“The church gave a lot of shape and form to my sense of being, my sense of who I was and purpose and meaning in life,” says Bishop James Swanson of the Mississippi Conference of The United Methodist Church. Sunday school teachers, pastors and others played special roles in his life. “You couldn’t get away from them,” he says through laughter. “Whatever you did in life—whether it was good or bad or whatever—it was reported back home.”
In this conversation, Bishop Swanson talks about those early days in the church, his extraordinary call to ministry, why he encourages people to share their “glory sightings,” and the spiritual reason he carries a rock in his toiletry bag when he travels. Meet Bishop James Swanson.
Bishop James Swanson
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This episode posted on March 29, 2019.
Joe Iovino, host: I'm Joe Iovino and this is Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org's podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies.
Today is another conversation in our now award winning "Meet the Bishops" series. At the recent United Methodist Association of Communicators awards, our "Meet the Bishops" episodes won best in class, an honor for all of us involved in the podcast.
Today, I'm sharing my conversation with Bishop James Swanson of the Mississippi Conference. Bishop Swanson talks about growing up in the church, his remarkable call to ministry, why he encourages others to share "glory sightings," and how carrying a rock in his toiletry bag when he travels helps him keep his spirit in shape.
Meet Bishop James Swanson.
Joe: Bishop Swanson, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Swanson: Thank you, Joe. It's good to be on the podcast with you.
Joe: As I looked at your bio I noted that you have served as the bishop of the Holston Conference and the Mississippi Conference, both of which are in the Southeast Jurisdiction of the United States. Is that where you were born and raised?
Bishop Swanson: To be honest with you, no I was actually born and raised in Houston, Texas. But I moved to Atlanta to go to seminary and was recruited by the South Georgia Conference.
Joe: So, you just kind of stayed.
Bishop Swanson: Most of my ministry was in the south.
Joe: What was it like growing up in Texas?
Bishop Swanson: It was a good life in that respect. As a kid I was not United Methodist. I was actually born and raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And later on my mother moved her membership to a Church of God in Christ. And then it was from that church that I actually left to go to seminary.
Joe: When you were growing up what were some of your favorite things to do?
Bishop Swanson: Well, being in Texas one of my favorite things to do was to, was horses and that kind of stuff. I mean, as a kid, cowboys and all that, playing that game. I loved basketball. And baseball was my first love as a kid coming up, and moved from that to running track. I used to run track as a youngster, high school, and playing sandlot ball in the community, football and baseball and basketball, that kind of stuff.
Joe: You were quite an athlete it sounds like.
Bishop Swanson: Well, I waited until I was in high school. And then I played a little bit in middle school… (What you call middle school now. Back in my day it was called junior high.) …and organized basketball. But in high school I ran track. I didn't play any other organized sports.
Joe: Did you have a favorite subject in school, something you liked to study?
Bishop Swanson: Yeah, I pretty much loved world history, geography and that kind of stuff, even took one foreign language. I took German when I was in school. And so I 'sprechende Deutsch' a little bit back then. And I was pretty good in English grammar. I was a good student. I graduated high school, out of a class of 109, I was number 14. So I did pretty good in school.
Joe: It sounded earlier that church was just kind of a part of your life growing up. Do you remember some of those early days of going to church?
Bishop Swanson: Oh yeah. Church was something that was like breathing air. I mean, it was something you did. That was a part of every fabric of your being. Not only was my mother a primary mover in my upbringing, but members of the church… I mean, church gave a lot of shape and form to my sense of being, my sense of who I was and a purpose and meaning in life. A lot of it came from the church.
Pastors who heavily influenced my understanding of myself as a person of worth and value and dignity, as well as Sunday school teachers who tremendously influenced that. In my day and time coming up those people were not only in your life on Sunday, but they were in your lives Monday through Saturday as well.
Joe: How so? What do you mean by that?
Bishop Swanson: Well, I mean, they lived in your neighborhood. Some of them were not only Sunday school teachers, but they also taught you in school. So, you couldn't get away from them. Whatever you did in life, whether it was good or bad or whatever, it was reported back home. You saw them in the grocery stores. I saw them in the neighborhood park, as you walk by on the street. Those people, they were just a part of every fabric of your life. I mean, they were not just people you saw on Sunday.
Some of them you even ran errands for. There were ladies in the community who I… if they wanted something during the week from the grocery store, I would go to the grocery store and shop for them and bring it back home, get a nickel, a dime or a quarter for doing that.
There was nothing that you did in life that those persons you went to church with were also a part of your school. They were a part of just everything you did in life.
Joe: Was there anybody that stands out that was especially influential in your life?
Bishop Swanson: Well, yeah. There were people like…
When I was in the AME Church coming up in Green Chapel, there was a lady named Mrs. Gray, who I always remember. She nurtured me a lot, saw some things in me.
In fact, she and 2 other ladies, when I was about 8 years old, literally laid hands on me, so to speak, and pronounced that I would be a preacher. So these people were highly instrumental in calling me to a life of making myself available to make a difference in the world. And it wasn't just the preaching piece, it was that you are a person of worth and value and dignity and that God has placed you here on earth to make the world a better place. And you are sort of chosen.
You have to understand that in the African American community you had this sense of (back in the '50s and '60s) of looking for sort of messianic figures who would come along and help lead our people to wholeness and freedom and liberation. And it wasn't a sense of A Messiah, but a people who would come along and be leaders of our community. And so ladies like Mrs. Gray, and even my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Bunting, and others, who said, 'You're gonna be somebody special.' And you have that mantel thrust upon you and you try to live up to it.
Joe: Wow! Was that the catalyst that sent you into the call to ministry? Was that the first inkling that you knew you were being called to pastoral ministry?
Bishop Swanson: Yeah, it was. That and Reverend Arthur J. Bundy. He was my first pastor that I can remember, listening to him preach…and he can preach. And it wasn't so much his spirited preaching as much as his simplistic preaching. I mean, he could preach so that at an early age I could understand what he was talking about. And I knew that Jesus loved me, more than anything in my life because of him.
There were even people like Mr. Gray who was my 7th grade teacher who bought me a jacket when I could not afford a jacket to be a part of a civic club, who said to me, 'You're special and I want to be a part of your life.'
People like that who just touched you all along the way. You knew something was special for you. Then later on I had some kind of mystical experiences around knowing that I was called to ministry. I've been knowing ever since I was 7 or 8 years old. Fought it for a long time. But I knew it. There was no doubt in my mind.
Joe: You never considered another career?
Bishop Swanson: No. Well, that was my aunt, my mother's sister, who used to call me…used to learn… Some of them thought I was gonna be a medical doctor. And she teased me about that. But I kind of knew in the back of my mind. I didn't know what that really meant. You know what I'm saying? I didn't know if that really meant pastoral ministry. But I knew it was something about helping people. I knew it. And I knew at some point I figured I would go to the pulpit. I knew it all of my life just about. It was a burden, in a sense. But it was something I wanted to do, and something I didn't want to do.
Joe: I hear that a lot with call stories. You mentioned about mystical experiences. Can you tell us anything about that?
Bishop Swanson: I tell some people about it and others I don't because…
I hesitate a lot of times because I don't want anybody feeling like somehow they have to have that kind of experience to have a call to ministry. But mine was… The summer of…. I guess it was 1958 and 59. And I was about 8 or 9 years old when this happened.
First one was, I woke up one Saturday morning. I never will forget. I knew it was a Saturday morning and I didn't go to school, but I also knew it was the summer—I knew it was summertime, and my sisters, my 2 older sisters, were Helen and Mona, were outside. They had gotten up early and gone to play, and I was still in the bed. I woke up and I heard somebody calling my name.
Most people did not call me…nobody called me James. That was never…. And in fact, even today very few people who call me James. That's not the name people called me by. This person just said, James. And I woke up. And they were just standing there…at the head of my bed. But it wasn't a regular person. This was a sort of a heavenly figure. And I thought I was dreaming. So I rolled over to go back to sleep. And I heard my name again. And this time I'm looking at the wall. And I can see this figure standing there. And I can tell at this point that this is either an angel or…this is Jesus. This is not…this is not regular people. You know. And it scared me. I mean, I was terrified.
I sat up in the bed, and I jumped out of the bed at that point. And hear him again say, "James," and stretched out both of his hands, and by that time I was just…I didn't know what to do. So I just put on my short pants that I wore that day before and ran out fo the house, ran down the stairs, because we lived upstairs. Told my sister, Helen, who was sort of surrogate mother at that time because my mother worked. My dad was no longer with us. …and told her somebody was upstairs in the house. She ran upstairs and she said, "There's nobody there." And I said, "Somebody was there."
The lady who lived in an apartment…the lady who lived in the apartment beneath us, why I started in crying and asked me what did I see, and I told her. And she told me, she said, "That was either an angel or the Lord calling you." And she said, "You just need to say the Lord's Prayer 10 or 12 times straight and come back," and to this day I've never done that. I wouldn't do that 10 or 12 times straight. It scared me.
Then later on that summer walking down the street I met a guy who put his hand on my head and said to me, "Hello, little preacher." And looked up at him and kept walking. Turned around and he was gone.
Bishop Swanson: I knew in my heart that that's what that was. But I was too young to process it. I did not tell my mother and I didn't tell my pastor. I probably should have. So I tried to process it on my own. And it took me years before I really told anybody about it, other than my sister.
Joe: Wow. I love hearing those stories. It's really interesting about how people are called. And there are a lot of different ways. You're right. People have those experiences like that, and others have very different experiences where they feel called to ministry.
So you served in pastoral ministry for a lot of time before becoming a bishop? What was your favorite thing as a pastor to do?
Bishop Swanson: The thing that I really enjoyed was spending time with people as they began to figure out their relationship with God. That was one-on-one.
Of course, I love preaching. And everybody knows that. Anybody who's ever heard me preaching knows I love to preach. I enjoy that to the highest. But a lot of folk think that would be my favorite. But my favorite is really one-on-one.
A lot of folk think I'm a bigtime extrovert. But really more who I am an introvert. I really do like one-on-one. Listening to people, listening to their stories, helping them to hear what God may be saying to them and helping them try to figure that out. To see how God is so miraculously revealing God's self to them, and watching the light come on in a person's life.
I love to do a little bit of counseling in crisis with people. I love doing that. Watching relationships being healed. I really love that.
Then also, I really love watching churches discover collectively their ministry and watching them grow not only numerically, but spiritually, and enlarging their vision as to what does God want us to do in this community and this day and this time? That was a joy to my soul when I saw people from all various walks of life, those who were blessed intellectually, financially and other ways, lay hand and glove and heart and soul with others who struggle financially, who struggle in their own lives, to do great ministry on behalf of the Lord. That was the joy of my time as a pastor. And to be honest with you I miss it. I miss that as a bishop. You know, you don't get a chance to do as much hands-on stuff. I miss that.
Joe: You talked about having a love for preaching. And I noted that you have spoken all over the world. I mean, the list of countries on your bio is pretty long. How did you get into that kind of preaching?
Bishop Swanson: Well, I've been blessed… And I really say that because I have never…. Let me put it this way,
I've made friendships with people, and most of my invitations have come not because I was a bishop, but because I was a friend to someone. Sometimes it's been because I went on a mission excursion and did not know I was going to get called on to preach while I was there. I just went. So while I was there I was asked to preach. And those times and things have happened.
Joe: You also said in the pastoral ministry, when I was asking your favorite part to pastoral ministry, you mentioned about helping people see God at work in their lives. And I've heard that you like asking people about "glory sightings." Can you talk a little about that?
Bishop Swanson: Yeah, we have a thing in Mississippi. I guess I have to be careful how I say this, because I don't want people to misunderstand...
Mississippi statistically in the United States, we seem to always rank at the bottom end of everything. As a result of it sometimes the people from Mississippi will make jokes like, if it wasn't for us everybody else would be on the bottom, and that kind of thing. You know. Yet Mississippi is a really blessed state.
We gave the world Oprah Winfrey and Elvis Presley. Even Jim Henson with muppets and all of that kind of stuff, came from Mississippi.
There are some wonderful people who have roots in Mississippi and who've gone on to do some wonderful things. But sometimes we get a bad bum rap. So what I wanted to do was to help Mississippi people to stop looking at themselves as always on the bottom. And I started talking about where is God really doing some wonderful things? And how can we give God glory? Where is it today you have seen a glory of God? We started calling those glory sightings. Where is God doing some wonderful, wonderful things?
In other words, rather than complaining and cursing the darkness, why don't we glorify God for the light that is shining and the good things that are going on? It's from those good and wonderful things we draw strength and energy to tackle some of the darkness in our lives.
So that's why we talk more about "glory sightings." It's to help us to understand that yes, Mississippi has had some things that we're not very proud of. But there are some things that we should really celebrate and from those we get a strength and the energy to tackle the part of our lives that have not been very good and very pleasing in God's sight for God's not done with us yet.
Joe: That's true of a lot of areas of life. We can choose to look at the dark side, or we can choose to look at where God's at work. What a wonderful ministry, to help people through those times.
Tell me about your family life. I think I read that you have 15 grandkids.
Bishop Swanson: Really 17!
Joe: It's 17 now? I must have read something that was old.
Bishop Swanson: I have some children who've been rather fertile, and some who have been fertile in other ways.
I have my baby girl, who is a wonderful, wonderful girl who not only has a daughter, but she's a foster parent as well. These children also become my grandchildren, so that adds to our family.
We've been blessed. I have 6 adult children, all married now. All of them have given us grands except for one, who just got married a year or so ago, a year and a half ago. He is a pastor now in Kingsport, Tennessee. So all of my 6 kids have given us children except for that one, and we're praying that one day they'll give us some kids as well. So we've been blessed. With those 17, who are a blessing.
Our kids run from the age of 28 to 48. So they're just wonderful children, 2 girls and 4 boys. So we've been blessed. And with those grandchildren are coming along, I have one great-gran that is on the way. So… Delfina and I have been really blessed.
Joe: One last question that I ask everybody that I have on Get Your Spirit in Shape, what do you do to keep your spirit in shape?
Bishop Swanson: One is that I try each and every day to turn my attention to the word of God. I have 2 or 3 ways that I do that.
One is, of course, I have this app on my phone that reminds me every day to read a passage of Scripture. But I also use a Moravian text that I read that and I supplement that with the Upper Room.
Also, with my cabinet, we have developed a piece that we do a daily devotion. I have not only my cabinet, but some other people who are part of that, where one of us will read a devotion of the day and we will post our sort of musings or our thoughts about that devotion. We all read that same text and one person posts their thoughts around that and what God is saying to them and for all of us as sort of a lesson for the day. And we all will read that. That helps me.
I have a time of prayer each morning that I try to do religiously. Sometimes, I miss just like everybody else. I get up in the morning running. But I'll try to do that each morning and each evening as well.
Then I also have special prayer partners, and one other thing that I sort of took from President Obama when I arrived in Mississippi. You remember that President Obama asked a gentleman to become sort of as his spiritual guide. This guy would write a devotion for President Obama each day.
When I arrived in Mississippi, a young female clergy person, I really impressed Lee and I asked her would she do that for me. And so she does, and she sends it to me via email just about everyday. And I read that. It is unusually canny how each one is so pertinent to me each and every day.
So between those things that helps me to stay focused and mindful of who I am and what I …
When I'm traveling like I'm doing right now I carry with me a Scripture that engaged on a rock that I read that is actually in my sort of toiletry item. I know I've gotta use them every day and I read it every day. And it's "Lord, lead me to a rock that is higher than I."
I read it every morning, especially when I'm shaving. Psalms 61:2. And so that keeps me understanding that there is God, and that God is higher than me, and that I'm not the sum total of life, neither am I the end…the beginning and the end of life, that there is someone who is greater than me and I must seek him each and every day of my life in order to be who I am seeking to be. So this is something I started about 3 years ago carrying this rock. I don't even remember who gave it to me. But I decided to put it with my toiletry items because I know that I am gonna use them each day. In fact, while I'm shaving it's always right in front of me and I read it maybe 2 or 3 different times while I am shaving each morning.
Those are the things that I do….
Then, of course, I read. I'm a crazy reader. I can't read one book at a time. I usually read 2 to 3 books at a time.
Joe: Well, I am so grateful for your time today. This was a wonderful conversation. And it was really great to meet you today.
Bishop Swanson: Well, thank you. I appreciate the fact that you're doing this. I mean, I feel honored to be asked to share my life. I hope it's beneficial.
Joe: That was Bishop James Swanson of the Mississippi Conference. To learn more about him and all of our bishops, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. We've put links on the page to help you learn more about Bishop Swanson, to help you find more conversations with our bishops, and links to some other podcasts by United Methodists that you might enjoy.
Thanks for listening, downloading and subscribing. I'll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I'm Joe Iovino. Peace.