell, administrative assistant for the Southwest Texas conference, who is vice chair of the conference’s committee.
Gile, a first-time COSROW chair, said that because her conference is merging with Kansas West and Nebraska into one, “it is important to lay the foundation for the work of COSROW.”
She said the conference will need the committee’s help as it trains its leaders and sets up monitoring of the new conference.
“Hopefully our work will bear fruit of more diversity and allowing marginalized voices to be heard,” she said.