In February as I was flying to a General Conference delegate orientation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I finally had the opportunity to watch the Academy Award-winning picture for 2016, Spotlight. This movie was not life imitating art, it was art documenting life.
Spotlight illuminates the darkness of decades of sexual abuse and misconduct by those in a pastoral relationship that was hidden, tolerated and, in some cases, justified by administrative oversight by the Church. The truth came into view because of the courageous and vigilant team of investigators, writers, reporters, editors, and publishers who spoke truth in the face of adversity, destroyed evidence, damaged sources and personal pain. The movie is an essay on the potential harm of power. The distribution of power and the misuse of power are the basis of our ministry at the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
As an attorney and former judge, I was taught the Socratic Method, a system of asking a series of questions to test the logic and facts of a premise. I’ve been using this method to evaluate the proposed administrative structural revision coming before the General Conference called Plan UMC Revised. This legislation, divided among various legislative committees, calls for honest questions and responses.
The original version of Plan UMC, declared unconstitutional and unsalvageable at 2012’s General Conference, was touted by its authors as useful and streamlining for The UMC by reducing the size of boards and agencies, strengthening accountability systems and forcing agencies to cooperate with one another.
Here are some questions for examination:
- Why Plan UMC revised?
- Why now?
- Why is a portion of the plan directly aimed at the ministries of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW), the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR), and the General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH)*?
- Why are these critical ministries that shine the “spotlight” on sexism, racism, and the injustices of our past which we must not repeat, the least funded and staffed in the Church?
- What are the objectives, both spoken and unspoken?
- What are the effects, both directly and collaterally?
I have been a delegate to General Conference for the last two quadrennia. During those conferences, I sat as a lay delegate who worked as a volunteer in the local church, in my annual conference, in my jurisdiction and in the general church. Over these past twelve years, I have read all of the reports and heard all of the criticisms of agencies, bishops, leadership, annual conferences, right down to the blame pointed at the everyday members of the church in the pews. I have also been disheartened to observe people choosing to misrepresent facts, events, conversations and information in order to seek to “win” a particular position. That is absolutely unconscionable.
As I head into this General Conference, I am seeing the Church in a different, but similar light. I will sit in Portland as a lay delegate with concern and voice for my home conference, as well as one who serves The UMC as a General Secretary. I have learned much in these nearly four years and the following is what I have found. Almost every agency has reduced its board by significant numbers since 2012. The agencies of The United Methodist Church do not operate in silos. Within the first year of my becoming General Secretary, every agency that does work on some form of “women’s issues” met in Chicago at GCSRW’s request to review programming to assure that there was no overlap and to identify any gaps where trainings would be helpful and if they might be undertaken collaboratively.
This is how we started the 2012 quadrennium and continued to frame our work of supporting women in leadership and challenging the Church to the full inclusion of women, turning our “spotlight” on the inequities that we find.
During this quadrennium, we discovered the following:
- that an annual conference denied ordination to an approved candidate because she was a woman;
- that an annual conference board of ministry required female candidates to have vaginal exams, with no like exam being required of male candidates;
- that minimum salaries in one sample annual conference reflected a 2:1 ratio of women to men, even eight years out;
- that women make up 58% of the membership of The UMC in the United States (this figure is not known worldwide), but only 36% of the delegates to General Conference and only 33% of the reported leadership positions across the church;
- that even at the highest levels of leadership in the Church, women are subjected to more rigorous standards than men.
Each of these are documented facts.
The second prong of our work at GCSRW more closely aligns not with the resistance to sharing power, but with the actual abuse of power itself.
GCSRW is one of the smaller agencies. We are a staff of six people in Chicago, Illinois, with our offices in the First United Methodist Church of Chicago. Our budget is one of the smallest across the church, and yet, we offer the only website and phone line staffed by one person (because that is all that our budget will allow) made available to provide comfort, care, support and guidance to victims of clergy sexual misconduct, to bishops seeking to offer appropriate process, and to district superintendents on the front line.
The lessons of Spotlight have not been lost on The UMC through the ministry of the GCSRW, but how this ministry will continue is not addressed under the current version of Plan UMC Revised. One thing that is clear: the independence of GCSRW that is crucial in speaking truth to power, even to bishops who violate the sacred trust, is removed.
In 2012, I was one of the delegates who voted for Plan UMC that was found unconstitutional. But my vote was based on false information that continues to this day. GCSRW is not a party to this revised legislation. We have not been consulted in any way.
So, let’s go back to the questions:
- What is GCSRW doing that requires accountability? As an agency that sets its goal to do as much as we can with the resources that are available, that takes all possible steps to avoid duplicity, whose 19-member board chooses to stay two-to-a room at board meetings and hold meetings in churches in the United States to save expenses, that has passed all audits, that has served annual conferences in every jurisdiction in the US and across the Central Conferences (within our capacity), and continues to provide the only advocacy to victims, we have no answer.
- Why Plan UMC Revised and why now? We cannot answer this question because we have not been privileged to the motives, the reasoning, the rationale, the intended outcomes, the mechanisms for the plan, or even how the transition of our ministry to a non-program entity would occur. No one has consulted us.
- What would The UMC lose? That’s easy. The “spotlight” would be turned off.
I am reminded of a simple song that I learned at church. Sing it with me…
“This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine…..
Hide it under a bushel?…… yes….”
….and Jesus wept.
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.