Here’s what the United Methodist Women look like in Pearisburg, Va.:
Five teenage girls meet after school, usually in Starbucks or a Mexican restaurant. They share a snack and devotion. Then they talk about their next outing, which could mean visiting a nursing home, providing child care for a church meeting, or collecting cleaning products for flood victims.
Here’s what the United Methodist Women look like in Knoxville, Tenn.:
Ten working professional women in their late 30s and early 40s meet in the evenings -- sometimes in homes, sometimes in restaurants. They discuss their families and church news. Then they make plans to collect toilet paper, shampoo, or other necessities for a homeless project known as the “Sharing Shop.”
These aren’t typical United Methodist Women groups in Holston Conference -- but they could be, says Lynice Broyles, the brand-new president of Holston's UMW. Broyles is a member at Sulphur Springs United Methodist Church in Jonesborough, Tenn.
“Some of our older women are not aware of the needs of younger women,” Broyles said, “but we need to step up and say, ‘Come be our guest. We want you to experience what we have experienced all these years.’”
When Holston UMW gathered for their Annual Meeting this year on Sept. 13-14 in Lake Junaluska, N.C., attendance was 285. In 2013, it was 400. Broyles, who attended her first local meeting at the age of 22 in 1962, remembers when the annual gathering attracted 700.
“Times have changed,” Broyles said. “Families are involved in so many activities, and women have to get home from work, cook supper, and get this one to basketball and that one to soccer. They don’t have time for meetings.”
However, most women have the need for connection, and many women will be inspired by a common cause that helps other people, Broyles said.
“They want to connect with each other and talk about their families and get support,” she said. “And if you give a woman a mission, they’ll do it. But if you make them sit through a long and structured meeting, they’re not coming back.”
Holston Conference is comprised of 887 local churches in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and north Georgia. When Holston UMW convened at their annual meeting in western North Carolina in mid-September, all of Holston’s 12 districts were represented. Some local churches were.
The outgoing president, Georgia Lister, lamented the membership drop in her address as well as in a newsletter article entitled “A Shocking Realization.”
“In 1989-90, there were 590 units and total membership was 21,400,” Lister said. By late 2013, total membership was 10,517. “That means in 24 years, we have lost 10,882 members for various reasons.”
Although some groups claim the number is lower now, the headquarters in New York City reports a membership of about 800,000 United Methodist Women worldwide as the organization approaches its 150th anniversary. Marva Usher-Kerr, executive for membership, came to Lake Junaluska to share a toolkit and video designed to build UMW numbers -- to offset decline and attract younger and more racial/ethnic groups.
“If we don’t bring in new women, we will have a problem,” Usher-Kerr said.
Meanwhile, the Holston women who gathered in Lake Junaluska seemed cheered by attendance of a few of their own daughters and granddaughters; a growing Hispanic membership; having Bishop Dindy Taylor as their keynote speaker; and fun among friendships developed over many meetings past.
“People used to be on fire. I don’t feel like the fire isn’t there any longer. They’re just getting older,” said Glenda Eastridge, a member for 39 years and assistant dean for the annual summer missions school. Eastridge is a member at Green Meadow United Methodist Church in Alcoa, Tenn.
Monica Sheppard-Viator, president for Oak Ridge District, says UMW members might be older because women have to wait for their children to grow up before they can devote more time to meetings. Sheppard-Viator is a member at Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.
“The UMW gives me time to step out of my busy life and socialize with other women who support the same causes,” she said. “But along with the time, you really have to have the ‘want.’ I don’t know how we can create the ‘want’ for more women to join.”
To invite more participation, the international organization encourages flexibility for local UMW groups through its 2013-2016 Handbook as well as through online groups. Cherokee United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Tenn., is one of the first Holston churches to try the online community, Broyles said.
Suzanne Sherman, age 38, is co-leader of the Suzanna Wesley Circle, one of 13 UMW circles at Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville. Sherman’s group bucks tradition by not meeting in a “dimly lit church room” or having a set monthly meeting time, she said. Instead, they meet in one of the members’ homes or restaurants and confer on the next convenient gathering, balancing their family lives and career demands.
“When you look at the United Methodist Women historically and all the good that they have done is this world, it’s amazing,” says Sherman. “Being part of something that big is awe-inspiring.”
Missions supporting women, children and youth are at the core of the UMW’s existence, and that’s also what drives the “Teen Circle” at First United Methodist Church of Pearisburg, Va., said Hannah Thorne, age 25. Her little sister, Hali, is in the teen group, while Hannah joins her mother in another group.
“Human trafficking is a big one for me,” Thorne said, describing one of the UMW’s recent focuses. “I didn’t realize how much it was happening in the U.S. and in our own backyard.”
In 2013, Holston United Methodist Women gave $290,976 to support their organization’s international program, which advocates for social-justice issues such as domestic violence and immigration rights and supports ministries such as Holston’s own Wesley House Community Center and Bethlehem Center. That total doesn’t include giving and volunteering women did locally -- including $20,918 donated to Imagine No Malaria in 2013 and $5,863 donated this year to support language interpretation for Holston Hispanic groups, Broyles said.
Holston United Methodist Women also coordinate several group activities each year, including the April 2015 mission trip to UMCOR's Sager Brown Depot and the July 2015 “Mission U” educational event with an accompanying reading program.
“You can’t be a United Methodist Woman and keep your head in the sand,” said Eastridge. “We were studying about human trafficking before it became a thing, when the news was ignoring it. When you empower women with information and a cause, you make a difference for everybody.”