While studying medicine at Tulane University, Bishop Bryan had a nagging question that kept him up all night. It’s a question you have probably considered as well: Will I be happy doing this for the rest of my life?
Growing up in a loving church environment where Ms. Forrester hugged him and every child attending Sunday School each week, Bryan knew his relationship with the church was where he had found purpose. So he went to seminary to find out if God was calling him to ministry.
Today, Bishop Bryan serves the South Georgia Conference. His training in science led him to write a book, shows in his love of researching for sermons, and gave him the inspiration to see the church as well-equipped medical laboratory.
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Bishop R. Lawson Bryan
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This episode posted on January 30, 2019.
Joe: 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.
I am so glad you're here today as we get to meet Bishop Lawson Bryan of the South Georgia Conference. Bishop Bryan grew up in Georgia and Alabama, and one of his earlier memories of church is of a woman with amazing athletic ability whose job it was to hug every child as they came in to Sunday School.
Bishop Bryan grew up loving science, which led him to study medicine, but while he was in college, a question kept him up at night. It's a question I've had, and I imagine you may have as well. For him, the answer was seminary.
But as we've highlighted in previous episodes, God uses everything, and God used Bishop Bryan's time in the lab. You're really going to want to hear how he compares the church to a well-equipped medical laboratory. And he wrote a book called Pursuing Science, Finding Faith that explains the relationship between the two.
When I asked him how he keeps his spirit in shape, he talked about a routine very similar to the one that shaped John and Charles Wesley.
Meet Bishop Lawson Bryan.
Joe: Bishop Bryan, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Bryan: Thank you. I'm glad to be a part of it. I want us to have our spirits in shape. So I'm glad we have that opportunity to talk together.
Joe: I wanted to begin just asking about what it was like growing up. I know you grew up in Bainbridge, Georgia and Dothan, Alabama, I believe. Can you tell me about that experience?
Bishop Bryan: Yeah, that's exactly right. In fact, one of the great joys that serving the South Georgia Conference is that I grew up in the South Georgia Conference, in Bainbridge, Georgia. My childhood years in Bainbridge, my teenage years in Dothan, Alabama.
I was in Bainbridge, living with my grandparents because of problems within my family. I grew up in Bainbridge living with my grandparents, and they took me to First United Methodist Church. So South Georgia Conference gave me the first church home that I ever had.
Joe: What are some of the early memories of going to church?
Bishop Bryan: Absolutely fantastic memories, as a little child, I'm talking—3, 4, 5 years old, 6, 7, 8 years old. It was an Akron style architecture church where... As you entered, you were at the back of the church. It was a sloping floor, semi-circular pews, floor sloping down to the chancel rail and the pulpit in the center, the choir behind the pulpit, lifted up.
As a child the beautiful stained glass windows were fascinating to me, and the sound of the organ was amazing. I found that the floor was sloping; so when I was 5 years old I could pick up speed going down to communion and land right at the chancel rail.
Joe: Who were some of the people that were early influencers in your faith journey?
Bishop Bryan: There's a lady named Mrs. Forrester. Interestingly enough some of her family members are still in Bainbridge and I've connected with them. But Mrs. Forrester stood at the front door of the Sunday school building. And when you entered you had to go to the left, if you were…for younger children. And you went to the right for older children and youth.
Ms. Forrester positioned herself at the intersection, and her job was to hug everybody who came in, whether they wanted to be hugged or not. She had the agility and the maneuverability of a football running back, so you couldn't get by her.
I look back now and realize that was a tactile physical experience of the love of Christ that she was sharing with everybody. There were lots of other people in the church like that who were there every time I was there, and created that environment that was so nurturing
Joe: So you were pretty active in Sunday school?
Bishop Bryan: Went to Sunday school, had some great Sunday school teachers, lot of friends and classmates there. Two of the pastors in the South Georgia Conference, with whom I've reconnected, were children in the church at the same time as well.
Joe: Yeah. That's fun. Were you one of the kids who accepted the hug? Or were you trying to get around her?
Bishop Bryan: I can't recall except I can still smell the aroma of her perfume if I think about it. She really is a symbol of that.
Then there were lots of men in the church who were very active and very involved. And I just always had this sense of being surrounded by a community of people who were very involved.
Joe: When you got a little bit older, like 11 or 12, you guys moved to Alabama?
Bishop Bryan: Yes, my father was a flight instructor at Ft. Rucker, Alabama, which is not far from Dothan. My parents' marriage, which had always been rocky… (That's why I lived with my grandparents.) For a few years in there, there was enough stability for me to go live with them. I have 3 sisters as well. I'm the oldest of the four.
So we lived in Dothan and once again went to a United Methodist Church that is remarkable for the number of people who've gone into ministry—Christian education, missionaries or ordained ministry. It was a church that gave a lot of hands-on opportunity for all of us to be involved.
Joe: That must have been a good experience, especially at that age.
Bishop Bryan: Yes, the teenage years, Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dothan, Alabama. It was a church of… a hundred people on Sunday would have been a large crowd of people. Must have had a couple of hundred members. There was the pastor and maybe a part-time secretary, but the adults themselves were the youth director and the children's director. So all of us as kids had a chance to get in leadership roles early because that's how the leadership was done, through the laity.
Joe: I get a sense that as you got older you developed an interest in science. I believe you wrote a book called Pursuing Science, Finding Faith. Was that your first academic pursuit?
Bishop Bryan: It was. When I graduated from Dothan High School I went to Tulane University in New Orleans and majored in biology, worked in a cancer research lab for a medical school professor and thought I was heading into research or on to medical school. And I love science. I find that a way of connecting me with God's creativity and God's beauty. So I just enjoyed that in high school and glad I pursued that in college.
In the midst of that I began waking up in the middle of the night, half-way through college. The question in my mind was, are you going to be happy doing this for 40 years? And I don't even know why I would start waking up wondering that.
I didn't know at that point that God calls sometimes by disturbing us on the path that we are on. I shared my experience with some of my lab colleagues. The lab professor was Jewish, and he made an appointment with me with the dean of Tulane Medical School, who had been a Methodist minister and become a medical doctor. So all of this was amazing.
Bishop Bryan: He'd been a chaplain in World War II and then came home and became a doctor. So we shared similar stories.
It's not lost on me that a Jewish lab professor played a pivotal role as well. I've always been grateful to the Judaic foundation of the Christian faith. But it really ministered to me deeply right then.
Sso the Tulane Medical School dean encouraged me. I didn't know what I was supposed to do whenever the question came up, Are you going to be happy doing this for 40 years? I did have to admit that I was only truly happy when I was doing something related directly to working in the church or with the church.
So the medical school dean said, "Well, go to seminary and test that out. And then when get there and want to come here, that's fine. Or if you go through there and want to come to medical school you can always do that." Once I got to seminary…. I went to Emory University… and once I arrived at Candler, I knew I was in the right place. I still didn't know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew that was the right place for me.
Joe: Are there things about that medical/science background that you can see influencing what you do today?
Bishop Bryan: Absolutely. In fact, I often hear with congregations that my view of the local church is to think of the local church as a well-equipped laboratory where we are invited to come in. We don't have to know the answer to everything. We can have hypotheses that we can test out. We can be colleagues with each other in examining life and how life is best lived, and what Christ has to offer. We could be in that sort of experimental world together where we're open to God's presence.
It's also interesting that early on in science, science and theology were very closely related. You find a lot of theologians and scientists that were the same person doing the same thing. So I think science invites us to reflect deeply.
I know Einstein, at one point, said that the only truly religious people, he thought, still around were physicists because they had a sensed of the magnitude of the universe and a sense of awe and wonder.
So for me science has always been there. That's why I called the book Pursuing Science and Finding Faith. The two are complementary, and the one led to the other for me. But I think, thinking of the church as a well-equipped laboratory where everybody is invited to be in on the discoveries that we can make together, that really does shape how I do ministry.
Joe: I really like that image about the way we look at the local church.
If I did the math correctly I believe you started in pastoral ministry for… You did that for about 40 years or a little bit more. In a typical week what was the exciting thing about being a pastor? What did you get most energized by?
Bishop Bryan: One of the most interesting things is what you do in a research lab is a lot of study, a lot of time spent in laboratory experiments and in studying the data. And a lot of what you do in ministry, especially in sermon preparation, is the same kind of research—skills at least. And one of the most enjoyable parts of the week to me was sermon preparation because I like translating a text from…if it's in the New Testament or even in the Septuagint in the Old Testament, translating from Greek into English, noting the words, getting a sense of the text itself, before going to commentaries. And then always valued the dialog that commentaries brought about. I feel like the research component of sermon preparation was something that allowed me to still fulfill that scientific research yearning in my life. So I always found that to be a high part of the week for me.
So preaching on Sunday was a great joy, if I felt like I had done my homework. And I found that God meets you in the middle of doing that work. God doesn't…never did it for me, but the inspiration would come in the midst of doing the work, doing the research. And then the sermon itself was something I relished being able to share with the congregation. I feel like everybody doesn't get to go to seminary. I did. So I have a responsibility to bring the best I can to the congregation on Sunday. So sermon preparation and….
The whole worship design, the designing worship that is all of one piece, removing distractions from people and having a reason that the liturgy flows the way it does. A well-designed service is a thing of beauty to me. So I like working with the organist and the choir director, other people on the worship team.
Then the other part of my week was often non-pastoral related. Visitation, I think is extremely important to meet with people on their turf, whether it's their office or their home. There's a plan I've shared with other clergy about how you can visit everybody in your congregation. You can make 25 visits a day if you follow this particular plan, which means within a month or two you could visit everybody in just about any size congregation. I think that's extremely important because the pastoral role ungirds the preaching role if you know your congregation.
Then the other part is just ordering the life of the church through administrative role of the pastor.
Joe: And did I hear you say that you know Greek well enough to be able to translate?
Bishop Bryan: Yes. When I was at Tulane, after I had that middle of the night experience and met with the medical school dean and realized I don't know what I'm gonna do, but I have more of a sense of fulfillment with the idea of going to seminary right now. My last 2 years at Tulane I took Greek—classical Greek. And then we had a consortium arrangement with a Catholic seminary down the road, down St. Charles Avenue, so I was able to go take New Testament Greek my senior year in college by going to the seminary.
Then when I got to Emory I was able to take like, the Gospel of Matthew in Greek and the Gospel of Luke in Greek. There'd be 3 or 4 of us sitting around the professor's desk reading it. So that was a rich experience.
Joe: Then in 2016 you were elected a bishop. And I like asking bishops, what's the best part of being a bishop?
Bishop Bryan: Well, for me the best part is the opportunity to connect with churches and pastors because I love them both. They are my life. That's what I've done for 40 years. So that's what I know. That's what I believe in deeply. And the opportunity to serve my churches and my pastors and try to offer them the best I can bring to them, to resource them for their ministry, to be a resource to my churches and my pastors. That's the best part.
Joe: And I now that being a bishop is an extremely time-consuming job. But when you have an opportunity to do something just for you, what do you like to do? Are there hobbies? What's your thing?
Bishop Bryan: There are 3 things that I enjoy. And fortunately my wife enjoyed them, too. So we often get to do it together. But one that's kind of a solo activity for me is I love reading. And so, I choose to read broadly, all kinds of literature I relish. And that's often how I find renewal, as well. And then my wife and I both enjoy walking. And so it's not unusual for us to walk 5 or 6 miles a day, early morning. And that's also a time for talking and sharing. But we get to know a community when we go through the community on foot. And so, I'm not talking about just walking in the neighborhood, but actually walking the streets of a town or a city wherever we are and seeing it at street level. And then travel. I enjoy travel so very much. Travel in this country and travel outside the country. It's so enriching to me.
Joe: What's a favorite place that you've been?
Bishop Bryan: Well, I have enjoyed … Alaska was absolutely beautiful. And the great thing about Alaska was, you don't talk about how tall the buildings are, the biggest this, that or the other. You see the beauty of nature. But then I also enjoyed the Baltic countries. Soren Kierkegaard was a philosopher I've studied a good bit. So I went to Copenhagen, Denmark and…. Part of that trip, too, we were in Tallinn, Estonia. And I got to go to the Baltic Methodist Mission Center and meet some of our missionaries there.
Joe: Oh, that's exciting.
Bishop Bryan: That was great. So I love the Baltic countries. I'm about to take my fourth group to Israel. And certainly that would always be at the top of my list of places I love traveling to…Israel. But recently was in Africa with the General Board of Religious and Race and I had a chance to go to Africa University in Zimbabwe. And that was an inspiring experience.
Joe: I'm sure. And so my final question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape or what's the thing that you do that helps you keep your spirit in shape?
Bishop Bryan: That's been a real interesting journey for me because I've benefited from Upper Room academies. We had an event in Alabama/West Florida, of a 3-year covenant community where we had various spiritual leaders would come in and meet with at 4 retreats a year. There are so many resources available now, not only retreats and that kind of thing, but also various devotional materials available that several years ago I realize that I like it all, I want to do it all, but I needed something that was the core, the foundation for me.
Over the years I've always been attracted but never paid a lot of attention to persistently, the Book of Common Prayer. But for the last decade or so that has been my mainstay on a daily basis. So each morning begins with the readings of the daily lectionary from the Book of Common Prayer and reflecting upon them and praying them as I pray for my cabinet, as I pray for our churches and for our pastors in denomination. I'm guided by the Book of Common Prayer. And I often then, after studying the passages, we use the order for Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. I got started on that simply because the Book of Common Prayer has a way you can pray through the Psalms every 30 days. I more and more have found that while I value all kinds of prayer, the Psalms give me the words I need to pray about the realities of life. So I got into the Book of Common Prayer through the Psalms and now have come to embrace the whole of it as my spiritual guide on a daily basis.
Joe: Wow. In a lot of ways that's a worship experience that shaped John and Charles Wesley.
Bishop Bryan: Yeah, exactly. I'm keenly aware that that's part of who I am. I sense that I'm connecting with the Wesleys through that.
Joe: Bishop Bryan, thank you so much. This has been a great conversation. It's been wonderful to get to meet you today.
Bishop Bryan: Thank you so much, Joe. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the kind of things I like to get people together to talk about because it's what really is fundamental to who we are.
Joe: That was Bishop Lawson Bryan of the South Georgia Conference. To learn more about him and about our bishops, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. We've put links there about Bishop Bryan's book and other related stories that you might find interesting.
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Well, that's it for this episode. Thank you so much 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.