Top Discipleship exec to retire after 13 years

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt plans to retire Dec. 31 after 13 years at helm of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship and more than 30 years as a staff member with the agency.

She leaves behind a general church agency devoted to helping congregations become more vital and individual United Methodists become better disciples.

The Board of Discipleship “has had the enviable position of being the agency of the church that really has as part of its mandate helping churches be more effective,” she said. “The recent work around congregational vitality really fits hand in glove with the work that the (board) has been doing for all these years.”

Greenwaldt, the daughter of a Methodist pastor and great-granddaughter of a circuit rider, is a clergy member of the Central Texas Annual (regional) Conference. She joined the Board of Discipleship in 1981, and served as an executive overseeing the agency’s Discipleship Ministries division before becoming the top executive on Jan. 1, 2001.

Retired Bishop Charlene Payne Kammerer, former president of the Board of Discipleship, said one of Greenwaldt’s qualities that most impresses her is the executive’s lifelong love of learning.

“It’s very evident as she leads her staff and works with the board,” Kammerer said. “She cares deeply about the people with which she works, and she really wants our denomination to be a vital church. I’ve seen all of that close up, and it was just a joy to work with her.”

Much of the agency’s work has an immediate impact on people in the pews, the bishop pointed out.

For example, hundreds of thousands of people visit the Board of Discipleship websiteevery year for resources to plan their churches’ worship, Greenwaldt noted. United Methodists also are increasingly participating in the agency’s free webinars on various aspects of Christian life and church leadership.

The agency also encompasses The Upper Room, the self-supporting ministry that has been providing daily devotionals and fostering spiritual growth for more than 75 years.

Last year, Greenwaldt said, the agency distributed 13 million Upper Room magazines and the Upper Room prayer line fielded 250,000 prayer requests.

Board of Discipleship ministries

“(The Board of Discipleship) has over the years worked to listen to what is emerging in the church and help respond from the denominational perspective,” Greenwaldt said.

Among the ministries the agency has added during Greenwaldt’s time as chief executive:

  • The Division on Ministries with Young People, which she said “helps the church focus on young people as persons growing in their faith and who are able to be leaders in young people’s ministries and other ministries within congregations”
  • Path1, New Church Starts, which collaborates with the United Methodist Council of Bishops, congregational developers in annual (regional) conferences, the Association of New Church Start Planters and the national ethnic plans to plant new congregations and re-evangelize the United States
  • Route 122 Transformation Network, which brings together conference leaders who are focused on the renewal of existing congregations
  • Sustainable Resourcing Initiative, which works in collaboration with church leaders outside the United States and other agencies to expand the publishing capacities of central conferences — church regions in Africa, the Philippines and Europe/Russia

“We probably had 700,000 hours or more of direct contact hours between staff and the people we serve last year,” she said. “But the question is: What difference does it make? How are local churches made more vital and how are people’s lives changed?”

One challenge the agency board and staff are seeking to address is how to measure the fruits of the Board of Discipleship’s activities, not just how many people use the activities themselves.

“That is a hard thing to do,” she said. “It means changing culture. It means changing how we describe the work that we do. It also recognizes that the result of our work is in the hands of the people, and not in the hands of the activity. I think that’s what the church is calling for. We want to know if our interventions actually produce fruit.”

A time of transition in the connection

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, limits elected executives of general boards to serving a dozen years. Church law allows agency boards to suspend this provision by a two-thirds vote, and the Discipleship board of directors asked Greenwaldt to remain in her job until the end of this year.

She departs at a time two additional general church agencies also are undergoing transitions in their top leadership. The denomination, at present, has 12 general church agencies.

Dawn Wiggins Hare, an active United Methodist laywoman and former Alabama circuit court judge, in January started work as the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women. She succeeded M. Garlinda Burton, who retired in December after leading the agency for 10 years.

The United Methodist Board of Church and Society is seeking a successor for Jim Winkler, who like Greenwaldt also has passed the 12-year mark in the top executive role.

Mountain Sky Area Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, the president of the Discipleship board, leads the search committee for Greenwaldt’s successor.

Greenwaldt, for now, is also planning her next move.

In addition to her work with the Board of Discipleship, Greenwaldt has long crafted fabric and bead art, including dolls, rugs and jewelry. She plans to devote more time to this vocation in retirement. She also hopes to volunteer as a art instructor for disadvantaged children at an after-school ministry through a local church. Her husband, Russell Harris, is a full-time studio potter. The two are not certain at this point whether they will live in Nashville in retirement.

But Greenwaldt is certain her commitment to encouraging art and Christian community will not change.

“I want to do what local churches are trying to do, which is intervene in ways that actually create Christian community, nurture faith formation and respond to the needs of the people of the world,” she said.

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or

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