Imagine you were leading a membership-based organization facing such declines as losing nearly two-thirds of its membership in 40 years, or over one-third of its membership in only the last measured decade.
Then it would seem like a no-brainer to face the fact that the way the organization has been run has not been working very well, and that a major, dramatic course-correction is needed.
But this is precisely the situation in which the national organization of United Methodist Women (UMW) finds itself.
Excuses along the lines of “yes, but the entire denomination is declining” cannot stand up to scrutiny, particularly in light of the fact that in recent years, UMW has been losing members at a rate three times faster than the decline of the United Methodist Church overall in the United States. (Women’s ministries in United Methodism’s overseas central conferences are separately organized, apart from UMW.)
Over the years, IRD/UMAction and our sisters in the Renew Network have offered exposés on how the New York headquarters has used its millions of dollars raised at UMW bake sales and other fundraisers at often unsuspecting local congregations to support—along with some good community services—partisan, far-left political agendas, including ones rather directly contrary to traditional Christian values. We have periodically reported on specific instances such activities of the UMW headquarters, and some years ago jointly produced a major report detailing UMW’s promotion of really out-there radical feminist theologies, defending elective abortion on demand (in opposition to the UMC’s official Social Principles), reflexively demonizing the U.S. military, partisan political lobbying, and yes, mobilizing opposition to historic, biblical Christian teaching against homosexual practice.
It is important to make a distinction between the national New York headquarters of UMW and the grassroots UMW chapters in United Methodist congregations across the USA. Many folk in the latter remain unaware of the above-noted problems with the former.
But as more women in our churches have learned the truth, we should not be surprised at how a growing majority of women members of our churches are not interested in being part of UMW. As the national UMW leadership has insisted on representing its constituency as a narrow ideological monolith, they have made UMW increasingly unappealing to the not-always-overlapping groups of: United Methodist ladies who are evangelical in their theology, those who are not in lockstep loyalty to the Left wing of the Democratic Party, and those who may be of any theological or political persuasion and yet prefer women’s ministries with a greater focus on growing in biblical faith and less zeal for fighting divisive political battles.
One area in which the national headquarters especially appears to have been influenced more by Western secular culture than the timeless values of Scripture is in UMW’s ongoing embrace of the sexual revolution.
The UMC’s official teachings on sexual morality are the same as almost every Christian church around the world: we are committed to the biblical standard that marriage is a holy covenant between one man and one woman and that all sexual relations outside of this boundary are inherently sinful, and we are committed to loving and being in ministry with all people, including self-identified members of the LGBTQ community.
But UMW has repeatedly agitated against this basic Christian ethic of sexual self-control. (Seriously, if anyone can document a single example of national UMW clearly defending our denomination’s biblical, counter-cultural teachings in this area, please let us know in the comments!)
This was continued through the days of preparing for our denomination’s 2016 General Conference.
As often seen with other advocates of liberalizing church teaching on homosexuality, UMW’s long-term goals for transforming the church’s morals do not stop there. In 2015, it gave money to a local community center for the designated purpose of “support[ing] facilitator training and curriculum materials for Our Whole Lives sex education program for pastors and other faith leaders in Mississippi.” The “Our Whole Lives” curriculum for “comprehensive sexuality education” is not based on traditional Christian values but rather was jointly produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association (an emphatically non-Christian religion) and the United Church of Christ based the two non-Methodist groups’ “shared progressive values on human sexuality.”
Among the individuals UMW arranged ahead of time to have consecrated as deaconesses last May were Robin Ridenour of the California-Nevada Conference and Helen Ryde in Chicago. The facts that Ms. Ridenour is openly legally “married” to lesbian activist Karen Oliveto (who the Western Jurisdiction is now attempting to establish as a protest-stunt “bishop”) and that Ms. Ryde is also openly partnered in a lesbian relationship were no barrier by UMW to elevating them to such a status of moral example and spiritual leadership. And the specific work for which UMW commissioned Ryde as a deaconess is as a paid staffer of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), the main caucus seeking church blessing of homosexual practice. RMN also has a track record of endorsing other forms of sex outside of marriage, and its scorched-earth, any-means-necessary tactics have alienated even moderate liberals.
This marks the second time in the last several years in which UMW has commissioned an RMN employee as a deaconess.
A particularly disturbing aspect of UMW’s embrace of the sexual revolution has been its completely unbalanced defense of the violence of abortion and callously dismissive treatment of the value of unborn children.
UMW has for decades been an enthusiastic supporter of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), which strongly opposes any legal restriction on or even moral opposition to any abortion. RCRC has over the years repeatedly opposed the UMC’s traditional Christian sexual ethics, from RCRC’s decrying “attempt[s] to stigmatize premarital sex as immoral and shameful” to RCRC’s Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom (SYRF) publishing an article claiming, “All consensual sex is good, even when it is simply a pleasure shared between friends.” I have seen no evidence of UMW ever attempting to use its position as an RCRC member organization to restrain RCRC on such areas of opposition to traditional Christian, United Methodist values.
To this last General Conference, UMW submitted a major petition to extensively rewrite a lengthy United Methodist resolution on family planning. UMW could have chosen to limit itself to non-controversial support for birth control, or at least sought to re-adopt this resolution without seeking any divisive changes. But instead UMW chose to propose a very ambitious, major rewrite of this “Responsible Parenthood” resolution that would have overall increased its strong support for abortions (except for sex-selective abortions) and abortifacients, while sloppily misrepresenting Scripture as supportive of their perspective.
But thankfully, UMW’s agenda on such matters did NOT fare well at General Conference
On sexual morality, this was observed to be the most orthodox General Conference ever. It marked the second General Conference in a row in which liberals gave up on even seeking a vote on their foremost cause of removing church prohibitions on same-sex union ceremonies.
On abortion, we made United Methodist history by voting by large majorities to sever our denomination’s affiliation with RCRC as well as to effectively reject both the 40-year-old abortion-affirming “Responsible Parenthood” resolution and the new language UMW wanted to add to it. UMW also failed in its attempt to get this General Conference to re-adopt an anti-Catholic resolution hysterically decrying the alleged “crisis” of some hospitals not performing elective abortions.
And this was perhaps the first General Conference in modern times to explicitly affirm the permissibility and value of women’s ministries in our congregations other than those affiliated with United Methodist Women – something UMW has long opposed.
You would think that such an overwhelming rejection by our denomination of these key parts of its agenda, along with the above-noted membership decline, would prompt some serious introspection among UMW leaders about how they have needlessly alienated so many of the women of our church.
But I have seen no signs of that since last May’s General Conference.
Everything I have seen from the national UMW leadership suggests a commitment to doubling down on embracing secular American culture’s sexual revolution, no matter how many more women they continue to drive away.
Rather than simply comply with the General Conference directive to withdraw their membership in RCRC, UMW’s CEO Harriet Olson, along with the CEO of the UMC’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS), released a somewhat bizarre “open letter” to RCRC in which they praised the organization’s work and focused on seemingly apologizing to RCRC supporters for being forced to end their RCRC affiliation, without making any attempt to represent the concerns of or offer any clear olive branch to the vast majority of United Methodists who do not support RCRC.
This summer, UMW hosted a “Mission U” gathering, which among other things promoted a study guide, The Bible and Human Sexuality: Claiming God’s Good Gift by Helen Brubaker. As the Renew Network’s Team Leader Katy Kiser, who was there, reports, this UMW-led session not only continued UMW’s ongoing challenge to church disapproval of homosexual practice, but more broadly challenged the authority of Scripture while promoting, as Kiser summarized, “a sexual ethic that would eliminate any scriptural boundaries on sexual practice other than consent and safety.”
One of national UMW’s most recent new causes is making a public fuss about their opposition to North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” (HB2), in the name of transgender rights. This law’s most well-known measures are designed to prevent anatomically male adults from entering multi-use public showers, changing rooms, locker rooms, or bathrooms designated for women. There are many basic reasons why women who have been victims of sexual assault would be uncomfortable being forced to share such spaces with unclothed men, as one rape survivor explains here, that reasonable people should be able to acknowledge without demonizing or withholding compassion from this comparatively tiny segment of the population who identifies as transgender. UMW dismissing concerns about vulnerable women and children, in a way that seems driven more than secular ideologies and partisan political loyalties than anything else, is an odd approach for a group of church ladies.
But it is a representative example of why fewer and fewer church ladies in my denomination are interested in letting UMW count on them for membership or undesignated “mission giving” to be spent on such causes.
I would encourage anyone leading and/or starting women’s ministries in any United Methodist congregation to consider if the Renew Network, with its avoidance of partisan politicking, its focus on Seeking, Sharing, and Serving Christ, and its vision (that you can read here) is more in line with the values in which they seek to ground their ministry.
If so, Renew offers coaching in how to best set up vibrant women’s ministries in your congregations and recommendations for some of the best study resources that are biblically faithful and grounded in evangelical Wesleyan theology.
You can learn more about Renew on its website: www.renewnetwork.org/