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by Dr. Riley B. Case

This past July, RENEW Network, the evangelical renewal group working with women’s ministry in The United Methodist Church, announced a significant change in focus of its ministry. A review of that decision to refocus and what led to it might serve as a discussion starter on how and if renewal can take place in The United Methodist Church.

RENEW Network was organized in 1989, as an affiliate of the Good News movement, but there were antecedents going back to the mid-1970s. Alarmed by the growing numbers of evangelical women’s disaffection toward the policies and programs of the Women’s Division and the rapidly decreasing membership in local United Methodist Women’s units; evangelical women were involved in several different renewal efforts throughout the 1970s and 1980s to bring theological and social balance to the programs of the Division. One of those efforts led to the publishing of Candle, a newsletter that shared testimonies of United Methodist Women and reviewed literature and programs of the Women’s Division. By 1982, the circulation of Candle had reached 21,000.

The RENEW Network gathered together several of these renewal efforts into one organization with the stated purpose of encouraging viable women’s ministries in the local church, and seeking accountability from the Women’s Division. There was (and still is) a need for such accountability. As an example, when Friendship Press published the study book China: Search for Community in 1978 it appeared the study was mostly an apology for Maoism with comments to the effect that one reason there were no churches in China was that Christians had found Communism a better way to bring in the Kingdom of God. In one section, the book offered the opinion that “China is the only truly Christian country in the world in the present day, in spite of its absolute rejection of all religion.”

RENEW Network discovered that the business of spiritual renewal is a tough road to travel. While many evangelical women have expressed appreciation for the encouragement they receive from RENEW, and while numbers of churches have used the supplemental resources supplied or suggested by RENEW, the relationship with the Women’s Division has never been positive. Indeed, in one sense there has been no relationship at all. All efforts on the part of RENEW through the years for conversation, dialogue, interaction, or to seek an evangelical presence in the programs of the Women’s Division have been rebuffed, ignored, or scorned. RENEW was, after all “unofficial,” and in a corporate institutional culture “unofficial” voices must be seen, basically, as divisive. Despite the fact that the Women’s Division traces its own history to the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society (1869) of The Methodist Episcopal Church, for some time the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society operated outside the official structures of the church and was criticized for being unofficial, not accountable, not connectional, and divisive. Even today, the Women’s Division is, basically, an autonomous organization within United Methodism, not accountable to the General Council on Finance and Administration.

When representatives of the Women’s Division finally met face-to-face with RENEW in September of 2005, the exchange was more confrontational than meaningful interaction. In more recent times, RENEW has sought for flexibility in the church’s structure (or corporate culture) to allow for other expressions of women’s ministry in local churches, but a petition to General Conference this year to allow for such flexibility was rejected. In addition, the General Conference once again mandated that every local church have an official unit of United Methodist Women, despite the fact that the number of local church units is declining at an alarming rate. Where at one time nearly every United Methodist Church had an official United Methodist Women’s unit, the number of churches without such units is approaching 50% of the churches in some districts. In addition, while United Methodist church membership has declined by 27% since 1968 United Methodist Women membership has declined nearly 60% in the same period. Decrees from on high do not generate new interest in United Methodist Women, meaningful ministries do. Latest statistics show that 85% of the women of UM churches are not a part of United Methodist Women.

It is the 85% who need encouragement and ministry and the new focus of RENEW Network will be to seek to help resource those groups who wish for a different kind of ministry. RENEW will also be less active in seeking to influence the programs and the policies of the Women’s Division, since this part of RENEW’s purpose has simply not been successful.

And so the pattern continues. In confirmation materials, in Sunday school materials, in missionary outreach, in the seminaries, and in areas of social concerns evangelicals have sought to work with official agencies to bring about openness, theological diversity, and an evangelical presence, but have been rebuffed. Thus the formation of what are, basically, alternative structures: Bristol Books, the We Believe Confirmation materials, and the Mission Society.

The United Methodist Church is a sleeping giant. It has the doctrine, and polity, and the history to make it a vital Christian witness in the world. But evangelicals are convinced that an evangelical presence is necessary if that witness is to be a true force for good. We will need to find new ways to bring that presence into the life of the denomination.