Missionary spirit of WMU continues

IRVING, Texas ? The story of Southern Baptist missions would not be complete without acknowledging the tireless work of Baptist women, particularly through the efforts of the Woman’s Missionary Union.

For over 150 years, Baptist women have helped define the Southern Baptist distinctive of carrying out the Great Commission task, shaping it into the cornerstone of the modern-day Southern Baptist Convention. Women like Mrs. W.B. Bagby, Miss Fannie Breedlove Davis of San Antonio and Mrs. T.P. Crawford stand beside B.H. Carroll and L. R. Scarborough as giants in the pages of Southern Baptist history.

The Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) was founded at a 1888 meeting of 32 women in Richmond, Va. The organization was formed for the purposes of collecting funds for the Foreign Mission Board and the Home Mission Board and promoting a “missionary spirit” within the convention. Its impact on the SBC is seen in many ways, including providing for a corporate means of tithing with the introduction of tithe envelopes in Baptist churches. WMU is also responsible for much of the convention’s missions education efforts through such programs as Mission Friends, Girls in Action, Acteens, and Youth on Mission.

Despite a rich history in missions and missions education, WMU enrollment has experienced a slow drop in numbers. In her book, A Century to Celebrate, former WMU President Catherine Allen states that WMU recorded peak enrollment of about 1.5 million members in 1964. In 2001, ACP reports indicate that WMU recorded 857,680 members nation-wide.

Overall circulation for the primary WMU magazines and periodicals have also dropped with 27,101 subscriptions to Dimension magazine reported in 1995 to 13,910 reported in 2002. Missions Mosaic dropped from 227,365 in 1995 to 202,657 in 2002. And an even bigger loss can be seen in the circulation for Discovery, which dropped from 179,721 in 1995 to 73,943 in 2002. Newer publications such as Nuestra Tarea and Missions MatchFile have seen an increase, demonstrating an attempt by WMU to adapt to societal changes.

WMU’s courtship with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), an alternative missions-sending organization, coincided with a drop in membership and circulation in the 1990s’.

In 1990, Larry Lewis of the Home Mission Board asked the WMU and other SBC agencies to refrain “from giving support, approval, promotion of and encouragement to alternate funding plans,” such as the giving plan of the CBF in order to save Southern Baptists’ historic Cooperative Program giving method. In James Hefley’s book The Conservative Resurgence, he records the response of the WMU board to the proposed giving plan of the CBF. The board issued a statement affirming the traditional giving method for missions through the Cooperative Program, yet also affirmed “the right of individuals, churches and state conventions to choose other plans for cooperative missions giving.” The action was endorsed by Helen Fling, Christine Gregory and Dorothy Sample (former WMU presidents) and Alma Hunt and Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler (both former WMU executive directors).

In an Oct. 6, 1992 article in the Indiana Baptist, Executive Director Dellanna O’Brien recognized that supporting the CBF by providing tailored missions education materials to the fellowship could alienate churches that relate to WMU. However, O’Brien emphasized that the WMU was committed to providing missions education support in every Southern Baptist church.

“Through the years we’ve been able to support missions in every Southern Baptist church the same way. Now we’re looking at how ? and if ? we can continue to serve all Southern Baptist churches,” said O’Brien at a missions festival at Ridgecrest in the summer of 1992.

Coping with losses in membership and readership, WMU launched a campaign to change its image seen in its 1997 annual report under the leadership of WMU Executive Director Dellanna O’ Brien. A pair of cat-eye glasses appeared on the cover of the report with the quote “If this is how you still see WMU try looking a little closer.” Currently, the WMU does not print CBF materials; however, a link to the CBF website is posted on WMU’s webpage.

In December 2001, SBC critics and WMU leadership of the 1990’s such as O’Brien helped found a new missions-sending organization called Global Women. The first annual meeting of the Mainstream Baptist Network in Feb. 2002, functioned as the debut for the group in which it identified itself as pro-feminist and anti-SBC. At the same meeting a booth for the Baptist Women in Ministry organization distributed information on “Mother God” worship. Working with other missions organization, the group currently supports one international missionary or “global associate.” According to the organization’s website, the group seeks “to unite women for action around common needs,” such as “malnutrition, illiteracy and polluted drinking water.”

Catherine Allen, former WMU president, serves as Global Women treasurer. Other WMU figures in attendance at the meeting were past WMU executive directors Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler and Alma Hunt. According to an article by Michael Clingenpeel posted on the website of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, other WMU leaders involved in Global Women include Dellana O’Brien, WMU executive director for 10 years, and Dorothy Sample, former national WMU president.

In December 2001 Wanda Lee issued a statement to distance WMU from the anti-SBC Global Women and past WMU leadership.

“Global Women has no affiliation with Woman’s Missionary Union, Auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention. While many of our former leaders are involved in the new organization, their participation is a personal decision and not one connected to national WMU,” Lee said. “While I was informed of their plans to launch Global Women two weeks prior to their formal announcement, the current leadership of Woman’s Missionary Union has not been involved in the planning nor the incorporation of this agency.”

Lee also noted that WMU would not be distracted by Global Women in pursuing its ministries and facilitating mission education.

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