In our latest “Meet a Bishop” podcast conversation, we're chatting with Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Annual Conference. Bishop Sue tells us about her early career in law and her call to ministry. She talks about a homeless ministry she participated in where she saw the life-transforming power of Jesus. She also shares about her love of books and Broadway, and that she keeps her spirit in shape through a daily practice of silence.
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Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson
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This episode was first published on September 29, 2017.
In the studio
Welcome to 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.
Today we get to meet another United Methodist bishop—Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Annual Conference. I asked Bishop Sue to talk about her call to ministry after a career in law.
Sue: I went to work for a big law firm and felt a call out of the law. I knew I wasn’t meant to do that.
Joe: We talked about her love of books.
Sue; I hear something that sounds interesting, and I go to buy it and they tell me at Amazon, “You already own that.”
Joe: And we even brainstormed the fantasy fad we’re thinking of creating… Fantasy Broadway casting.
Sue: Pick a show and cast it with people from all times and spaces who are incredibly talented.
Joe: That’s a cool idea.
Sue: Wouldn’t that be neat?
Joe: She also told me about her daily practice of silence.
Sue: There is not a day that goes by that I don’t carve out at least 45 minutes to an hour of silence.
Joe: I hope you enjoy meeting Bishop Sue as much as I did.
On the phone
Joe: Bishop Sue, it’s so good to speak with you today. Welcome to the Meet a Bishop series of Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Sue: Thanks. Great to talk to you.
Joe: I want to begin talking about your faith journey. When did you start going to church?
Sue: Oh, goodness. I don’t remember when I started going to church. I started going to church as an infant with my parents. I’m one of those cradle Methodists. And so I have no recollection of when I first went to church.
I guess my earliest recollection is probably being in the nursery with some really great, mostly older women who really just loved us. They were like aunts to us. They were extended family to us.
So I’ve always had a sense of church as family or a place where I go to be nurtured and loved and really taught from a young age that the church is my extended family, which I’ve kind of lived into. So…early on.
Joe: And where is your home church?
Sue: My home church is in Lakeland, Florida. Well, we moved in the same area when I was a child. So my earliest church was a little church called Asbury United Methodist in Bartow, Florida. Then we moved to the big city of Lakeland, Florida, and went to a large church called First United Methodist Church of Lakeland. But my nursery days that I recall were at Asbury United Methodist of Bartow.
Joe: What were some of the memories there, maybe as a Sunday school student or as a youth, what were some of the ….?
Sue: I remember a couple who were our Sunday school teachers when I was young. They were great. Their name was Dubeck.
I remember Marietta King who was our nursery music teacher. We learned all those little early songs, “Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah.” And what I remember most is they had … (It’s hilarious.) …they had this old upright piano. Gosh, it must have been so old. And it sounded like…. You know, when I was a kid I’d watch Westerns. It sounded like the piano that was in all the saloons. So my early memories of the faith are singing all those little nursery, to a tinkling upright piano sound. So every time I’d watch a Western I’d think…when they’d go in a saloon I’d think of my early Sunday school days. That’s kinda weird, but that’s exactly what I think of and what I remember.
I [also] remember Easter egg hunts. I remember Christmas, just the high holy days of the church. I remember women wearing hats and gloves. So it’s kind of interesting throwbacks to the earlier time and place where you really did honor Sabbath and Sunday. The town kinda stopped, and that’s what we did. I remember it with great fondness.
Joe: And then I read in your online biography that you went to college and became a lawyer. Is that right?
Sue: I did. It was interesting when I went to college I had a bad exposure to Christianity. My roommate was President of the Student Union. I experienced him as very judgmental. Let’s just say I had a good time in college. They were less than…. They were not a welcoming presence. I just thought, You know, I’ve been going to church my whole life, there are other things I can be interested in. And so I just kind of spread my wings and left church behind and had a great time. But, you know, I look back and wish I’d had a better expression of my faith in those years. But I did learn a lot and met a lot of different people and experienced Christianity in a way that I didn’t really think was very representative of Christ. So that’s what I take from my college days.
But I went to law… I love…I am a perpetual learner. I love learning. And I loved…. Well, I majored in Finance, which I thought was pretty dry. So going to law school was like, Wow, I get to read stories of real-life people and how things work out legally. So I loved law school. I thought it was great.
Joe: Oh, wow. And you became a federal law clerk. What was that like?
Sue: Well, actually I did it backwards. I went to work for a really large law firm right out of law school. Most people become federal law clerks to get exposure and to get the big law firm experience and jobs. It’s usually a stepping stone. But I went to work for a big law firm and felt a call out of the law. I knew I wasn’t meant to do that. And it’s really hard….
The big law firm pretty much expects you to be passionate about practicing law, and to do it 24/7. And I ... I really just reached a point where I needed more time to explore.
About that time a friend called and had a federal judge who needed somebody to work for them. A federal law clerk is somebody who is an attorney, who works for a judge… right at their elbow. You really do. You ghostwrite for the judge. You research for the judge. You discuss cases with the judge. And usually under their direction you write the opinion. So, it was a great matchup. I worked for… he’s now in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Federal Judge Charles Wilson, who was a tremendous role model in my life. Great guy. And really learned a lot from him about law and life.
He was a faithful Christian as well, and I saw a real role model for somebody who I thought was really well integrated in faith and life and vocation. That was a great experience, and it wasn’t a 24/7 job. So I could really explore ministry. I would work at the Federal Courthouse during the day and at night I’d go do ministry somewhere or go to a Bible study or do something else. It was a wonderful time in my life.
Joe: When you talk about going to do ministry, what kind of things were you involved in? What were you doing?
Sue: I think what was really helpful in my exploring my call... When I first got out of law school and went to Tampa, I volunteered to give legal advice to the homeless for the Bar Association, which was kind of an empty task. I mean, there wasn’t a whole lot for them. There wasn’t a whole lot you could do. You were limited in what was available to homeless folks.
After I began the exploration phase there was a stockbroker in town who had a partner giving chapel services to the homeless at Metropolitan Ministries in downtown Tampa. He invited me to be his new partner in that task. Every week we would host a chapel service for homeless folks. I saw the Holy Spirit at work. I saw their lives transformed. I saw that there was a lot more that Jesus Christ offered than our legal system offered. That kind of shaped my trajectory into seminary and into ministry as a fulltime vocation.
I saw miracles, and there were many times, I think, at those chapel services where Jesus himself showed up in the form of a homeless person, and still have kind of remarkable stories from that time.
Joe: Can you tell one of those?
Sue: Yeah, well, one night this homeless man showed up scruffy, unclean, and it was like the leader became the follower. He knew more about scripture than I could ever imagine. He was asking me deep questions about life and faith... with an air of authority and an understanding, an unexplainable sense of life and faith and Scripture. When he left I had the distinct impression that I had just been schooled in Scripture by Christ. That was really one of those…. I’ve had experiences like that since. But that was the first time I had that experience.
Joe: That’s fantastic.
Sue: Remarkable. One of the funniest ones…. I love this story. A group came one night. They were jubilant. I said, Why are you so excited? They said, Well, you know, our friend David here, somebody called him a name today and he didn’t respond. He was calm and just walked on and ignored it, brushed it off. I said, Well, why are you so jubilant? They said, Well, when we were in New Jersey he killed a guy for doing the same thing.
Joe: Oh, my goodness.
Sue: So that kind of gives you the power of… they saw the transforming power of Christ in his life and how the Holy Spirit had changed his spirit.
There were some interesting times in those chapel services. It changed my whole perspective. I had for years ridden by the projects, the public housing complexes in Tampa and thought, Gosh, how horrible it would be to live there, or that’s just a sad place. Then here I was with people and we would celebrate when they got those shelters and when they moved into those places. It really just kind of turned the tables on my whole life view and perspective, and learned a lot.
Joe: And it’s a far cry from your college experience of feeling kind of left out, too. Right?
Sue: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, I experienced in those chapel services and in the people I met on the street a hospitality, an openness and a deep understanding of faith that I’ve never found among my peers. That was compelling to me.
Joe: Is that an important part of your work today as a pastor and now as a bishop?
Sue: Always. Yeah. My husband and I have always been advocates for the homeless. He usually is more hands-on. He’s great one-on-one. I tend to work more systemically. I will speak on their behalf.
But we have tremendous stories with folks who, through the love and nurture of the church have rejoined society, and has helped to welcome and reclaim their place as part of the people of God that they thought was denied them. That’s always compelling to me. I always will have a place in my heart for the outcast and the marginalized. I think that’s just deep in my psyche.
Joe: Wow. And if I remember right your husband is a United Methodist pastor, too. Is that right?
Sue: He is. He is. And he is always on the forefront of homeless ministry and feeding ministry. He enjoys…. I think if truth be told, he enjoys people on the street more than many times he enjoys his parishioners. I think the honesty, the need, the transparency and the real compassion that they have sometimes outweighs what we find sadly in our local churches.
Joe: So it seems after your transition, your move into fulltime pastoral ministry, was pretty smooth, right? I mean, you were in that work already and just kind of moved over into pastoral ministry.
Sue: Yeah I was just at it more and more, you know. I think that was a God thing. I’ve always been frustrated with God because God never showed me the end of my path. He’d light up one step at a time. And I think that’s helpful because I think if I’d see what was at the end of the path I might not have gone down it. But I do think that I understand calling, especially in my life, has been one step at a time and kind of an organic and naturally growing and evolving thing.
Joe: I think that’s really helpful.
Sue: Yeah, so any time I grow frustrated or wonder at calling or feel like I’m kind of spinning my wheels, I remember to be in prayer and wait for that next step to be lit up. And it usually is. What I learn in the waiting….
I had to divest. I had a house. I had a car. I had a lot of stuff to get rid of before I went in seminary.
Joe: Oh, sure.
Sue: And it ended up being a 2- to 3-year process. I was ready to go. I was ready to be in. And I think I look back on those 2 to 3 years and I think, Man, that was a great time.
So there is a lot to be said for waiting time, fallow time, time when you’re really alert to what God’s doing. And so it’s helpful, too, as I work with people exploring calling and exploring vocation to say, Look, don’t chomp at the bit. Really live in and be patient in whatever God has you in. It’ll be used for good, and will develop you.
I think that’s when my faith was formed… my calling was formed. It’s not an overnight thing, I don’t think.
Joe: Fantastic. I want to change topics a little bit. I heard that you are an avid reader and always good for a book recommendation. So, what are you reading? What would you recommend that somebody read?
Sue: Yeah. Ah, I am reading right now…. I’ve been fascinated by the chief of staff role in the presidency—that’s been in the news lately—and I heard an interview of a guy who wrote a book called The Gatekeepers. So I’ve been reading about the chief of staff role in the federal government. It’s helpful in the church because we’re looking at structure of annual conference and stuff. The book is an insight into leaders and how they functioned and what made them tick. Each chapter takes a different president and their chiefs of staff and what their relationship was like and what made it work and what it made it not work. And there’s just a lot to be read about leadership that is extremely helpful.
What else have I read lately?
Joe: Is there another recent favorite?
Sue: Let me think. You know, I have just such a stack. The ones that I really am enjoying and somebody…. I recommended it to somebody and they really told me how much they’ve enjoyed it.
Jonathan Sachs is a rabbi. He wrote…. I’m reading now … it’s a devotional designed to be done a week at a time…called Lessons in Leadership. And it’s really great to read a rabbi with a tremendous understanding of Hebrew Bible, a tremendous emersion in Midrash and Torah and you know, the legends of the Old Testament. He takes Old Testament leaders and distills these really beautiful pieces on leadership. So that has been instrumental and a part of my devotional life for the past couple of months. It’s been incredibly helpful.
The Anatomy of Peace I’ve been reading. That’s an excellent book.
I just started Canoeing the Mountains—I think that’s what it’s called—about Lewis & Clark and how they thought that… bless their hearts, thought they were gonna get the water passage to the west coast, and they hit the Rocky Mountains. They had to figure out how do you navigate when it’s not what you think. I think it’s called Canoeing the Mountains [It is.]. It’s not about canoeing and mountains, but canoeing the mountain is about what do we do in the church because all we’ve done in the past isn’t really applying anymore. So we’ve hit our Rocky Mountains and what are we gonna do now? Stuff like that I’m always attuned to and looking at…
But you know, my Kindle is an interesting and varied place. You know, I dream of writing for a Lilly leave grant just to read everything on my Kindle that I haven’t read yet. It would be about 35 years.
Joe: That’s a long sabbatical.
Sue: Yeah, that would be….Well, and, what’s frustrating is I’m at a point where I go and I hear something that’s sounds interesting and I go to buy it and they tell me at Amazon, ‘you already own that.’ So I’ve got repeat performers.
Joe: That’s funny.
The other thing I heard is that you’re a big fan of Broadway. So are you a musical fan or a play fan or both?
Sue: All. All. My daughter just finished a 6-week course, online course at NYU. She’s a high…. It’s a high school program because she’s interested in dramatic writing. We had to take her up to New York, so I’ve had my Broadway fix.
I love a story well told and I love music. I love intricately done music, and how they weave it, to just so beautifully express stuff.
What’s interesting is it’s a way I bond with my daughter. She’s 15. I know the old Broadway, and she knows the new Broadway. So we’re a good mix. We love drama. She drags me out, though. In Atlanta there are all sorts of interesting theater companies. And so a few weeks ago I found myself hiking into a forest to watch an outdoor production of “Macbeth.” So you know, she finds all sorts of things that we can do together. So we’re into theater together.
Joe: Is there like a dream show that you wish you could see?
Sue: I really wish I could have gotten a ticket to see Bette Midler do “Holly Dolly.”
Joe: Oh, wow. Yeah.
Sue: Yeah, that would… I mean, just… She’s legendary. I think…. You know, if I could have seen the original cast of “Hamilton,” I would have really enjoyed that. I think that, all of us have dream shows or dream casts. I’d love to have seen the original cast of “Rent.” There’s a lot of things I’d like to have seen.
You know how people are into fantasy sports? I would love to cast a show with… Take a show and cast it with people from all times and spaces, incredibly talented people…
Joe: That’s a cool idea.
Sue: Wouldn’t that be neat? You know, fantasy casting. Maybe I’ll start that.
Joe: That would be fantastic.
Sue: Legendary lead singers in the past with legendary now, who could never have been together, just by age, would be interesting.
Joe: Oh wow!
So then, one question I ask all of my guests on Get Your Spirit in Shape: What spiritual practice or what practice do you regularly perform that helps you stay in touch with the Holy Spirit moving in and around you?
Sue: There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t carve out a least 45 minutes to an hour of silence, of just clearing away everything and seeing where the Holy Spirit leads my thoughts and attitudes. A lot of time, that’s done driving. I find I’ve always had this like spirit connection with driving, which is really good in Atlanta, because I spend a lot of time in a car. But I also find a car is an ideal place to have a meeting with somebody because you have focus, you have limited distraction, you have…you have to go anyhow.
I’m big into lectio divina. I’ll start in the morning with a passage and I’ll chew on it all day. I love…. We had a nun come one time, and she talked about lectio divina means that you’re like a cow chewing cud all day. You’re just chewing that Scripture all day. So I’ll have something I’ll just chew on. But I’ve gotta have time and space to do it. So 45 minutes to an hour, at least, a day I’ll chew on Scripture and just see where the Holy Spirit guides my thoughts and my priorities. I tend to have some pretty clear insights from that time. That’s indispensable to me.
Joe: I like that image of seeing where the Holy Spirit is going to lead your thoughts. So often we try and direct that, but I’m hearing you say to let it go, to see where it goes. That’s really interesting.
Sue: Yeah. Pay attention to the distractions.
Joe: Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you and getting to know you a little bit better. Thanks for being a part of this.
Sue: Hey, I appreciate it. It’s been great. And I’m glad you’re doing this. Blessings on you and everybody listening.
Back in the studio
That was Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of the North Georgia Annual Conference.
I hope you’re enjoying these Meet-a-Bishop conversations that we’ve added to our regular feed. It’s an experiment we’re trying for the fall, but one I secretly hope will continue to be a part of Get Your Spirit in Shape for a long time to come, because I love meeting our bishops. And I hope you do, too.
For more episodes of Get Your Spirit in Shape and other United Methodist podcasts, go to UMC.org/podcasts. There you can learn more about this show, find another show you’ll enjoy, and email me your thoughts.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.