By Jessica Brodie
Photo by Matt Brodie
LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C.—It’s official: South Carolina will keep Bishop L. Jonathan Holston as its episcopal leader through 2024, and South Carolina’s Dr. Robin Dease has been elected as one of three new bishops for the denomination.
Hundreds from around the region gathered in-person Friday morning, Nov. 4, for the final session of the 2022 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church, held Nov. 2-4 at Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center.
It was the first in-person gathering of the SEJ since 2016 and one of five jurisdictional conferences meeting simultaneously across the U.S. that week. In total, delegates elected 13 new U.S. bishops, who take office Jan. 1, with three elected in the SEJ— delegates (16 lay and 16 clergy), plus alternates, volunteers, media and more were present.
“I am thrilled that Bishop Jonathan Holston will be coming back to the South Carolina Annual Conference,” said Barbara Ware. “As a member of the Committee on Episcopacy, it was a long and tedious process where we were asked to make decisions that would impact many people’s lives. I took that role seriously. So I am grateful we were able to get Bishop Holston back to South Carolina. His leadership has been invaluable to both lay and clergy. We are grateful to have the Bishop and Mrs. Holston continue their ministry here.”
Representatives from the SEJ’s 14 annual conferences had a number of tasks before them that week, including electing new episcopal leaders to replace those who had retired and approving the jurisdictional budget. As SEJ began, there were only nine active bishops in the 14-conference jurisdiction, with some bishops serving multiple episcopal areas because of the pandemic-related absence of a General Conference in 2020 and 2021.
Determining the number of bishops to elect—up to a maximum of five—was among the first items of business at SEJ.
On Nov. 1, the day before the session started, delegates had the opportunity to participate in round-robin sessions and hear from the nine episcopal candidates, including the Rev. Ken Nelson, South Carolina’s conference secretary and Orangeburg District superintendent. Nelson had been South Carolina’s episcopal nominee, though he was not elected.
Then, early Wednesday, Nov. 2, people filled the seats of Stuart Auditorium for a stirring opening worship service preached by Bishop James Swanson with a standing ovation and a call to remain a fearless church even amid anxiety over uncertainty.
Even with all that is going on in the UMC and at this session of the SEJ, Swanson urged, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled, Southeastern Jurisdiction.”
He noted that even the Avengers got worried and wondered if they could defeat Thanos; it is natural to struggle with this.
“So often we get through life by denying what is going on. I’m not going to deny the fear and anxiety that’s in this room right here. But I hear him again: Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Business began as Swanson called the meeting officially to order at 10:39 a.m., with roll call, setting the bar, adoption of the agenda, and the day’s first major item of business: determining how many bishops to elect.
With overwhelming approval by hand vote, the body agreed with the Committee on Episcopacy’s recommendation to elect three bishops this year instead of the authorized five. The COE cited as their rationale financial responsibility given uncertainty over disaffiliation, noting two bishops would be asked to serve two areas until 2024.
The first ballot, to vote on three episcopal nominees, was taken just before noon.
First elected: Tom Berlin
SEJ saw its first episcopal election for the 2022 session Wednesday afternoon as Tom Berlin, the nominee from the Virginia Conference, was elected on Ballot 4. Berlin received 213 of the 208 required votes, or 61.56 percent of the vote.
Berlin received a standing ovation from the room as he headed to the podium to speak on his election, thanking his wife, members of his church who made an eight-hour drive to support him, the other delegates for the ways they have formed his faith and helped in his sanctification, and the bishops who have enabled him to serve.
“You all have been such a great blessing to my life and to be elected as bishop is a singular great honor,” Berlin said. With a nod to the message from opening worship that morning, Berlin added, “We can do nothing without Christ and anything with Christ that Christ desires, and there is nothing good I’ve been a part of that I’ve done myself.
“It is oddly humbling to stand before you and accept this special assignment.”
The rest of Wednesday afternoon and evening saw many more ballots as voting grew contentious, with front-runners shifting between Nelson, the Rev. Connie Shelton, the Rev. Edith Gleaves and Dr. Iosmar Alvarez. Several write-in nominees were introduced on Ballot 1 that morning, including Dease, who initially declined the nomination.
Beyond elections, Wednesday’s late-afternoon session also included approval of the budget put forth by SEJ’s Committee on Finance and Administration, presented by Frank Dunnewind. CFA recommended a $1.5 million budget for the 2021-2024 quadrennium (a reduction of 15.44 percent over the last quadrennium), apportioned to the annual conferences in the SEJ. CFA also recommended the election of David Dommisse as treasurer again for 2021-2024.
CFA said the budgeted amount for 2021-2024 is projected to be “sufficient for the ongoing operational costs of the jurisdiction and its committees.”
SEJ also officially approved a name-change for the Red Bird Missionary Conference, which will now be called The Central Appalachian Missionary Conference. The Rev. Karen Stigall presented the proposal to change the name, citing their 100-plus-year history of serving the people of Central Appalachia, making disciples, providing Christian education, and facilitating fellowship in that region.
The vote passed overwhelmingly.
Second elected: Connie Shelton
SEJ elected Shelton— SEJ Clergywomen nominee, from the Mississippi Conference—as its second bishop late Wednesday just before the session ended for the night.
“There are no words,” a tearful but grinning Shelton told the body. “I will serve you with my whole heart, I will love God and love you, and we will remember what is said at our baptisms: You are initiated into Christ’s holy church; we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation.
“SEJ, let’s not give up on one another. God is inviting into this new day. May God give us open hearts, open minds and open doors.”
While the SEJ’s newly created Agenda Committee received and reviewed three resolutions brought before the conference, Del Holley reported the committee recommended these resolutions not be considered by the body. Holley said all three violate a jurisdiction rule or process or exceeded the authority set forth by Para. 27 of the Book of Discipline.
“As a result of our deliberation, we are not recommending the resolutions be distributed to delegates, published in the (Daily Christian Advocate) or placed on the agenda for consideration,” Holley said.
However, the committee’s recommendation met objection, and the body ultimately voted 222-128 to appeal their decision and allow the resolutions to go before them and be voted upon Thursday.
Helen Ryde, lay delegate in the Western North Carolina Conference, was one of two who spoke urging the body to appeal the committee’s decision. She said they are being presented at all the other jurisdictional conferences.
“To not allow us to vote on these resolutions would silence the voices of all these delegates in the Southeastern Jurisdiction,” Ryde said.
Third elected: Robin Dease
Thursday was a long day of close-call voting, and by the early afternoon, the slate dwindled to four, Nelson and Gleaves, as well as two write-in candidates, Dease and Dr. Zachery Beasley from the Mississippi Conference.
It took the entire afternoon and into the evening, but on the 25th ballot of the 2022 session, the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference elected Dease as its third and final bishop.
Dease’s 206 votes put her over the edge in the election, which had been close most of the day as she and South Carolina nominee the Rev. Ken Nelson were closely tied, sometimes with Nelson in the lead and sometimes Dease.
Swallowing back tears, Dease thanked the body for the honor, noting her parents had all joined the Church Triumphant and most of her 13 siblings as well, with those remaining physically incapable of being there.
“But you are my family,” she said to resounding applause. Then, looking to Nelson in the audience, she added, “And Ken is my brother and my friend.”
Throughout her career, whenever she had the opportunity to lead or serve somewhere new, she’d run home to her parents and celebrate the news, whether that was running an account, graduating from seminary, getting appointed to a church, or becoming a district superintendent.
“They’d say, ‘Now don’t go down there and make us shamed,’” Dease said. Looking again to the room standing in her honor, she said, “My commitment to you is: I will never make you shamed.”
Resolutions and a protest
With episcopal elections finished, delegates to the 2022 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference turned their attention to three resolutions, ultimately passing all of them Thursday night even amid much debate and a peaceful protest on the floor.
The three resolutions were “Leading with Integrity,” “Queer Delegates’ Call to Center Justice and Empowerment for LGBTQIA+ People in the UMC” and “Resolution in Support of a U.S. Regional Conference.”
Under presiding Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, the submitters of each resolution were called forward to explain the details so the body could more thoroughly understand what they were voting upon.
“Leading with Integrity,” submitted by Tennessee lay delegate Jim Allen and newly elected Bishop Robin Dease, South Carolina, passed without amendment.
The resolution urges those who intend to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church to recuse themselves from leadership roles in the UMC in an effort to move forward in fairness and integrity. It also encourages annual conference boards to develop codes of conduct to manage conflicts of interest. After speeches for and against the original resolution, the vote was called and the resolution passed.
“Queer Delegates’ Call to Center Justice and Empowerment for LGBTQIA+ People in the UMC,” submitted by nine queer delegates in the SEJ, passed with one amendment changing a word in the resolution from “commit” to “aspire” in an effort to make the resolution more aspirational for the SEJ and, therefore, legal.
The resolution urges the SEJ to support LGBTQIA+ people, affirm a moratorium on lawsuits and complaints surrounding sexual orientation, not pursue (or resolve in a non-punitive and just manner) complaints against bishops around their sexual orientation or who officiate LGBTQIA+ weddings, and support elections of bishops who uphold this.
Holston ruled the resolution out of order because its language seemed to call the SEJ to violate the Discipline.
However, as he prepared to move to the next resolution before the body, a peaceful protest began on the floor. Several submitters and supporters of the resolution stood in solidarity, some standing directly in front of the dais where the bishop sat. One man asked for a rule of law objecting to Holston’s decision, and some threw their credentials onstage and walked out of Stuart Auditorium. Others gathered en masse up front in protest.
Holston called for a short recess. When the session resumed, Florida lay delegate Matt Daly offered an amendment changing a word in the resolution, changing it so the resolution asked the SEJ to “aspire” to this effort instead of asking the SEJ to “commit” to it.
The amendment passed, and then the question was called. The amended resolution passed to much applause.
“Resolution in Support of a U.S. Regional Conference,” submitted by the Rev. Lisa Yebuah, North Carolina clergy delegate, and Martha E. Stokes, Virginia lay delegate, also passed, though like the others, with much debate. The resolution urged the SEJ to support proposals and expedite processes to help create a regional conference and support the Christmas Covenant and the Connectional Table’s proposals in that vein.
Yebuah said the resolution comes after a realization that “we are incredibly western and U.S.-centric in the way we do our work.”
The hand vote was close, so the question was called by electronic ballot. The resolution passed 203-115.
Task force to study racial bias approved
Next, SEJ Committee on Finance and Administration’s Frank Dunnewind was called to the podium to address what Bishop Ken Carter called the amended “Troxler motion,” which had been referred to CFA the day prior.
That motion, proposed by The Rev. Jeremy Troxler, clergy delegate from the Western North Carolina Conference, would establish a task force to study the impact of racial bias in the episcopal nomination and election process. It would comprise greater than 50 percent representation from under-represented groups, plus interview recent and past episcopal candidates to hear their experiences and solicit their input. The Rev. Esther Rodriguez-Perez, clergy delegate for the Florida Conference, added a friendly amendment recommending an honorarium and travel expense reimbursement go to those on the task force. The amendment was approved and sent to CFA.
Dunnewind said CFA met the day prior and determined there are funds available in the COE budget line to accommodate the motion with funding through the end of the 2021-2024 quadrennium.
Both Troxler and Rodriguez spoke in support of this response. The vote was called, and the body overwhelmingly approved the amended motion to create the task force.
Cheers resounded through Stuart Auditorium after Steve Furr, chair of the SEJ Committee on Episcopacy, announced the assignments Friday morning, which they had worked on until 2 a.m. the night before.
The assignments are as follows and will begin Jan. 1, 2023:
Alabama-West Florida: Bishop David Graves
Florida Conference: Bishop Tom Berlin
Holston Conference: Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett
Kentucky and Central Appalachian Missionary Conferences: Bishop Leonard Fairley
Mississippi Conference: Bishop Sharma Lewis
North Alabama Conference: Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett
North Carolina Conference: Bishop Connie Shelton
North Georgia Conference: Bishop Robin Dease
South Carolina Conference: Bishop L. Jonathan Holston
South Georgia Conference: Bishop David Graves
Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference: Bishop Bill McAlilly
Virginia Conference: Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson
Western North Carolina Conference: Bishop Ken Carter