Southeastern elects first African-American woman as bishop
In a historic election, the Rev. Sharma Lewis of the North Georgia Annual Conference has been elected bishop by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.
She was elected on the first ballot at the jurisdiction’s quadrennial meeting at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.
Lewis is the first African-American woman elected bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
"I was called by God and I made myself available, not just to a position, but to follow God's will," said Lewis. "I am excited, and I am really humbled. At 52 years old, I am excited that my next phase of life will be as an episcopal leader.I am humbled to the fact that this is historic."
Lewis was the first bishop elected by the 376 delegates, an equal number of United Methodist clergy and laity, from the nine states that form the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Later in the week, the Southeastern Jurisdiction will announce the assignment of bishops for the next four years. Her four-year term of service begins Sept. 1.
Bishop Jonathan Holston was presiding bishop when Lewis was elected. Just four years ago, he was North Georgia's nominee for bishop and was elected on the first ballot by the 2012 SEJ Conference. He now serves in the South Carolina Annual Conference. Bishop Mike Watson and Bishop Lindsey Davis escorted Lewis to the stage after the announcement of her election.
Lewis is the first African-American woman elected as a bishop in the denomination since 2000. The first ever African-American female bishop in The United Methodist Church, Bishop Leontine Kelly, was from the Virginia Conference but was elected in 1984 by the church’s Western Jurisdiction.
Addressing the conference, Lewis named Kelly, along with each of the U.S. African-American female bishops elected by The United Methodist Church and each of the women elected bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
"The reason I'm calling the roll is because I know that those women broke the ceiling for me to stand here today," she said.
Lifelong United Methodist
Currently serving as district superintendent of the Atlanta-Decatur-Oxford District, Lewis is a native of Statesboro in the South Georgia Conference and a life-long United Methodist.
She is a graduate of Mercer University and the University of West Georgia, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, and worked as a biologist in the academic and corporate sectors. After answering the call to ministry, she entered Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, where she earned the Master of Divinity with honors.
"I have an evangelistic heart, I just feel that people need Jesus. And I hope that's what I bring to the Council of Bishops," said Lewis.
Bishop James Swanson was Lewis' pastor in the South Georgia Conference. Now she joins him as an active bishop.
"My ministry has been blessed," she said, explaining that she has had the opportunity to serve at large churches, small churches, on the cabinet, and on a multi-staff.
Before being appointed district superintendent, Rev. Lewis served at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in McDonough, Powers Ferry United Methodist Church in Marietta and Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
One of many 'firsts'
This election is one of many "firsts" in her ministry. She was the first female senior pastor and first African-American pastor of Powers Ferry United Methodist Church. She was the first woman to serve as senior minister of Wesley Chapel UMC, and the first woman to serve as district superintendent in the Atlanta-Decatur-Oxford District.
Perhaps the "first" that was her biggest surprise was receiving the G. Ross Freeman Leadership Award given by the United Methodist Men. "I was surprised and speechless," said Lewis. "This award is for engaging men in ministry."
She had been very intentional in her support of the United Methodist Men at Wesley Chapel. The men's group began to grow and get more and more connected. She encouraged a mentoring program and supported the Men's involvement with a conference-wide retreat and prayer ministry.
"To me, the part of being 'the first' is that it sets a model of what's possible," she explained. "I've always tried to do that and bring people along with me, showing other people they can do this — and that they may even do it better. We can't do ministry effectively unless we do it collaboratively."
On what has been a long journey from being nominated as a candidate for bishop by North Georgia delegation almost a year ago, she says a highlight has been affirmation from colleagues. "There's something about being affirmed by the people who know you — clergy and laity," she emphasized. "Yes, I'm clergy, but I was laity first."
Lewis is the recipient of the 2010 Harry Denman Evangelism Award. She has served on numerous committees, boards and task forces representing The United Methodist Church, including leading the 201 and 2016 North Georgia clergy delegations to General and Jurisdictional Conference.
A consecration service for the five new bishops will be held at 10:00 a.m. EDT Friday, July 15, at Lake Junaluska. The ceremony can be watched live at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center’s website.
Within the United States, local United Methodist churches are organized into increasingly larger groups: numerous districts, dozens of annual conferences and five jurisdictions. An episcopal area can include one or more conferences.
Thirteen active bishops now lead the 15 annual conferences that form the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
A United Methodist bishop in the United States is elected for life. Typically, a bishop will serve a specific episcopal area for eight years, but can serve as long as 12 years in one area.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the denomination’s governing document, directs each bishop to “guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church.”
Bishops provide oversight and support to The United Methodist Church’s mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. They also are charged to work “for the unity of the church” and “be the shepherd of the whole flock.”
Sybil Davidson is conference communicator for the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church.