Passion Drove Results of Bishop’s Ministry with AU

Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey stands with staff and guests at AU. Courtesy photo.
Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey stands with staff and guests at AU. Courtesy photo.

Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey helped raise millions of dollars for Africa University with a passion driven by his deep-seated desire to repay the people who made his own higher education possible.

After a decade of volunteering to help annual conferences and congregations organize fund-raising campaigns as Executive Vice President for Development for Africa University (AU), the retired bishop from the Carolinas has retired once again.

“You can't do the kind of work that he has done and be as successful as he has been unless, number one, it's a calling, and number two, you have a passion,” said James H. Salley, Associate Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement for Africa University. “He has a passion for people, for education. And a heart for Africa. That's very clear.”

When McCleskey retired in 2008 after 12 years as bishop in the South Carolina and Western North Carolina annual conferences, Salley asked him to help the AU Development Office. He agreed to volunteer for three years and stayed for a decade.

“I have always been deeply committed to the United Methodist Church's ministries in higher education,” McCleskey said. “I've always believed that education is such an important key to all kinds of things in the ministry of the church and the development of society and development of individuals.”

The bishop said he was only able to attend Duke University for his undergraduate education because he received two scholarships – one from the university and one from his home church, Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Florida.

“I knew personally the importance and the effect of the generosity of other people in making higher education possible for me,” McCleskey said. “When Africa University was started, it just captured my imagination immediately. I was captured by the pan-African nature of the school. I was captured by its vision of bringing together people from across countries, across cultures.”

He learned quickly that scholarship money was critical for students to get an education at AU. Working in the university’s development office provided the chance to help raise money for scholarships, faculty endowments and facilities.

“It gave me the opportunity, in a sense, to repay the people that I could never repay otherwise for my own education,” McCleskey said.

Under his leadership as bishop, the South Carolina Annual Conference raised $2 million for the university, including $1.7 million to build a theology building and the remaining funds for scholarships. The Western North Carolina Annual Conference raised $1.2 million for scholarships when he was bishop.

“I can't imagine a more satisfying and deeply gratifying way I could have spent those 10 years than doing what I did for Africa University,” the bishop said. “It's been one of the richest parts of my life.

“I really believe that Africa University, in my judgment, is the most significant educational outreach ministry that the United Methodist Church has done in my lifetime. “There's nothing else that I have seen to match it. It has spawned other schools on the continent, and will, I think, continue to do so,” he said.

excerpt from a story by Tom Gillem, a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN.

One of seven apportioned giving opportunities of The United Methodist Church, the Africa University Fund transforms Africa by educating and empowering students from across the continent through Africa University, the first fully accredited, United Methodist-related educational institution on the continent. The Africa University Fund supports the general operating expenses of Africa University including faculty and staff salaries and vital infrastructure. Please encourage your leaders and congregations to support the Africa University Fund at 100 percent.