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Church women’s forum brings basic differences to surface

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A UMNS photo by Sarah Alsgaard

People gathered for the forum sing “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” before the dialogue begins.
Sept. 22, 2005

By Erik Alsgaard*

WASHINGTON (UMNS) — Twelve leaders in United Methodist women’s ministry gathered on the campus of Wesley Theological Seminary Sept. 21 to talk to one another, find common ground and discuss issues they don’t see eye to eye on.

Six were from the United Methodist Women’s Division, part of the Board of Global Ministries and the parent organization of United Methodist Women. Six others were from the RENEW Network, the women’s program arm of the Good News organization, a renewal movement that seeks to strengthen evangelicals in the church.

RENEW has been openly critical of the Women’s Division, from publishing a white paper in 2001 titled, “Our Basis for Concern,” to placing a press release on its Web site Sept. 21 titled, “Push an Agenda or Lift up Christ? Which is the Top Priority for Christians?” The network claims the Women’s Division is out of step with its membership and that it promotes a partisan political agenda rather than sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The forum, transmitted on a Web cast by the Board of Global Ministries, was held in the Oxnam Memorial Chapel. It resembled a debate, with six women sitting on either side of a central podium, a fact that both sides quickly noted and disagreed on in their opening comments. The forum was initiated by RENEW.

Jan Love, chief executive of the Women’s Division since 2004, said in her opening statement that the Women’s Division was not satisfied with the format because it was not conducive to “Christian conversation.” The Women’s Division agreed to the format because RENEW required it, she said.

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A UMNS photo by Sarah Alsgaard

Jan Love, chief executive of the Women’s Division, addresses the forum.
Love added that she hoped the day would serve as a model for the church of people coming together and listening to one another.

Faye Short, president of the RENEW Network since its founding in 1989, said in her opening comments just minutes later that she considered the forum to be “Christian conversation, despite the format.”

Before the meeting, both sides had submitted questions, prepared answers and chosen speakers. A question was answered in a five-minute response, followed by three minutes for a rebuttal and a two-minute closing response.

Each side asked four questions, covering such topics as the authority of Scripture, appropriate social engagement in the world, what tenets of faith are “essential,” questions of accountability, the role of women in the church and how people view the person of Jesus Christ.

‘Family business’

“We’re here to address some family business,” Love said in her opening statement. “When we leave here today, we’ll still disagree, but I hope that we’ll find areas in common between Women’s Division and RENEW.”

Short’s opening statement noted that RENEW had members in every state except Hawaii and that it was formed with a two-pronged focus: renewal and accountability.

“We hope that this forum will engender different perspectives on social issues between the Women’s Division and evangelical women,” she said. “We are not strangers. We are grass-roots United Methodist women.”

In its first question, the Women’s Division asked RENEW if “conscientious Christians working to further the mission of Christ can have legitimate differences about matters of biblical interpretation.”

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A UMNS photo by Sarah Alsgaard

Faye Short, leader of the RENEW Network, speaks to reporters after the forum.
Short said yes, there can be legitimate differences of interpretation, “but the basic truths of the Scriptures are settled.”

The Gospel, she said, should never be reduced to just one of social holiness. “Social holiness flows out of a deep relationship with Jesus Christ,” she said.

Joyce Sohl, former chief executive of Women’s Division, agreed, but quickly noted that the Gospel of Jesus Christ “is preached not only by word but by deed.”

In her life of faith, Sohl said, her eyes had been opened to new realities. “Jesus challenged people of his day to think differently, to engage and act,” she said.

Using labels

The next question, asked by the RENEW Network, dealt with the authority of Scripture in “matters of faith and practice,” and asked “what tenants of the faith (were) essential in a cultural climate where some identify ‘conservative,’ ‘evangelical,’ and ‘fundamentalist’” as the same thing.

Love, in her response, said she considered herself evangelical and added that members of United Methodist Women span the spectrum of theologies. “There is room for everyone” in UMW, she said.

Love also noted that she does not consider Good News, RENEW or another organization, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, to be religious extremists. Instead, she said, these groups are self-identified as “conservative” and “orthodox.” She wondered aloud if these labels carried with them negative connotations of placing restrictions on a woman’s possible leadership role.

RENEW’s response was offered by Janice Shaw Crouse, a senior fellow at the Concerned Women for America in Washington. She said labels are an issue. “In my experience,” she added, “so many people from the left are talking the talk but not living it.”

Crouse, from Laurel, Md., said it was distressing for her to pin specific definitions of fundamentalism or conservatism on groups or people.

“When people equate conservatives with fundamentalists or extremists, it shows an appalling lack of understanding,” she said.

One size for all?

The issue of only allowing United Methodist Women units to be the “official” women’s ministry at a local church also surfaced in the forum. The RENEW Network has sought, through petitions at General Conference — the church’s highest legislative body — to allow “supplemental” women’s ministry in the church.

“A one-size fits all women’s ministry is no longer sufficient for women’s ministry today,” said Elizabeth Kittle of RENEW, a United Methodist from Augusta, Ga. “Our petitions were clear. Will Women’s Division release us? We ask for this at this forum.”

Sohl agreed that “one size doesn’t fit all” in her response for the Women’s Division. She encouraged people to look at the broad spectrum of local UMW units and see the diversity there. “We applaud and affirm that diversity,” she said. “We were organized by and for women, and we believe God is still calling the women of the United Methodist Church to become a part of a mission organization.”

The Women’s Division’s social witness and agenda came in for its share of comments. The RENEW Network asked, “What processes are followed to ensure that the political and social actions … represent the values and belief of a broad spectrum of United Methodist Women?”

“Jesus was not afraid to confront the principalities and the powers of his day,” replied Genie Bank of Lexington, Mich., a Women’s Division president from 2000 to 2004. “And neither are we.”

Bank noted the ample variety of books read in the UMW’s reading program, the classes offered at its Schools of Christian Mission, the organization’s feeding and clothing ministries, and how the Women’s Division has partnered over the years with numerous groups on basic human and civil rights. “The world is a better place because of United Methodist Women today,” she said.

Kittle, in the RENEW Network reply, said she has observed partisan political advocacy from the Women’s Division, and that has “grieved our hearts so often.” She noted that money from Women’s Division is given to “radical organizations whose purposes many women don’t agree with. Women would be shocked and outraged to learn” of this.

Katy Kiser, from Carrollton, Texas, also spoke about the partisanship around social concerns at the Women’s Division. “We would see more biblical views (coming out of Women’s Division) if more evangelicals were present,” she said.

Unpacking the forum

After the forum, both Short and Love expressed feelings of satisfaction and disappointment.

“I feel good about the forum,” said Short in an interview. “We both aired some concerns, and we both did that well. I was disappointed with the numerous comments about the character of the RENEW Network and that we only attack Women’s Division. We are United Methodist women, concerned about this organization. We haven’t resolved our differences yet.”

And future steps or forums would have to wait, she said, until RENEW could “unpack what took place here. We’ll look at our options and see if further conversation is possible” in the future.

“I feel joyful, hopeful,” Love said after the forum. “This was a demonstration that we are one body in Jesus Christ. We can speak to each other and try to listen to each other in love. This could be a model for the church — can we disagree in love?”

Love also said future steps would have to wait, and she asked: “Will we be able to recognize ourselves in how Good News, RENEW and the IRD portray this?”

*Alsgaard is managing editor of the UMConnection newspaper and director of communications for the Baltimore-Washington Conference.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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