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Q&A: Women’s commission leader focuses on inclusiveness, parity


Q&A: Women’s commission leader focuses on inclusiveness, parity

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Garlinda Burton
Dec. 17, 2004        

A UMNS Report
By Linda Bloom*

On Jan. 1, M. Garlinda Burton officially becomes chief executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women. She has served in that position on an interim basis since November 2003. Burton is the former editor of Interpreter magazine and was a longtime staff member of United Methodist Communications. United Methodist News Service interviewed her about the commission and its goals.

Q: The Commission on the Status and Role of Women provided monitors for the 2004 General Conference. What were the monitoring results of that event?

A: The commission first monitored General Conference proceedings in 1992, and we were seen by many as a bunch of rabble-rousing interlopers. Twelve years later, the Commission on General Conference invited me to address the entire legislative assembly on issues of gender and racial inclusiveness.

In 2004, we saw more English-speaking delegates speaking up about the needs of non-English-speaking delegates, and several delegates were extremely vocal about what they observed as gender or racial bias. Those were good things and showed real growth. At the same time, I’m still concerned that women from outside the United States did not speak nearly as much as men. I got to know one African clergywoman who confided that she felt pressured to vote with the male leaders in her delegation.

Although I’ve watched General Conferences for nearly 20 years, I noted that white men — many of them treasurers — still make up the majority on the financial administration legislative committee and, therefore, dominate discussions about how the church spends its money. White women and people of color need to question this recurring pattern because the person who controls the purse controls the missional direction of our church. If we are not at the table, our concerns and our input are virtually ignored.

Q: Will monitoring continue to be a priority?

A: Yes. We’re reaching out to several groups in the church and to our commissions on the annual (regional) conference level and will offer training and tools for monitoring such events as annual conference sessions, board of ordained ministry meetings and seminary classes.

The goal of monitoring is to hold up a mirror to the church and say, “This is who we routinely include in decision-making. This is who we routinely exclude. This is who we say we want to be, but this is who we are.” We have “talked” inclusiveness for so long that many in the church think we have reached the goal of true equity just because we use the right words in a resolution to General Conference. In fact, clergywomen across the denomination make less money than their male counterparts. Women who report sexual abuse by a male pastor still have problems getting their complaint heard or addressed in some of our conferences. So we will continue to train monitors and use them at all levels of church life.

Q: What specific changes will we see under your leadership at the commission?

A: We’re going to spend more energy engaging grassroots laywomen and clergywomen, and create ways to communicate directly with them about what advocacy and support the commission offers them. We’re putting more emphasis on pushing resources that churchwomen need in order to network with one another and challenge the church’s still-male-oriented power structure.

As a professional journalist, I want to see the commission listen to and tell the stories of everyday United Methodist women who are working for women’s empowerment. Also, we are going to collaborate with bishops, superintendents and pastors to address issues of clergy sexual misconduct and to make sure that our churches and related agencies are safe and women who place their trust in our church and its leadership are safe from abuse by the people in power. In fact, the Council of Bishop has offered to support us as we distribute a churchwide survey on sexual misconduct in early 2005.

Q: Initially, a proposal was sent to the 2004 General Conference suggesting that the Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the Commission on Religion and Race combine into a council on inclusiveness. That proposal was effectively withdrawn. Are there any other plans for COSROW to work more closely with Religion and Race in the future?

A: At the 2004 General Conference, the women’s commission and Religion and Race worked cooperatively to create the presentation on inclusiveness, which I presented to the delegates. In fact, the General Conference asked us to work together in 2008 — along with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries — to do training for delegates on addressing sexism, racism and international bias.

I think what we’ve learned is that we are two distinct agencies with distinct mandates, but there are creative ways that we can and must work together for the good of the church. And I believe we must work to hold one another accountable.

As an African-American woman, I know that women’s empowerment movements — particularly in the church — have been bastions for white women. At the same time, I’ve been accused of being disloyal to my race because I challenge sexism as expressed in my community, particularly in the traditional black church. For us to remain viable as truth-tellers to the larger church, both commissions need to have some “come to Jesus” meetings about our own “isms.”

Q: What are some of the commission's other priorities?

A: This quadrennium, we hope to find funding for a churchwide conference addressing the needs and concerns of clergy spouses (most of whom are women) and clergy families. General Conference passed our resolution on this issue, and we are committed to helping clergy families — and the congregations the pastors serve — understand the issues confronting today’s clergy family, from housing to the spouse’s career concerns.

Our current system is based on a 1950s, middle-class notion of a male pastor, a stay-at-home-wife and three kids in a parsonage. That’s not the way the world is anymore, but we’re not set up as a denomination to embrace the new clergy family.

We’ll also be stepping up our efforts to examine the intersection between racism and sexism by hearing more from women of color — and women from Africa — who deal with both forms of bias.

Most exciting for me is the chance to work more collaboratively with Jan Love and the Women’s Division of the Board of Global Ministries. We’re both new to our roles, and are talking about ways to bring laywomen and clergywomen together to talk about common concerns. That’s not been done in a long time, which is ironic, since the Women’s Division helped give birth to this commission.

Q: How do you work on an annual conference level?

A: We work mainly through our annual conference counterparts, encouraging them to design programs that address gender bias in the candidacy and ordination process; to ensure that conference leadership includes women and men in various posts; to urge the conference to enforce a solid sexual ethics policy, and train pastors and laypersons to recognize and address sexual abuse issues; to monitor annual conference sessions and the appointment-making processes to make sure women are given equal access and voice; and to find creative ways to engage women of color, younger women, older women and girls in the church’s full mission and ministry
Q: COSROW is mandated to address sexism in the church, but you also speak out on social issues. What concerns you about the current status and role of women?

A: Around the world, women are the primary labor force, yet they have fewer rights and protections — and they make less money than men in comparable situations. In many nations, women and girls walk miles just to get potable water for drinking, cooking, bathing and watering their oxen or horses or crops. In the United States and Africa, AIDS is a leading killer of women, yet funding for research and medicine is a pittance compared to what we spend on war.

It scares me that the church will spend more energy trying to bar people from our sanctuaries, when what I feel is an appalling need for us to throw the doors open and offer open arms and alms and food and medicine and peace to those who are just beaten down by trouble.

Q: Who were the role models who helped prepare you for this job?

A:  For as long as I can remember, my grandmother, mother, aunts and female cousins worked in the church. They did everything from helping pastors serve communion to offering food to a bereaved family after a funeral to rocking and fanning babies on hot summer nights when community organizers gathered us in to mobilize church folks as civil rights marchers.

We stuck with the Methodist Church through segregation and upheaval, because we believe that God has called this church to help transform this world. I guess I still believe that, even when I’m totally frustrated with the church bureaucracy and our squabbles and missteps. I believe we have a calling to leave this world better than when we came here.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or



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