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New Zealand Methodist Women's Fellowship

1902 –

This essay written by Margaret Gordon was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1902 – 1993

In the early 1990s the objectives of the New Zealand Methodist Women's Fellowship (NZMWF) were to 'promote by worship, study and service, the spiritual and social life of its members so that they may make a Christian witness in home, church and community', and to 'support the work of the church at home and abroad'. [1] In 1992 MWF membership numbered 5000.

The forerunners of the Fellowship were the Methodist Women's Missionary Union (MWMU), the Methodist Women's Guild Fellowship (MWGF), and some local, informal 'fireside' groups. In 1902 a Methodist Women's Missionary Auxiliary was formed in Dunedin, chaired by a deaconess, Sister Olive Jeffrey, to respond to an appeal for help by a missionary from Fiji. Other auxiliaries soon formed in the larger towns, offering friendship and service. From 1905 on, the funds raised supported women with teaching and nursing skills to train alongside deaconesses and go as missionaries to Papua and Fiji. A used stamp fund started by Elizabeth Purdie of Dunedin in 1934 was still raising thousands of dollars for missions in 1993.

Under the leadership of Mary Bowron, president of the Christchurch auxiliary from 1907, the first National Methodist Women's Convention was organised in 1915, and the MWMU was inaugurated. 'Women were conscious of their power when organised, and wanted organisations that were demonstrably their own.' [2] The MWMU objective, 'Women's work for women', highlighted their determination to set achievable goals in both home and overseas mission work. [3]

From 1922 to 1964, MWMU contributed to a quarterly church mission paper, The Open Door. In 1922 the MWMU Box Department was established, and organised until 1945 by Ada Smethurst. From her home in Tamaki Drive, Auckland, women packed and sent to overseas workers anything from sewing machines to a camp oven. Bequeathed to the MWMU, her house was used as a retreat for deaconesses and overseas workers until sold in 1981. The capital set up the Smethurst Fund for education and travel for New Zealand and South Pacific women, and bringing international speakers to conventions.

In 1931, when very few Māori girls were going on to secondary school, MWMU achieved a long-cherished aim, opening in Auckland the Kurahuna (hidden place of learning) School of Domestic Science and Hygiene for Māori girls, especially those entering domestic service. Women contributed 'a penny a week for Kurahuna'. A second school, Rangiatea, was opened in New Plymouth in 1940; but after the war, with secondary schooling much more available, both became hostels for girls attending nearby state schools. [4] When Kurahuna was sold in 1971 the proceeds went to an education fund; which by 1993 was giving 45 grants annually to Māori female students.

When the New Zealand Methodist Church took responsibility for Methodist mission outreach in the western Solomon Islands in 1922, the MWMU was given representation on the Church's Foreign Mission Board. However, it was not represented on Conference, the national body of the Methodist Church, until 1933.

As early as 1875, women aware of local church needs were forming guilds to offer financial help in their local circuits, and provide spiritual and social support to each other. Though independent, these groups had in common pastoral care, sick visiting, preparing sacraments and flowers, furnishing parsonages, and participating in Church Courts. A Methodist Women's Guild (MWG) constitution was approved by Conference in 1928, allowing for broadly based activities, and in 1944 the MWG gained representation on Conference. Five years later, at its own conference, MWG approved a constitution for what then became the Methodist Women's Guild Fellowship (MWGF), and in 1950 the new body held its first conference with Dorothy Burnett as president.

Members of the Australasian contingent at the 1966 World Fellowship of Methodist Women conference, London. New Zealand delegates are Winifred Dudley (fourth from left) and Florence Baber (fifth from left).

Many women belonged to both MWMU and MWGF, and a growing vision of unity led MWMU president Gladys Carter and MWGF president Laurel McAlister to consult in April 1959 about merging. A combined conference in Marton in 1960 agreed to unite; meetings continued until February 1964, when the New Zealand Methodist Women's Fellowship was officially formed, with Florence Baber of Palmerston North as first president.

The pattern into the 1990s was that the national president, who could be nominated by any of the eighteen NZMWF districts, selected an executive from her own district. A bimonthly president's letter and presidential visits to districts aided continuity. A biennial convention was held with a national council meeting in alternate years; district councils met quarterly. While some fellowships welcomed men at local meetings, there was no move to include them in the organisation.

NZMWF had strong links with Te Rōpū Wāhine Wēteriana o Aotearoa, the Methodist Māori women's organisation, attending its hui huinga (annual gathering), and sharing projects and overseas seminars. As more South Pacific women resident in New Zealand became involved, they affiliated in their own Fellowships: Samoan in 1978, Fijian in 1986, and Tongan in 1989.

The annual special project, initiated by MWMU, had high priority in NZMWF. From 1986 it was undertaken jointly with the Association of Presbyterian Women. Projects included strong financial support for Whākatuora Māori Centre (Mangere), Helena Goldie Hospital (Solomon Islands), Boreholes for Botswana, Rehabilim (rehabilitating disabled people in Indonesia) and Women at Risk. The 1978 Friendship House Project in Manukau City led to Friendship Scholarships for Pasifika girls' education in New Zealand being introduced in 1990.

Although the Fellowship was not active in the battle for women in the ministry, individual members gave their support. When Dr Phyllis Guthardt, the first woman to be ordained in the New Zealand Methodist Church, won a scholarship to do her doctorate at Cambridge in 1960, Methodist women raised £1000 towards her expenses. [5] NZMWF continued to support the Order of Deaconesses, formally constituted in 1907, as its predecessors had done. From 1908 to 1979, 170 women were trained in Christchurch at Deaconess House, giving compassionate, sacrificial service – especially to women and children in need – in places where the Church was otherwise not always visible. [6] The women's organisations offered financial help, prayer and friendship to deaconesses in their work in Central Missions (later Methodist Mission Aotearoa), Māori circuits and hostels, children's homes, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.

The home setting programme for training deacons, introduced in 1976, encouraged women to serve in their local parishes and communities, often further developing the skills first gained through participation in NZMWF. All students, whether training at theological college or in home setting, were 'adopted' by a district MWF group; overseas workers were supported through the Mission Associate Scheme.

In 1956 the organisation joined the World Federation of Methodist Women (WFMW); founded in 1939 by visionary educator Helen Kim of South Korea. In 1993, with a membership of over six million, the WFMW’s motto was 'To know Christ and to make him known'. [7] It met every five years; in the interim its nine areas, including the South Pacific, held their own seminars. WFMW committees were active on human rights, development, disarmament, the status of women, racism and decolonisation. In February 1983 WFMW took on a new dimension, gaining NGO membership of UNESCO. Several able New Zealand women provided leadership in the WFMW. [8]

With NZMWF affiliation in 1964 to the National Council of Women (NCW), and involvement in the Women's Committees of the National Council of Churches, came a wider vision and greater interest in issues of justice and ecumenism. Through all the changes, the scallop shell logo continued to symbolise pilgrimage and mission, with the cross over all.

Margaret Gordon

1994 – 2018

In the years after 1993, NZMWF continued to identify with the aspirations and struggles of women practising their Christianity according to the Wesleyan tradition, in the steps of Susanna Wesley (1669–1742). The Constitution stated its aims: to unite members in prayer, study, fellowship and service, encouraging them to make a Christian witness in home, church and community; to support the work of Methodist and Uniting churches; and to encourage an informed interest in world-wide mission and evangelism. [9]

Leaders of NZMWF in the 1990s were Ruth Bilverstone (Christchurch), Ruth Blundell (Manawatu), Alison Kane (Nelson) and Margaret Birtles (Oamaru).  During the 2000s, leaders were Susau Strickland (Auckland), Mary West (Hamilton), Nelma Woodfield (Wellington), Vaotane Saleu’upolu (Samoan District Auckland), and Lynne Scott (Christchurch). 

As membership within the more traditional model of Women’s Fellowship decreased, Pasifika groups (particularly in Auckland) brought a new younger involvement in NZMWF, with Vaotane Saleu’upolu, representing the Samoan District, elected national president 2008–2010. These women formed district executives and held office for a two year period. To embrace and reflect this change in Pasifika membership during 2000–2010, changes to the constitution were also adopted to recognise the growing Tongan, Samoan and Fijian Fellowships as Districts in their own right.

The 2010s began with Mataiva Robertson, of Samoan heritage living in Taranaki, the first NZMWF Unit Helen Kim Scholar, becoming the Fellowship’s youngest national president. Mataiva’s executive team members were multicultural. By 2018, Marie Smith (Wellington), Olive Tanielu (with a young Samoan Executive from Hawkes Bay), Dianne Claughton (Christchurch) and in October Siniva Vaitohi (Tongan District, with a Tongan Executive from Auckland) continued the aims, objects and mission outreach of NZMWF.  These young women, adept at embracing new technology, used Facebook and Twitter posts to inform members of Fellowship events, and assisted in keeping the Fellowship’s profile to the fore.

NZMWF continued to be a member of and have strong links to the World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women (WFM&UCW), as it became known in 1996. The WF World Assembly was held every five years. These gatherings gave wonderful opportunities to many young women to gain first-hand experience of the wider work of WF locally and globally, inspiring them to support and further the work of the WFM&UCW as well as of NZMWF. From 2011 to 2016, two NZMWF women, Leu Pupulu and Lynne Scott, held WF World Officer positions, Leu as World Treasurer and Lynne as South Pacific Area President.  Ruth Le Couteur of NZWMF was World Treasurer on the WF Executive which established the Helen Kim Scholarship Programme in 2001. 

This mentoring programme, for young women showing potential leadership qualities, was named after the founder of the WF. Before each World Assembly, two women aged between 18 and 30 showing leadership potential were selected from each of the nine areas of the Federation to attend a two-day training programme, take part in the full Assembly, and become the Helen Kim Scholars for the next five years. [10] The leadership and mentoring programme at the 13th Assembly in Houston, Texas, in 2016 was led by two former Helen Kim Scholars from the South Pacific Area, Rowena Quintanilla (Australia) and former NZMWF president  Mataiva Robertson. This was the first time former scholars had led the programme. [11] The WF had an emphasis on the welfare of the ‘Girl Child’ for many years, and this became one of its major justice issues. 

Annual Special Projects continued to be one of the outreaches for NZMWF, as well as a major fundraiser. Each year there was an overseas focus (usually chosen with guidance through Christian World Service) and also a New Zealand wide project.  As well as raising funds, these were seen as opportunities for education and raising awareness of needs within New Zealand’s own communities.  NZMWF also used its established networks to actively promote and advance action to meet the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, ‘the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’. [12]

NZMWF also continued to administer three Trust Funds established in the 1980s: two (Friendship Scholarship and Kurahuna) assisted senior secondary girls, both Pasifika and Māori, with course fees and other expenses, and the other (the Smethurst Trust) assisted women and girls undertaking tertiary studies, attending leadership courses, retraining, and so on.

In 2018 the NZMWF had around 1500 subscribing members, much the same as in 2008, although there were significantly greater numbers of younger Pasifika members.  The demographic had changed as many long-established churches closed (particularly in the Christchurch area following the earthquakes), and older long-serving members were no longer able to participate in their local groups.

While NZMWF members continued to promote the Fellowship’s aims in their districts, the National Council for district leaders and the National Convention for all members provided opportunities to review and reflect on the direction of the organisation, and share and promote a vision for the future.  With faith, determination and a willingness to embrace change, the future of NZMWF was assured. 

Dianne Claughton and Lynne Scott


[1] NZMWF Constitution, 1964.

[2] Carter, 1973, p. 117.

[3] Fry, 1987, p. 114.

[4] See Fry, 1987, Ch. 5, for a full account of Methodist women's involvement with schools and hostels.

[5] See Fry, 1987, pp. 212–15, for an account of women in the Methodist ministry. In 1985 Guthardt became the first woman president of the Methodist Church.

[6] Mary Elizabeth Bowron assisted in establishing Deaconess House; she had helped to found a Deaconess order in England.

[7] WFMW, 1986, p. 35.

[8] Winifred Dudley (1961–71), area vice-president and world secretary; Florence Baber (1966–71), area vice-president; Vera Dowie MBE (1971–86), area vice-president, president, world secretary; Margaret Gordon (1986–91), area president.

[9] Laws and Regulations of the Methodist Church of New Zealand Te Haahi Weteriana o Aotearoa, Revised Edition Board of Administration, Christchurch, 2007, revised 2017.

[10] WFM&UCW, ‘Helen Kim Memorial Scholarship: Leadership Development Training.’ See

[11] World Federation of Methodist and Uniting Church Women Facebook post, ‘Assembly News update #16’, 13 July 2015.

[12] UN, ‘About the Sustainable Development Goals’ [n.d.]. See

Unpublished sources

Methodist Women's Missionary Union records, 1909–1964; Methodist Women's Guild Fellowship records, 1949–1964; Methodist Women's Fellowship records, 1964–1992, held at Methodist Archives, Hames House, Auckland or Methodist Archives, Morley House, Christchurch

Published sources

Carter, George, A Family Affair: A Brief Survey of New Zealand Methodism's Involvement in Mission Overseas, 1822–1972, Wesley Historical Society, Auckland, 1973

Fry, Ruth, Out of the Silence: Methodist Women of Aotearoa 1822–1985, Methodist Publishing, Christchurch, 1987

Tree of Life (international newsletter of the World Federation of Methodist Women), 1989–1992

World Federation of Methodist Women, Methodist Women – A World Sisterhood: A History of the World Federation of Methodist Women, 1932–1986, WFMW, Korea