Why is UMW Declining?

Bishops preside over a service of Holy Communion during closing worship at the United Methodist Women Assembly 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

By Katy Kiser –

In 1973, Response magazine, the official publication for the United Methodist Women (UMW), claimed the organization had 1.5 million members. Since that time, membership in UMW has declined at an alarming rate.

In 2012, the Women’s Division was granted independence from the General Board of Global Mission – and became the United Methodist Women National Office. The staff hoped their independence would bring new vitality and influence, but the organization has failed to curb its staggering membership loss.

Currently, less than half of the nearly 32,000 United Methodist congregations in the United States have a UMW unit. (It should be noted that UMW identity carries a different sense of spirituality and fellowship outside the U.S.). Institutionally, UMW is losing members at five times the rate that the general church is losing female members. According to official GCFA numbers at the end of 2016, membership in UMW was only 438,543. The decline from 1.5 million to less than 450,000 is drastic. The signs are not looking promising. Within the last 10 years, UWM lost more than 200,000 members — nearly one-third of its membership.

What has contributed to this precipitous membership loss? Like the general church, it can be partially attributed to the death of its aging membership, which is not being replaced. But this is not the primary reason.

As Team Leader of Renew Network, the women’s arm of Good News, I get a steady stream of calls from women who voice concerns for the partisan politics, missiology, and theology coming out of the UMW National Office. It is in their voices that I find compelling reasons why eight out of every nine women in the United Methodist Church do not belong to or support the UMW.

It’s all Partisan Politics

“Can you help our United Methodist Women?” asked the woman on the phone when she called our office. “We don’t want politics. We want Bible study!”

By far the question most asked of Renew is, “What can you tell me about the politics of the UMW? The women of my church want to know.” These requests represent a concern that the leadership is predominately involved in community organizing, activism, and lobbying for specific left-leaning political outcomes.

The perception that UMW is political is supported by the United Methodist Women’s lobbying presence on Capitol Hill, which is run out of the UMW National Policy Office in D.C. as well as at the United Nations where they have consultative status. Women are invited to participate in political action through a number of venues.

On its website, it maintains a list of Action Alerts (currently 40+). These alerts give everything women need to call or write Washington and add their voices to support or defeat the positions that the National Office recommends. Rarely do these Alerts reflect the concerns or positions of moderate or conservative women. It disturbs these women when they hear the UMW staff claim to represent all women in the United Methodist Church.

The UMW National Office also sponsors Annual Social Action or Legislative Events in various states where women can gather to influence state policies as they relate to the justice priorities of UMW. This year, at the UMW 30th Annual Legislative Event in Austin Texas, the women partnered with Texas Impact, a progressive advocacy group. The UMW rarely if ever advocates for politically moderate or conservative public policy solutions.

The UMW National Office utilizes “Mission U” held in every conference each summer and a quadrennial national gathering know as “Assembly” to organize the women for action. At the May Assembly, women were organized to embrace their power to change our economy, our climate, women’s health, and the incarceration rate. The event held 54 workshops led by social activists – two of whom were co-chair persons for the 2017 Women’s March held the day after the inauguration – including the exceedingly controversial Linda Sarsour, a provocative Muslim-American activist.

Over the years, UMW’s political activism has been rooted in an unbalanced and strongly progressive perspective. Without fail, it advocates for public policies that call upon big government solutions to social inequality. Rarely do they consider unintended consequences or the possibility that government intervention can hurt instead of help. Social inequality has widened as the traditional family has weakened. But strengthening the traditional family is not a justice priority of UMW.

Becoming informed and participating in the political process is not at issue, nor is the importance of the church’s social witness. But when the work of the UMW clearly promotes policies that favor the legislative proposals of one party over the other, it leaves them open to the charge they are both political and partisan.

Partisan politics is not a recipe for growth. Nor is it a recipe for making disciples for Jesus Christ.

What is Mission?

The emphasis on activism and community organizing begs the question, “What is Mission to the United Methodist Women?” In a 2017 summer newsletter, Harriet Olson asked a similar question. She quoted an orthodox theologian saying, “Mission is following the Holy Trinity into the World.” She went on to say, “We hear and respond to the cries of the needy… and we root ourselves in the core of the message: to ‘love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength’ through faith in Christ and to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves.” Wonderful words indeed.

But it is not in these words that women question the motives or the mission of UMW; it is in the actions they take that women have asked, “Has the mission of UMW become a mere political vision for social justice as defined by progressive politics and in so doing neglected, if not lost, the gospel altogether?”

Is it possible to bring about the Kingdom of God by changing our social systems? The UMW National Office appears to believe it is. Why else would they put so much emphasis on one-sided partisan responses to all the controversial issues facing the United States? Politics, politics, politics.

At the 2012 and 2016 General Conferences, an individual submitted legislation to amend the Responsibilities of United Methodist Women in paragraph 1320 of the Book of Discipline to include the statement, “Encourage United Methodist Women in efforts to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to their local communities.” This petition would have required the incorporation of evangelism, central to the mission of the church. The UMW did not support the petition; it failed.

The UMW were not successful in their effort to stop a petition and a resolution to recognize and encourage women’s and men’s ministry independent of UMW and UMM. But they did insert the phrase “justice advocacy” into the resolution, signaling its continued commitment to their particular vision of progressive social justice.

Many women who believe Christ alone is unique and holds the keys to salvation and transformation of the soul realize the gospel has been sidelined. In its place, transformation of our “systems” and achieving human so-called justice based on material equality has become a substitute for the cosmic changing work of Christ on the cross.

This point should be remembered when we hear some bishops claim that all Methodists can agree to lay aside theological differences and organize around shared mission. The issues that divide us politically, also divide us theologically and lead us to different understandings of mission. The “social holiness” of John Wesley was a concept based on discipleship – not the partisan brand of “social justice” promoted by the UMW.

Radical Feminism and Other Theological Concerns

Theological concerns have also played a major role in the decline of United Methodist Women. In 2016, UMW Spiritual Life Study, The Bible and Human Sexuality came out; it was a focus at Mission U (what used to be known as the UMW School of Christian Mission). A female clergy friend and I decided to attend; we had read the book and had serious concerns. The author had reinterpreted scripture to justify a new understanding of biblical morality. We were hoping that Mission U, which reaches thousands of women each summer in each annual conference, would be more balanced than we had found the book.

Our hopes were not realized. An entire Saturday was spent deconstructing biblical teaching on sexuality and revising it to promote a new sexual ethic. This book turned the Bible’s teaching on sex before marriage, adultery, and marriage upside down. It undercut the Bible’s dichotomy between sin and righteousness by calling into question time-honored understanding of Scripture. Much of the revisionist questioning came out of the author’s claim that the Old and New Testaments were written in a time of male dominated society (patriarchy) and thus many of the injunctions of scripture are not applicable.

The participants were asked to accept not only the practice of homosexuality, but also a sexual ethic that would eliminate any scriptural boundaries on sexual practice other than “consent and safety.” We were asked to categorize our sexual experiences as positive or negative. We were told that the church needed to discard the marriage culture, because it condones harmful behaviors as long as they are within marriage and says nothing to singles, widows, and homosexuals.

To reinforce these points, we were shown a short film where Barbara Lee, a Christian feminist said, “To relate to each other as whole human beings, we need to develop and live by a Sexual Ethic that celebrates sex while treating it with moral integrity. An ethic that begins by recognizing that people of all sexual orientation and gender identities, of all marital status, and of all physical capacities, have the right to experience sex as a healthy and life-giving part of their existence.”

Sex was being taught not as a covenant between a man and a woman ordained by God, but as a “right” because it was God’s good gift, healthy and pleasurable.

In the early 1990s, the then Women’s Division was a major participant in the Re-Imagining Conference, which was initiated by the World Council of Churches and billed as a theological conference for feminist, womanist, and lesbian ideology. The conference created quite a stir in United Methodism.

The radical feminism and goddess worship that permeated the conference has not gone away in the decades since. In fact, the Sophia worship of the Re-Imagining Conference resurfaced in the 2017 UMW spiritual growth study titled, If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be. The authors reinterpreted scripture beginning with the creation story where they reframe “Eve as a wise woman, the serpent as an agent of transformation, and the garden as a symbol of innocence that must be left behind to experience the complex fullness of life.”

The authors see the Bible as a “call of liberation.” They portray the Holy Spirit not as the Spirit Jesus describes in John 14, but as one that brings new revelation as society evolves. They see biblical teaching on sexual morality and purity as fear-based ideas that young women should reject. The authors believe the lack of feminine language for God promotes sexism. They encourage women to name God for themselves, because seeing God as “He” keeps the oppressive patriarchal systems in place.

Is it any wonder that some women have left their UMW units over serious theological concerns?

Good News for Women’s Ministry

At the same time that UMW has been declining, Christ-centered, biblically based, spirit empowered women’s ministry and mission has been thriving. This fact was recognized at the 2016 General Conference when paragraph 256 in the Book of Discipline was amended to officially allow and encourage women’s ministry alternatives to UMW. This addition to the Discipline has given women in the local church the freedom to expand their ministries in hopes of not only growing membership, but also with the goal of growing in Christ and offering him to a hurting and confused world.

Although the staff of the UMW National Office continues to claim that UMW is the only official women’s ministry in the church, this simply is not true. Women’s ministry in the church is not limited to UMW. Many women in the local church have recognized that unless we ourselves are transformed by and have a deep relationship with Christ, we cannot hope to further the mission to make disciples and transform the world. We cannot share what we do not have. The world does not need more of the world and its secular agendas. The world needs the transforming power of our Savior.

It was the power of Jesus Christ that inspired the women in Women’s Society of Christian Service and Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church both of which originated in the late 1800s. The torch that carried the light of Christ into the world by the courageous women of the predecessor organizations has been preserved in the work of any number of Methodist women in the church today.

These fore-mothers are claimed by UMW who trace their origin back to these early groups. But if these inspiring women were with us today, they would have much in common with the women’s groups who operate outside UMW. They too would most likely be concerned by the politicization of mission and revisionist interpretations of Scripture. Thankfully, new evangelical Wesleyan women’s voices have emerged within the United Methodist Church. Women who do not belong to UMW are attending various Bible studies, ministry programs, prayer groups where spiritual formation is faithful to Scripture. They participate in both local and global mission opportunities which take seriously the Great Commission that Jesus gave his disciples and subsequent generations.

With the new legislation passed at General Conference 2016, the future for women is bright despite the decline of United Methodist Women. 

Women in the Mission and Ministry of Prayer

Founders of Knit-A-Prayer from left to right: Karen Wentzel, Sharon Wainwright, Rev. Dr. Richard Thompson, and Joyce Spetz. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, California.

Thousands of American service men and women have lost their lives in the on-going battle against terrorism. Since 2009, bodies of fallen soldiers, mostly from the war-torn areas of Afghanistan and Iraq, have been flown into Dover Air Force Base. At Dover, these heroes are given a dignified transfer as they are received by their grieving loved ones. And it is here that those loved ones are comforted by the ministry of the women of the First United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, California. The women call their ministry, Knit-A-Prayer.

The Dignified Transfer program at Dover has become a vital tradition of honor, respect, and a way of acknowledging the sacrifice of the fallen. Early in the Repatriation and Dignified Transfer program, chaplains at Dover asked for prayer shawls and lap blankets. They wanted grieving families to have something tangible to show that they were surrounded by the love of God and the prayers of fellow citizens. They also wanted them to know our country does not take their loved one’s loss of life for granted nor is it unaware of the deep grief the family experiences.

When families receive their fallen soldier at Dover Air Force Base, they are ushered onto the tarmac to witness a solemn ceremony as the casket is brought off a plane. Often the walk from the base to the plane is cold and windy. The shawls the family receives provide comfort both spiritually and physically. Many notes of appreciation have been sent to the Bakersfield women. For example:

“I’m writing to thank you on behalf of my sister. She and her family live in Arkansas. On November 20, her grandson, my great nephew, was killed in Afghanistan. When his dad flew to Dover AFB to receive his body, he was presented with a prayer shawl made by your group. Their hearts were touched by the shawl, the note you included, the words of comfort and the prayers that had gone up in the making of the shawl. I’m amazed at our God and how He works. Words cannot express our appreciation. God is good all the time. Blessings to you.”

Although the number of fatalities has fallen in recent years, the Methodist women in Bakersfield continue to pray and send the love of God to those who grieve.

In May, just before Mother’s Day 2017, Knit-A-Prayer celebrated its 10-year anniversary. It was founded by Sharon Wainwright, Joyce Spetz, and Karen Wetzel. When Sharon closed a needlework store she had operated for 22 years, she knew she must find something productive to do with her creativity and love of knitting. She mentioned this desire to her friends Joyce and Karen. Joyce knew about the prayer shawl ministry and ordered the book, Knitting Into Mystery: A Guide to the Prayer Shawl Ministry,which taught creating shawls as a way of nurturing one’s own and others’ souls through prayer.  The three women met several times to pray and seek the Lord’s guidance before going to their pastor, the Rev. Richard Thompson, and receiving his blessing to start a ministry.

The three women were amazed at the interest in their proposed endeavor. Within a short period of time, 25 women signed up and committed to bi-monthly meetings. These women were intergenerational ranging from college-aged to mature women in their nineties. Over the last ten years, these women have sent 2,700 shawls and lap robes to people all over the world.

Sharon and her friends began by contacting another prayer ministry in their church known as Prayers and Squares, whose chapter #317 was started in 2005. This ministry, launched by Isabel Carrera, promotes prayer through the use of quilts. The quilters were happy to see their prayer ministry expand to a group who knitted and crocheted.

The quilting ministry originally began in San Diego at another United Methodist church, that sponsored an informal quilting group. A member’s two-year-old grandson, Kody, ended up in a coma following heart surgery; he had little chance for recovery. As the women worked quickly to make a quilt to cover this critically-ill child, they prayed earnestly for him. Against the odds, Kody came out of the coma. As he recovered, his little hands touched and fingered the knots on his quilt. His doctors wrote into his medical chart that the quilt was not to leave his side! The quilt remained with the child through several surgeries, tests, and treatments. It provided comfort and strength for many years. Other patients began to ask about the ministry and soon it had spread to other churches including Bakersfield First UM Church.

The process of making these quilts is saturated in prayer. When a quilt is requested, it is personalized to the recipient on a label and dated. As the women of the quilting ministry piece their quilts and tie in square knots the thread that holds the layers together, they pray for each recipient. After they finish a quilt, it is displayed so that the congregation may come and say a prayer while tying a knot on the quilt.

The same process is true for knitting and crocheting shawls. From the beginning of the project to its completion, the women bathe their work in prayer. Each shawl begins with a prayer for the recipient and their needs even when those needs are unknown. When they knit at home, they pray over their work. Some use a knitting pattern, a simple knit three, purl three that represents the Trinity.

One knitter shared, “In a sense this ministry is a ‘blind ministry.’ When knitting or crocheting a shawl one doesn’t know where it is going, what will be the effect, who will receive it, but God knows.” Another remarked, “There is joy in selecting the colors of yarn for the next shawl as well as the pattern. One can meditate while knitting. It is peaceful in God’s presence.”

Each shawl and blanket is bathed in prayer. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, California.

Opportunities to witness and share the love of Christ occur when a knitter has taken her project outside her home and works as she waits for an appointment or meeting. As one knitter explained, “Often an individual will strike up a conversation when they see someone knitting. That opens the door to talk about the prayer shawl ministry and our faith.” When the women gather together at the church, they take time to lay hands on their work and pray out loud in a ritual of prayer. At the completion of each shawl, a card is attached that includes a space for a hand-written prayer.

In their own city of Bakersfield, shawls are sent to several hospice groups and shelters for battered women, abused children, and the homeless. The women provide shawls and support for the Dream Center, a ministry to young adults in foster care who are required to transfer out of the program when they turn eighteen. At the center they are given help finding a permanent place to live, help with writing resumes, and learning how to interview for a job as well as other life skills. 

The Knit-A-Prayer ministry steps into action when disasters of all kinds occur. In 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck northeast of Tokyo; it was the largest ever to hit Japan. The resulting tsunami compounded the damage. Serving at the time were eight missionaries from the United Methodist General Board of Global Missions. The Bakersfield women sent their prayers and shawls to Japan, which were distributed by the missionaries along with other efforts by the United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR).

GBGM contact, Claudia Genung-Yamamoto wrote, “These shawls have special meaning and we would like to distribute them through partner groups, especially through the Japanese church women with a message of God’s love shared with both Christian and non-Christians in the Tokyo area.”

Each package is a blessing to those who receive. Photo courtesy of First United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, California.

Closer to home, last summer these women sent shawls when one of California’s largest fires, the Erskine Fire, killed two people, destroyed 309 homes, and damaged hundreds more. People who lived in the path of the fire were in evacuation centers for weeks. These evacuees were not alone, for the Bakersfield women actively prayed and sent shawls through a long-time member of their church. He just happened to be serving as a local pastor for two of the communities hard hit by the fire.

The women share many stories where they have seen God’s hand on their ministry. One afternoon they received a request for a shawl from a lady in Missouri. She had found Knit-A-Prayer listed on a shawl ministry web site. She requested a shawl for a young adult man, seriously ill in San Diego. The shawl needed to be delivered quickly. Ironically, the daughter of the church’s administrative assistant was returning to San Diego that very afternoon. She took the shawl to the hospital and personally gave it to family members.

Another incident occurred when the women learned of a young girl who had attended VBS at the Bakersfield church. She was seriously ill with cancer. The mother was contacted and said she would appreciate a shawl for her daughter. When it was delivered, the little girl responded by saying, “How did you know that pink was my most favorite color?” She kept the shawl with her constantly through all her treatments until she passed.

Early in the spring of 2017, an adult nephew of a member of the Bakersfield congregation was seriously injured in an automobile accident. He was barely removed from the vehicle before it went up in flames. Doctors were unable to assure the family of his recovery. He was in ICU for a month and had many surgeries. Although he was not a believer in Christ, he kept the prayer lap robe with him constantly. All the prayers that were prayed for his recovery were eventually answered when he walked out of the hospital.

Prayers and Squares and Knit-A-Prayer are not ordinary clubs; they are not an excuse for women to get together for fellowship, although meaningful fellowship occurs; they are not just a creative outlet, although they are that as well. Prayers and Squares and Knit-A-Prayer are two groups of creative, praying Christian women, who like Jesus, are full of compassion; they are women who use their talent to make visible the love of God in the material blessing of a quilt or a shawl. Most of all, they are women who know the power of prayer to love, encourage, honor, heal, and comfort infinitely more than all they ask or imagine.

As Sharon Wainwright attests to the power of God working through the Knit-A-Prayer ministry, “God continues to open doors where we can offer a shawl and prayer. Our original hopes and dreams for this ministry were so small in comparison to where God has directed us. The ‘God winks’ have been many and the blessings numerous beyond measure.”

Now is the Time

“Now is the time of God’s favor, Now is the day of salvation.”

– II Corinthians 6:2

Each year, women come to the national conference of the Celebration Women’s Ministry in Houston seeking to grow in Christ and encounter God’s Spirit. Some seek the assurance of salvation; others need forgiveness or desire to be liberated from sin, past and present; still others seek spiritual, emotional, or physical healing. This past March, women experienced all this and more at the Celebration gathering.

The Celebration leadership team chose their 2018 conference theme from the above cited verses from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. They were reminded that the people of the Corinthian Church had much in common with the church in America of our day. They too were suffering disunity; sexual immorality was a problem, and difficult challenges were overwhelming the church. In the two letters to the Corinthians, we find some of Paul’s most important theological writing.

Inspired by Paul’s words, “Now is the time of God’s favor – the day of His salvation,” the leadership team delved into the meaning of salvation. They found it to be a comprehensive term that had a depth of meaning beyond the initial decision to believe and be saved from the consequences of sin. Salvation was a word that implied forgiveness, healing, prosperity, deliverance, safety, rescue, liberation, and restoration. It signified everything the leadership team hoped women would experience at their yearly conference.

Readers of Good News will recall the March/April 2017 cover story written by editor Steve Beard about the Spirit-filled revival in the Methodist Church of Cuba. He had visited Cuba with Dr. David Watson, the academic dean at United Theological Seminary, and a team of seminarians. During a conversation after the article came out, Beard encouraged Judy Graham, president of Celebration, to visit the Cuban church or bring the move of the Spirit in Cuba to the women of Celebration. In response, he and Watson put her in touch with Pastor Adria Nuñez Ortiz from Havana.

Pastor Nuñez is the product of a powerful move of God and His Spirit in her country. The people in her Havana community know first-hand the hardship of living with scarce resources such as food and clothing. Although for many decades, freedom to worship publically was not possible, belief in Christ survived. It brought hope and helped the Cuban people rise above their circumstances.

Salvation was the power that healed, allowed those trapped in prostitution, drugs, and other addictions to find freedom, and gave them the ability to forgive and be forgiven. Pastor Nuñez wanted the women of Celebration to know and experience the power of salvation to bring dynamic transformation that enables all women in every culture to find the way that leads to life.

Nuñez told the women to “rise up wisely like Jael, to be virtuous like Mary, to carry hope to those around them like Esther and Ruth, to be full of faith like Hannah, and to be sensible and brave like Deborah.” Each of these Bible women were given exactly what was needed to meet their challenges; each challenge was unique. Nuñez wanted each woman to be as faithful and courageous as Esther, who the Lord had raised up for the challenge of “such a time as this.”

Women receive healing. Photo by Celebration Ministries.

At the close of her message, she issued a call for women who needed physical healing in their bodies and those who needed to receive the Holy Spirit in their soul to come forward. Whether in fire and power or in a sweet gentle presence, the Holy Spirit ministered deeply to the women present at each alter call.

Pastor Jennifer Cowart of Harvest Church in Georgia, the other featured speaker, taught the women how to live out their salvation as chosen women, honored by God; as women who are being made into the image of Christ and exemplifying his characteristics. That calls for honesty, and honest she was. A spirit of conviction fell upon the conference as Cowart got specific about walking in the new nature and refusing to be dominated by the old. She encouraged the women to be more sensitive to the needs of others and grow deeper in their understanding of the love of Christ, allowing his love to flow out to those around them in practical, tangible ways.

For Graham, the entire weekend was in sync with the beautiful work of the Holy Spirit. A highlight for her, however, was getting to pray with a woman for her salvation. This young woman had never received Christ as her Savior; her work had brought her to the last five Celebration conferences, but this year during the prayer time, she ventured on stage and asked Judy to pray with her.

Jen Cowart and Judy Graham. Photo by Celebration Ministries.

Especially important to the conference planning team was issuing an invitation to the women and pastors of the Spanish speaking churches in the Houston area and the broader Texas Conference. The planning team knew it would be exciting for them to hear Pastor Nuñez in their own language. The first evening nine women attended. The next evening more than 35 women attended – in addition to the Rev. Arturo Cadar, the Texas Conference Coordinator of Mission Field Development. After the event, he approached Graham in order to start a Spanish-language Celebration chapter. He had the women leaders in mind to continue the blessing and the move of God’s Spirit.

Before the end of the conference, testimonies began to emerge. Women were reconnected with God, many were awakened to a closer walk with Jesus, a healing presence moved in their midst, some were called into ministry, and others were inspired for mission and service.

“I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit beginning with the time I got my name tag at the registration table,” one young woman testified after attending her first Celebration event. “National Conference has changed me forever! I am a completely new person and excited about seeing God in a new light.”

“On fire” is how Judy Graham described the conference.

As the leadership of the conference began to count the ways God had moved, they gave thanks for all the lives that had been changed. For new and seasoned believers alike, National Conference was a time for each woman to move deeper into her salvation.

The theme, “Now Is The Time,” reminds us that God is at work. He is at work in our individual lives and he is at work in our church. For those who are looking for God, he is there. He is moving all of us into a more profound understanding of our salvation, that we might apprehend all that he has for us.

A Woman’s Voice for Renewal

 

Renew leadership, past and present. Liza Kittle (left) and Katy Kiser (right) with Renew founder Faye Short.

As Dixie Brewster, spokeswoman for the Local Church Committee of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, came to the stage to present legislation prepared by the Renew Network to amend Paragraph 256 of the Book of Discipline, women all over the floor of the conference watched with anticipation. An objection was launched by a delegate who did not want the Discipline amended to recognize and encourage alternative ministry in addition to United Methodist Women. But those who spoke in favor had the more cogent arguments. The petition had been fiercely debated in committee yet had passed overwhelmingly without amendments. That day the entire body of delegates in Portland, Oregon, would vote to pass the legislation.

To some, the passage of this change to the Book of Discipline may not have seemed particularly remarkable, but to the women of Renew, this was monumental. As Ruth Burgner of the Mission Society had once written, “If you knew what was going on, this sight might strike you as the stuff short stories and classic tales are made of – the story of a smaller opponent squaring off toe-to-toe with a bigger (and apparently more powerful) one, engaging bravely on behalf of an entire unsuspecting community.” 

The passage represented over two and a half decades of conscientious work on the part of women who have played a role in the Renew Network, which is the women’s program arm of Good News.

The network was formed as a two-pronged ministry calling for spiritual renewal for the women of the church and accountability of the Women’s Division (now United Methodist Women Inc.). As founder and president Faye Short remarked in 2002, “These are the ‘grassroots’ of the church, the mainstream Methodists who joyfully embrace and share the great Christian truths that transform lives.” It was by and for these mainstream women that the Renew Network came into being.

Renew traces its roots back to the early 1970s. It was then evangelical women began raising alarms about the resources they were getting from the Women’s Division. Concerns were voiced because the theology, philosophy, and ideology of the Women’s Division were far different from that of the women at the local level. The Esther Action Council and the Good News Women’s Taskforce documented concerns and looked for ways to encourage the grass roots women of the church. These efforts led to the formation of the Renew Network in 1989 under the leadership of Faye Short.

The story of the Renew Network connects to Faye’s story. Many do not realize that Faye was a UMW local, district and conference officer in North Georgia prior becoming president of Renew. She knew first hand the concerns that were arising from evangelical women. When Helen Rhea Stumbo, now chairperson of the Good News board, invited Faye to her first Good News board meeting, Faye told Dr. James V. Heidinger II, then president of Good News, that she had come with a strange burden on her heart for the women of the UM Church.

As the church drifted away from classical orthodoxy, the leadership team Faye had organized began to shine light on the theological error coming out of the Women’s Division. A White Paper titled “Our Basis For Concern” was produced in 2001; it revealed much. Whether it was liberation theology, propagating that all faiths are acceptable ways to God, pro-abortion advocacy, participation in the Re-Imagining movement, tying the mission of the church to the goals of the United Nations, advocating radical feminism, support for a new sexual ethic, or substituting progressive public policy for the proclamation of the gospel, Renew was faithful to report these disturbing developments with the hopes of seeing reform.

Bringing to the conscience of the church that which had the potential of compromising her mission and weakening the proclamation of the gospel was not the only work of the Renew Network. Equally, if not more important, was the development of ministry models and Christ centered program materials. While Renew gave voice to the concerns of evangelical women, they developed alternative resources. These resources encouraged relationship with Jesus and knowledge of Scripture, and a biblical worldview regarding social and political concerns.

A good example of one such resource is the book, Reclaiming the Wesleyan Social Witness: Offering Christ that I co-authored with Faye Short. It put forward a Wesleyan social witness, and proposed a rediscovery of the core of the Wesleyan witness – “saving faith.” Bishop Lindsey G. Davis wrote, “This book offers fresh insights into how our social witness can be transformational and firmly rooted in the Christian faith.”

As we moved out of the late twentieth century and into the next, many churches began Bible studies and alternative women’s ministries. In many parts of the country new forms of vital ministry sprang up; but in other locations innovation was not so easy. Work remained to be done.

In 2008 Faye Short retired as president of Renew and Liza Kittle would take her place and continue the two pronged ministry. Liza was a former radical feminist who came to know Christ in her 30s. She had a real heart for women’s ministry. She wanted all women to experience the life changing transformation that had turned her own life to the Lord.

Prior to becoming president, Liza had served as a press representative, writer and analyst for Renew. Among her reports was an analysis of the Book of Resolutions. After studying the legislation of several General Conferences, it was determined that over 80 percent of the social policy agenda of the UM Church originated from a handful of the liberal boards and agencies in the church. The once six-page addendum of the Book of Discipline had morphed into over 1,000 pages of social justice policy and political agendas that boards and agencies used to fuel their advocacy on Capitol Hill, the White House, and around the world. Her analysis brought important statistical evidence to the eyes of the church.

It was Liza who rewrote and submitted legislation to the 2012 General Conference using language similar to that of United Methodist Men and containing goals associated with the new emphasis on Local Church Revitalization and Growing Vibrant Congregations. Renew’s legislation passed overwhelmingly in the Local Church committee. Unfortunately, due to the late decision from the Judicial Council, time did not allow for the legislation to come to the full floor for a vote. Although this presented a delay of four years, it could not stop the momentum.

After years of involvement with women’s ministry, I became the Renew team leader in 2015. We’ve assembled a team of women pastors and lay teachers to provide devotionals, teachings, Bible studies, and mission ideas. Renew continues to be committed to build and encourage vital women’s programing. Churches and women’s ministries that are making a difference locally and globally are being featured on the Renew website, Facebook page, and in the Good News magazine (see the “Rooted” article in this edition). These stories of authentic women’s ministry are inspiring churches in and beyond Methodism.

The Renew team and all the many women of the network were thrilled when legislation passed at General Conference 2016, amending the Book of Discipline to officially allow alternative women’s ministries. The passage of this legislation represents a new freedom for women within our denomination. With this official endorsement of The United Methodist Church, the hindrances and constraints of the past have been removed. The gates are open for an even brighter future for women’s ministry in the church. The reality for some time has been that churches are offering options that meet the diverse needs of Christian women. We are excited for the days ahead as the Holy Spirit fans the flame of revival and renewal among the women of the UM Church that it may move in ever growing power.

Renew is thankful for having played a part in inspiring biblically based ministries. Yet vigilance remains essential. Renew reported that in 2016 the UMW National produced a spiritual life study on human sexuality that, if embraced, would take the UMW related women and the Church away from the Church’s official biblical sexual ethic.

The Rev. Rob Renfroe, current president of Good News, expressed his appreciation for the contribution of Renew to the reform and the renewal of The United Methodist Church when he said: “Renew has been a genuine gift to the women of the church who have looked for balanced, biblical resources to support their spiritual growth and their ministry in the world. In addition, Renew has served as a vigilant and effective force in exposing the radical political agenda behind much of the work of the Women’s Division.”

The women of Renew appreciate this assessment. We view the work of Renew as part of the faithful witness of both men and women within the Good News movement whose purpose is to lead United Methodists to a faithful future. 

Katy Kiser is the team leader for Renew Women’s Ministries. For a more detailed account of the history of the RENEW Network go to: www.renewnetwork.org or call 832-381-0331.

 

Rooted in Christ: Women Being the Church

The Rev. Kelly Brumbeloe of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church. Photo by Donna Lachance.

 

What should be the business of the church? For the women of the Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta Georgia, it is providing women with the opportunity to become Rooted in Christ. Their women’s ministry places equal emphasis on the spiritual and material needs of women, realizing that a poverty of either can be devastating. They actively make Christ known to those in their own pews, their community, and the world. Their women’s ministry is one of the most successful in The United Methodist Church.

Recently, Renew had the privilege to celebrate the women’s ministry at Mt. Bethel at the invitation of the Rev. Kelly Brumbeloe. The evening began with powerful worship led by a young college woman and was interspersed with several speakers. Women from the North Atlanta area came together to worship, share testimonies, pray for each other’s needs, and be taught from the scriptures. They call these gatherings “Home Grown.”

Presence of the Holy Spirit

As Kelly took the stage the music lowered in volume and she began to share from the story of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. She reminded us that this was set in a time of deep discouragement; Jerusalem had fallen and with it the temple. It was a time of total destruction, banishment, and national death. The people had been stripped of their identity and their hope was lost; they were in a valley of death.

Kelly continued to describe Ezekiel’s vision and the life that came into the dry dead bones that inhabited the valley. But even after bodies had been formed, they were lifeless, until God commanded something extraordinary. He commanded Ezekiel to speak God’s “ruah,” his breath into the lifeless bodies, the same breath breathed into Adam.

Having worked with Renew Network the last fifteen years, my mind went to the crisis we face in The United Methodist Church. Unable to agree on God’s intention for human sexuality, including basic biblical teaching and theological truths held for thousands of years, the church is in need of a breath of new life.

But this night was focused on the large number of women who had gathered at Mt Bethel. There were women present there who needed to be reminded that in our difficult and seemingly hopeless situations, God wants to breathe into us his “ruah” – breath that is full of new life, hope, restoration, and transformation. He wants to breathe new life into each one of his precious children, each institution, and, yes, even each nation.

For this story speaks to more than the hopeless situation of Israel who were captives of the Babylonians, or even the great impasse of The United Methodist Church. That evening was alive with women who had gathered to worship and receive a word from the Lord that would speak into the difficult, impossible, desperate places of their circumstances. The places only his “ruah” can heal.

Worship and praise is a major part of the ministry. Photos by Donna Lachance.

And just as the Lord God came through for the Israelites in the hopelessness of their captivity, he was present among us that evening breathing life and hope into each woman. The atmosphere was vibrant with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Leadership Development

Home Grown is just one opportunity in Mt. Bethel’s women’s ministry known as “Rooted” where all women have the opportunity for spiritual growth. The Home Grown ministry encourages women to share their testimonies and gives them opportunities to teach, lead prayer, praise, and worship.

The women who participate in this ministry come from several United Methodist churches, including Canton First UM Church, McEachern UM Church, as well as from other denominations. By joining forces, they have resources that some of the smaller churches would not otherwise have. They have found that each church brings strengths to bless the whole.

The evening I attended, Eastminster Presbyterian Church brought 26 women and their children from The Garden Church, which shelters women who have been victims of abuse, alcohol, drugs, and sex trafficking. 

When the time of prayer came, the women gathered in groups of two to pray for one another. It was touching to see the women from Mt. Bethel and other churches pray and minister to each other. The move of the Holy Spirit was powerful as the women confessed to one another and received the truth of God’s deep love and true purpose for each one of their lives.

Developing women’s prayer life is a key component at Mt. Bethel’s women’s ministry. There is a story on its website about one woman whose young daughter developed a rare form of bone cancer resulting in the amputation of a leg. The church prayed with great intensity for the family and their daughter’s crisis. Today, the mother shares her amazing faith, wisdom, and the biblical truth that sustained her and her family. And her daughter, Grace, is sharing her faith and courage with another young girl also named Grace who is battling cancer.

Women with a vision for ministry. Photo by Donna Lachance.

Women in Mission

Reaching out to the women of The Garden Church is just one of the many mission projects that the women of Mt. Bethel and their partnering churches sponsor. 

Notable is their participation in a local ministry they birthed, Faith Bridge Foster Care, which has seen such growth it has become its own 501(c)3. This ministry encourages families to foster children and supports them with practical resources. An eight-year-old girl named Charlotte, whose family has fostered several children, told me all about her experience with the program. She is learning at a young age what it means to share the love of Christ and the blessings of her family with others.

Project 82 is a ministry to the 2.5 million orphans in Kenya. The women of Mt Bethel have responded to God’s call to love and care for the vulnerable children of Kenya who have been orphaned by caregivers wiped out by HIV/AIDS, tribal conflict, and poverty-driven diseases. This ministry nurtures orphans holistically to achieve sustainable family solutions. The women of Mt. Bethel have raised money and numerous supplies to provide for the needs of these displaced children.

Whether it is encouraging and resourcing foster care for needy children or the orphaned in Kenya, the women are focused on strengthening the family and building up women who play such an important role in the family. Nicole Taylor, director of women’s ministry at Mt Bethel, helps women find small group ministry for each stage of her life and the life of her family. Soon to launch is a new mentoring program where older women will be paired with younger women to fulfill Paul’s admonition in Titus for the older women to teach the younger.

Through their multifaceted ministry, Mt. Bethel’s women are committed to being salt and light to a hurting world; and they are committed to helping other churches bring “ruah,” a fresh breath of God into their ministries.

Katy Kiser is the Renew Network Team Leader. If you would like to learn more about the dynamic women’s ministry at Mt. Bethel, please contact the Rev. Kelley Brumbeloe or Nicole Taylor at http://mtbethel.org or Katy Kiser at http://renewnetwork.org.

New Opportunities for Women’s Ministry

New Opportunities for Women’s Ministry

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“The Lord gives the word of power; the women who bear and publish the news are a great host.” – Psalms 68:11

The 2016 General Conference was good news indeed for women’s ministry in The United Methodist Church. Legislation developed by the Renew Network, the women’s arm of Good News, was adopted to allow ministries to women and men in addition to UMW and UMM.

For some, the addition to paragraph 256.7 opens the door for churches to welcome women’s ministry that meets the unique needs and gifts of their particular congregation and conference. No longer is women’s ministry “one size fits all,” nor is the United Methodist Women under the leadership of the New York office the only official women’s ministry outlet.

For others, the Book of Discipline now officially recognizes and encourages the vibrant work of women that has been taking place for decades. One such women’s ministry is Celebration Women’s Ministry, which began in the Texas Annual Conference and dates back to 1997.

Katy Kiser, team leader of the Renew Network, recently sat down and spoke with Judy Graham, president and co-founder of Celebration Women’s Ministry.

Judy, why did you and others feel there was a need for a women’s ministry like Celebration? 

There were three founders of Celebration who saw women hungering for spiritual growth. We recognized everyone needs to experience the power of God; that was simply not happening in some of our ministries. We knew that the church cannot transform the world unless we individually have been healed and transformed.

Some needed the basic step of accepting salvation and the life that God intended through Jesus Christ. Others were seeking opportunities for spiritual growth and discipleship. Many women needed the healing touch that only Jesus can provide. And all women needed the sweet fellowship of one another and the power of each other’s prayers.

Many of our churches needed to develop women’s ministry that met these needs. But let me be clear, the founders, including myself, simply recognized a work that God was already doing and joined it. He led us to work within the UM Church and develop a structure by which women could connect to each other and reach out.

How did the Lord lead you to meet these needs?

In 1997, we approached Bishop Woodrow Hearn who gave us his support, as did our annual conference. At our first event, 65 women leaders from 22 churches in our conference committed to pray on a monthly basis for Celebration. We held a meeting at St. Luke’s UM Church in Houston where over 500 women attended. Not long after this, another 55 women from 16 churches met in East Texas and enthusiastically embraced our vision. Subsequently, at the invitation of pastors and lay women, Celebration was started.

Over the next year and a half, Celebration became a foundation and a covering for women’s ministries in which the focus was on salvation, healing, and equipping based on Luke 4:18-19. By providing speakers and studies in these three areas, Celebration met and continues to meet a full range of women’s needs including praise, worship, prayer, personal witness, Bible study, and fellowship. Today in the Texas Conference we have 21 chapters and new chapters are still being added.

You mention that prayer played a role very early on in starting this ministry. Does that continue to be the case for the organization?

We believe that all beginnings should be birthed in prayer. In fact, we ask women interested in having Celebration at their church to pray for several months and receive God’s vision before becoming a chapter. We also ask that each chapter keep their church, its leadership, and their pastor in prayer as well as our ministry.

The National Board has developed “Guidelines for Intercessory Prayer.” Praying key scriptures is just one tool we encourage along with prayer for renewal, revival, and unity. We also pray for one another. We want women to expect God to answer their prayers: for the church, this ministry, and their personal needs. Prayer teams that meet regularly and email prayer teams operate between chapter meetings. We also maintain a prayer room at the Texas Annual Conference each year. Bishop Janice Huie wrote to us, “Thank you for the beautiful prayer chapel your team provides during the Texas Annual Conference. Your oasis helps us strengthen ourselves for ministry decisions.”

Has Celebration been limited to the Texas Conference or the UM Church for that matter?

2017 marks eighteen years of service for Celebration Women’s Ministry. In that time we have begun chapters in Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico. Celebration is seeing walls come down when women come together to worship Jesus. In our meetings are women of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds.

This ministry is not limited to the UM Church; we work across denominational lines, because regardless of denominational affiliations, women need Jesus and women need each other. The Celebration chapter in Appomattox, Virginia, is one example.

Our National Board is particularly excited about the adoption of Renew Network’s legislation by the 2016 General Conference that gives denominational approval to women’s ministries like ours. While we have always had official approval from our conference and local churches, we expect this action will have a big effect on the expansion of Celebration in other UM conferences not to mention other vital ministries.

Of course, expansion is meaningless unless the lives of women are being freed to heal from sin, grow in Christ, and become equipped to share what God is doing in their personal lives and the life of the church.

Can you share one of those testimonies?

Over the years, we have received thousands of testimonies of lives that were changed by our ministry. One of our members wrote after a Celebration National Conference: “I was a broken child of God. The conference was such a blessing. The main message couldn’t have been more relevant to what I needed. 2 Timothy 1:7: ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power, love, and self-control.’ I am now, finally, living for God and it feels so great.”

What would be your advice to women who want to begin alternative ministries in their church? 

Prayer should be first; it is essential, as well as working with your pastor and church leaders. If your ministry grows beyond your local church, I also would advise working with your bishop and conference leaders. For those who wish to begin a Celebration chapter, all the principles, steps, and requirements are on our website. We have a leadership team that personally guides new chapters and trains their leaders.

Judy, what are your general thoughts about the UM Church and the state of women’s ministry?

Like Renew and Good News, I realize our church is in a crisis over human sexuality, and I would not want to discount that in any way. But at the same time, I see God moving in a mighty way. For years, many of us have been praying and working for renewal. Much of what happened at General Conference indicates that is happening. I contacted Renew when I heard that the GC had adopted legislation officially recognizing a variety of women’s ministries. I felt this was monumental. We need to move where God is moving. Praise God that is happening. In my mind, another huge indicator is the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA).

Since 2017 marks eighteen years of ministry to women, what will Celebration do to celebrate?

Our celebration begins at our National Conference – the theme is “Covered” – and will continue in our chapter meetings throughout the year. Our theme is taken from Psalms 91:4: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”

We are praying that the Holy Spirit will join us and stir our hearts and minds to heed His word.

If you would like to learn more about Celebration Women’s Ministries or Renew Network, please visit their websites: http://celebrationministries.org and http://renewnetwork.