From girlhood activist to denominational leader

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Key points:

  • Harriett Jane Olson embraces retirement as she recalls rewarding career as lawyer, publisher and top executive of United Women in Faith.
  • Shaped by Morristown United Methodist Church in New Jersey, Olson remembers, “It was a very Bible-focused church … where we assumed the text ought to affect what you do.”
  • A delegate to the upcoming General Conference, Olson says she looks forward to “watching to see where the angels are troubling the waters.”

Care for God’s creation has been a central theme in the life of Harriett Jane Olson.

Olson retired after 15 years as top executive of United Methodist Women in Faith on May 5.

She can trace her passion for creation to childhood where, as a girl, she went door-to-door with a petition asking the mothers in her neighborhood to pledge to use laundry detergent without phosphates.

“One of the creeks near my house got some buildup on it, and they decided part of it was caused by laundry detergent,” she said. “I was probably in middle school.”

Her formative years were spent at Morristown United Methodist Church, New Jersey. She and her brother and sister were active in choir, youth group and summer camp.

“It was a very Bible-focused church,” she said. “It was a place where we assumed the text ought to affect what you do.

“It is interesting to me to look back and see the practice of environmental laws, commitments we tried to live out at The United Methodist Publishing House, using nonbleached paper, and now United Women in Faith’s commitment to climate justice,” she added.

Janet Jonas (left) visits with Harriett Jane Olson at All People Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School at Lincoln Park Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio. The Ubuntu Day of Service was part of the 2018 United Methodist Women Assembly. Olson, who retired in May, served for 15 years as top executive of the women’s agency. File photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 

Janet Jonas (left) visits with Harriett Jane Olson, United Methodist Women chief executive officer, at All People Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School at Lincoln Park Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio. The Ubuntu Day of Service was part of the United Methodist Women Assembly 2018. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

An attorney and graduate of Harvard Law School, Olson was a partner at the Pitney, Hardin, Kipp, and Szuch law firm of Morristown, New Jersey, specializing in environmental law from 1983 to 1996.

From 1996 to 2007 she was at the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville as senior vice president for publishing, responsible for the development, production and trade distribution of resources from Abingdon Press, Cokesbury and Kingwood Books.

“The different roles gave me the opportunity to learn different things,” Olson said. “My whole adult life I’ve been engaged on working on faith formation with one group or another.”

During her 15-year tenure, United Methodist Women separated from its administrative body, the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, and became an independent organization.

“We assumed direct responsibility for our historic work reconnecting to deaconess and home missioners,” she said.

Recently, the organization had a new brand launch and became United Women in Faith to make clear it was open to women within and beyond The United Methodist Church.

Harriet Jane Olson speaks in front of the White House in Washington in 2014 in support of progress on immigration reform and an end to deportations. “My whole adult life I’ve been engaged on working on faith formation with one group or another,” Olson said. File photo by Jay Mallin, UM News.
Harriett J. Olson, deputy general secretary of the Women's Division of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, addresses the 2010 Women's Assembly in St. Louis. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

“I am proud of the staff and the leaders across the country,” Olson said.

Cynthia Rives, national vice president of United Women in Faith, said Olson has led with “wisdom, courage, intentionality, faithfulness, and most importantly, she led us with love.”

Rives added, “She has influenced, mentored, comforted and cheered women from every conference of The United Methodist Church and thousands around the world.”

Daryl Junes-Joe, who is serving her second term as a national director and currently chairs the governance committee, shared her praise and well wishes for Olson.

“I’m grateful that our Creator put Harriet Olson in my path,” said Junes-Joe, from the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico, New Mexico Conference. “To Harriet, I say, ‘Ahéhee’ (thank you) for your service and friendship. My prayer (is) for abundant blessings as you continue your ‘walk in beauty’ into your next endeavor.”

Yvette Richards, 2012-16 national president of United Methodist Women, said some of her fondest memories of Olson are from their travels.

The two attended the World Council of Churches assembly in Busan, Korea, in 2013. 

“While in Busan, we both had a unique opportunity to bring the Sunday service message to a house of young girls whom family members had violated. Sharing the message, standing firm on our faith, and encouragement of those young girls are forever in my mind and heart,” Richards said.

Harriett Jane Olson (right) and Yvette Richards (left) of United Methodist Women stand with Hillary Rodham Clinton after Clinton addressed the Women's Assembly in 2014 in Louisville, Ky. Olson retired in May after 15 years as top executive of the agency, which is now called United Women in Faith. File photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 

Hillary Rodham Clinton (center) waves to participants at the United Methodist Women's Assembly at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, Ky., following her address to the group. She is flanked by Yvette Richards (left) and Harriett Olson of United Methodist Women. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS 2014.

Olson also has many memories of work accomplished by the organization.

“On the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, we recorded interviews with faith leaders from various traditions with the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’” she said. “That was such a powerful afternoon. The conversation was about the way the three Abrahamic faiths see who your neighbor is.”

In 2012, United Methodist Women funded and designed posters to counter a pro-Israel, anti-Muslim campaign in the subways. The ads read in part, “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

“It was clear to us that that kind of statement couldn’t be allowed to stand,” Olson said.

Honoring Olson

United Women in Faith invites members to honor Harriett Jane Olson with a gift to mission.

The posters designed by United Methodist Women were white text against a lime-green background that read: “Hate speech is not civilized. Support peace in word and deed.”

“We were able to do that very quickly, and we got MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) in New York City to post them side by side,” she said. “I got to be in meetings where I shared with members that because they give unrestricted money, we didn’t have to stop and raise funds for it. We could respond right in the moment.”

The response from members was overwhelming, she said.

The anti-Muslim posters were sparked by a public outcry over a planned Islamic center near the site of the World Trade Center.

“One of the faith leaders from that mosque said our response was so powerful for her community,” Olson recalled, “and it was incredibly touching to know we were able to stand up.”

Olson said it has been her job to help people see the work United Women in Faith are doing and the impact they have on the world.

“To help people make those connections and to see the work in a more complete way is incredibly rewarding — demanding, but wonderful.”

Olson said these past few years were difficult with social distancing and limits on travel. Just as that is ending, she is moving to a “different spot.”

A delegate to next year’s United Methodist General Conference, she knows it will be a hard time but also a wonderful opportunity.

“On the one hand, we must seize it,” Olson said. “The resources will be different, and the needs will be different, but we get the opportunity to seize it.

“I think we need to pick it up, not dragging our heels, but to seize it, watching to see where the angels are troubling the waters.” 


* Gilbert is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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