SEJ elects five new bishops

Jurisdiction elects first female African American bishop, narrowly misses electing S.C.’s McClendon

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By Jessica Brodie

LAKE JUNALUSKA, North Carolina—The first day of business at Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference July 13 saw all five of its new bishops elected—including the historic election of the SEJ’s first African-American female bishop, Sharma Lewis, on the very first ballot.

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.”

Lewis is SEJ’s first African-American female bishop

Lewis, of North Georgia Conference, garnered 258 of the 362 valid votes cast just before noon on the first ballot of the conference; 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 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 very first ballot at the 2012 SEJ Conference and had also hailed from the North Georgia Conference, presided over the morning session during which Lewis was elected.

Graves elected on ballot four

The afternoon saw the four other bishops elected. In an afternoon session presided by Florida Bishop Ken Carder, the body elected the Rev. David Graves, of the Holston Conference, on ballot four Wednesday around 3:25 p.m. Graves garnered 221 of the 345 valid votes cast; 207 were required for election.

Graves gave thanks for so many instrumental episcopal leaders who guided him and shaped him over the years, from Bishop Linda Lee who ordained him to Bishop Ray Chamberlain who believed in him, Bishop James Swanson who gave him an opportunity to be a district superintendent and Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor, his current bishop, who he has known for 40 years and who once served as his associate pastor.

“I want to thank you for putting your faith in me, and so we go forth to win people to Christ, see the unseen, transform lives and change the world,” Graves told the body.

Fairley elected on ballot seven

The Rev. Leonard Fairley, of the North Carolina Conference, was elected on ballot seven, held around 4:30 Wednesday afternoon. Fairley garnered 246 of the 369 valid votes cast; 221 were required for election.

Fairley, a widow, lifted up two women he said the body should know and hear about: his late wife, Priscilla, who died of sarcoidosis three years ago, and his grandmother Gladys, who Fairley said couldn’t write her name but was the greatest theologian he’s ever known. He also thanked his family in the North Carolina Conference, as well as Bishops Hope Morgan Ward, Alfred Gwinn and Paul Leeland.

“My request of you, my brothers and sisters, is to pray for me that I might live into the fruit of the Spirit, for I believe in seeing the possibilities and living the promise,” Fairley told the body in his acceptance speech. “I believe that the best years of The United Methodist Church are not behind us, they are in front of us, and so God bless each one of you and, like my grandma used to say, pray my strength in the Lord.”

Ballot 10 elects two: Bryan and Haupert-Johnson

Ballot 10 saw the election of the two final SEJ bishops: the Rev. Lawson Bryan, of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, as the fourth elected, and the Rev. Sue Haupert-Johnson, of the Florida Conference, as the fifth.

Bryan garnered 256 of the 369 valid votes cast.

“What a great privilege to stand before you,” Bryan said, praising the strong support of his annual conference and jurisdictional family and urging all to hold fast to a desire to be unified in Jesus Christ. “That’s all I want to do, that’s all you want to do and that’s what the world needs—immediately.”

Haupert-Johnson garnered 230 of the 369 valid votes cast and took the stage filled with emotion over her election as she lifted up mentors, family and friends who helped carve her path toward the episcopal office.

“Twenty years ago another one of my mentors…called me and said I have a woman you need to meet, she was the district superintendent for Tallahassee and the first clergywoman I’d ever met,” Haupert-Johnson said. “She heard my story, knelt in front of me and prayed for me and prayed grace upon grace, which I had no idea what that meant.”

That woman was Bishop Charlene Kammerer, the first woman elected bishop by the SEJ, who now stood onstage applauding Haupert-Johnson’s election.

“Thank you all,” Haupert-Johnson said. “I hope you will go and spread a broad and vast table with a sumptuous Gospel feast.”

Love and money

The day included other highlights beyond episcopal elections.

Because the episcopal elections happened so quickly, SEJ was able to tackle other business, including approving a budget Wednesday evening for the coming 2017–2020 quadrennium of $1,774,000, a 60 percent reduction from previous years. The budget cuts are not controversial; they reflect the end of debt owed for Lake Junaluska and Hinton Rural Life Center. The body also approved that the $1,774,000 be apportioned to the annual conferences per an approved budget; South Carolina has 7.3402 percent, which is a total of $130,215 or $32,554/year.

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

Worship was also a central part of the day. In a Holy Communion opening worship service that included the hymn “Make Us One” and led by Bishop James R. King Jr., with Bishop B. Michael Watson as celebrant, King preached how the UMC needs to “Focus on Love.”

King told 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.”

In other business, the body heard from a number of groups and videos lifting up programs and items of interest to SEJ United Methodists: videos on Hinton Rural Life Center, Lake Junaluska and Lake Junaluska Assembly, Gulfside Assembly, Archives and History and the Intentional Growth Center; a celebration of 150 years of United Methodist Women; the laity address; videos on Emory University and Candler School of Theology; information about the UMC’s new Abundant Health initiative; a report on the move of the General Board of Global Ministries from New York to Atlanta; a report on the United Methodist Men; and more.

Check back Thursday night for the July 14 wrap-up.

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