The first call to action came in 1869, when eight women of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston raised money to send two female missionaries to address health care and educational needs in India.
Nearly 150 years later, the mandate for United Methodist Women — the successor of the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society — to care for women, children and youth hasn’t changed much.
But it’s the faith aspect, especially today, that sets its membership apart from other advocacy groups, UMW leaders say.
A strategic plan adopted in 2016 and currently being implemented focuses on deepening faith, strengthening skills, expanding partnerships and setting a context for mission that reflects “the values we claim,” said Harriett Olson, UMW’s chief executive officer.
At the same time, the organization is taking a look at how it functions, offering more flexibility on the local level and streamlining operations. In July, UMW announced it would be reducing the size of its national staff through a voluntary severance package. In total, UMW has around 80 staff members.
During an Oct. 5-7 meeting in New York, UMW’s board of directors will receive updates on the implementation of the strategic plan and staffing. The board will also look at finances and expense reduction.
Olson believes the organization has remained relevant to its members and to the denomination even as it changes. “The call, the need and the desire to make a difference in the world is just so clear, so compelling,” she told United Methodist News Service.
It’s a process that has been evolving since UMW’s administrative body, then known as the Women’s Division, separated from the Board of Global Ministries after a vote at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference.
UMW Board President Shannon Priddy, Indiana Conference, said her experience in the Peace Corps taught her that change is required in order to meet the needs of a global nonprofit. “What this strategic plan affords is … the ability to stand as a leader that other organizations can use for resources and can go to for advocacy and allies.”
Part of the motivation for the new strategic plan, said Andris Salter, UMW’s operation officer, was to determine how to best serve the women of the organization — both the longtime members who “know the bylaws and the handbook by heart” and newer members drawn to opportunities for advocacy and connection.
UMW counts about 800,000 women as members, but estimates that still leaves more than 3 million more women in The United Methodist Church who could be reached.
The national organization, Salter noted, wants to help local units recruit new members and also learn how to “utilize gifts and graces” in a new way. “We’re trying to be much more flexible than we have in some of our past structures,” she added.
Older members play a key role in teaching the next generation, Priddy pointed out. “They have their knowledge. They want to pass it on,” she said. Many UMW members have done powerful things, she added, and young people need to hear about it.
However, other trends affecting United Methodist Women are “not so dissimilar from the UMC as a whole — declines in giving, declines in participation,” said Olson.
The UMW construction zone
In her October 2017 address to UMW’s board of directors, Harriett Jane Olson compared the national office renovations — for the first time in 50 years — then underway at The Interchurch Center in New York to changes happening within the organization itself.
"There is packing and sorting and things moved offsite to make room," the UMW chief executive officer said. "There's also dreaming about how the space will be used to serve members, the church and the women, children and youth that are the heart of United Methodist Women's mission.”
The strategic plan is likewise building membership, promoting UMW’s identity, strengthening relationships with partners and advancing work on the mission priorities.
Current mission priorities are climate justice, economic inequality, maternal and child health and mass incarceration and the criminalization of communities of color.
Traditionally, funding for the organization has come from the membership itself and current mission giving remains the biggest single category of income. Other funding sources include endowments and designated money from members, proceeds from investments and, to a smaller extent, the sale of publications.
The July press release noted that reductions in operating expenses and staff will allow UMW “to direct funds to implement its new strategic plan and effectively continue its mission outreach.”
Next year’s budget will be based on the number of staff reduced, on other expenses and on “projections of income from all sources,” Olson told UMNS. The organization intends to maintain its newly renovated offices on the 15th floor of the Interchurch Center in New York.
Reconfiguring the national staff is part of implementing the strategic plan, Salter said.
A design team looked at “what we needed to look like and how we needed to do our work,” she explained, while an assessment team evaluated the organization’s work over a period of weeks and pointed to what seemed to be making an impact; what work seemed past its time and what needed to be modified.
The organization is positioning its brand as a leader in education, spiritual growth and immediate social action, Priddy said. “Now we just have to toot our own horn. Our reach is there. Our reach is in every church. Our reach is in the very community where women live.”
Priddy believes the organization “turned a corner” at the United Methodist Women Assembly 2018 in May. Women left the conference having created individual action plans “that they felt they could accomplish,” demonstrating how the strategic plan is moving forward.
“We’re more empowering now than ever before and being explicit about it, saying, ‘Go for it, you have the power,’” she said.
Such confidence extended beyond experienced members. Salter’s 14-year-old niece, attending her first assembly, also left with an action plan.
“Lizzie was so excited when she went back to her church,” she recalled, adding that her niece has since become a mission coordinator for her congregation and took part in a march calling for a living wage.
Salter, who has more than 30 years of experience with UMW, thinks the May 2018 assembly was the best yet in helping members focus on key issues. Now, she pointed out, they need to learn how to tell the UMW story as they build connections across the church.
“I continue to hear women say United Methodist Women is the best-kept secret,” she said. “I don’t want it to be a secret anymore.”
Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York.
Originally published by UMNews on Sept. 5, 2018.