New UMW leader likes mixing devotion with action


By Linda Bloom
United Methodist News Service
STAMFORD, Conn. — Harriett Olson believes that personal devotion and a call to action is a good mix.

That was one of the reasons she was attracted to United Methodist Women and the position of chief executive of the Women’s Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, which serves as UMW’s administrative arm.

Olson, 49, who was unanimously elected to that position on Aug. 17 by the division’s board of directors, began her new job on Sept. 4. She succeeded Jan Love, who is now dean of the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

Her election was confirmed by the entire Board of Global Ministries during its Oct. 8-11 annual meeting.

The New Jersey native has long been an active church volunteer, despite a busy law career. After graduating from Houghton College in New York in 1980 and from Harvard Law School in 1983, she joined the firm of Pitney, Hardin, Kipp and Szuch in Morristown, N.J., where she was a partner in the real estate department from 1991-96. 

Olson was involved in a number of committees and activities as a member of Morristown United Methodist Church and the denomination’s New Jersey Annual Conference, including four years as chairperson of the Conference Council on Ministries. On the international church scene, she was a delegate to the 1988, 1992 and 1996 General Conferences and a director of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship from 1988-96.

The Morristown church was one of five congregations originally supporting the denomination’s Russia Initiative, and Olson was able to visit with church partners there and be part of the committee responsible for having the Disciple Bible Study translated into Russian. In 1996, Olson said she wondered about “an opportunity to serve God in a different way” rather than fitting such work into her spare time.

Neil Alexander, president of the Publishing House, recommended her for the position there.

Olson plunged into Christian education and projects such as the Spanish-language worship book and Korean-English United Methodist hymnal. “I learned a lot from the academic work,” she said.

Her personal experience with United Methodist Women includes being part of the leadership team at the Morristown unit. Now, as the leader of UMW, she wants to continue to meld the organization’s collected memories and stories with its aspirations for the future.

“The work right in front of us is the work of negotiating that connection,” Olson explained. “We’re really about living a life that’s becoming the Gospel. It’s not just an individual life; it’s a corporate life.”