“But then we will see face-to-face” . . . and be empowered!

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HiRho Park, Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference

In spite of the overwhelming success of the 2006 United Methodist Clergywomen Consultation celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of full clergy rights for women in the Methodist tradition, the need for an in-depth, regional level of discussions about contextual issues related to clergywomen and substantial participation of central conference representatives had been identified. To respond to those needs, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry proposed to hold regional clergywomen’s consultations and global clergywomen’s consultations by taking a turn every quadrennium. As a result, GBHEM sponsored seven regional clergywomen’s consultations during the last quadrennium, 2009–2012. The regions that held these consultations were Africa, the Philippines, Europe/Eurasia and the Northeastern, Southwestern, South Central, and Western jurisdictions in the United States. (The North Central Jurisdiction decided not to hold the consultation based on the results of their survey.)

These regional consultations have empowered grassroots clergywomen’s leadership, provided a sense of responsibility and ownership of consultations, increased accountability, allowed more clergywomen to participate, and reduced the expenses of the church, compared to having one big event every four years in North America since 1975, which was initiated by the General Commission on Status and Role of Women, then GBHEM cosponsored since 1979. GBHEM took sole responsibility of consultations in 1987.

Africa and the Philippines had their historical gatherings because of holding regional consultations; the African UM Clergywomen’s Consultation brought about 350 African clergywomen, and more than 260 clergywomen came together in the Philippines. Just these two consultations have proven to the church that GBHEM was directing the church in a right direction with clergywomen’s consultations, especially under the shrinking budget. With $135,000, which is about one-third of the expenses of GBHEM in 2006, we were able to reach out to about 1,600 clergywomen throughout a worldwide church. The 2006 consultation brought only 25 Central Conference representatives.

The key component of the regional consultations was the spirit of collaboration among different levels of the UMC by using the connectional system. Not only women bishops but also male bishops with their respective episcopal areas were involved, and they supported the efforts of clergywomen by providing extra funding and human resources. Seminaries, such as the Candler Theological Seminary in the Southeastern Jurisdiction and the Africa University in Africa, sponsored leadership development programs and provided continuing education credits and locations for the consultations. General agencies, such as the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, the General Board of Discipleship, the General Board of Global Ministries, and the General Commission on Religion and Race, supported these consultations in various ways.

Another focus of the regional consultations, especially in the United States, was to integrate racial-ethnic clergywomen through a roundtable forum. One of the concerns during the 2006 consultation was the lack of participation of US racial-ethnic clergywomen. Even though GBHEM responded to this concern by providing the first Racial-Ethnic UM Clergywomen’s Consultation in the United States in 2008, the goal of a global church is to build a meaningful relationship among all clergywomen; therefore, US regional consultations intentionally formed round tables where conversations on inclusiveness could occur. As a result there were comments such as “The diversity has been refreshing and reaffirming” and “Inclusiveness plenary was powerful.”

The planning of these consultations has been done very intentionally between GBHEM and design teams with inclusiveness in mind, to include elders, deacons, local pastors, young clergywomen, retired clergywomen, and racial-ethnic clergywomen. Especially, these regional consultations provided leadership development continuing education programs and opportunities to discern future women episcopal leaders within each region.

Now, many people ask questions such as, “Is physical gathering of clergywomen necessary? Is this the best way to invest in leadership development?”

Based on evaluations from these seven consultations, the biggest benefit of having a face-to-face event was the opportunity that was given to clergywomen to build relationships, to network, to provide mutual support, and to worship together beyond racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds; European clergywomen gathered from nine different countries, African clergywomen from several countries in East and Central Africa, and Filipino clergywomen from all three Episcopal areas in the Philippines. African clergywomen commented, “Clergywomen in Congo are planning to have a consultation next year because this was so inspiring” and “The consultation lifted us spiritually and edified us.”

It is always difficult to come up with tangible results of physical events other than what participants expressed in their evaluations and the numbers. If that is the case, I want to share an example of the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) to demonstrate the effectiveness of their event: the SCJ had about 225 clergywomen participate in their event, and 79 evaluation forms were turned in:

  • 79 respondents said that they became more aware of issues and concerns specifically relating to ethnic minority clergywomen
  • 78 respondents agreed to the importance of discussing the election of female bishops
  • 77 respondents agreed on the relevancy of the event to their ministries
  • 76 respondents mentioned that they had strengthened relationships through sharing/learning about women’s stories of leadership in the UMC
  • 76 respondents praised the opportunity for intergenerational networking
  • 74 respondents said, “My awareness of clergywomen’s issues within the jurisdiction was enhanced.”
  • 71 respondents applauded the opportunity for interethnic networking
  • 70 clergywomen indicated that their leadership has been improved because of the consultation

GBHEM also asked the participants, “What would you suggest to GBHEM for further assistance?” Consistently, clergywomen all around the world expressed their yearning to have a future face-to-face event with further financial assistance from the church. Clergywomen expressed that GBHEM could have provided funds for a startup conversation for design teams; most design teams planned their event only by conference calls to reduce the cost. One evaluation from a design team said, “Our hardest part was getting past not knowing one another, so that we could truly create an event out of “thin air.”

That UM clergywomen have been physically and spiritually renewed through plenaries, workshops, worship, fellowship, leadership training, and networking was evident in their evaluations. A few clergywomen mentioned that we need more advocacy and support from annual conferences for clergywomen’s leadership development opportunities.

When we consider increasing the use of web conferencing tools, emphasis on a global connection as a worldwide church, and higher costs of event planning, I understand suspicion of the need for a physical gathering. My question is, “What would be our alternative to continue developing and supporting leadership of women in the church in this downward economy?” I do not think that GBHEM can respond to this question alone, but we as a church should be more creative and innovative by utilizing our connectional system to support marginal communities within the church, such as clergywomen’s communities.

There are some things that we will never grasp without being in a holy space and standing on holy ground where a cloud of great women leaders of The United Methodist Church witness their triumphant journey of fulfilling their call to ministry. Exchanging of smiles and acknowledging one another’s presence complete what we know and have heard about in part about each other, as the Bible reminds us about life in God, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face-to-face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Though this scripture happened to be the theme verse for the last edition of Wellsprings, its truth is no less applicable at this time and for this issue. Knowledge is power, and the more we know about and learn from one another—from face-to-face gatherings as well as historical means—the more empowered we will be as women in ministry.

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Editorial Circle
2014