Last month I came across this article about church response to clergy sexual misconduct. It was so clear and strong! It’s rare to find writing this good on church response. I wondered, “Who wrote this?” Then I looked at the byline. Of course — the Rev. Dr. Darryl Stephens, a former leader from the United Methodist Church’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Stephens now writes and teaches, and I’m sure his work helps many, but he is painfully missed by victims and survivors within the UMC. During his tenure on the Commission, he provided extraordinary support to at least one survivor whom I know. No one has yet filled his shoes, but at least the Commission is still working to protect and promote the dignity of women. A Commission executive described that work here in 2012, saying “We are getting more requests than we can handle.”
Unfortunately, the Commission may soon be turning down all requests. The quadrennial UMC General Conference is happening this week in Portland, Oregon. While the media focuses on the church’s positions on hot social issues like human sexuality, they’ll likely give a collective yawn to church governance issues. Yet some of those changes have enormous implications! Within the next few days, the church will vote on whether to adopt “Plan UMC Revised.” Hidden deep within this dull-sounding plan: it would eliminate the Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
I’m sure the UMC would tell me not to worry. The commission on the Status and Role of Women may be going away (as well as the Commission on Religion and Race), but the vital work will continue via a newly constituted “United Methodist Committee on Inclusiveness.” Golly, isn’t that a fine-sounding name? Unfortunately, I believe it’s a hedge. Rather than explicitly naming the needs of women and racial minorities, the church only says it’ll be “inclusive.” Considering the fact that the UMC still punishes ministers who perform same-sex weddings, even though those marriages are legal in all 50 states, it’s clear that “inclusive” is actually quite selective. By replacing commissions on gender and race with an ill-defined office of “inclusiveness,” the UMC waters down its promise to fight against racial and gender bias.
This is happening in other institutions as well. I spoke this week with a friend whose husband leads the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) training for a branch of the U.S. military in his region. My friend told me some sad news. “My husband’s old C.O. knew how important this work was, but his new C.O. told him ‘Spend as little time as you can on this issue. Just keep the Pentagon off our backs.’ “ Under the new command, my friend’s husband has to divide his time between SAPR and racial sensitivity training. He is no longer a SAPR trainer; he’s a “diversity officer.” He now has to do two full-time jobs, without the time or resources to do justice to either one.
It’s hard to stay optimistic when I learn that a major denomination is eliminating an office that made such a difference to survivors of CSM. It seems lately that anytime I hear good news (like when the local bishop finally disclosed my complaint against Scott to the congregation at St Paul’s), there’s bad news right behind (like when leaders at Scott’s new church publicly call my complaint “meritless.”) “Spotlight” notwithstanding, as a society we are still massively in denial about the scope and impact of clergy sexual misconduct.
But the work continues. I take courage from the good things that are happening, like the study on church response to CSM, coming out this fall from Baylor University’s Garland School of Social Work. (Please note the survey is now closed.) I have faith that when I need a break from the work, there will be others to speak truth and carry the baton forward.