HOUSTON -- As the newly elected and veteran bishops prepared for the consecration service that concluded the South Central Jurisdictional Conference, all of them reflected on a historic, whirlwind week.
“It’s surreal, it’s surreal,” said Bishop Dee Williamston from the Great Plains, assigned to the Louisiana Conference. “It’s so exciting and I am just happy, speechless most of the time, but I am just thinking, ‘Look what God has done.’”
Bishop Williamston, who had been clergy excellence director and assistant to the bishop since 2021, was the first Black woman elected to become an episcopal leader in the jurisdiction. She, Bishop Laura Merrill of the Rio Texas Conference and Bishop David Wilson of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference were all elected on the first ballot – unprecedented in United Methodist history.
“I was so shocked when I saw the number,” said Bishop Williamston, who received 141 of the 151 votes cast. She thought, “You gotta be kidding me. Over 90% of the voters, I didn’t even imagine it.”
She said she was grateful for the welcome she’s received from the Louisiana Conference and for the support of the Great Plains during her candidacy.
“People are excited about me coming, sad that I’m leaving, but also excited that I’m doing what God has called me to do,” she said.
Escorting Bishop Williamston down the aisle of Houston First UMC West were Oliver Green, a member of her childhood church, Topeka Asbury-Mount Olive UMC, and the Rev. Cheryl Jefferson Bell from the Great Plains.
Bell, who was a candidate for bishop in 2008 and 2012, mentored Bishop Williamston during her campaign.
“I had a feeling from the time she announced her candidacy until today that God was going to do something, and it was going to be a miracle,” Bell said. “I didn’t know what it was going to look like, and I didn’t anticipate what would happen.”
Bell watched as Bishop Williamston interacted with the other episcopal leaders and smiled.
“I’m taking it personal,” she said. “I have poured my hopes that she is the right person for this time and this place. I praise God for her and her election and I’m grateful she asked me to be one of her escorts. It’s symbolic for her and me. Sad for us that we’re losing her, but we’re blessing Louisiana – Amen!”
Community justice director for Church of the Resurrection, Bell gave Bishop Williamston advice during her candidacy.
“I have encouraged her to be herself, not trying to please any kind of one faction or the other,” she said. “Trust her gut, trust her heart and be yourself – and Dee being herself, lord have mercy!”
Bishops Williamston and Wilson were two of the three candidates endorsed by jurisdiction’s Black Methodists for Church Renewal, of which Bell is a member.
“We believe there should be more diverse voices at the table for the college and the council (of bishops),” she said. “I believe that God has heard that prayer, all across the jurisdictions.
“God heard our prayer,” Bell added. “That is what I’m excited about and thankful for and grateful for this time around.”
Bell said the jurisdictional conference, her seventh, has left her with hope.
“I feel like a new wave has happened in our denomination and in our jurisdiction,” she said. “Things haven’t been as ugly as they used to be.”
Bishop Ann Sherer-Simpson was the first female bishop elected in the jurisdiction 30 years ago, and served as the bishop of the former Nebraska Conference.
Bishop Sherer-Simpson recalled the gift she received at the time – a patchwork stole with a square from each of the 17 conferences in the jurisdiction at the time.
“I was very grateful, and it’s been an extraordinary experience,” she said.
She watched as the fourth and fifth female bishops, Williamston and Merrill, were posing for pictures.
“It’s a great joy to see three women; one, two, three, four persons of color; and fine leaders, all of them,” she said. “It’s been a very long journey, but I think our jurisdiction has turned a corner and our best days are ahead of us.”
Bishop Wilson also made United Methodist history, as the first Native American episcopal leader.
He will begin on Jan. 1 as the bishop of the Great Plains Conference.
Under the black robe he wore for the consecration were moccasins and a bolo tie that had great meaning to him.
When his predecessor died, Bishop Wilson said, “his kids adopted me as their brother. This is a special gift they had made for me, as a reminder of the relationships and love in the journey that I’m on.”
A member of the Choctaw nation, Bishop Wilson said “it’s our tradition when we have deaths and special occasions that we give things away in honor of those people.”
Bishop Wilson also wore a pair of gold cufflinks with the episcopal symbol.
They were purchased by his conference, he said, when he was first in contention for bishop in 2012.
“They held on to those for 10 years,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”
Among the friends and family attending his consecration service was his mother.
“It’s real nice. It brings tears to my eyes and I’m lucky I’m not bawling,” Pat Wilson – days before her 89th birthday -- said of the sixth of her seven children. When she heard he was elected, “I was so happy, because I knew that’s was something he really wanted.”
Prior to the consecration service, Bishop Wilson was the guest at a welcome breakfast at the conference hotel.
“Thank you for making me feel so good,” he told the clergy and laity delegates.
He thanked the “people who laid a path for me and believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself,” and presented blankets to Courtney Freeman Fowler and the Rev. Kalaba Chali, who he called “avid supporters and unofficial advisers.”
More than six years ago in Wichita, it was Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. who was consecrated at the conclusion of the jurisdictional conference.
The bishop who had been the leader of the Great Plains and Central Texas conferences will shift to lead North and Central Texas, effective Jan. 1.
“I am so grateful for them and the opportunity to serve with them for the past six years,” the bishop said before the services. “I’m so proud of who they are, who they’ve become, and the leadership and the hope they are showing the rest of the denomination.”
Bishop Saenz said the transition feels bittersweet.
He said he took the final clergy tour he had of the conference in September and October, with 15 stops in the bistate region, “with a sense that this might be the last time I get to see a lot of these pastors.”
“But wherever I go I carry them in my heart,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed meeting them in their different contexts and knowing about their ministries, having conversations with them throughout the years.”
Bishop Saenz said he has wanted to keep in contact with the clergy during the time as their leader, sending emails to those featured in the daily devotional email from the conference.
“Because there were so many of them, I wanted to keep a connection, even if it was once a year – I’m praying for you, I’m thinking about you, a word of encouragement,” he said. “They did good work. They’re in a good place. I’ve learned so much from the Great Plains Conference that I come to share with these two conferences I’ve been assigned to.”
The bishop said the frenzy about the three bishops being named on the first ballot was just one of the memories he’ll have from the jurisdictional conference.
“It was surprising, but it also shows what we can do when the church is of one mind,” he said. “There was no politicking, there was no collusion, there was no block vote. The delegations independently voted that way. There was a unity of spirit in mind and heart that said this is the way we want to go.”
Bishop Saenz also said he was grateful for the “honor and privilege” of giving the episcopal address, as chosen by the SCJ College of Bishops.
He said he has higher hopes than ever for the denomination.
“People are walking away from this conference with hope for The United Methodist Church and hope for what the future United Methodist Church will be,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of pain and drama, and a lot of uncertainty, but I think this jurisdiction helped turn the page.
“People are now looking to what’s ahead of us.”
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