A United Methodist bishop shares about her deep roots in the church (she is the 14th pastor in her family!), her call to ministry from medicine, her love of shoes, and her rich prayer life. You will enjoy meeting Bishop Sharma Lewis of the Richmond Episcopal Area.
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Bishop Sharma Lewis
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This episode originally posted on February 2, 2018.
Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape. I’m Joe Iovino.
Sharma: I was called at 12 years old, but how do you tell people at 12 or 13 that you feel a call?
Joe: That’s United Methodist Bishop Sharma Lewis of the Richmond Episcopal Area, who originally thought her call would lead her to a different career.
Sharma: I then pursued medicine. I was a biology major. I have a Bachelors and a Masters in biology and I minored in chemistry, and I pursued that for years.
Joe: When applying to medical school she had a conversation with her aunt the Rev. Essie Simmons that changed everything.
Sharma: I came home from college and we went out to dinner. She said, “I really feel that you have a call upon your life.” I remember saying to her, “Not you, too.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Do I have a sign on my head that says ‘reverend?’ People tell me that all the time.”
Joe: I had a wonderful time meeting Bishop Lewis, and I’m sure you will, too.
Joe: I want to begin asking about your early life of faith, growing up in Statesboro, Georgia. What are your earliest experiences with church?
Sharma: Well, first of all, I was born and raised United Methodist. Actually my United Methodist Church, Brannen Chapel United Methodist Church in Statesboro, Georgia was literally down the street from my parents’ family business. It was in walking distance, so it was no excuse that we couldn’t go to Vacation Bible School or Sunday School or even church.
I was raised a United Methodist. What is always interesting for people to know about me is that I am actually the 14th pastor in my family. There are several United Methodist clergy pastors that I have had the blessing to watch and follow in their footsteps.
Sharma: Yeah. So, as I tell people, I’m United Methodist through and through. I couldn’t help, but…
Joe: You said there are 14 pastors in your family. Are they contemporaries or were they grandparents or…. ?
Sharma: A little bit of both, I can tell you. My grandfather, Reverend Vanderbilt Senior who died before I was born was a United Methodist pastor in what was called back then the Georgia Conference. A lot of people do not realize that in Georgia at one time only had one bishop. He served in the Georgia Conference. ‘Cause you know now Georgia has North Georgia and South Georgia.
I had an aunt, Reverend Essie C. Simmons, who did serve as a United Methodist pastor in the South Georgia Conference. Then I have two uncles that served United Methodist in what’s now called the North Carolina Annual Conference. That was Reverend Claudie Simmons, Sr. In the family we have United Methodist pastors, Baptists, Pentecostal and Apostolic.
Joe: You have some very deep roots.
Sharma: I have very deep church roots. Always raised in the church. Loved the church.
I really feel that I was called at 12 years old. I had a love and a passion for the church. But how do you tell people at 12 or 13 that you feel a call in a small town like Statesboro? So it was just something that, you know…
I just was very, very active, and joined the church. I actually joined the church at 12 years old. There was an open invitation, and believe it or not, my pastor at that time…it was an open invitation where you would literally walk down front. He would ask you to come give him your hand, but give God (as he would say) your heart. I remember at 12 years old walking down the aisle, the center aisle, and what was interesting, the pastor Reverend Bradley (he is now deceased.) instead of (as they say) inviting me into the church, he leaned over from the altar and whispered in my ear did I know what I was doing? I whispered back, “Yes sir, I do. I discussed it with my parents, but more importantly I come to confess Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. And I want to live out my faith here at Brannen Chapel United Methodist Church.” I tell people, the rest is history.
Joe: I love hearing about call stories. Can you tell me at 12 years old what led you to believe that you were being called into ministry? What was that experience?
Sharma: Well, I will tell you at 12 years old I had (as my mother would say) one of those old souls, as she would say. I had a passion for the church. People like Mrs. Amanda Smith, and Mrs. Willoughby Williams, and Mrs. Pearl Bellinger, who were like the mothers of the church, they were my Sunday School teachers. There was just always something about when I would be with them or work with them, you know, I was always excited about Christ, excited about doing things.
Mrs. Amanda Smith was the first teacher who asked me to assist her in Sunday school. She also lived very close to my parents’ business. My parents had… their first business was a convenience store. So I would go over to the store, and then I would walk within a couple of blocks of Mrs. Smith’s house, literally every Saturday, and help her prepare the Sunday school lesson. Then one day when I went over she says, “I think you are ready.” I think I was about 13 or 14. She said, “I think you’re ready to have your own class.” I was like, “No. I can’t have my own class.” So she’s like, “Well, how about we start small?” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” She says, “How ‘bout we start… I’ll ask the pastor can you teach your first vacation Bible school.”
I taught my first vacation Bible school, I think, around like 13. There was just something about…. It just clicked. I loved telling the stories of Jesus. I loved working in the church. It was very natural for me. I really like being… I really like doing more things in the church than just I guess your normal things that you would do as a 13-year-old. When I reflect back on my life, I really do feel that God was calling and answering me at a very young age. I just didn’t know how to interpret it.
My interpretation was you just, you know, you be a Christian, and you try to live your life as Christ-like. I continue to do that.
In college, I was very active in the student Baptist…. Believe it or not I went to a Baptist school. I went to Mercer University, which is Southern Baptist, which people say, “How did that happen?” And I tell people how that happened is that they gave me more scholarship money and they had this thing called ‘Wonderful Wednesday.’ There were no classes on Wednesday.
Joe: Oh wow.
Sharma: Yeah. People would say, so that means you partied on Tuesday and Friday. [Laughs]
Mercer gave me more money. But again, as God would have it, even though I was a biology major I was attracted to the Religion Department. I took religious courses. I took Old Testament, New Testament. I took all of those courses. I really feel, Joe, that God was just continuing to form me, spiritually form me, and I just didn’t realize.
So I’ve been on my faith story or my call story, I then pursued medicine—biology. I was a Biology major. I have a…. As you may have read, I have a Bachelors and a Masters in Biology and I minored in Chemistry. I pursued that for years, but still active in the church. Then after I graduated, I applied to medical school, and applied actually 3 times. Every time…. The first two times I was wait-listed. I got on a waiting list but never got in.
When I applied to medical school that third time I had a conversation which I call…I tell everybody was the critical conversation. It was a conversation at the crossroad, I call it. It was a conversation that I had with my Aunt Essie, who at that time was Reverend Essie C. Simmons—Reverend Essie Simmons in the South Georgia Conference.
We had a conversation. I came home from college and we went out to dinner, and she said to me in the conversation, “I know you’re applying to med school.”
I said, “Yeah, I’m in the process.”
She said, “But I really feel that you have a call upon your life.”
I remember saying to her, “Not you, too?”
She said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “Do I have a sign on my head that says ‘reverend’?”
She was like, “Why do you say that?”
I said, “Because people tell me that all the time.”
Sharma: So she says, “Well, I think you need to listen to that. You need to discern that. You need to pray.”
You know, she was giving me all the things that you’re supposed to do, as I call it. So, believe it or not, Joe, I went through a period…I will say a really serious prayer and discernment. As God would have it, about a year or so…a couple of years after that conversation, literally on February 13, 1994 at the 11:45 worship service at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia I accepted my call to ministry.
Reverend Doctor Michael McQueen was preaching. He was preaching the Ephesians 4 text, “…some are called…some are called to be pastors, preachers…” And I had been wrestling and had said, “God, I’m going to this altar. I want to hear from you. I need to hear from you. I’m tired of people telling me…. I’m tired of walking around with ‘reverend’ on my head and people thinking I’m a reverend. I want to really hear from you.”
I went to the altar honestly, and I knelt. Literally I heard the voice of God as clear as I’m talking to you right now, “Go preach my word.” And I have been preaching God’s word literally since 1994.
Sharma: What is also very powerful that I tell people that God will confirm. The pastor at that time, he came to the altar. I had spoken with my pastors how I felt I had a call, but wasn’t sure. So when I got up from the altar and I turned around, believe it or not, half of the church was standing behind me. So then the pastor at that time, Reverend McAlister Hollis, he said to me, “Do you have anything to say?”
I said, “As a matter of fact, I do. I have heard… I’ve been praying, and a lot of you have been praying with me. I’ve been praying and asking God my next steps.” I said, “I heard God’s voice right here at this altar. And I want you all to know that I will be pursuing ministry in the next step.”
That was February of 1994, and in September of that year I started seminary. And the rest is history, as they say.
Joe: Wow. Are there things…? I’m just interested in the connection, if there is one, between your studies in Biology and Chemistry, are there things there that carry over that you apply, or things that you learned about yourself or about those topics that help you in your ministry?
Sharma: Yes. I tell people that I really feel that God called me, you know…as I thought God was calling me into biology and also to medicine. I tell people that I really feel, you know, God utilizes everything and that I feel like, being called from Biology to Theology not only do I work with the body, God is calling me to go from working with the body to working with the soul. As I say in Theology, the s-o-u-l.
I think, believe it or not, that some of the connection is that what I’ve utilized in my ministry from when I was a biologist and I also worked in the area of biology and biochemistry. The key thing, I would say, of being observant. I feel that within my ministry I see things sometimes that other people do not see. I think a lot of that has to do with just the way my eye was trained.
My cabinet tells me all the time, Bishop, you take a lot of notes. And in biology that’s what you do. You take a lot of notes. You’re writing things down. In chemistry, you’re writing formulas down. I still do that. That is still very much a part of me. I go back and I review it, and I see things. So I think the observant nature of a biologist I have carried over because I find myself, even when I pastored, being very observant to people.
When I pastored, people would be surprised when I would share with them, “You missed church.” They were like, “How do you know that?” And I said, “Because you normally sit the same old place, the same old pew” And they would be shocked that I would remember that. I think that’s the observant nature, I think, is one of the key things I really feel like I’ve taken.
As a biologist and chemist, you do your research. So I’m a type of person like that. When I was pastoring, and even now as a bishop, when you’re looking at different projects I make sure that they are adequately researched. I feel those skills, those attentive skills to ministry, the observant skills to ministry, is what I got from the biology and chemistry.
Joe: I love that. Another thing I read in your online bio was that you’ve led mission experiences in Jamaica and Kenya, in The Philippines. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Sharma: Jamaica was my first trip…my first mission trip when I was at Ben Hill. I learned a lot about young people. My first mission trip…. In Statesboro you know you do mission, but that’s more in-town. You’re not really going abroad. So when I was at Ben Hill—and Ben Hill at that time was a very large church—I participated in my first mission trip to Jamaica where we taught vacation Bible school.
Then the second year the pastor allowed me to lead the team. I was a young adult, and I led the team in which again we taught Vacation Bible School, and we helped build the fellowship hall. When I led the team it tested my leadership skills because I had to send two of my youth back home to Atlanta because they kind of slipped away in the middle of the night, to go into the city. Of course, you know I panicked and I had to call my pastor. And we were doing bed check and so I had to test my leadership abilities and also my discipline abilities. They didn’t like it too well, the youth didn’t like it too well, but they had to understand that they were in my care. So, I had to do that.
My experience in Kenya was that I had a wonderful opportunity to teach Kenyan pastors in what was called The Global Summit. I was asked by the Mission Society, (who at one time, the Mission Society used to train missionaries from the United Methodist Church. The Mission Society now is called TMS Global.) It was during the time that Dr. Phil Granger and Dr. Dick McLean was President and Vice President. I had met Dick McLean. I can’t really remember where. He saw my energy and passion for evangelism, mission and outreach, and invited me to be a part of the teaching team. So, for 10 days I was in Kenya with the Mission Society teaching Kenyan pastors about outreach and mission and evangelism.
Then my experience in The Philippines is when I was a District Superintendent in the North Georgia Conference. The North Georgia Conference had six bridges—or what you would call six initiatives—with countries abroad. Bishop B. Michael Watson, I was on his cabinet as a district superintendent, and it was an initiative, The Six Bridges, that came during his administration. Gasically how these bridges came about is that North Georgia Conference either had little or no connection with these countries. The six coordinators of the different places came to Annual Conference, and I met with them. I connected with Bishop Rudy Juan, which now we are colleagues together, and I just connected with him and said to Bishop Watson that I wanted to be on the Philippine Bridge. At that time we had a Filipino district superintendent, so we partnered together. We looked at the medical and dental area. We had a team that was at Wesley Seminary. We had a team which…it was a team in which I was a part of at Mary Johnston Hospital, which is the only United Methodist hospital in The Philippines. And so I did basically pastoral work and chaplain work when I was there for those 14 days.
Joe: Wow. I want to…. I’m shifting gears a little bit here… this is a little more serious of a question. When you were elected bishop in 2016, you were the first African American woman elected from the Southeast Jurisdiction. What does that mean to you?
Sharma: Number one, I will tell you words like very humbling, honored to be the first. Of course, anytime you are the first, you blaze a trail, as I call it. I’ve also been honored by an organization of being a trail blazer.
The thing that is powerful about that is that I did run in 2012 also, and was not elected. I continued to pray and discern and ask God, “God, this is something that I do feel. Will you continue to allow my path to be open?” So in those next 4 years it was not only praying and discerning and people praying with and for me, God allowed me, in that 4-year gap between 2012 and 2016, to really get to know other people in the jurisdiction because those are the people who would be voting for you. In 2016 I got elected in what was just…I would say magnanimous. I got elected on the first ballot. Got elected with 71%, and you only need 60%.
I feel getting elected that I stand on the many, many, many shoulders of people who have gone before me: women, men, women who’ve paved the way, specifically African American women. A lot of people do not realize that in the United Methodist Church there are only 8 African American women bishops that have ever been in the life of the United Methodists. One was Bishop Leontine Kelly, got elected in 1984. I feel a kind of connection because Bishop Kelly was from the Virginia Conference. Unfortunately, as you know the history, she was not elected out of the Southeast. She got elected out of the West.
Then 16 years later we elected three—Bishops Shamana, Fisher, and Lindalee. Then 16 years later there was Bishop Sharma Lewis, Cynthia Moin Cacoy, Tracey Smith Long and Bishop Latrell Easterling. So I’m very humbled and very honored that my colleagues, clergy and lay, saw that this was my next level of ministry in which to live out my faith. It is just…it is a humbling…. It is a very humbling experience, to not only to be elected, but to be the first in your entire jurisdiction. So it’s very special, very, very special, very special.
Joe: I know being a bishop is a very busy job with lots of things going on all the time. But what do you, to relax? Let’s start there. What do you do just for the fun of it?
Sharma: For fun, ss I tell people, I’m your typical woman. I love to shop. A lot of people know about me, I love to shop for what? Shoes. I love shoes and I love different shoes. So I’m a shoe shopper. I do that.
I’m a movie buff. I love movies. I love to go to the movies, a lot of times by myself. I am single—single with no children. I tell people I go to the movies because I need what I call mindless activity.
Of course, I do work out in a gym, and as much as I can, I read stuff for pleasure, not for work. I do a lot of reading. Then, of course, I love being with my family. I have 4 older sisters and one younger brother.
Joe: One of the things I ask everyone that I have as a guest on this podcast is for a recommendation of something that we can do that will help keep us in touch with the Spirit moving in us. What is something that you do that helps keep you in touch with your spiritual life?
Sharma: I tell people I have a very, very strong prayer life. I would say this is…this is a movie…it’s an old movie, War Room. It came out a year or so ago. I’ve always had prayer closets, but now I tell people I have what I call my “war room” now, like the character in War Room. But I have always had a very strong prayer life. If you come to my townhouse right now, in my prayer closet you will see pieces of paper where, if somebody will ask me to pray for them, and I will jot it down either on a piece of paper or a post-it note. I have my cabinet names on this prayer list. I have my staff names. I’m very, very intentionally in tune in praying. Praying for me keeps me grounded and connected with God.
Since I’ve been here in the Virginia Conference I’ve been blessed to receive several prayer shawls. So I have them in my prayer room, my prayer closet, my war room. I keep those shawls in there because it reminds me that there were people praying for me, and then I pray for them. And sometimes, I’ve been in my prayer closet so long I’ve fallen asleep. So in my prayer room, my war room, literally I do, I have the prayer shawls and I have a pillow.
I go into my prayer closet, but I tell people this closet, this war room that I have here, is a little small. So every now and then I have to open a door ‘cause I get a little claustrophobic. [Laughs] But I’ll be moving in a couple of weeks to a house. I’m so excited. I’ll have a big prayer/war room. So I’ll put names and different things that I’m praying about, scriptures that I remember to pray about, to recall.
I have my Bible in there. I have my journal. I’m a journal-er and I journal. But to stay in touch, praying, and of course reading Scripture, but praying keeps me grounded and keeps me connected.
Joe: Wonderful. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this conversation. This has been wonderful. Thank you so much, Bishop, for taking the time to do this. Thank you.
Joe: That was United Methodist Bishop Sharma Lewis, the first African American woman elected bishop in the Southeast Jurisdiction.
At UMC.org/podcasts you can read about Bishop Lewis, listen to more “Meet a Bishop” conversations, and find other fascinating podcasts to enjoy. We also would appreciate it if you would review Get Your Spirit in Shape on iTunes. Excellent reviews help more people find us.
Thanks for listening. We’ll be back soon with another episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.