The June 5-8, 2022, gathering of Holston Annual Conference marked my 61st year attending annual conference sessions. This year’s meeting of my home conference was especially poignant and a reminder of how much the Methodist Connection has shaped my life.
It was thirty years ago, June 1992, that Holston Conference endorsed me for the episcopacy, and six weeks later my membership was transferred to the Council of Bishops. I distinctly remember looking back from the stage at Junaluska after being elected as a bishop to the delegation from Holston Conference. I felt a keen sense of loss! I was leaving the community that had birthed, nurtured, and deployed me as a Christian disciple and pastor.
As the 2022 conference session opened June 5th with “And Are We Yet Alive,” tears welled up! I realized that I never really left home. Holston Conference has continued to do what it has done since I was baptized and received into membership at McKinley Methodist Church more than seventy years earlier. It has nurtured me in faith and sent me forth into ever-broadening circles of connection and expanding experiences of divine grace.
Throughout the four days of “Christian conferencing,” feelings of profound indebtedness and gratitude dominated my experience. As I conversed with longtime friends and colleagues, shared in the worship services and study sessions, listened to reports and debates, and observed the superb leadership of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, I realized in greater depth the immeasurable contributions Holston Conference has made to my life.
It was Holston Conference and the Methodist Connection that
- Changed my image of God from that of an abusive landlord who held me over a rain barrel at age five to teach me to “respect” him to a God who is a Good Shepherd who rescues lost lambs.
- Launched me on a faith journey grounded in boundless LOVE rather than in fear of eternal punishment and damnation.
- Believed in me enough to elect me as president of the small youth group at McKinley Methodist Church, believing in me more than I believed in myself.
- Provided my first experience of “connectionism” as part of a sub-district, district, and conference youth activities.
- Sent me to a National Youth Convocation at Purdue University in 1958 where I heard my first African American preacher, Dr. James S. Thomas, who later became a colleague bishop, mentor, and friend.
- Granted me a “Local Pastor’s License” at age 18.
- Appointed me at age 19 as a student pastor of Watauga Methodist Church, which considered “giving young preachers a start,” as part of their mission.
- Provided a Conference Youth Assembly where I met a beautiful young woman, Linda Miller, who would become my love and life partner for sixty years.
- Educated Linda at Emory and Henry College and through her and others taught me that theology “unites the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.”
- Equipped me with a solid theological education at Wesley Theological Seminary.
- Appointed me as a student pastor of the Hunting Hill-MacDonald Chapel Charge where I was first confronted with institutional racism within the very structure of the church and inspired me to address my own white privilege.
- Ordained me Deacon (1962) and Elder (1965) and welcomed me into conference membership.
- Appointed me to congregations that would shape me far more than I influenced them: Elizabeth Chapel, Pleasant View, Concord, First Oak Ridge, and Church Street.
- Elected me as a bishop and assigned me to the Nashville and Jackson Areas and provided unimagined opportunities for growth in leadership, fellowship, discipleship, mission.
- Selected me as a faculty member at United Methodist related Duke Divinity School and the opportunity to help form future pastors for the church, one of which, Sarah Varnell, preached a marvelous sermon at the 2022 Annual Conference.
- Included Linda among those remembered with thanksgiving during the Memorial Service in 2020 Annual Conference.
- Taught me in word and deed that the heart of the Gospel is GRACE, the presence and power of God to create, liberate, restore, forgive, and transform human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos in the image and reign of Jesus the Christ.
I lament and grieve that the Methodist connection is threatened with schism and disconnection.
But while I grieve, I also give thanks. With all its imperfections and failures, I am profoundly grateful that Holston Conference and the broader Methodist Connection continues to transform lives, expand horizons, broaden the circle of love, and give hope that Christ’s reign of justice, compassion, generosity, hospitality, and peace will come to completion.
The decisive victory has already been won in the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. God grant that we will live now in the light of that victory!