Thursday, March 10, 2016

Glory Dharmaraj: Gender and General Conference

Today's piece is written by Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women.

History was without women for a long time. The history of our General Conference has not been exempt from this blind spot and irony. We have made gains in the recent election of delegates to the General Conference. But still there is a lack of gender parity.

Openings and Closings
While approving the category of deaconesses, the 1888 General Conference refused to seat elected female lay delegates. Another contradiction is the approval of the full-time lay vocation for women as deaconesses, while warding off ordination of women with rights to administer sacraments. In the midst of these contradictions, women had to live out their vocations within the church. The 1880 Methodist Episcopal General Conference not only voted against the ordination of women but also decided to revoke all the local preachers’ licenses granted to women since 1869.[1] Women had to wait till 1956 to gain full rights of ordination.

With reference to offices such as class leaders, stewards, and Sunday School Superintendents at the local church level, the challenge of inclusive language was addressed by the1880 General Conference. Its decision removed the exclusive use of pronouns such as “he, his, and him” for such offices.[2] While the question of lay women and gender was addressed in the General Conference 1880, it took a century to officially include inclusive language for God! In 1980, the Task force on Language Guidelines (inclusive language) was set up.

General Conference 2016
The recently released results of the monitoring done by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women reveals lack of gender equity, as evident in the article on “Women by the Numbers: Statistics and Research about Women in the United Methodist Church” at From among the 865 delegates elected to the General Conference, the break up details, as shown by the GCSRW research, are below:

In her recent presentation to the Interethnic Strategic Development Group in Baltimore, Washington, Leigh Goodrich, staff of GCSRW, pointed out that of the total 431 lay delegates, 192 (44.5%) are female and 237 (55%) are male. Out of 434 clergy delegates, 119 (27.4%) are female and 313 (72%) are male.

Among the total 865 delegates to the 2016 General Conference, 360 are from the Central Conferences. Out of the 360 Central Conference delegates, 267 (74%) are male and 90 (25%) are female with 3 delegates not listing gender. From among the 180 lay delegates from the Central Conferences, 116 (64%) are male and 63 (35%) are female; male clergy constitute 151 delegates (84%) and female clergy 27 (15%).

Since the break-up details of race and ethnicity are not available yet, my reflection does not deal with the “intersectionality” of women.

The Face of Women in Structure and Movement
The membership percentage of women in the United States UMC is 58%.

As for the southern hemisphere, the phenomenal growth of Christianity, especially, Africa, Asia, and Latin America is unprecedented. The emerging, burgeoning, and living forms of Christianity are mostly indigenous, and their agency primarily non-Western. They embody what is known as World Christianity today.

Today, two-thirds of all Christian are women, as Professor Dana Robert of Boston University points out. Robert asks, “What would the study of Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America look like if scholars put women into the center of their research?”[3] In the growing grassroots movement of Christianity, the role of women is a key factor.

In the feminization of Christianity, do women occupy key positions, along with men, in their respective church structures in World Christianity? Until church systems and structures are open enough for women to gain positions at the structural level, women’s voices may not be converted into perspectives and mainstreamed.

Movement and structure need not necessarily be oppositional. Any movement which merely ends up as a structure loses its grassroots vitality. Any structure that is not rooted in the praxis of a life-giving movement is a mere skeleton without the embodiment of flesh and blood. A mere movement that does not structurally ensure power for its women is likely to be co-opted, and its power relegated to those who are at the top rungs of the structures. Movement and structure ought to form a life-giving hybridity.

Women stand to lose if they are not vigilant enough. As opinion-makers and decision-makers, men have a great role to play in the emerging Christianity, assuring that women get shared power in the growing movement.

[1] General Conference Journal, (25 May 1880), 316. The Christian Advocate 55/24 (June 10, 1880): 377.
[2] The Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church 1880. Appendix 22. Pages 409-10.
[3] Dana Robert, “World Christianity as a Women’s Movement,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol. 30, no. 4 (October 2006), 180.


  1. Excellent! Picking up for this week's UM Insight.

  2. Thank you Glory! I so appreciate your research and analysis. The road is long.