Bishop Paul Leeland is a bishop in The United Methodist Church, a trained pastoral counselor, a chess player, and an avid reader. He also plays a musical instrument that he doesn't tell everyone about... but he told us!
His faith story begins like many of ours, going to church every Sunday with his family. His grandparents and great-grandmother were influential in his faith journey, as were the pastors of his home church. Together they provided a strong spiritual foundation.
While working as a pastoral counselor, Bishop Leeland sensed during prayer one day that that he was in the wrong place. Soon after, he would begin pastoring his first congregation.
Bishop Paul Leeland
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This episode posted on May 10, 2019.
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’s guest is United Methodist Bishop Paul Leeland. In our conversation, Bishop Leeland shared how pastors and family members who helped shape his faith. He told me about how he studied to be a pastoral counselor, but one day in prayer had an immediate awareness that he was in the wrong place. He also talked about his love of a classic board game and a classic—although not classical—musical instrument that he plays.
Meet Bishop Paul Leeland.
Joe: I’m on the phone today with Bishop Paul Leeland, the resident bishop of the Western North Carolina Conference. Bishop Leeland, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Paul Leeland: Thank you.
Joe: Tell me about Washington, D.C. What was it like growing up there?
Bishop Leeland: Well, when I was growing up I had a very good experience in Washington, D.C. I was in the southeast section. My church was in Lincoln Park, Lincoln Park United Methodist Church. I was married there, and had a wonderful experience in that congregation. Looking back now I can see what an impact it had in terms of shaping my thinking about and what a vital congregation would look like.
Joe: Was going to church something that your family did all the time? Or did you remember beginning to go to church?
Bishop Leeland: My family went to church every Sunday. Actually when I say my family that consisted of my grandparents and my great grandmother who raised my sisters and myself. So that’s the only family that I ever knew.
Joe: Oh, okay.
Bishop Leeland: My grandmother and great grandmother stepped into the gap. That’s the way I think about it, to keep my sisters and myself together so that we didn’t have to be separated. They were Methodists, and my great grandmother’s parents and grandparents were Methodists. So we were steeped into the Methodist tradition early on.
Joe: I guess so. Other than your grandparents and great grandparents, who were some of the early influencers of your faith?
Bishop Leeland: Well, it would be the two pastors that served that congregation. During the time that I remember going to church, we only had two ministers that served that congregation, Charles Niner and Thomas Sunderland, both of whom are deceased now. They were members of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. They had a lot to do with the early stages of my faith.
Joe: Is there anything in particular you remember about them?
Bishop Leeland: Well, with Reverend Niner it was always confirmation class. But with Reverend Sunderland it was just developing a personal relationship with me and providing opportunities for different levels or areas of service within the life of the church. So he found lots of ways to involve me. And I had a wonderful friendship with him. I admired him and respected him. So that did leave an impact on me.
Toward the last years before I left for college, in the Baltimore-Washington Conference they had an event throughout the entire conference called The Organized Bible Class Association. The OBCA is what they used to refer to it as. Every congregation would send adult representatives and youth representatives to Western Maryland College, for about 3 days. I was the youth representative and I remember sitting in the balcony of that chapel at the college, and a woman was preaching. I just felt this strong sense that I wanted to be involved in the church. Now I wasn’t thinking about ordination. I was just thinking in terms of finding some way to serve in the church. And as I left for college and met student pastors, some of whom were much older than I was, but they’d come back to college, that were trying to finish their education and serve small congregations. I was introduced to people in eastern North Carolina that guided me toward taking a student appointment while I was trying to finish my education. And so that was the road that brought me into ministry.
Joe: Did you ever consider another career?
Bishop Leeland: Well, in a way I considered a different career than being a local pastor. Out of the strain and brokenness of the kind of family environment that led to my grandparents raising my sisters and myself, ministry in my mind meant being a therapist, being a pastoral counselor or a counselor.
I remember that once I heard about pastoral counseling I knew that I could become a counselor through the church, and that’s what ministry really kind of was the ideal that I had in my mind. And that’s exactly what I did after I finished college. In my MDiv work at Duke Divinity School I went back and did another Masters there in pastoral psychology and then I was certified with the American Association of Pastoral Counselors to be a therapist. I thought that was the direction that my ministry was gonna lead me in.
Then I had this experience through prayer. My great grandmother never used the word letio divina, but she knew how to do it. She taught my sisters and myself how to read the scriptures and to use that as the basis and the framework of our prayers. So I was hired as a pastoral counselor, and I was in my office in between clients. I was reading the scriptures and praying them, and I had this experience that it would take a lot longer than this conversation is gonna provide for us today. But I had an immediate awareness that I was in the wrong place, that I needed to be in the local church teaching and preaching. I could do all the pastoral support, pastoral care I needed to do within a congregation.
So, I called the superintendent in Eastern North Carolina Conference that was familiar with my journey. His name was Paul Caruth. I called Paul and I said, “I don’t know when an appointment will open; I don’t know when a church will open. It doesn’t matter where it is or when it happens. I’m ready to come back and serve a local church.” A couple of days later Paul Caruth called me and it was within a few weeks of the annual conference that had already taken place. And Paul said, “We have a church that we weren’t able to fill at annual conference.” So you know what that means. And I said, “I’ll take it.” My wife and I returned to Eastern North Carolina, and that congregation was a wonderful church outside of Greensboro in the Burlington area, at a place called Elon, North Carolina. They taught me how to be a pastor. It was a wonderful experience.
Joe: You spent years in pastoral ministry which must have been an extremely rewarding experience. What were some of the things that energized you in pastoral ministry?
Bishop Leeland: It was the relationships. It was always the friendships and the relationships that did that for me. When I left Elon (and we had some minimal growth there), I was just as proud of that small amount of growth because it was a small rural as I was when I left there and went to Raleigh and my next appointment.
When I got there to that second appointment at St. Andrews United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina there was about 11 people in the choir, and there was less than that in the sanctuary. I was worried. But during the 7 years that I was there that congregation grew. We received a lot of members and they built a new sanctuary and remodeled their fellowship hall and built administrative offices.
The reason I mention that is because that, looking back that really, really energized me, was the growth of the church. Just receiving new members, of being in their home and linking them to ministry within the congregation and community. Oddly enough, when I left Raleigh, North Carolina the bishop appointed me to Kinston, North Carolina next. And I had the very same experience there. The church grew and we were together with that congregation as they also built a new sanctuary.
Bishop Leeland: And looking back on it now I can see how those two appointments, back to back, both of them building new sanctuaries… Looking back, that was part of what really energized me.
Joe: You became a district superintendent, right?
Bishop Leeland: Yes. I was a superintendent of the Goldsboro District. That was a wonderful experience. And Bishop Marion Edwards, who invited me to be a part of his cabinet family, when he provided some time with me to offer an orientation, he made a comment to me. He said, “Paul, you’re never gonna see the church from quite this angle, as you’re gonna see it from the responsibilities of the superintendent.” And that’s exactly what happened.
I saw preachers. I got an opportunity to be in their congregations and see their worship services and see the vast differences with which clergy preached and taught and served. It was a wonderful experience. I mean, everything has its ups and downs, including the role that I have now. Everything has its ups and its downs. But for the most part I have always enjoyed my appointments including being a superintendent.
Joe: So, you talked about the ups and downs and everything. What’s the best part about being a bishop?
Bishop Leeland: Every bishop may give you a different response to that question. But the best part has been working with conference leaders, lay and clergy, where you feel like you really can make a difference to strengthen the church. You have the opportunities to place people in leadership. You have opportunities to create momentum and focus. You have the opportunity to align different groups and individuals around the same mission, the same vision and the values of discipleship. When that begins to fall into place and people are working together, and you receive positive feedback from congregations and leaders, then you feel like this is going to help the church at this time. We know that things are constantly changing and leadership changes, but at this time you feel like you can do your part.
Joe: Ah, that’s exciting. I read in your biography that you once won “The Red Shoe Award.” Can you tell us about that?
Bishop Leeland: In the North Carolina Conference, the clergywomen offer an award called “The Red Shoe Award.” The Red Shoe is a symbol of their solidarity together, their encouragement of each other in ministry, who for some women that’s not been an easy road, especially in the earlier years when you didn’t see many women clergy. That’s not the case now. Even in my current cabinet I have more women superintendents than I have men for the first time in the history of this conference. But The Red Shoe Award was an award that the women clergy gave to an individual who they felt had made a contribution to the advancement and support of women in ministry.
They’d given the award to some wonderful people in Eastern North Carolina—people that I admired that had an impact on me as I came into the life of the conference and who were mentors of mine. I never thought about the award as such. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but my support for women and women clergy came to a point at which they contacted me and told me that they were going to give me that award. So they gave me that award on behalf of the conference. The symbol of it is a glass red slipper that’s still on the shelf here in my study with me.
Joe: That’s a nice reminder of the work that you were able to do.
This may sound like an obvious question, but how do you see your experience in pastoral counseling at work in your life of ministry?
Bishop Leeland: Oh… It may be at several levels. I think that one of the things that training as a pastoral counselor and a therapist does for you is it helps you appreciate conversation and communication.
It also helps you when conversations get uncomfortable not to take that personally, but to see that as an indication or a sign that points you in the direction of things that need to be explored further or even resolved.
So I think listening to people, finding compatibility, companionship, respect, trying to think through, being a thinking partner with others. All of those are aspects of good therapists.
You know, there used to be a person in the newspaper called Ann Lander, and she had people write in to her with personal problems and family problems. One of the interesting things that she would say over and over is ‘find a good therapist. Go find a good counselor.’ And somebody wrote in one time and I was reading her article and they said, ‘Well, how do you find a good therapist?” Ann Landers says, “Well, it’s like finding a good plumber; it’s fifty-fifty.”
The reason that stood out in my mind is because you have to have a sense of rapport and appreciation and respect that… We don’t do business with people that we don’t trust. Trust is at the heart of leadership. It’s always the relationship. Trust is at the heart of leadership. We don’t buy things from people we don’t trust. We don’t enter into business relationships with people we don’t trust.
So the answer that comes to my mind, one of the impressions that come to my mind when you ask me that is, how did that part of my journey inform my work? I think it helped me to listen to people and to treat them with respect, and to try to live into the gospel values that Paul said—be kind to one another, compassionate and forgiving one another even as Christ has forgiven us—not to be judgmental toward other people. When you respect people no matter what they’re trying to think through or what they’re trying to share with you and they know that you care about them, they continue to allow you to be part of their journey. That help?
Joe: Yeah, wonderful. That was great.
I know that being a bishop is a super time-consuming job. But when you have time for yourself and want to do something, just for the fun of it, what are some things that you like to do?
Bishop Leeland: Music, reading and the game of chess.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Bishop Leeland: One of the things that very, very few people know about me in my current life is that while I was moving up through grade school and going off to college, I had 10 years of accordion lessons. So I still play the accordion. I still play music. As I entered into being a district superintendent and a bishop, I quit playing so much in public because I didn’t want to be known as the accordion-playing bishop.
Joe: Telling me might not help that.
Bishop Leeland: I still have my accordion. I still play music.
I love to read. I read everything. Well, almost everything. The only thing I’ve never read has been romance novels. But I’ve read everything else—mysteries and non-fiction and biographies to poetry. I mean, I read everything.
Then, of course, I love chess. And when you have family members that play chess, even though they’re younger than you and they’re better than you, you have to give a little bit of thought. It’s challenging and I think it calls on some skills for strategic thinking. So I enjoy chess.
Joe: One question that I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is how do you keep your spirit in shape?
Bishop Leeland: The first 10 years out of, really almost the first 20 years of ministry, I never could quite get settled into what people that immerse themselves in spiritual formation would call a “rule of life,” a framework that becomes the guide that you use to deepen the spiritual disciplines that bring us closer to God and make us aware of that intimacy with God. I tried lots of things—journaling; I would try different pamphlets and booklets that would be done. But I never could get into a routine.
Then about 20 years ago a rhythm started falling into place that I’ve been doing now close to 20 years. For me that rhythm is that I’m an early riser and always have been. So when I get up in the morning I begin with that time of prayer and Scripture. I focus on a verse or two of one of the hymns that match the Christian season in the year. And I also include some of the classical writings of great saints and teachers of the church over the centuries.
I create a space where …. They talk…. People that work with leadership, for example, talk about getting off of the busy dance floor and up on the balcony where you can get the big picture. That’s what my spiritual time each morning does for me. It lets me find a place where the things that I have to do that are coming forward that I sometimes fret about or worry about or trying to think about the best way to approach, through prayer and Scripture and hymns I often find this sense of awareness and assurance of what I need to do. That’s my time of getting distance and keeping myself balanced.
My perspective of the role that I’m in in the life of the church is that there are a lot of people that pull at the bishop and a lot of groups that pull at the bishop. And you can hit the ground running from the time you get up to when you lay your head down. You’ve gotta have a way of balancing the spiritual depth in your life so that you have some objectivity and it keeps you humble.
I could say a lot about humility, and I’m not uncomfortable thinking about it in terms of my own life because I’ve lived like everybody else. But you have to have a place where you listen to what God may be saying to you. I could give you lots of examples of how that continues to unfold from that time of prayer in the morning.
So if I’m in a situation during the day and it becomes particularly stressful to me, the way that my mind works suddenly this picture of this chair that I sit in early in the morning comes to my mind. And it’s like, “Yes, Lord.” That’s the cue. You need to take this to the Lord in prayer. It’s sort of like I can’t wait to get back to my place of privacy and prayer to think through this and to get re-centered. It has a rhythm to it that I rarely deviate from. But that’s been going on for close to 20 years in my life now also.
The first 20 years I’d say a clergy coming out of seminary, as you begin to work with a spiritual director (which I had one), if you begin to work with people that you admire that could guide you and become guides along the way in developing spiritual formation, the most important thing a clergy can do is become spiritual leaders, be immersed and based in Scripture and prayer and worship and sacraments. As they are immersed in those things, I think those means of grace, or those channels continue to move us closer and closer to being shaped into the image of Christ, is the way that I think about it.
I feel so strongly about this that every year I ask all the newly-ordained class, the ones coming into full connection and being ordained, deacons and elders, to come to my house for a cookout before annual conference, and we just spend time together. I want to hear their faith story. I want them to hear my faith story. I want to know what is it that has nudged them and wooed them into ministry.
That’s an example of how I try to balance the routine work of my office with reminding me of the call to serve Jesus through the church.
Joe: That’s really wonderful. Bishop, thank you so much for having this conversation with me today.
Bishop Leeland: Well, thank you for inviting me and if anybody listens to it, please forgive me for anything that I’ve said wrong.
Joe: That was Bishop Paul Leeland of the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church. To learn more about him, go to UMC.org/podcasts and search for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape, titled “Meet Bishop Paul Leeland.” There you will also find links to more conversations with our bishops and the rest of our episodes that help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies.
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