Last week while attending the United Methodist Church (UMC) General Conference in Tampa, Florida, I was observing a session where delegates from around the globe were discussing the future of our denomination. Like most other mainline denominations, the UMC has struggled with declining membership for decades, but only within its U.S. congregations. Its global membership, especially within countries in Africa, is growing rapidly.
One delegate, a pastor from the Katagana province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, commented on the decline of membership in U.S. churches and in particular, its difficulty with attracting and retaining young people. "The church begins with the pastor's family," he said. He then went on to suggest that the answer to the U.S. decline was for pastors to simply have more and more children.
In response to this suggestion, the room erupted into heartfelt laughter and clapping, perhaps because it was received as a non-serious, comical recommendation. In the midst of serious deliberation, such moments are far too rare. But as an advocate for maternal health in the church, I sat silently, feeling saddened and unsure what upset me more: the comment or the response.
Maternal mortality claims the lives of nearly a thousand women every day. Nearly all of these deaths happen in the developing world, where women lack access to basic health care. They die from preventable things like hemorrhaging and infection, and often from pregnancies that if given the choice, they would have prevented. For many women, giving birth is a life-risking endeavor, one not to be dismissed or joked about in conference rooms, and certainly not by those who seek to bring healing and wholeness to the world.
Mere days after the Congolese pastor spoke, the plenary of nearly 1,000 elected delegates voted to adopt a resolution on maternal health that I drafted. Within it is an affirmation that maternal mortality is a moral tragedy, and that there are many factors that contribute to it, including health and cultural barriers. It calls upon the UMC to take action to support maternal health and family planning through advocacy and direct services.
I never got the opportunity to share my concerns with the delegate who recommended large families, nor do I know if he supported this resolution. As an observer, I did not have a voice at the General Conference. But if I could speak to him today, I would share my vision for what will help save our denomination -- a commitment to alleviating the suffering of the world where no woman dies giving life, and no child grows up motherless.