Restructuring proposals neglect women’s issues

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From Congo to Columbus, Ohio, United Methodist women - particularly women of color - are more likely than men to be rebuffed as leaders, to have their theological perspectives marginalized and to have their health-care concerns (mental and physical) under-addressed by The United Methodist Church.

Women are more likely to be rejected or challenged outright as pastors by their congregations, simply because they are women.

Women are more likely to be victimized by sexual predators in our churches (some in our pulpits), and when they speak out, they are less likely to receive timely pastoral care and balanced justice making from judicatory leaders.

Yet, neither the major proposal about restructuring our agencies coming to GeneralConference from the Connectional Table nor the newest "Plan B" gives any systemic, structural or budget priority to ministry with, to and by women as part of the denomination's "essential functions."

More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus affirmed and engaged women as partners in ministry and bearers of the good news of the Resurrection. However, it seems that we United Methodist Christians are still not of a common mind about the equal worth of women and men and the fact that our institutional sexism blocks our effectiveness and faithfulness.

Numbers tell a story

Consider the numbers: Women comprise more than half of our worldwide church membership and half of the human race. Women pay roughly half the tithes and offerings and do half the front-line work of keeping congregations going. Yet, consider these facts:

  • At least one annual conference in our global church has never ordained a woman as clergy.
  • Women ages 40 and younger are virtually absent from the decision-making tables of the worldwide United Methodist Church, particularly in the United States. (The median age for world citizens is about 24 years old, while the median age for U.S. United Methodists is about 57 years old.)
  • Our denominational Constitution does not list "gender" as a category protected from discrimination. In fact, General Conference has failed to vote "yes" to gender inclusion in that document for at least 24 years.
  • At least 16 percent of United Methodist congregations in the United States forbid women to serve as ushers.
  • Women comprise only 19 percent of our clergy and 37 percent of General Conference delegate/decision-makers. Europe and Africa have only one female bishop each, and the Philippines has yet to elect its first woman bishop.
  • African and African-American women are more likely than any other groups worldwide to be infected with HIV; yet, The United Methodist Church is virtually silent and spends almost no money in specific ministry with people living with HIV/AIDS.
  • Latina, Pacific-Island, Native and African-American women earn lower salaries and have fewer career opportunities among clergy and lay employees of The United Methodist Church.
  • At least 100 complaints of ministerial sexual misconduct/abuse against United Methodists in leadership - from ushers to bishops - have been reported to my office over the past 10 years; 98 percent of those reporting are women.
  • Further, during this period, the denomination has paid more than $100 million for legal services, counseling and mediation related to sexual misconduct by ministerial leaders.

Tearing down walls globally

Any proposal for structuring our corporate and conference work that does not make prominent ministry with women, goals for engaging more women as disciples and leaders, and goals for new church starts that include poor and single women and their families is incomplete.

Any plan that does not push The United Methodist Church to evaluate and hold ourselves accountable globally for dismantling institutional sexism and the often wink-and-nod way we deal with sexual misconduct will surely undermine our ability to move forward as a relevant, effective change agent for the cause of Jesus Christ in our society.

If our denomination is to be a relevant, reliable witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, the General Conference must give priority to self-evaluation on ministry with and by women. Furthermore, we should tie our measures of congregational vitality to how well we tear down walls of sexism, racism, classism and ageism - congregation by congregation - around the world.

We can do this by:

  • Creating an independent entity amenable directly to General Conference to research and evaluate agencies, annual conferences and other churchwide units on engagement of women and girls and their work on making the church a deliberately welcoming and safe for all people.
  • Providing corporate and one-to-one coaching for bishops and cabinets on recognizing and addressing institutional sexism in local, cultural, national and international contexts. (Sexism is not a cultural right.)
  • Requiring entities concerned with leadership excellence to implement ministries with and leadership development of women and girls, ages 15 to 29 as well as making congregations more relevant to women and girls in this same category.
  • Tying measures of clergy, congregational, conference and institutional effectiveness vitality directly to our success in doing ministry with women, people of color and the poor.
  • Designing a quadrennial, international women's congress to coach and mentor United Methodist lay and clergywomen to become decision-makers, disciple-makers and change agents in the wider church and in their communities.
  • Mandating a quadrennial report on the "state of women in the church" to be presented to every General Conference and every congregation and church entity around the world.
  • Engaging all congregations in a guided biblical study on the history of women preachers, moving toward global practice of appointing women pastors to any setting, instead of allowing congregations to say, "We don't want a woman."
  • Creating of an independent Office of Ombudsperson as a clearinghouse to receive individual complaints of gender-, racial- and cultural-based discrimination, harassment, abuse and misconduct, and advocating for fair and balanced consideration and resolution of those complaints.
  • Creating a unit within the Council of Bishops - but staffed by trained lay and clergy professionals - to develop training and curricula for pastors and laity in all annual conferences to create consistent, effective policies and practices in addressing sexual misconduct by ministerial leaders.
  • Convening an independent, volunteer group of legal and pastoral care professionals to assist in investigation, adjudication, appropriate communications, healing and justice making for individuals and congregations affected by ministerial misconduct.

'Putting our money &ellipsis; where our mouth is'

A Christian communion like The United Methodist Church, which seeks to make disciples for the transformation of the world, is a credible representative of Christ only if we can agree on the sacred worth, the equal value and a place at the table for all God's people - without reservation, hesitation or capitulation to wrongheaded, dangerous gender bias.

It is hard for us to reconcile in our souls that the church we love so much can be unjust. However, our membership numbers and our leadership rolls tell a story of women, young people and people of color underrepresented and undervalued at God's table.

Until and unless we are courageous enough to live out the Social Principles and, more importantly, the example set by the resurrected Christ - by putting our money and our institutional expressions where our mouth is - what we declare as a call to action will continue to fall woefully short.

*Burton, a member of Hobson United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn., is the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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