Managing $22,000,000,000 (yes, that’s billion) for the financial security of our dedicated UMC clergy and lay staff, organizing laywomen across the world for focused missions, building bridges across racial divides, and helping lead the #MeToo charge across the Church: these are just a few of the tasks assigned to women in leadership roles in The United Methodist Church. What do they have in common? These tasks are carried out by female professionals who answered the call to ministry, but not ordained ministry. This month we have celebrated Women’s History Month by focusing on laywomen leaders in The United Methodist Church. We include in that group the laywomen who serve as General Secretaries. They lead from the boardroom….and from the pew.
“Are you on the Administrative Council?” It was an innocent question posed by Reverends Libba and Judd Stinson, my pastors at First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, Alabama, thirty years ago.
“No,” was my eye-rolling reply.
“Why not?” was their snarky retort.
That is the moment in time when my path as a laywoman on the journey to serving as General Secretary for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, one of the thirteen General Agencies of The United Methodist Church, began.
I grew up in another denomination with my mother playing piano, and my father leading the singing (the choir tended to be an impromptu chorus with everyone who could/would sing walking up to the choir loft for the musical selection). I learned to hear and sing harmony, witnessed lives of service, and grew to feel responsible for the operations of the church. That setting is where I first realized that church did not magically happen. Church was a community of laypersons, women and men, who maintained the building, visited and prepared meals for the sick, nurtured the children and youth, educated the young and old, and maintained the loving ministry of Christ as pastors came and went. A life of service was not taught to me. It was modeled for me.
When I was a young college student, Rev. Dr. Ed Hardin, the pastor of The First United Methodist Church of my hometown (Brewton, Alabama), stopped by my parents’ Western Auto store where I was working and hired me to sing alto in the choir for the summer. My summer job ended, but my tenure in The United Methodist Church began. I still remember talking to Dr. Ed, telling him that I did not know what I was going to major in or what I was going to do with my life. I can still hear him saying, “Dawn, where the needs of God’s people intersect with your gifts and talents, that is where you are supposed to be at that moment.” I know that quote did not originate with Dr. Ed, but I like give him credit for it anyway.
My husband Chip and I married in that same church in 1987, with Bishop Lawson Bryan officiating (obviously during his “pre-bishop” days). Chip and I settled in Monroeville, Alabama, (his hometown) where I once again found my community in singing, playing hand bells, teaching Sunday School, and directing children’s and adult theater productions at First United Methodist Church of Monroeville. In retrospect, I probably over-volunteered, but I both enjoyed serving and I knew church did not magically happen. We had two sons, Nicholas and Eli, and having them grow to be loved by a church family, to have a solid foundation, to learn to serve, and to know the church was their home, was a driving force in my endless volunteerism. Our family was rocking along just fine when the inquiry noted above was made to me by Libba and Judd, our clergy couple co-pastors. (On second thought, maybe it was not so innocent.) Which brings me to my second point. Clergy are in perhaps the best place to see the members of the congregation, to assess the gifts of the laity, and to coach them into service where their gifts fit. The key is to find the perfect match of respecting and honoring the talents that a person brings and finding how those fit naturally into the needs of the church, the community, and the congregation. (You will notice that I never volunteered to chair the stewardship committee. I REALLY hate asking for money, which in my current position proves God has a sense of humor.)
While I was being coerced by my pastors, little did I know that another female lawyer in town, who happened to have a famous sister, who was our annual conference delegate, and who had been the first woman to lead the Alabama West-Florida annual conference delegation to two General Conferences, had her eye on me. I did not stand a chance. Miss Alice Lee became my friend, my mentor, and my example. She taught me to love the workings of the church. She put faces to stories of gender inequality and racial injustice. She filled me in on behind-the-scenes church policies and politics as I sat in her law office with my annual conference brochures. When I was elected as a reserve delegate to Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in 2004, and two women were elected to serve as bishops, one of Alice’s dear friends (and Alabama-West Flordia UMM chair) insisted that I call her right away. Alice was practically deaf, and I had to call her law partner who went to her home to announce the news. When I was elected as a General Conference delegate in 2008, I sat in Alice’s office again and we walked page-by-page through each piece of legislation. At the close of each day of General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas, I would email another of Alice’s partners with the events of the day. Her partner would print and read my emails to her, and email me back her thoughts. It was magical. Alice’s love of The United Methodist Church at all levels from service in the local church to service at General Conference was contagious. Which brings me to my next point. Lay leaders must mentor future lay leaders.
While some folks live double lives, mine has been a parallel life. Lawyer, assistant district attorney, judge on one hand. Sunday school teacher, choir member, Staff-Parish Chair, Lay leader, annual conference delegate, general conference delegate, on the other. [To this day I have two resumes…the legal one and the church one.] The common thread-- love of family, love of community, love of Christ, and love of the church. In 2012 I was faced with questions about my future life’s work. The change in my career path occurred coincidentally on the first day of General Conference in Tampa. A couple of months later, an ad appeared announcing an opening for the General Secretary of The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Graduate degree—check. Knowledge of women’s issues—check. Knowledge of employment issues—check. Knowledge of The United Methodist Church and The Book of Discipline—check. Located in Chicago---uh, oh...
This southern girl did not own a winter coat. What did I do? I called Reverends Libba and Judd Stinson.
“Are you applying for the position?” …..”Well, why not?” I could feel the eye-roll through the phone.
I am reminded of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. I believe that the talents for which we have responsibility are both the gifts we have within ourselves and those that we see in others within our circles of influence and encouragement. Many are the gifts, the talents, the passions, and the life-giving ministries of our laywomen. As I have traveled around the world and across the connection, I am continually amazed at the humble, brilliant souls serving, and those longing to serve. Sometimes all these laywomen need is to be encouraged. Perhaps failing to ask a laywoman to serve in a capacity where her gifts and talents can shine is analogous to burying our talents, for she is part of us, a part of that with which we, the church, have been entrusted. Let us use all of our talents, especially through nurturing and encouraging those gifts we see in others.
And if we are met with any resistance, all of us should be prepared to roll our eyes and ask, “Well, why not?”
Dawn Wiggins Hare is the General Secretary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women of The United Methodist Church. Dawn has love for music, musical theater, children’s ministry and a passion for justice.