WCC- Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, a retired United Methodist bishop from the USA, has spent her career voicing the need for a church that includes all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. And, throughout her career, she’s never been afraid to say that out loud.
“I of course received a lot of hate mail,” said Swenson, who currently serves as the vice moderator of the World Council of Churches Central Committee.
But—and it’s a very important ‘but’—there was also a view of gratitude, she added. And that’s what kept her vision of leadership alive. “My stand has always been one of including all people,” she said. “That means all, because God’s love is truly for all of us, everywhere.”
Swenson joined four of her peers—all female United Methodist bishops in the USA—for a panel discussion, “Female Leadership in the Religious Realm,” on 22 May, as part of a women’s leadership conference hosted at California State University.
Women bishops are often on the frontlines of having their leadership questioned, sometimes in harsh ways. Bishop Minerva Carcaño (California-Nevada Conference) recalled preaching one Sunday at a large church close to the U.S.-Mexico border. “In my sermon I happened to mention how important it is to serve in the context in which we find ourselves,” she said. “I mentioned ever so briefly the importance of serving everyone—including undocumented immigrants.”
When she then offered communion, one man refused to take it. “He pushed it back from me, even,” she said. It was a heartbreaking amount, and I’d never experienced anything like that.”
After the service, the man told the pastor of the church that Carcaño should be removed from the pulpit. The pastor replied: “I can’t take her out of the pulpit—it’s her pulpit.”
That moment gave Carcaño a different perspective on herself as a leader—and she continues to be a leader who’s known for fiercely defending human rights. “If it’s the bishop’s pulpit, I also hope to hold it gently and humbly,” she added.
Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi (Western Pennsylvania Conference) recalled when, on her very first day on the job, there was a flood disaster in the area. “Instead of putting my books on a shelf, I needed to see the folks who got beaten up ad left alongside the road by this flood,” she said. “They were astonished that I had come on my first day of work.”
Koikoi thought: “Where else would I be?” She offered a word of prayer, and realized that it was a defining moment for her: “That’s what leadership is all about.”
Another aspect of being an effective leader involves “deep listening,” said Bishop Tracy S. Malone (East Ohio United Methodist Conference). Malone said, as a new bishop, she journeyed through her conference, which has nearly 700 churches. “Having done the deep listening that was necessary, we developed a vision for the entire conference: to increase the capacity for every lay person and clergy person to be disciples, and to make new disciples.”
The women also talked about who has inspired them along the way. Retired Bishop Linda Lee remembered her mother, who worked as a seamstress in a factory all her life. “She ended up being the one who would go talk with the boss,” said Lee. “She was a leader in the factory.”
Lee’s mother also sewed garments for women who couldn’t afford to buy clothes. “She would counsel them and pray with them when they came. She was the mother of everybody.”