Sixteen months isn’t very long on the job.
But it was that time frame as director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop of the Great Plains Conference that gave Bishop Dee Williamston the courage and the confidence to make advances in the denomination.
“It was fast,” she said with a laugh.
The 57-year-old Topeka native was elected as the first Black female bishop in the South Central Jurisdiction on Nov. 2 during its conference in Houston, chosen on the first ballot, along with fellow new bishops Laura Merrill and David Wilson. She received more than 90% of the vote from delegates. On Jan. 1, she will begin serving the Louisiana Conference.
After serving churches in Topeka, Mentor and Independence, Bishop Williamston became a district superintendent from 2014 to 2021, always for the Salina District and adding the Hutchinson District and portions of the Hays District during her tenure.
In July 2021, she began her appointment as director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop of the Great Plains Conference.
Her first goal and ultimately her proudest moment in the job was bringing the clergy excellence staff together as a cohesive team. They all read the book “Unstoppable Teams: The Four Essential Actions of High Performance Leadership” and developed the acronym CARE: Connect, Achieve, Respect, Empower.
“We wrote the story together. That was huge,” Bishop Williamston said. “They are the unstoppable team, a team that is resourced, that we care about how we communicate and connect, what we achieve to help one another achieve, respect who each person is and their thoughts and perceptions, and how to empower. We got your back.”
She changed the meetings of the team from monthly to weekly, often over Zoom for the two staff members in Lincoln, to give everyone a better idea of what others were working on.
“Before I didn’t know what anybody else did, and now I’m a part of what everybody else does,” said Julie Kohr, administrative assistant.
“We could develop relationships, we could better support each other in our work, which helps us better support the work of the clergy and the work of the conference in general,” said the Rev. Karen Jeffcoat, registrar for the Board of Ordained Ministry.
“She leads out of a spiritual rootedness. That’s the source of her conviction,” said Heather Clinger, administrative assistant. “She has led this team from a place of spiritual rootedness.”
Bishop Williamston said the biggest accomplishment during her time in the conference office was establishing, in cooperation with the Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence at Southern Methodist University, The Preacher’s Toolkit, helping pastors deliver better sermons through short stories, humor and developing better habits. She also expanded on Dr. Leah Shade’s “Preaching in the Purple Zone” presentations on dealing with politically diverse congregations.
Bishop Williamston also worked to resource and assist the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Task Force, helping give a greater voice to a larger variety of clergy and laity.
“She’s created a space for some of the voices who hadn’t been heard, and she’s been pretty intentional about it,” said the Rev. Kathy Williams, clergy leadership coordinator and task force facilitator. “She’s been very courageous and bold, and she’s a risk-taker. She’s willing to take risks where others are unwilling if she thinks it can make a difference.”
Bishop Williamston led another project in Salina, where she lived for seven years, to establish a marker commemorating the life and death of Dana Adams, a 19-year-old Black man who was lynched in 1893, presumably by a gang of white railroad workers. A marker was unveiled on Juneteenth this year in Caldwell Plaza in Salina, and she said a bench labeled "Dana Adams Project" was just added nearby. Plans include grave markers for Adams’ family members, she added.
“The team is still implementing vision we had for the whole Dana Adams Project,” she said. “It’s an ongoing thing, ongoing awareness.”
The Great Plains Conference is considering sponsoring a trip to the Equal Justice Initiative Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2023, she said. Soil samples from the land near where Adams was killed are on display, as are samples from other lynchings across the country.
“She wanted us to be mindful of that, so we don’t go back,” Williams said. “She was, in her own way, bringing that narrative. She kept it in front of us.”
Part of the duties of the clergy excellence director of the Great Plains Conference is to lead the planning team for the annual conference sessions. Bishop Williamston praised everyone who had a hand in planning each aspect of the 2022 conference.
“You have talented people around you that can take care of the details — put worship services together, meetings together, can vision. They have a gift to do those things. That’s what I learned is to have those experts around so they can take care of everything, so you’re not carrying this weight,” she said. “It doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to everyone in the conference.
“They have a passion to serve the Lord, and that’s what they’re really good at, so why should I interfere?” she added.
After the 2022 annual conference, which had a theme of discipleship, Bishop Williamston pushed for a strengthening of clergy discipleship that continued after the sessions were over.
“That showed a lot of intentionality,” said the Rev. Ashlee Alley Crawford, clergy recruitment and development coordinator and interim clergy excellence director. “We will continue to see fruit from that kind of leadership. We don’t go backwards now.”
Director of clergy excellence was only half of Bishop Williamston’s job title. She also served as assistant to the bishop under Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.
“I got a bird’s eye view, the big picture view,” she said. “There is a deep learning there, because you are the right hand of the bishop, available to take care of things that, when they’re busy, that can be done and coordinated by an A-to-B.”
In the Great Plains, it meant serving as a link from the cabinet, clergy, laity and congregations to the bishop’s office, giving the bishop necessary information and at times making decisions on behalf of the bishop.
“You have the spirit and the heart of what the bishop is hoping for,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that people don’t know that bishops do, that they have to pay attention to.”
That experience, she said, proved invaluable through her candidacy for bishop.
“The A-to-B role gives you that 60,000-foot level and the 30,000-foot level of what’s going on and what it takes and the leadership that’s needed — how that role as an influencer and a connection in the conference so that we can make disciples of Jesus Christ and still be a disciple of Jesus Christ,” she said.
Rev. Dr. Shelly Petz, clergy wellness consultant, said Bishop Williamston’s personality makes her an approachable leader.
“She’s serious about her ministry, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously,” Petz said, adding that she has invited her team along in her own learning process. “It’s a reminder we’re never done learning and growing in how we follow Christ. We might fail along the way, but that’s a part of our learning.”
“Dee brings a sense of joy,” Clinger added. “There was always the awareness that she was the supervisor and director of our team, but I always felt like her peer. There wasn’t a separateness. It was us instead of me and you.”
Kohr said Bishop Williamston’s life story — dropping out of high school at 17, rising through the U.S. Army National Guard and becoming a United Methodist elder at 42 — was inspiring.
“She’s a bishop now, and it amazes me that you can come from something lowly or whatever. Look what you can do if you believe in yourself,” she said.
Bishop Williamston said she wanted to thank all those who helped her get to the episcopacy and won’t forget them when she heads to Louisiana.
“I have had the best time. I will say I was raised in the Great Plains Conference, and this is still my home. It will always be,” she said. “The clergy, the laity, those who have worked for the conference are all part of my story, and I’ll never forget them, ever. They are part of my story.”
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