By Bob Allen
Wanda Lee announced a one-year transition to retirement as executive director of Woman’s Missionary Union, auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention, at the close of a WMU executive board meeting Jan. 11 at Shocco Springs, Ala.
Lee, 65, a former WMU national president, was elected in January 2000 as seventh leader of the organization started by and for women in 1888 to promote Southern Baptist missionaries in an era when women were not permitted to vote or speak at SBC annual meetings.
Over time it grew to become the largest Protestant missions organization for women in the world, enrolling more than 1.5 million in the 1970s. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, the larger of two annual fund-raising projects for domestic and international missions, surpassed the $3 billion mark in 2007.
In recent decades the organization has struggled to stay relevant to younger women amid changing lifestyles, waning denominational loyalty and competition from women’s ministries programs that focus on spiritual enrichment instead of missions.
Lee, who served briefly as a missionary in St. Vincent, recently attributed cutbacks at the SBC International Mission Board to the decline of programs like Royal Ambassadors and Girls in Action to educate children about the mission field.
Lee took over WMU at a difficult time. One of her predecessors, Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler, after retirement pitched her tent with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group formed in 1991 out of a split fueled by doctrinal debate known as the “conservative resurgence.” Conservative male leaders in the SBC accused Crumpler’s successor and Lee’s immediate predecessor, Dellanna O’Brien, of disloyalty for suggesting that WMU could work with both groups.
The controversy spilled over into the early years of Lee’s tenure. She was criticized in 2005 for speaking to the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, a breakaway body from the Missouri Baptist Convention. SBC leaders tried unsuccessfully in 2006 to remove WMU’s auxiliary status and place it under convention control, citing concerns about the organization’s unwillingness to join the male-led denomination in pulling out of the Baptist World Alliance two years earlier.
Lee told WMU leaders a search committee would be appointed to find her successor.