Bishop Sharma Lewis: God steered her from medicine to ministry

After her election as bishop, Sharma Lewis is congratulated by her sister Le Ontyne Buggs and her mother, Aleathia Lewis. CONTRIBUTED BY NORTH GEORGIA CONFERENCE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

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After her election as bishop, Sharma Lewis is congratulated by her sister Le Ontyne Buggs and her mother, Aleathia Lewis. CONTRIBUTED BY NORTH GEORGIA CONFERENCE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

The title "doctor" was supposed to be in front of Sharma D. Lewis' name.

A life in the ministry wasn’t on the Statesboro native’s radar, even though she came from a long line of ministers and evangelists.

Never in a million years did the biology major think she would ever be referred to as “the Reverend.” And, God knows, certainly not bishop.

As it turns out, God — and an elderly aunt — had other plans.

In a historic move, Lewis, 52, was elected to the United Methodist Church's highest office, becoming the first African-American woman from the Southeast jurisdiction to hold that position and the first African-American woman elected in the denomination since 2000.

“I remember when they called my name, literally the first thing I remember saying, ‘Thank you, God,’” said Lewis. “It was just electrifying and exhilarating.”

Lewis will be installed as bishop of the Virginia Conference of the UMC on Sept. 17, at Reveille United Methodist Church in Richmond, Va.

She begins her four-year term at the second-largest conference in the Southeast on Sept. 1, overseeing more than 1,160 churches and faith communities. As of Sept. 1, there will be 46 active bishops in the United States, of whom four will be African-American women.

Since 2010, she has served as the superintendent of the Atlanta-Decatur-Oxford District.

When her election was announced at the UMC’s July quadrennial meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C., the room erupted into cheers and and applause. One attendee described the mood as “electric.”

Her mother and two sisters screamed, cried and hugged one another.

Phil Schroeder, director of congregational development with the North Georgia Conference of the UMC, also wept and said a prayer of thanks.

"Too often, we have let prejudice and racism rule the day, but on that day, we were able to select an excellent candidate for bishop who also happened to be an African-American woman," he said.

Lewis was elected on the first ballot, which generally means there is widespread support for her nomination. Candidates must have 60 percent of the ballots cast to win an election. She had an overwhelming 71 percent.

When she addressed the conference, Lewis evoked the names of other African-American female bishops who had gone before her since 1984. She also named other female bishops who were elected in the Southeast. “That was important to me because it took so long.”

"You broke the ceiling, you cracked the door open for me to stand here today," she said, her voice overcome by emotion. She also thanked the Methodist clergy and laymen who were not afraid to say that women like her could lead.

“She is a powerful person of prayer,” Schroeder said. “She is going to bring a deep sense of prayer as a spiritual leader, but she also brings enthusiasm for growing churches.”

In the late 1990s, Schroeder was assigned as Lewis’ mentor. It was clear, though, that Lewis already had the makings of a church leader.

“I told her you don’t need a mentor, you just need me to get out of your way.”

That way, however, didn’t always include the ministry.

The daughter of two entrepreneurs, Lewis long nurtured a dream to practice medicine. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from Mercer University and the University of West Georgia.

She applied to medical school twice and didn’t make the cut. Not to be deterred, she applied a third time. While waiting to learn whether she was accepted, her elderly Aunt Essie, a Methodist minister herself, gently pulled her aside.

She had been watching her niece. She saw something there. A calling, if you will, but it wasn’t in medicine. It was in the ministry.

“I know you feel like you know what you want to do, but have you asked God?” her aunt asked. She challenged Lewis to really pray about what God was calling her to do.

It was a pivotal moment, but it wasn’t the first time that subject had been raised. Sometimes at restaurants, people asked her if she was a pastor. Her best friend saw it as well and said it was an anointing.

She knew she needed to pay closer attention. She wanted to be sure. She prayed and prayed. She waited to hear from God.

“Too many times in ministry, people follow this path because of a generational legacy,” Lewis said. She didn’t want to fall into that trap.

If it was for her, then she wanted a sign from God.

She thought about the times she had applied to medical school. Perhaps God was sending a sign.

It became clear on Feb. 13, 1994. A good friend was giving his first sermon at Ben Hill United Methodist Church. At altar call, Lewis felt a tug on her spirit.

She went up to the front of the church, knelt and cried.

“I heard the voice of God as clear as I’m talking to you,” she said. “He said, ‘Stop running and and go preach my word.’”

She has served at Ben Hill UMC in Atlanta, Powers Ferry UMC in Marietta and Wesley Chapel UMC in McDonough, where she gained a reputation for building church membership and bridges of understanding.

As bishop, Lewis further moves the needle on diversity in Methodist leadership, which has largely been white and male. It’s never been easy for women — and especially African-American women — to break the stained-glass ceiling in major Christian denominations.

The Methodists, for instance, didn’t elect their first African-American female bishop — Leontine T.C. Kelly — until 1984, and even then it was met with some resistance.

That same year, Judith Craig, who is now retired and lives in Ohio, was also elected a bishop.

“I’m sure stuff went on behind my back. I just chose not to deal with it,” said Craig. “If sexist stuff was going on, it was their problem, not mine.”

She doesn’t know Lewis, but says she knows she wouldn’t have been elected “if she couldn’t handle being in a male environment.” The expectations of women used to be that the moment they received the bishop’s pin, that they would suddenly act like a man.

“I think women simply have a more collegial style to administration than most men do,” said Craig. “I think by now that’s been established.”

The Rev. McCallister Hollins, senior pastor at Ousley United Methodist Church in Lithonia and former senior pastor at Ben Hill, called Lewis “a preacher’s preacher and a pastor’s pastor. What you see is what you get.”