August 1, 2023
Sally Vonner has gone far in her career, but she came home to Texas for her installation as top executive of United Women in Faith.
Family members packed three pews of Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas. Hundreds of other well-wishers, including some fellow members of the African American sorority Delta Sigma Theta, joined in a spirited July 29 service.
The Rev. Stan Copeland, pastor of Lovers Lane United Methodist, established the homecoming theme in welcoming remarks.
“We Texans are known for our humility,” he said, drawing laughs. “But we’re proud of Sally.”
Vonner, 65, began June 1 as general secretary and CEO of New York-based United Women in Faith, the mission organization formerly known as United Methodist Women.
The group, founded in 1869, works through advocacy, grants, nearly 90 national mission institutions and other ways to better the lives of women, children and youth. It reports a membership of nearly 500,000 in the U.S. and internationally.
Vonner is a longtime United Women in Faith staff member and regularly attends Teaneck United Methodist Church in New Jersey.
But she chose to have her installation in Dallas, within driving distance for many family members and longtime friends, as well as organization members around the Southwest.
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She beamed often through the hour-long service and spoke briefly toward the end.
“I am honored to step into this role, knowing that it is my call for this season and that you will support me with your prayers, your grace and your companionship,” she said.
The service featured stirring music, including the Carlton R. Young-Brian Wren hymn “This Is a Day of New Beginnings,” the South African hymn “Siyahamba” and the Gershwin ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me.”
The Sacred Dancers of Dallas’ St. Luke Community United Methodist Church provided another enlivening element. Near the end, Vonner was anointed with oil by North Texas Conference Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr., and there was a “communal anointing” for audience members who came forward.
‘Ainise ‘Isama’u, board president of United Women in Faith, described the service as just right for Vonner.
“Today I felt the essence of who Sally is and what she’s going to bring to United Women in Faith — essence of grace, essence of compassion and an essence of just love,” she said.
Vonner grew up in the east Texas city of Tyler. She holds an undergraduate degree from Texas A&M-Commerce and a Master of Divinity degree from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology.
She told UM News that she considered ordained ministry but felt spirit-led to serve the church as a lay woman, though the path was uncertain.
“I never imagined this would be where God would lead me,” she said of assuming leadership of United Women in Faith. “But I’m grateful and honored to pick up the baton from so many wonderful and powerful women who have come before me.”
Vonner comes to the job with an extensive United Methodist background.
She was commissioned as a U.S. missionary by the Board of Global Ministries in 2000 and served in the North Texas Conference as Communities of Shalom coordinator. From 2005-2010, she was the conference’s associate director for connectional ministries. She has been a jurisdictional conference delegate and alternate and has led women’s retreats.
In 2010, Vonner joined what is now United Women in Faith as assistant general secretary of membership and leadership development. Eight years later, she became its transformation officer, coordinating visioning and strategic development.
Vonner oversaw the rebranding that included the organization’s name change, announced early last year. The United Women in Faith board elected her as CEO and general secretary on May 22.
She’s following Harriett Jane Olson, who held the top post for nearly 16 years.
Vonner is the second African American to lead the women’s mission organization. The first was Theressa Hoover, who served from 1968 to 1990.
Vonner begins at a challenging time. United Women in Faith has, like The United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations, faced a gradual decline and aging of its U.S. membership.
The organization has run operating deficits in recent years, and it’s trying to rebound even as The United Methodist Church faces a wave of local church disaffiliations owing to disagreements over LGBTQ inclusion.
“As we gather in this sacred space, we find ourselves in a pivotal moment in the life of our organization,” ‘Isama’u told the installation audience, which included 1,500 who joined via livestream.
Vonner said she’s aware that local church disaffiliations and splits within churches are affecting United Women in Faith chapters.
“I want to keep our members encouraged, inspired, because I know it’s difficult losing people that have been your friends for years,” she told UM News. “We’ve heard that and we feel that.”
Vonner has already been on the road, visiting churches and national mission institutions. She plans to keep at that, stressing unity and looking forward.
There’s reason for hope, Vonner insists.
“The same God is with us that was with our foremothers who lived through every single thing,” she said.
Wendy Campbell, president of United Women in Faith in the North Texas Conference, strongly supports Vonner’s selection as top executive.
“Sally already knows this organization and understands our mission,” Campbell said. “She knows women involved at all levels and is well equipped to broaden our appeal to all women of faith.”
One poignant part of the installation was a trumpet solo by Vonner’s daughter, Lessie, on “Someone To Watch Over Me.”
Afterward, Lessie Vonner paid tribute with words.
“My mom’s been a shining example for me my whole life of what you can do with the love and power of God in your heart,” she told UM News. “I’m so proud of her.”