Photo by Paul Jeffrey, UMNS
Erin Hawkins, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race, speaks on May 10 to the United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore.
By Heather Hahn, United Methodist News Service
Erin Hawkins plans to resign Sept. 30 after nearly 10 years as the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race. She is set to take on a new role as California-Pacific Conference’s executive director of connectional ministries.
“It just seemed to me a good time while (Religion and Race) is in a really strong place programmatically and financially,” Hawkins said. “This was not a decision made in fear.”
M. Garlinda Burton, a United Methodist deaconess and retired top executive of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, will serve as the agency’s interim head. Burton has done contract work with Religion and Race during the past four years.
Hawkins, 40, joined Religion and Race in 2000 and became its top executive in 2007, making her the longest-serving current top executive among the church-funded agencies. She has overseen a staff of eight based in Washington.
Under her leadership, the agency has expanded its role from documenting racial equity issues within the denomination to equipping local churches to reach more racially and economically diverse people in their neighborhoods. The United Methodist Church’s 2014 U.S. membership figuresshowed some slight gains in the denomination’s ethnic diversity.
The agency also has expanded its justice work outside the United States to such efforts as bridging tribal conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I really believe that she transitioned the board and the work of (Religion and Race) from being a monitoring agency to being a transformative agency in the life of the church,” said Los Angeles Area Bishop Minerva Carcaño, the president of the agency’s board. Carcaño also leads Hawkins’ future employer, the California-Pacific Conference.
Because of Hawkins’ leadership, Religion and Race “is leading vital conversations all across the worldwide church about what it means to be communities of faith in the name of Jesus,” the bishop said.
The commission has faced repeated efforts to eliminate it as an independent agency. A proposal to the 2016 General Conference, part of Plan UMC agency restructuring, would have combined the commission with the Commission on the Status and Role of Women into a Committee on Inclusiveness. However, that legislation did not make it out of committee.
Instead, the denomination’s top lawmaking body overwhelmingly passed the agency’s legislation to broaden its purpose and responsibilities to serve an increasingly multiethnic and multinational global church.
More United Methodists “are recognizing the work that we do,” Hawkins said.
She said people seek out the agency when they see a Black Lives Matters rally across the street or learn more about the struggles of refugees around the globe and want to know how the church can help.
She expects Religion and Race “to become an even stronger advocate and voice in addressing the global issues of division that exist within our church and within our world.”
Vital congregations, Hawkins frequently points out, are those that reach more people, younger people and more diverse people. The agency will continue to have a role in helping churches fulfill their disciple-making role.
Raúl Alegria worked with Hawkins both as president of MARCHA, the denomination’s Latino/Hispanic caucus, and as a member of the Connectional Table, a denominational body that coordinates the work of agencies.
He credits her agency with helping MARCHA both with financial resources and with guidance in bringing young adults into leadership roles.
“I am thankful to God for her leadership,” Alegria said. “No matter where we end up as a denomination, I feel like the Commission on Religion and Race is a place that not only cares about persons of color in the church’s midst but is also trying to help the entire church find its way forward toward reaching others.”
He added that because of the agency’s work, he knows The United Methodist Church “will be a place for his children and his grandchildren.”