As she ends nine-year stint, Burton focuses on global justice in the church
By Susan Keaton
Increased numbers of clergywomen and female bishops. A “bursting forth of lay people” into the life of the church. A new urgency on addressing sexual misconduct in congregations. Engaging young women, women of color and women from the denomination’s Central Conferences.
M. Garlinda Burton is proud of the accomplishments of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women during her nine years as its General Secretary. But rather than sitting back and enjoying those successes, she has spent her last weeks in the job focusing on the work still ahead.
“You can hold on so tight to the old ways that you can miss hearing God’s call to a new thing,” she mused recently, perhaps reflecting as much on her own life as that of the Commission she has led for nearly a quarter of its 40 years.
A new general secretary is expected to take the reins at GCSRW early in 2013. Burton retires Dec. 31, 2012, but in the last days of November she was taking part in preliminary discussions with members of the General Commission on Religion and Race on how the two agencies can continue their joint work begun in the past four years. This work has pushed the Church toward full inclusion and leadership of people under 35, U.S. women and men of color, and the empowerment of women in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
Burton said both agencies—along with the entire denomination--need to expand their work to deal with global issues of race, gender or class in United Methodism worldwide.
“The main decision-makers in this church are primarily white, male and over 50 years old, and they are based in the United States,” Burton said. “If we are going to remain a pliable, relevant instrument of Christ in this world, we must build churches with, listen to and make room for new voices and faces around our leadership tables.”
The desire to make room for new leadership and new energy is one reason she decided to retire after 31 years working for the church, first at the United Methodist Reporter, then United Methodist Communications and finally at the women’s commission.
“I think some of us need to just not make a place for, but stand aside for, younger women,” she said, because the church needs younger people to take leadership positions to help it grow.
That’s not to say that generations past have helped make tremendous strides for the cause of justice and diversity in the church, she adds.
“I’ve seen women being elected bishop, including the first African woman, the first Latina, the first Filipina, the first African-American bishop,” Burton said. She also has seen laywomen claiming more power and voice in what was once a “totally clergy-centric” church.
Traveling to Zimbabwe and the Philippines recently for the largest-ever gatherings of clergywomen there, Burton heard from women pastors how they often feel isolated and how basic human justice issues are not being met. For example, she said, deaconesses in Philippines are doing the work of clergy without receive comparable salary and benefits, she said.
In 1972, The United Methodist Church created the General Commission on the Status and Role of women to help identify and correct institutional sexism and gender bias and to advocate for equal participation for clergy and lay women in all areas of church life. Today about 20 percent of UMC clergy are female, and men and women attend seminary in roughly equal numbers.
Burton said GCSRW has played a pivotal part in helping the church open up to women. And while when she started at GCSRW it had an image of being run by and designed to advocate for only white clergywomen, “I think that I have helped extend the commission’s reach to include a lot of different kinds of women,” including lay women, women of color, and women outside the U.S., she said.
She is proud that GCSRW began tackling sexual ethics in the denomination even before sexual misconduct among clergy was well known. Under her leadership, the agency set up a website (umsexualethics.org) that provides information, complaint procedures and help for victims and survivors of clergy sexual misconduct. The agency also has trained clergy, laity, social workers, counselors and bishops on how to recognize and adjudicate complaints and how to support victims.
Burton said she has few regrets about her time at GCSRW. A trained journalist and author, she wishes she had taken more time to write, blog and reflect. (“It seemed there was never time to sit down on ponder! I had so much hands-on work to do!”) She would have liked to have spent more time and focus on women outside the U.S., particularly those in Eastern Europe and French-speaking Africa, but she’s glad she got that work started. And she had hoped to help move the church farther along in embracing members of the LGBTQ community as full participants in the life of the church.
But there simply wasn’t enough time for everything. She decided to retire and to seek a new career path mainly because she wants to be in one place so she can spend time with family and friends.
“I have loved this work so much, but I have missed many birthdays and weddings and graduations because of my travel schedule. I want to be present more for the people I love and to worship and work more at my local church (Hobson United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn.).
“For me, feminism has been about choices, to give women options,” she said. “I felt it was time to change my lifestyle, so I gave myself permission to change gears.”
Susan Keaton is communications director for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.