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Living Tomorrow Today, Bishop Rader and Rev. Dr. Crain Publish New Book Featuring the 34 Women Bishops of the UMC

May 29, 2019
Women Bishops of The United Methodist Church: Extraordinary Gifts of the Spirit

The foundation for Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader and Rev. Dr. Margaret Ann Crain’s new book, Women Bishops of The United Methodist Church: Extraordinary Gifts of the Spirit (Abingdon Press, April 2019), is a series of interviews they conducted with each of the women bishops of The United Methodist Church. Through the stories they collected, they learned what enabled these women to persevere, claim authority, define leadership in their own ways, and rise to the episcopacy. The stories reveal how these clergywomen changed the church, blazing leadership trails both before and after their elections.

Rader’s connections to Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary run deep. A 1976 graduate, she was elected to the United Methodist episcopacy by the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in 1992 and assigned to the Wisconsin Conference. In 1996, Garrett-Evangelical recognized her as a distinguished alum at the 139th Commencement. In 2013, the Seminary awarded her an honorary doctor of divinity, and she has served as both a member and now a Life Trustee of the Garrett-Evangelical Board of Trustees for 26 years. Rader retired as an active bishop in 2004.

Crain is professor emeritus of Christian education at Garrett-Evangelical, where she was on faculty from 1998 to 2011. In addition, she also served as the director of deacon studies where she created a program that supported, advocated for, and trained countless deacons when the new order was formed by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church in 1996. She is an ordained deacon of The United Methodist Church in full connection with the Northern Illinois Conference.

To learn more about their new book we recently reached out to Rader and Crain. What follows is a series of questions and answers providing further context for the book, their reasoning for taking on this project, and the significance of this historical work for generations to come.

What inspired you to write this book? What was, or where did you find, your motivation?

Rader: Marjorie Swank Matthews was elected to the episcopacy of The United Methodist Church in 1980, the first woman in the world to hold such office in any major denomination. Little has been recorded about Marjorie’s election or the significant contribution she made in church history. Since then, 33 additional women have been elected in The United Methodist Church, and other mainline denominations across the globe have also now elected women to give leadership in the church.

As a United Methodist, I was concerned some of our history was at risk of being lost. Bishop Matthews (who briefly taught at Garrett-Evangelical following her retirement) caused a “rupture” in the life of the Christian church with her election. I wanted her story and the stories of the women who followed her in the last 39 years to be recorded, pondered, and celebrated.

Crain: It was Sharon’s idea. She was concerned that the stories of the earliest bishops were going to be lost as they were aging. As she shared her concern, I became excited about the project. We said, let’s write a proposal and get started! I am passionate about qualitative research and its ability to uncover important insights through the analysis of narrative and interview data. I enjoy creating contexts where those stories can be collected and searching for themes in the data. Fortunately, we were able to interview Bishop Judy Craig about a year before she died. Had we not, her stories and wisdom would have been lost.

Who do you hope reads this book? How do you hope it can be used?

Rader:  I trust anyone who wants to take note of United Methodist history will find the book helpful.  The Garrett-Evangelical community will find interest in the women bishops who have graduated from the seminary or who have taught at the seminary (Matthews, Rader, Kammerer, Shamana, Lee, and Malone). We have been delighted to hear of faculty teaching United Methodist history and polity who intend to use the book as a resource. Women clergy have reported to us their delight in learning these stories, and in finding their own stories in them.

Crain: I hope that young clergy, both men and women, will read this book. It tells the story of how episcopal elections work. More importantly, it reveals the struggles and triumphs of our clergy foremothers who were trailblazers and pioneers. The courage and intelligence of these women have had an impact on the UMC. We need to know these stories in order to understand some of where the church is now. This is our history as well as our present.

Their stories also reveal the resistance and prejudice that are still part of our denomination. We need to see that in order to repent and address it. These stories teach us how to persevere, how to listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and how to lead.

What makes your book unique, and how is your perspective important?

Rader: I was present when Bishop Matthews was elected, and I have known every one of the women bishops in The United Methodist Church. Our stories are important to the life of our denomination as we struggle to find our way forward into being a church that invites, disciples, and calls into leadership the great diversity of God’s creation.

Crain: Each of us has lived aspects of this history. Sharon, especially, was one of the earliest women elected to the episcopacy. And she was there when Marjorie Matthews was elected. These first-hand accounts are precious. Later historians will have these accounts to work with as they see these events from a greater distance. In addition, we have pulled themes from the interviews that reveal something of the culture of the denomination from the late 1970s to the present. These themes reveal both the church opening itself to new ideas and the church drawing in the boundaries and resisting change. All these same movements are present in the conflicts of today. Perhaps we can learn from the past?

What are the particular gifts that you believe women bring to the role of bishop?

Rader: Over and over as we listened to the women share their election stories and their perspectives on church and world, we experienced themes of collaboration, the leading of the Holy Spirit, a willingness to risk, and justice seeking. These gifts offered by the women emerge as they reflect on their particular life experiences and enter into roles and places they have never before been allowed.

Crain: Yes! In addition, women bishops continue to be first, to rupture the norms, and to cause the church to reconsider. Because they are not men, our assumptions about how a leader looks and how a leader leads are called into question. The reconsideration calls us to theological, organizational, and social changes.

Dr. Crain, where do you see the role or impact of Christian and/or religious education corresponding or connecting with the role of bishop?

Crain: The ministry of religious educators is the same as the bishop, keeping the church committed to its mission: sharing the love of God in and through vibrant congregations and Christ-centered individuals. Religious educators, whether they are writing curriculum for the whole church, leading a youth group, or teaching a group of two-year-olds about Moses, are seeking to keep the church committed to its mission to share the love of God with the whole creation. The courageous and prophetic leadership that we see in the women bishops is also the task of local church educators. The collaborative leadership style of these women bishops is the leadership style of most local educators. The Holy Spirit leads us in our preparation, our teaching and our administrative work. Justice—the transformation of the world—is the ultimate goal of all Christian education.

Bishop Rader, what is the significance of the role of bishop for you? Where do you see the role of bishop changing or evolving, particularly as it relates to women?

Rader: "The role and calling forth of the bishop is to exercise oversight and support of the Church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016).

In our election and being sent forth there is, of course, much administrative work that must be done. But most important is the work of keeping the church committed to its mission: sharing the love of God in and through vibrant congregations and Christ-centered individuals.

Relationships matter for women. Relationships give strength and perspective. Relationships call forth prophetic and justice seeking ministries. Relationships change all who work together to bring hope and reconciliation to this troubled church and world. 

Are there common threads throughout the stories in the book that you found to be helpful in your appreciation of women bishops that you can share?

Rader: Deep love of the church and its potential. Deep love of God’s world and the desire to work with others in manifesting greater justice and peace. Deep and ongoing commitment to leading in collaboration with others—seeking to hear and know perspectives not their own. In the face of resistance and sometimes outright hostility, still the ability to sing (in harmony) and laugh and be reminded not to take themselves too seriously!

Crain: In the book, we quote the words to a song, “We are living tomorrow today.” I think ultimately that is what we saw in these women. They seek to live in the promise of tomorrow in spite of the challenges of today.

Women Bishops of The United Methodist Church: Extraordinary Gifts of the Spirit is available for purchase at Amazon and Cokesbury. For those attending the 2019 Northern Illinois Annual Conference, Rader and Crain will be available for a book signing at the Cokesbury store located in Discovery Hall (North) on Monday, June 3, from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.