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SEJ makes history, elects first female African-American bishop

SEJ makes history, elects first female African-American bishop
Photo by Matt Brodie

Holston remains in S.C.; McClendon narrowly misses election

By Jessica Brodie

LAKE JUNALUSKA, North Carolina—The Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church made history this session, electing the Rev. Sharma Lewis as its first African-American female bishop.

Lewis, who hails from the North Georgia Conference, was one of five new bishops the SEJ elected when it gathered July 13-14. She was elected on the first ballot, garnering 258 of the 362 valid votes cast; 217 votes were required for election.

“I give honor to God, who is the head of my life,” a tearful Lewis said from the podium, then recognized her mother and two sisters who came onstage with her. “God has spoken, Southeastern Jurisdiction. God has spoken today through you and the affirmation of this election. This is not only a historic moment, and you all know this, but this is a God moment.”

Lewis lifted up by name all the SEJ clergywomen who have been elected as bishop.

“All of you cracked the door open for me to stand here today,” she said as applause filled Lake Junaluska’s Stuart Auditorium. “You were not afraid to say yes … thank you.”

South Carolina’s Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston, who had been the first person elected on the first ballot at the 2012 SEJ Conference and also hailed from the North Georgia Conference, presided over the morning session during which Lewis was elected.

The other new bishops are David Graves (Holston Conference, Ballot 4), Leonard Fairley (North Carolina Conference, Ballot 7), Lawson Bryan (Alabama-West Florida Conference, Ballot 10) and Sue Haupert-Johnson (Florida Conference, also Ballot 10).

South Carolina’s episcopal nominee, Delegation Chair Dr. Tim McClendon, narrowly missed election. McClendon was in the top tier for every ballot cast.

“Thank you, South Carolina United Methodists, for your confidence and support,” McClendon wrote on his Facebook page after the final elections. “It has been a privilege! God bless the UMC! I’m blessed to remain as pastor of St. John’s UMC, Aiken. God bless our newly elected bishops.”

The SEJ elections were notably fast; the body elected all five of its bishops before many other jurisdictions had elected a one. Other jurisdictions also made history on several fronts. The UMC this year elected the most women as bishop ever (seven total), including the election of four African Americans and, by the Western Jurisdiction, the election of Dr. Karen Oliveto, a self-avowed, practicing homosexual. Oliveto’s election has prompted controversy in the UMC, whose law currently bans self-avowed practicing homosexuals from ordination. (See related article here.)

Elections were just one of the duties SEJ delegates performed during their gathering. They also announced new episcopal assignments; passed a $1.77 million budget that was 60 percent lower than years past; unanimously approved a new missional initiative including dialogue on racism and human sexuality; and approved nominations for service on general and jurisdictional bodies of the UMC.

 

Holston remains South Carolina bishop

Bishop Jonathan Holston will continue as South Carolina’s episcopal leader another four years, his second quadrennium, while other conferences will get new bishops as some bishops retired, some moved and some were newly elected. Bishops, who are elected for life, typically serve an annual conference for two quadrennia (eight years).

“Thank you for welcoming us back,” Holston told a crowd of South Carolina delegates and others who gathered with him at a reception during SEJ. “We are just so glad to be home. We started talking about ‘a more excellent way,’ and we’re going to continue to do that, but for these next years we’re going to ‘walk by faith, not by sight.’

“You all are family to us and that’s important to us.”

McClendon thanked Holston and his wife, Felecia, for their service and gifts over the past for years.

“We cannot even imagine what God’s going to do through you over the next four years,” McClendon said to applause.

SEJ bishop assignments are as follows:

  • Alabama-West Florida: Bishop David Graves
  • Florida: Bishop Ken Carter
  • Holston: Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor
  • Kentucky/Red Bird Missionary: Bishop Leonard Fairley
  • Memphis/Tennessee: Bishop Bill McAlilly
  • Mississippi: Bishop James Swanson
  • North Alabama: Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett
  • North Carolina: Bishop Hope Morgan Ward
  • North Georgia: Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson
  • South Carolina: Bishop Jonathan Holston
  • South Georgia: Bishop Lawson Bryan
  • Virginia: Bishop Sharma Lewis
  • Western North Carolina: Bishop Paul Leeland

 

Lowest budget passed in years

SEJ also approved a $1,774,000 budget for the 2017-2020 quadrennium. That figure is a 60 percent reduction from previous years. The budget cuts are not controversial, several said; they reflect the end of debt owed for Lake Junaluska and Hinton Rural Life Center. The budget passed as recommended by the SEJ Committee on Finance and Administration.

The SEJ has been reducing its budget since 2008, when a restructuring was approved. The 2012-2016 budget cut operational funds going to agencies but continued to provide funds for debt service payments; those payments end in 2016, enabling the drastically reduced budget.

Jim Allen of the SEJ CFA said the budget reflects a faithful commitment to the ministries of the SEJ and is projected to be sufficient for the ongoing operational costs. It will also provide a cushion to fund emerging ministries or a special called session of Jurisdictional Conference if needed.

The body also approved the election of David Dommisse as SEJ treasurer for the 2017–2020 quadrennium.

Apportionment payments by Annual Conference will be as follows:

  • Alabama-West Florida: $110,543 ($27,636/year)
  • Florida: $211,194 ($52,799/year)
  • Holston: $99,930 ($24,983/year)
  • Kentucky: $78,132 ($19,533/year)
  • Memphis: $53,009 ($13,252/year)
  • Mississippi: $97,396 ($24,349/year)
  • North Alabama: $110,223 ($27,556/year)
  • North Carolina: $125,638 ($31,410/year)
  • North Georgia: $221,455 ($55,364/year)
  • Red Bird Missionary: $506 ($127/year)
  • South Carolina: $130,215 ($32,554/year)
  • South Georgia: $82,851 ($20,713/year)
  • Tennessee: $74,714 ($18,679/year)
  • Virginia: $190,636 ($47,659/year)
  • Western North Carolina: $187,558 ($46,890/year)

 

Missional initiative

The body unanimously approved a new missional initiative proposed by the jurisdictional College of Bishops. Bishop Bill McAlilly presented the initiative to the body on behalf of the COB, stating the proposal was the bishops’ effort at affirming a way forward for the church.

“As leaders of the church in the SEJ, we see a timely opportunity to increase our strategic thinking and action with regard to our context in the Southeast,” the initiative reads in part, noting it is the bishops’ hope to continue to focus on the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. (Read the initiative in full here.)

The initiative specifically will focus on new forms of church beyond the walls; children and poverty; unity and human sexuality; making disciples; and structure, finance and the future church.

A sixth area, racism and white privilege—proposed from the floor by North Carolina delegate Laurie Hays Coffman—was included as a friendly amendment.

 

Nominations affirmed

Several South Carolinians were among a host of SEJ United Methodists elected to serve on UMC general agencies and SEJ committees, agencies and ministries.

For general agencies: The Rev. Ken Nelson will serve on the Connectional Table; Dr. Robin Dease on the General Board of Church and Society (also on GBCS nominations committee); Herman Lightsey on the General Board Pension and Health Benefits; and the Rev. Cathy Mitchell on the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

For SEJ committees, agencies and ministries: The Rev. Tim Rogers will serve on the Committee on Coordination and Accountability; Barbara Ware on Council on Finance and Administration; James Salley on the Gulfside Association Board of Directors; the Rev. Marion Crooks on the Hinton Rural Life Center Board; Holston and Ken Jenkins on the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center Board; the Rev. Roger Gramling and the Rev. A.V. Huff on the SEJ Commission on Archives and History and SEJ Heritage Center Board; and Holston on the Intentional Growth Center Board.

 

‘Focus on love’

Worship was a central part of SEJ, kicking off July 13 with a Holy Communion opening worship service led by Bishop James R. King Jr. with Bishop B. Michael Watson as celebrant.

King preached how the UMC needs to “Focus on Love,” telling a story about how he was in Nashville, Tennessee, one cold winter day when he happened to encounter a housekeeper in the elevator. The woman noticed his clerical collar and asked for him to pray for her sister, who was struggling with cancer. King noted the two of them had never met before. They didn’t spend any time talking about their status or their differences on faith; they only focused on her hope and what they had in common, which was Jesus Christ.

That’s exactly what the UMC needs to be doing right now, King preached—focusing on Jesus.

“Unity occurs when two separate parts find a favorable connection that holds them together more than the differences that can separate them,” King said. “Unity places the weight on what we have in common. So if you like red and another likes yellow and I like blue but we all like green, unity doesn’t ask us to give up our favorite colors. It just asks us to put our energy on what we have in common, which is green, and now we’re ready to go together.

“Our hope for unity in the church and in the world is based on our ability to focus our energy on what we have in common, and that is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is love, so beautiful people, let’s focus on love.”

King and others lifted up that “focus on love” theme several times throughout the SEJ gathering.

 

Retirement and memorial services

SEJ also honored five retiring bishops, as well as six bishops and five bishop spouses who have died since the last quadrennium.

Retiring bishops honored were Lindsey Davis, Kentucky and Red Bird Missionary conferences; James King, South Georgia Conference; B. Michael Watson, North Georgia Conference; Young Jin Cho, Virginia Conference; and Larry Goodpaster, Western North Carolina Conference.

Bishops who died were Mack Stokes, Robert Morgan, Lloyd Knox, Roy Clark, Charles Hancock and William Morris, as well as spouses Mariam Hancock, Mary Ann Minnick, Eva Eutsler, Mildred “Tuck” Jones and Louise Short.

 

South Carolina delegates

South Carolina delegates to SEJ were elected at Annual Conference 2015. Sixteen are laity and 16 are clergy, plus four alternates (two lay, two clergy).

Lay delegates:

  • Barbara Ware
  • James Salley
  • Dr. Joseph Heyward
  • Herman Lightsey
  • Jackie Jenkins
  • Michael Cheatham
  • Martha Thompson
  • Dr. David Braddon
  • Lollie Haselden
  • Emily Rogers Evans
  • Donald Love
  • Jennifer Price
  • Chris Lynch
  • Dr. Carolyn Briscoe
  • Linda DuRant
  • Lou Jordan
  • Alternate: Cynthia Williams
  • Alternate: Marilyn Murphy

Clergy delegates:

  • Dr. Tim McClendon
  • Rev. Ken Nelson
  • Rev. Tim Rogers
  • Dr. Robin Dease
  • Rev. Tiffany Knowlin
  • Rev. Narcie Jeter
  • Rev. Mel Arant Jr.
  • Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray
  • Rev. Telley Gadson
  • Rev. Michael Turner
  • Rev. Kathy James
  • Rev. George Ashford
  • Rev. James Friday
  • Rev. Sara White
  • Rev. Emily Sutton
  • Rev. Jeff Kersey
  • Alternate: Rev. Connie Barnes
  • Alternate: Rev. Cathy Joens

 

For more on SEJ, visit www.sejumc.org.

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