Newly elected bishops discuss historic vote

David Burke


Rev. Dr. David Wilson and Rev. Laura Merrill both were elected on the first ballot Tuesday at the South Central Jurisdictional Conference.

The Rev. Dr. David Wilson was one of two history-making elections Tuesday at the South Central Jurisdictional Conference.

He is the first Native American bishop in The United Methodist Church — which he believes is the last denomination in America to choose an indigenous leader. He joins fellow bishop-elect Rev. Dee Williamston, the first Black woman elected in the jurisdiction and the Rev. Laura Merrill from the Rio Texas Conference, who also was elected bishop. All three were chosen on the first ballot, believed to be unprecedented in the denomination.

“We knew somebody would be elected on the first ballot,” Wilson said. “We never had any dream that three of us would be elected on the first ballot.”

Wilson said he was proud of his and Williamston’s accomplishments.

“We made history. Fortunately, we have a lot to live up to with that history,” he said. “There’s a lot riding on our shoulders, whether we like it or not.”

Wilson said he was impressed by the response when Bishop Robert Schnase, who presided over the opening session, asked first-time delegates to stand. Many people stood, and many of them were young.

Assistant to the bishop of the Oklahoma and Oklahoma Indian Missionary conferences, Wilson had offered himself for consideration three times to serve as an episcopal leader.

“The makeup is so different this time,” he said of delegations who voted in the election. “The questions they asked were different.”

The denomination, he said, is “making headway” in furthering representation.

“Everywhere I go, whether I’m teaching or at the board of trustees, I look at the representation. I look at who’s at the table and who’s not at the table,” he said. “Folks want to see our people be represented.”

Wilson, 59, has been the assistant to the bishop for the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference since 2021, following 19 years as a conference superintendent for the OIMC.

He was lead coordinator for the North Oklahoma City Native American Ministry for eight years, following eight years as a pastor of a church in Norman, Oklahoma.

Wilson served seven years as director of promotions/interpretations for the OIMC, after serving as pastor of a church in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and campus minister for the Native American Campus Ministry program at Northeastern State University.

He earned an undergraduate degree in mass communications from Oklahoma City University, a master’s degree in divinity from Phillips Theological Seminary, and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Bacone College.

He is single.

Merrill said she felt privileged to be part of history-making colleagues with the election.

“I really hoped that this would happen and it would happen in a decisive way. Then to see all three …,” she paused. “It’s dizzying, honestly. That’s how I felt — joy, and lots of gratitude.

“To be a part of that is just joy.”

Merrill, Williamston and Wilson all announced their candidacies for bishop in the fall of 2019 and had to wait three years for the eventual election.

“It’s been a lot of water under the bridge,” she said. “I think I’ve learned about myself. I think I’ve learned about the church. I’ve learned about the challenges that face us.”

Merrill said she had to reinforce her strength during the interviews by delegations.

“The whirl of this process can be disorienting,” she said. “Even the days that have led up to this one have been days where I asked for a clarity of my own identity, of where I stand and why I’m here.

Merrill worked with and for Great Plains and Central Texas conference Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr., and said she embraced his vision of multicultural communities of faith that reflected the people of the neighborhood.

“He doesn’t see anything that can’t be done. He’s big, and he sees big, and he expects big from other people. It’s infectious in a good way, contagious,” she said. “It’s inspiring to work for him.”

Merrill, 59, has been Central District superintendent for the Rio Texas Conference since 2021, and on the conference cabinet since 2010.

Prior to her current position, she was assistant to the bishop and director of clergy excellence for Rio Texas. A former church secretary, she served as assistant to the dean and director of communications for Candler School of Theology at Emory University before becoming associate pastor at a church in Victoria, Texas, then pastor of churches in Los Fresnos and Wimberley, Texas.

Merrill also served as a missionary in Chilé for the Desert Southwest Conference.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Southwestern University in 1984, and a master’s of divinity from Candler in 1995.

A third-generation United Methodist pastor, she has two children.

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