By Rosemarie Wenner, Retired Bishop, Germany Central Conference
Unity is under threat. The year 2019 will be crucial for The United Methodist Church. At a Special Called Session of General Conference, we will discern how we can live together despite our differences with regard to human sexuality, marriage, and ordination. Unity is also under threat in a world where the gaps between people of different opinions in all kinds of questions create fear, hate, and even violence. As Christians, we are called to live together in unity. And yet, we struggle to even define what unity means. Is there anything like a certain skill set for leaders that helps to emphasize unity?
Before dealing with this question, I would like to let you know who I am and how I became the person that I am today. This is not a prelude to the article. My life journey shaped how I offer leadership and how I look at unity in diversity. I am a woman, born in 1955, in southern Germany. My childhood and youth were strongly influenced by the fact that World War II ended only ten years before I was born.
In the 50s and 60s, people in Germany wanted to forget the terrible war with all its consequences. They worked hard to create a beautiful country, and they tried to enjoy life. But peace was fragile. Germany was a divided country, just to name one conflict of many. I grew up with one brother, who has been mentally challenged since birth. He is older than I, but I was the child who had to be smarter and who had to “function well.” Later, I learned that other girls grew up in families with healthy siblings, and yet they felt the same demand to perfectly fulfill the expectations of their parents, teachers, and so on.
The public sphere was male dominated. The same was true for the church. But in church, I started to broaden the frame that kept me in a subordinate role. The gospel proved to be a lively source of liberation. We belonged to a small congregation of the then United Evangelical Brethren Church. I was the only person in my confirmation class. The pastor said, “Since you are alone, your questions are the most important content for our lessons.”
I learned that using my brain was completely okay, even in church. In this time I started dreaming of perhaps studying theology, which I later did. I felt privileged to be allowed to become a pastor. Although I studied shortly after the 1968 student’s movement, and I wanted equality and a less authoritarian society, my professional aim was simply to become a “perfect pastor,” proving that women were at least as good as men. God was a “he” for me, of course. My perspective began to change, however, through ministry in local churches.
It meant a lot to many women that “one of them” was serving in the pulpit and at the altar. Several women approached me quite soon: “Can I talk to you? There are things that I never dared to tell a male pastor!” I heard stories of abuse in marriages with “Christian” husbands, and in church life, sometimes combined with a misuse of religious power. I started to rethink my theological approach. It took me some more years of training in Gestalt therapy, done in addition to my pastoral work, to gain the strength to publicly be who I am: A woman who is ready to serve and who, at the same time, also exercises power. I was ready to accept leadership positions in the church.
Let me now come back to the initial question: Is there anything like a certain skill set that helps to emphasize unity? When I was a young pastor, I had clear answers to this question, undergirded with biblical quotations. At that time, I said: “For the sake of unity I have to give up my own interests and mediate with all the partners so that I can keep them at the table, no matter how much it might cost.” This is how I understood: “in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3 NRSV). I had learned that caring for the needs of my family, the congregation, and all others is more important than caring for myself. And when I read, “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2 NRSV), it never came to my mind that someone should carry my burden; I felt called to carry the burden of the whole world. Reading certain comments on women’s leadership skills reinforced these thoughts, for example: “Women are more emotional; they care for others as only mothers can care. They leave no one behind; they will increase the ‘feel-good’ factor in the company or the congregation. They are ready to do multiple tasks because of their care for their families.”
Following all those ideals, I ended up exhausted and frustrated. I wanted to please everyone in order to work for the common good. But I was not good enough to keep all others on board. Fortunately, I met people who helped me to have a deeper view. If it is true that all people are of sacred worth, loved by God and called to live in dignity and joy, no one—not even I—has to give up the self. As I learned to love myself, I learned joyfully to love others . . . not more than myself, but like myself. Today, I think that emphasizing unity means valuing everyone in the uniqueness that characterizes each person’s life. All have stories to tell. All have the right to be seen, with their gifts and their weaknesses. All can give, and all have to take. As people of equal value, we can learn to encounter one another with a heart in peace and with respect for one another. Seeing everyone and creating community among diverse people is a difficult process. There is a lot of conflict to deal with.
But wait a minute! What about: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Ps 133:1)? Doesn’t it sound as if unity means perfect harmony? “Good and pleasant” . . . not messy and stressful! Although there are moments of harmony, when we celebrate our oneness as God’s children, harmony never lasts long. If we insist on harmony, we will create an illusion and disregard the reality of those who are excluded, silenced, or forced to fit into our system. Conflict is not the opposite of unity. It is, instead, a lively expression of seeking reconciliation of interests. The early church was never without conflict. The New Testament is, therefore, a study guide for how to live in love, although there are always issues to solve. We have to recognize various and valuable interests in order to find expressions of community: expressions that work for now, not forever, because there will be new people, or people who see things anew, or changing environments. Unity is not a fixed condition. It is both God’s gift and a creative process for making use of the gift in ever-new circumstances. Unity flourishes where differences are accepted, conflicts are seen as means to grow, and no one has to totally give up self, but all are ready to give and take in “convicted humility.”
As we value differences, we will discover that two categories—say male and female—are not nearly enough to describe people. Even biologically, we do not all “fit” into these two categories. I, although biologically female, have a lot of gifts that are typically not seen as female characteristics. If I had not have studied theology, I would have studied mathematics. Not many young women at school loved mathematics, but I did.
My work for gender justice has become more than a fight for “women’s rights,” although this fight is still needed as long as women are seen as inferior and become victims of violence. Gender justice is broader. It means that all people are allowed and encouraged to be a lively part of the whole. Diversity is good. It is a gift from God. There is more to explore, every day. We will make mistakes; we will depend on grace; and we will learn more how to love. The Holy Spirit will lead us to see Christ in every person and to cherish the many gifts of God’s creation as a source of life for all.
2019 – Unity in the Church
2018 – Claim Who We Are in Christ
2017 – Bodies, Oppression, and Gospel
2016 – Birthing a Worldwide Church
2015 – Clergywomen Lead Vital Congregations
2014 – Empowerment for All
2013 – What Next?
2012 – What Does the Lord Require of Us?
2011 – See, I am Doing a New Thing
2010 – Voicing Truth With Grace
PDF archive – 1987 to 2009
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WellSprings, A Journal of United Methodist Clergywomen, is published by the Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
Editor: HiRho Y. Park
Managing Editor: Barbara A. Dick
Editorial Circle: Patricia Bonilla, Neelley Hicks, Anita Phillips, Jacqui Rose-Tucker, Trudy Hawkins Stringer