Embracing Change, Sharing Grace: S.C. United Women in Faith turn 50

Click here to see photos from this event on Flickr

By Jessica Brodie

Women of faith from across South Carolina gathered in Myrtle Beach Oct. 21-22 to celebrate 50 years of turning faith, hope and love into action for women, children and youth around the world.

With the theme “Embracing Change, Sharing Grace,” the event marked five decades of annual meetings for South Carolina Conference United Women of Faith. Nearly 200 women representing every district in the annual conference gathered at First United Methodist Church just blocks from the ocean to hear inspiring speakers, celebrate their bold and active history, collect items for UWF mission projects, elect a new slate of officers for the coming term and learn how to live into their new name with Holy Spirit passion. In March, the organization rebranded with a new logo and name, shifting from United Methodist Women to the more inclusive United Women in Faith and enabling them to reach new audiences and spread their mission efforts even farther.

Sally Vonner, United Women in Faith transformation officer for the national office, served as keynote speaker for the event, bringing a powerful word on change and inclusion. The Rev. Judith Knox, pastor of Trinity UMC, Bennettsville, led the Bible study.

By the close of the event Saturday afternoon, the women had approved a $76,000 budget and elected a new slate of officers, including a new president (Clarice Blakeney), vice president (Kathy Roys) and secretary (Ann Alexander), among others.

Cathy Ford, outgoing president who had served since 2019 and throughout the pandemic, applauded the hard work of the women in spite of what she called “two years of separation, isolation and conducting business and meetings virtually.”

“We have been embracing change, sharing grace and moving forward led by our Lord and Savior,” Ford said to applause as she opened the meeting Friday, Oct. 21, praising the strong mission efforts achieved during the past 50 years. “Let us keep United Women in Faith strong, alive and ready for the next 50 years.”

‘Continuous, purposeful celebration’

The golden anniversary celebration began Friday afternoon with music from Roselle Williamson, musician, and Janet Daniels Lawrence, song leader, then the processional hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion,” as members of the UWF Executive Committee entered and took their seats.

Ford began with a welcome, noting they were finally all able to gather together in person, “Forever fixed in this moment and in this place on this important milestone of 50 years of continuous, purposeful celebration of our program of mission work in South Carolina and around the world.”

Secretary Dr. Renee Ritter presented the program book, which was dedicated to the memory of Rubielee Lawrence Addison, past president of SCCUWF from 1997-2000.

Next came a video greeting from South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston applauding the UWF for reaching their “big 5-0,” then warm greetings from Hartsville District Superintendent the Rev. Telley Gadson, First UMC pastor the Rev. Joel McMakin, Myrtle Beach Police Chief Amy Prock, Marion District President Sarah Woods and Local Unit President Janice Myers.

Barb Brooks and Eunice White led a prayer of confession, then Kathy Roys gave the report of the Nominating Committee, introducing the slate of officers to be voted on at the meeting, asking each to stand.

After the women together sang “The Church’s One Foundation,” Jacquelyn Session introduced Knox, who led Bible study on Mark 2:22 (on new wine for new wineskins).

‘Must embrace change’

Knox began by lifting up the Scripture spoken by Jesus as he taught during his earthly ministry: “No one pours new wine into old leather wineskins; otherwise, the wine would burst the wineskins and the wine would be lost and the wineskins destroyed. But new wine is for new wineskins” (Mark 2:22 CEB).

Knox shared how Jesus often used something common as an example so the people of that time could relate. Back then, people used animal skins to store liquid. Water was one thing to place inside an animal skin, but wine was fermented, and putting new fermented wine into an old, dried out animal skin would be a catastrophe, causing the skin to burst and the wine to spill out everywhere. Instead, they needed to use new, supple animal skins to store the wine so as the liquid expanded, the new skins could stretch to accommodate it. As Knox said, the old skins are not useless; they simply cannot be used for the new wine. New wine—like new ways and new programs—needs something new.

 “This parable is challenging us to think about what is new in our life and how we don’t need to try to contain it in old things. For if we’re not careful, both the new and the old will become useless,” Knox said.

For example, she said, the organization is now called United Women in Faith. As great as United Methodist Women was, we must embrace something new.

“It’s a new day,” she said. “When new worshippers come to church, we can’t just pour new people into the old way that we’ve always done it. We have to look for new wineskins so new worshippers can expand and grow in their faith … otherwise the new worshippers will spill out and not stay in, and we will fail at making disciples for Jesus Christ.”

Setting sights on the future

In late afternoon, women had their choice of eight workshops: on human trafficking prevention, Limitless group for young women, missions around the world, the guardian ad litem program, a study on the 50-year name history of the organization, the Charter for Racial Justice, a mini Mission u and the Children’s Recovery Center.

After dinner, Session Two started with a word from historian Judy Roumillat, who shared a time of remembrance of the rich history of United Women in Faith since the start of the conference United Methodist Women in 1972 to today. She remembered presidents over the years, including the first president, Connie Byrneside, as well as joys and favorite moments throughout the years.

Next came a service of communion with a word from the Rev. Michelle Louk, First UMC associate pastor, who lifted up Isaiah 43, reminding women they are precious and loved by God, who said we should not fear, for God is with us. In Isaiah 43:18-19, she said, God called us to “not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” for God was “about to do a new thing” (NRSV).

Lifting up the theme of this year’s annual meeting, “Embracing Change, Sharing Grace,” Louk urged women to not forget the past, but to set their sights on the future, which will be even better. As Louk said, the path is through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, “our savior, light in the darkness, advocate, deliverer and shepherd who will take us through those tough times.”

Gadson offered a word on the transparency offered in the change of “new wine,” as opposed to the shame of the past, then all shared in Holy Communion. The evening ended with a time of afterglow fellowship in the parlor hosted by the Marion District.

‘Making a difference’

Session Three began Saturday at 9 a.m. as Ford reconvened the meeting, then presented a video with a message from Harriett Jane Olson, UWF General Secretary/CEO.

Olson lifted up the vision and reality of United Women in Faith, who she called “fierce and passionate engaged women making a difference in the world.”

Ford gave gifts to every past president there, plus asked various people to stand, from district directors to women younger than age 40.

Sue Owens, president of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of United Women in Faith, lifted up the next Jurisdiction Conference, “Get Together,” set for April 26-28, 2024, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Samoria Session, UWF Program Advisory Group member spoke about the importance of their work, and Linda Eichenbaum led a litany, “God is Not Neutral Toward Injustice.” Debra Schooler lifted up the Limitless group (younger than 40) and encouraged women to find young women in their church and introduce them to Limitless, also announcing plans for an in-person Christmas Party in December.

Maureen Thomas spoke next about the Legacy Fund, noting they had a goal of $1/person/unit and reached this goal; the fund helps perpetuate the organization for the next 150 years. She asked women to consider contributing $2/person/unit this year.

Next Ruby Hannah introduced the Presidential Scholarship recipients. One, Ashley Downs, was there and shared her appreciation for the scholarship. An elementary education major at Charleston Southern University, Downs plans to teach second grade when she graduates. Other recipients this year are Paige Barnes, TaSheea Franklin and Kara Gommer.

Various people lifted up 2023 upcoming events, including the virtual Legislative Advocacy Event (Feb. 1, 7, 16 and 25); a mission trip (March 27-30); the virtual Spiritual Growth Event (April 22); the virtual Come Together Be Together (May 20); an in-person Mission u at Spartanburg Methodist College (July 20-22); the annual meeting at St. John’s UMC, Aiken (Oct. 20-21); and District Officers Training (Nov. 11).

Next came a memorial service led by Vickie Harvey lifting up the hundreds of United Women in Faith members in South Carolina who died over the past year.

After a presentation of pledges totaling $271,000, the women adopted a $75,880 budget for 2023. A love offering was collected and divided among the four S.C. mission projects (Wallace Family Life Center, Killingsworth, Columbia Bethlehem Community Center and Bethlehem Center Spartanburg).

A call to be bold

Next came Vonner, who brought a keynote message on the fresh start the new name and logo are offering the organization.

Vonner shared updates about the organization, noting that Olson has announced she is retiring in 2023, and they are now searching for a new general secretary/CEO. She reminded the crowd the organization has been around for 153 years, and there is so much to celebrate.

“It’s a fresh start,” she said. “We are refreshing our story but not our mission focus.”

Sometimes it’s hard to embrace change. For example, her older sister resisted smartphones for a long time, but eventually she got on board with the idea. It’s the same thing with the wineskins concept from Mark 2:22.

“We must refresh to welcome the future,” Vonner said, noting that’s what UWF is doing with the name change. “We are still part of the UMC, but we’re more inclusive for women whose churches have left the UMC. Think of it as creating new wineskins for women coming in.”

While some hearts may be troubled about all the changes happening, we must remember that our ancestors throughout the 153-year history of UWF also lived through pandemics, wars and more.

“God is calling us to be bold,” Vonner said. “Everyone has had to make difficult decisions in our past. Let’s celebrate that we make an impact in the world. Don’t let weariness, fear or brittleness weigh us down. We must lean into each other knowing with confidence God is with us.”

New officers elected

After a lunch break, Ford called Session Four to order. After a video on racial justice, it was announced that a total of 196 women were present at the meeting representing every district; the Marion District had the largest number present, with 55 women. Of the 196, 45 were first-time attendees, four were past conference presidents and two were younger than age 40.

Retiring officers were recognized, then came the presentation of the 2023 slate of officers: President Clarice Blakeney; Vice President Kathy Roys; Secretary Ann Alexander; Communications Coordinator Wanda Chandler-Flowers; Social Action Coordinator Patricia Armstrong; Education and Interpretation Coordinator Beth Addis; Committee on Nominations Chair Azilee Dickey; Spiritual Growth Coordinator Vickie Harvey; Secretary of Program Resources Shirley Crosby; and Kim Neal, member of Committee on Nominations.

The officers were elected unanimously, then officially installed.

The meeting closed with the singing of “Here I Am, Lord,” as the women headed out into the sunny afternoon, ready to make a difference in the world once more.

For more about South Carolina Conference United Women in Faith, visit

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