Meet the N. Georgia bishop who hopes to heal the United Methodist Conference

Even with disaffiliations “our mission and ministry does not change”
United Methodist Church Bishop Robin Dease poses for a portrait with her motorcycle at her home in Atlanta on Friday, May 26, 2023. Dease must lead one of the nation’s largest conferences of United Methodist churches through disagreements over the ordination of non-celibate gay clergy and same-sex marriages. When she's not working, she enjoys riding her three-wheeled motorcycle. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

United Methodist Church Bishop Robin Dease poses for a portrait with her motorcycle at her home in Atlanta on Friday, May 26, 2023. Dease must lead one of the nation’s largest conferences of United Methodist churches through disagreements over the ordination of non-celibate gay clergy and same-sex marriages. When she's not working, she enjoys riding her three-wheeled motorcycle. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Bishop Robin Dease grew up in a family with 12 brothers and sisters.

With that many children, there was always something to fight about, recalled Dease, who shared the story during her packed installation service at Decatur’s Oak Grove United Methodist Church in January.

“Sometimes our disagreements were heated to the point that we would go to blows, hitting one another,” she said.

Despite that, there was something that brought the siblings together: Every morning they would gather in their parent’s bedroom, get on their knees and pray. Together.

That upbringing will likely serve Dease well as she steers one of the nation’s largest conferences of United Methodist churches through a bitter split over the ordination of non-celibate gay clergy and same-sex marriages. When she was installed as bishop of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, she inherited the already boiling debate about the future of the UMC faith.

If there’s a typical mold for a Methodist bishop, Dease breaks it. She is the first Black woman named as bishop for the North Georgia Conference. The 56-year-old wears a nose piercing and dreadlocks, and loves to ride motorcycles. But appearances count for little at such a critical point. Those who know her say she has the bearing and fortitude to lead the conference forward.

The North Georgia Conference has 700 member churches, but it’s confronting a splintering of 185 churches that have asked to sever ties with the conference. Dease last week agreed to hold a special session in November when delegates from each church, including clergy, will vote on leaving.

But just getting to the point of a vote has been agonizing.

“I want to be a peacemaker”

Just a few months after she assumed the role of bishop, Dease and the North Georgia Conference were sued by the 185 churches who had asked last year to disaffiliate, but were temporarily blocked by the conference from completing the process. Others named in the lawsuit included former Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson and the board of trustees.

Driving disaffiliations are more traditional congregations that fear that the denomination will become more progressive.

“A lot of the fighting is about how we interpret Scripture,” said Dease, who grew up in the Baptist church and converted when she was 17. “Who wants to have their foundation shaken? No one does. When we think about theological issues, this is nothing new. We fought about women in ministry. We fought about what it said about slavery.... Even though the church is splintering, I believe Jesus when He said ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church.’”

Bishop Robin Dease was installed as leader of the North Georgia Conference United Methodist Church on Sunday, Jan 8, 2023.  (Jenni Girtman for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

The discord is being repeated around the nation.

More than 3,500 U.S. congregations have received their local conferences’ permission to disaffiliate from the UMC, according to United Methodist News Service. That’s a fraction of the United Methodists’ 30,000 U.S. churches, though several of the departing congregations are among the largest in their state, according to the Associated Press.

In Georgia, most of the churches in the North and South UMC conferences who have already left or are preparing to leave have been traditional and support the denomination’s bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ clergy.

The North Georgia Conference, which covers the state north of Macon, lost 70 churches in 2022. And in the South Georgia Conference, which covers the state south of Macon, nearly 200 churches were approved for disaffiliation on May 21.

Dease sat down with a reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in her Atlanta office last week, just days after a Cobb County judge ruled against the North Georgia Conference, saying it must allow the churches asking to leave to proceed with the process.

“My predecessor was a litigator, an attorney,” said Dease, referring to former Bishop Haupert-Johnson, who is now a resident bishop in Virginia. “So if you think about her personality ... she doesn’t have a problem putting up a good fight. It’s in her nature that if she believes she’s going to win, she’s going to go toe-to-toe.“

Dease describes herself as the opposite.

“I may think I’m going to win, but I’m not going toe-to-toe,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll leave it in the hands of God. I want to be a peacemaker, but back me in a corner and I’ll come out swinging.”

Dease said most of the churches leaving the conference have fewer than 50 members. And while the conference is getting smaller, she said, “our mission and ministry does not change. We still make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The Rev. Tom Atkins, pastor of New Prospect United Methodist Church in Athens, said his church plans to leave the conference. Of Dease, he would only say that “She is my bishop so I pray for her regularly. We just want to get through the process as we’re allowed to do.”

The Rev. Eddie Bradford’s church, Norcross First United Methodist Church, also plans to leave the conference this year. He has never met Dease, but he has read about her and listened to some of her videos.

“I think she’s a very godly woman and a very spiritual woman and I think she will be a good bishop in the United Methodist Church,” he said.

Bradford said his concern “is that we don’t see eye to eye biblically or theologically. We have different views. One of the splits for Methodists is over homosexuality. We definitely agree that all people are worthy of God’s love and all people are worthy of respect. Our biggest disagreement is over same-sex marriage.”

Friends and members of the North Georgia Conference  surrounded Bishop Dease in prayer and welcome. after the assignment was announced,

Credit: Contri

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Credit: Contri

Dease said the conference must change in some ways. She suggested different models of the faith community should be considered, such as online churches, house churches or dinner churches. And it must attract younger people and the unchurched, “who could care less about this issue.”

She hopes that the General Conference will change the church’s stance on homosexuality at its next meeting in 2024 in Charlotte, N.C.

“I believe that all persons, if they love Jesus and want to serve Jesus in some kind of way faithfully and authentically, we need to honor them,” she said.

An unexpected call

As bishop, Dease joins a small club. She’s the first African American to serve in that role in the North Georgia Conference, and she’s one of 13 Black bishops among 39 active bishops in the nation.

She grew up in a religious household.

“Our mother had us in church always,” she said. Every morning the whole family had to recite the Lord’s Prayer before going about their day.

After graduating from high school at 17 in Bennettsville, S.C., where the family moved after living in New York, Dease moved to Atlanta to attend Bauder Fashion College. She had dreams of becoming a merchandiser inspired by the women’s clothing in popular television shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas.”

She wanted to move back to New York where an older sister lived and worked in the garment industry, but her parents were against it. Her father, who worked as a machinist at a bakery, and her stay-at-home mother both wanted her to get more education. Her mother wanted her to be a teacher.

United Methodist Church Bishop Robin Dease poses for a portrait at her home in Atlanta on Friday, May 26, 2023. She is working toward her goal of learning to play the guitar. CHRISTINA MATACOTTA FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Christina Matacotta

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Credit: Christina Matacotta

She attended Claflin University, a United Methodist-affiliated institution in Orangeburg, S.C., and majored in elementary education. She was the first of her siblings to attend and graduate college.

Her call to the ministry was unexpected. She described her younger self as a “party animal.”

The Rev. B. Kevin Smalls, close friend and then a classmate in New Testament studies at Claflin, always told her that she would be a minister, an idea she at first rejected.

But while sleeping on a Greyhound bus on a trip back to college, she had a dream. A figure — she recalls it may have been Jesus or an angel — reached out to her and said “Come unto Me.”

When she relayed the dream to Smalls, he said simply that the vision was “God calling you.”

After Claflin, Dease began to prepare for a life in ministry, earning a master’s degree in divinity and doctorate in ministry and stewardship at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

“My spiritual gift is hospitality”

On the way to her life in the church, Dease has maintained her individuality.

While working in the food industry to earn money, she attended a culinary school in New York. She still enjoys cooking, saying “My spiritual gift is hospitality.”

A former pack-a-day smoker, she gave it up for Lent in 2008 and discovered a new outlet to relieve stress: she began riding a motorcycle. These days, she said back problems have forced her to trade in her two-wheeled Harley for an easier to handle three-wheeled Can-Am Ryker. In her spare time, she maintains a childhood interest in music, tinkering with an acoustic guitar that she snagged from a pawn shop.

On her way to leadership inside the church, she has learned to deal with dissent.

At this critical time in the church’s history, Dease is the right person for the job, said the Rev. Frank Lybrand, associate pastor at St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church on Hilton Head Island. He served under Dease when she was pastor there for 18 months in 2021 and 2022. She was the first African American woman to lead the all-white congregation.

When she first came to Hilton Head, she wanted to change the way some things had been done for years and have greater transparency with the congregation.

“She was very firm about what was the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do in terms of the United Methodist Church,” he said. “That upset some people. We lost some members over that but she was firm and she was right.”

Her election to bishop was also highly unusual.

Dease was a write-in candidate during the 2022 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, in which she was nominated twice. The first time she politely declined. The next day, when her name was written in a second time, she didn’t remove her name from the ballot.

Those who know her say she has a a love for the Gospel, the people in the pews and a love for the United Methodist Church.

Smalls, now pastor of Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield, Michigan, said “She is a quiet, humble and quality person. ... She will speak her mind in love. When you’re around her, everyone is kind of calm and those not calm are not going to throw her off. They’re not going to intimidate her.”

He believes his colleague and friend will be a voice of healing during a very traumatic and painful time for the denomination.

“I think she’s going to be the prophet of hope and the point of direction for the beloved community.”