Leadership is a matter of opportunity as well as gifts and experience. In writing this piece, I realized several things. One is how much change there has been in some of these places, quickly followed by the realization that we have a long way yet to go. Another was to see how the doors were held open by others, and how each opportunity built on the last. The church made a way for me to contribute my own voice and prepared me to feel as if I belonged at the table, even if gender barriers arose in the process. I didn’t follow any “normal” path, but I’m very grateful for the journey.
My earliest experience as a leader in church was probably being asked to serve as the youth representative to the Administrative Board in my local church in Oaklyn, New Jersey. I don’t have a clear recollection of anything earthshaking that I brought to the Board, but it was an introduction into how the congregation was organized, how the members related, and how important it was for the pastor and leaders of the various committees to receive both feedback and support for the work. It was very clear that the lay members were deeply invested in the life of the church, as was the pastor, and that their roles were different.
I brought that understanding with me when I returned to New Jersey after graduation and started practicing law in Morristown. There I joined The United Methodist Church on the Green where I still hold my membership. Because I was reading and having various conversations about women, our image of ourselves and the range of biblical images of God, our associate pastor suggested I get involved with the Conference Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Rev. Shirley Oskamp is the first clergywoman I knew personally, and the blessing of having a woman pastor and learning even a little about her journey shaped my own. Serving on COSROW was not only a chance for me to learn and see the workings of the Annual Conference for the first time when I served as a monitor, but it also opened up another step in my spiritual journey as I studied and then taught using the resource “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal” that had been jointly produced by GCOSROW and the Women’s Division. It seems to me that my own journey has always been enhanced by the positions in which I was able to serve. I remember testifying before a Bar Association Committee on women and minorities in the profession, that although the church had not erased the impact of sexism or racism, at least we had strategies that were designed to create change, addressing membership on committees and opportunities for leadership experience. I might have been overly optimistic about the impact of those strategies, but the point remains that my spiritual life and my professional life and the way I was seeing the world were all profoundly impacted by the places I served.
The Conference staff person working with COSROW was Grace Risley, a Christian educator. Out of the blue, Grace called me to ask if I would be willing to let her put my name out for nomination to General Conference. When I asked what that would require, she assured me that I was unlikely to be elected, but that it was important to get my name in the mix. As it turned out, the unlikely happened and I was privileged to be able to represent the Conference to General Conference in 1988, 1992 and 1996. I don’t know if Grace was surprised, but I certainly was! Only later did I learn that Grace had not only nominated me, but she also supported me, recommending that others in the Conference meet me as the voting was going on. What I learned from this is how important it is to be looking out for people—young people, women, people of color—who can be supported for positions, even if they haven’t come up through the ranks, and what a great impact current leaders can make beyond their role or job description.
I also saw the importance the leadership of lay women as I served on various Conference committees and through the Morristown United Methodist Women. We have perspective and expertise from our experiences that is important to good decision-making, and we are sometimes willing to take up issues or to speak about issues that some of our male colleagues and our clergy brothers and sisters may not see or may find harder to address. It is important that we not be put off by the technical complexity or the history of an issue, but that we are in positions in which we can bring our gifts into the mix.
I am so grateful to have served on the Discipleship Legislative Committee at the 1988 General Conference that considered the “new” hymnal, and to have been a member of the board of directors of the General Board of Discipleship for 8 years. Here too, I learned so much, including about the Baptism study and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Bishop Woodie White asked me to chair a new budget subcommittee there and that took me in a new direction—learning more about the finances and the financial processes of the Church. I’m sure that I was not the most business savvy member of the Board, so this is a role I assumed with a fair amount of trepidation. I will be everlastingly grateful to Mr. Ike Brown, the Board’s treasurer, for his patient tutelage. This gave me an opportunity to work in an area in which I depended on the expertise of others and to realize that I still had things to contribute.
That stood me in good stead for a huge transition in my life. In 1996, I became the editorial director of The United Methodist Publishing House. The hope was that my experience in the various aspects of the Church would strengthen our ability to serve the church—I hope it did. I know I was part of a great community of experts, each of whom was integral to bringing materials to publication. The role also included the titles Editor for Church School Publications and Book Editor. The Book Editor has particular responsibility for the production of the Book of Discipline, and I was the first woman to serve in that role. We did not say much about that, or about the efforts that Publisher Neil Alexander was making to diversify the leadership, but I thought about it. While some of the very male dominated aspects of the publishing world reminded me that there was need for much more progress in work on gender, I did not find this to be a significant issue for the formal work of the Book Editor.
This was another role for me in which God seemed to be bringing disparate things together, even though I had not sought it or planned it. While it was a big decision to give up being a partner at my law firm (and I’m sure it felt like a risk for Neil and the team as well), I grew immensely from working with my colleagues, the chance to learn more about curriculum and Christian Education, and the chance to hear papers and lectures by authors and potential authors. I especially loved the chances to use my high school Spanish and love of music to connect with those parts of our publishing work.
Coming to the Women’s Division (now United Methodist Women) also was a big change. It was yet again a different kind of work, I was again taking up a role without coming up through the ranks, and I was sure that both mistakes and some new thinking would be part of the experience. Again, I found great colleagues, some of whom are still here, and some of whom are not. I want to mention the late Lois Dauway, in particular, who served as interim during the search to fill the position and who informed, supported and challenged me as appropriate once I arrived. I have also been supported by our board and elected leaders through things they request, questions they ask, and things they affirm. It is true here as it is everywhere that appropriate risk-taking is important, change is both essential and challenging, and that God is calling us to faithful action. As women shaped by grace in a Wesleyan way, we recommit over and over again to express God’s love for women, children and youth around the world through both service and advocacy for justice. As a leader among leaders, I am constantly growing, learning and listening to God and others. I hope that I’m also on the lookout for ways to open doors for other women for the good of the whole church and the world that God so loves.
Harriett Jane Olson serves as General Secretary and chief executive officer of United Methodist Women’s national office. She joined the staff of the then Women’s Division in 2007. Her lifelong passion is supporting spiritual growth that equips and impels people to works of mercy and works of justice.
From 1996-2007, Ms. Olson was senior vice-president for publishing, editor for church school publications and United Methodist Church book editor at the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, TN. Her responsibilities included supervision of book, curriculum and music publishing as well as the production of the Book of Discipline. A Harvard Law School graduate, Ms. Olson practiced real estate and environmental law in New Jersey from 1983-96, before working for the church full-time.
Ms. Olson has a bachelor's degree from Houghton College in Houghton, N.Y., where she serves on the board of trustees.