Meet Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett

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Growing up as a preacher’s kid in Kentucky, Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett dreamed of a career in athletics. A passion for education, led to a career in pastoral ministry, but those lessons from her athletic background never left her. For example, in basketball no one makes every shot. “So it’s so important not to focus on the misses,” she teaches, “but to keep moving forward.”

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Get Your Spirit in Shape features conversations to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. Logo by Sara Schork, United Methodist Communications.

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Today, Bishop Wallace-Padgett serves as resident bishop of the North Alabama Conference. She also serves on the World Methodist Council and chairs their Committee on Evangelism.

Meet Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett.

Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett

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This episode posted on July 16, 2021.

Transcript

Prologue

Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino

Today I get to share with you a ‘Meet a Bishop’ episode, something we haven’t done in a long time. And my guest is Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the North Alabama Conference.

Our conversation

Joe: Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Thank you. It’s very good to be with you, Joe.

Joe: When I read your biography I noted that your ministry began in Kentucky. Are you a native Kentuckian?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Yes, prior to my election as a bishop, Kentucky was my home with the exception of 2 years when I was attending graduate school in Nashville.

Joe: Tell me about growing up in Kentucky. What are some of your memories there? What was it like when you were a young girl?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: I grew up in the eastern part of Kentucky in Buchanan, a community of about 200 people. It was a great place to live with everything from a two-room school that later consolidated to one room, a grocery store, a post office, and the Prichard Memorial United Methodist Church. We were near a railroad track as well as route 23 Highway. We had the Big Sandy River nearby, a baseball diamond and outdoor basketball court behind us, and hills and backroads all around us. There were a number of young families in the neighborhood. So there was never a dull moment.

Joe: It sounds like you’re describing something Norman Rockwell would paint. [Laughter]

What are your first memories of church, and when did you start going to church?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: I started going to a church when I was 6 weeks old. I was born on Father’s Day and 6 weeks later I was in church with my parents and my two and a half year old brother Rob.

Joe: Wow. So, it was just something that was part of your family. Every Sunday you guys were in church?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: That is correct. My dad entered ministry as a pastor when I was 6 months old. But even before that Mom and Dad faithfully attended church every Sunday.

Joe: So you were a preacher’s kid, as we sometimes say, right?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: I was a PK.

Joe: So was a pastor always what you wanted to be when you grew up when you were younger?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: I did not entertain the possibility of being a pastor when I was younger, Joe. There were not female pastors in the area where I lived. I didn’t see female clergy role models. It didn’t cross my mind that I would one day be serving as a pastor.

Joe: When you think back on those days, what did you think you would be when you got older?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: I wanted to be a professional athlete. [Laughs] I also loved music and thought I might be a musician. I enjoyed my teachers and also considered the teaching profession. In fact, when I went to college, my undergrad was in education, physical education to be specific.

Joe: I noted that. And I wondered if you were an athlete. What sport or sports did you play?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: I loved all things. Well, it’s difficult to name one. I particularly, though, played baseball and later softball. And basketball. Those were the two sports that I played into my adult years.

Joe: Are you still a fan?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Oh, yes. I love sports. And I enjoy watching basketball games particularly. But a tennis match, a baseball game, a football game. I have become quite the football fan since I’ve been living here in North Alabama.

Joe: I think I understand that. [Laughs] Alabama football is a big deal. Yeah.

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Yes, it is. It is. In Alabama you are either an Auburn fan or a University of Alabama fan. When people ask me which am I, my answer is: I’m a Birmingham Southern College fan, which is a United Methodist college here in Birmingham, on whose campus our conference center is located.

Joe: That’s good. Probably keeps you out of a lot of trouble, too, right?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Absolutely. But I enjoy both Auburn and Alabama. They have great football teams, too.

Joe: How did you get from physical education to pastoral ministry?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: I was preparing in college to be a physical education teacher. I enjoyed that a lot. However, the summer before my senior year in college I was working on staff at Aldersgate Camp, a United Methodist camp in Kentucky.

While there, I was introduced to a vocation in Christian education by a friend of mine who was 2 or 3 years older than me, and had completed a degree in Christian education at Scarritt College and graduate school in Nashville. After I did my student teaching I sensed that I was being called to do something different than teaching vocationally. I checked out Scarritt, fell in love with the campus and entered into the Masters of Christian Education program there.

From there I began working in local churches, first in area of Christian Education. And then later I became an ordained as a transitional deacon at that time and then an elder. So that’s how that transition occurred.

Joe: Wonderful. And who are some of the influential people, other than your dad obviously, but some that were an influence on your faith development.

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Well, in addition to my parents—they both were very influential in my faith development—there were grandmothers, uncles, aunts, my siblings, cousins, teachers, the manager of the camp I discussed earlier, Aldersgate Camp. All of those persons were influential with my own faith development.

Joe: I watched you light up when you said ‘grandmothers.’ Is there a particular story or memory of your grandmothers’ influence?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Both of my grandmothers were strong Christian women. They influenced me with the way they lived their lives. They were very engaged in the lives of their grandchildren, including me. They were positive and affirming. They both participated in church on a regular basis.

My grandmother Wallace directed the children’s choir at the church where my dad pastored. And so I had the experience of having her as the choir director when I was a child. So both of them had influence on me subtly.

Joe: I imagine coming at pastoral ministry after a background in Christian education and education, there must be lots of lessons that you gleaned along the way that still inform your ministry today.

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Oh, yes. The Christian education background was certainly informed by physical education. And what I learned in physical education and sport has applications to my life as a bishop and to my life as a Christ follower.

So, for instance, the outcome of competition is based, not on one good or bad moment, but on the entire game. In the same way the final assessment of my tenure as bishop and even more importantly the life I have lived as a Christ follower will be made not on one decision or action, but on the entirety of my ministry and life.

A second example would be: team matters. What I learned from playing on teams was that a team of good players can accomplish more together than the greatest athlete on earth who is working solo. Similarly, a strong conference leadership team can do so much more together than any one leader can do independently.

I’ll give you just one more example. Though as an athlete, I sometimes did not feel nearly as energized by practice as I did at games, disciplined practices were necessary and prepared me for big game moments. As a Christ follower I do not always feel inspired to pray, read Scripture and practice other spiritual disciplines. However, doing so daily prepares me for the big moments in life when I particularly need to draw upon my faith.

Joe: Yeah. The first one really got my attention about how the game isn’t over until it’s over. You know, the Yogi Berra thing, right? It isn’t over until it’s over.

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: That’s right.

Joe: I just enjoy that way of thinking about it, that you’re not going to be judged on one moment. So there’s always the sense of, oh, I’ve messed up so badly now.

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: That’s a great reminder that I learned in sports. When you’re playing basketball, you just can’t play it perfectly. I mean, if you hit at 50% of your field goal attempts, then you’re doing well. If you hit 85% of your free throws you’re doing great. But that means you miss 50% of your field goal attempts and you miss 15% of your free throws. So it’s so important to not focus on the misses, but to keep moving forward and keep making those attempts, knowing that sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong.

That’s how it is as a Christ-follower, as I’ve experienced it. I hope that I get it right more times as I grow in my spiritual development. But on this side of heaven none of us get it right all the time. We’re all in the process, right? We’re sanctified. And if we focus too much on misses, then that eventually paralyzes us, you know, in growth and development.

Joe: That’ll preach, as they say. Right? That’s amazing. I love that.

I want to ask you about your pastoral ministry. When you were a pastor, what were some of the pastoral tasks that energized you the most?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: I loved so many aspects of pastoral ministry. I particularly enjoyed baptizing people and leading people into a relationship with Christ. I liked receiving new members into the church, visiting with guests to the church, preaching, teaching, pastoral care and working with staff and lay leaders in developing teams. Those are some of the faith parts of pastoring.

Joe: It’s just such a broad job. Same question about being a bishop. What’s the best part of being a bishop?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: People in churches I serve are so inspiring, Joe. Hearing the stories of how God is at work in the United Methodist Church in general and specifically the area where I serve, truly encourages my spirit.

Also, I love discerning vision with leadership teams. So, for instance, in my current context, the vision is spiritual leaders empowering life-giving congregations to transform the world. Now, that’s the thing that is energizing and truly leading an annual conference toward a vision of spiritual leaders empowering lives and congregations is a privilege.

Joe: I noted, too, that part of your role as a bishop is that you serve on the World Methodist Council. And I’m not sure a lot of people know what that is. Can you just give us a little bit of that and what your role is there?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Yes. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about a ministry that I so appreciate. The World Methodist council consists of more than 80 Methodist, Wesleyan and related uniting and united churches that collectively includes 80 million plus members in 134 countries. So it’s a very global council.

And the council provides a witness to Methodist unity in mission. It encourages ecumenical relationships among its member churches as well as inter-religious dialog with those in other faith traditions. It emphasizes the great commandment to love God and neighbor, and the great commission of making disciples. It does this primarily through evangelism, a prophetic voice, cooperative programs, faithful worship and mutual learning.

On the World Methodist Council, I am the chair of the Committee on Evangelism. This committee networks among the participants about what’s happening in evangelism in our local context. It’s really amazing to hear how the Good News is being shared across the world in a variety of ways. It varies from context to context.

We also plan evangelism workshops for World Methodist Conference. And that conference typically happens about every 5 years. And we work closely with World Methodist Evangelism, which is an independent entity growing out of the World Methodist Council 50 years ago this year.

So the World Methodist Evangelism is 50 years old. And the World Methodist Evangelism trains, resources and gathers Wesleyan Christians around the world with training events like the Order of the Flame, podcasts, such as Real Faith, Real World, and publications like Embrace. You can find out more about the World Methodist Council or the World Methodist Evangelism, you can Google it and learn a lot about how wide its reach is and how numerous these ministries are.

Joe: We’ll share a link on our page, too, for it so that people can find it.

On a much lighter note, I know that being a bishop is a very time-consuming job. But when you have time just for yourself, when you’re doing something just for yourself, what do you like to do?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: In the last 3 years or so, I’ve renewed playing the piano regularly. I had exited that practice for decades. I find it to be an enjoyable, creative outlet as I relearned how to play the piano.

I also walk 30 to 40 minutes or so a day… on a good day 45 minutes. Prior to the pandemic I was lifting weights 2-3 times a week at an exercise facility at one of our United Methodist churches here in Birmingham, the Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church.

My husband, Lee and I are avid day hikers. Several years ago one of the clergy couples in North Alabama, Reverends Tony and Dale Clem gave us a book entitled Sixty Hikes within Sixty Miles from Birmingham. That book has literally taken us all over Alabama with hikes ranging from less than a mile to several miles. We have about 12 more to go, and we hope to complete it during my tenure in North Alabama. I must tell you, though, that the 12 remaining hikes are in the range of 8 to 14 or 15 miles. So they’re going to be a challenge for us.

Joe: That’s awesome. What a great way to see the area, slowly on those hikes. What a great idea for a book.

I finally want to return to your sports metaphor which you captured so beautifully. One of the things we do on Get Your Spirit in Shape and the reason we call it Get Your Spirit in Shape, is what are the things that you do to keep your spirit in shape? When you’re practicing before the game, what is one of your practices?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: That is such a good question. Regularly practicing the holy habits of prayer, reading Scripture, fasting, worshipping, giving, serving, journaling are keys to keeping my spirit in shape, I’ve discovered.

Then there is Sabbath observance. In recent years, I have taken Sabbath observance more seriously than I ever did previously. I’ve learned that my spirit recalibrates when I observe a 24-hour period of time each week focused on being instead of doing. I’m a do-er. So being is not as natural for me, but I have learned to love it. In addition to experiencing rest and renewal, Sabbath has taught me a great lesson. And that is, God is fully capable of running the universe without my assistance.

Joe: Puts it in perspective a little bit, doesn’t it?

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: It’s totally perspective.

Joe: Well, Bishop, thank you so much for taking this time. This was just a wonderful conversation. And what a wonderful way to get to challenge you and meet you.

Bishop Wallace-Padgett: Thank you, Joe. I have thoroughly enjoyed our time.

Epilogue

Joe: That was Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.

To hear more conversations with our bishops and other leaders of the United Methodist Church, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. We’ve put some links on the page to the World Methodist Council and Bishop Debra’s official bio. Also on the page is a transcript of this conversation and my email address so that you can share with me your ideas about Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Thank you so much for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that’ll help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.