LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. – Members of the United Methodist Church are not noted for excessive exuberance. But a typically reserved quadrennial gathering to select new bishops took on a raucous tone Wednesday afternoon with the announcement that Rev. Sharma Lewis of Decatur had been elected.
“This is history!” a delegate cried out over a spontaneous and impassioned outpouring of cheers, tears and prolonged applause. Lewis, the first African-American woman from the South to be elected to the denomination’s highest office, was immediately swarmed by well-wishers.
The election of Lewis, 52, was as historic as it was decisive. Thirteen candidates from across the 12 United Methodist conferences in the Southeast had been vetted and extensively interviewed to fill five slots for bishop. A candidate needed to receive 60 percent of votes to be elected. Lewis was elected on the first ballot, drawing 258 votes on 362 ballots cast (71 percent) from delegates.
“It was a deeply emotional moment for me when Sharma was elected,” said Matthew Pinson, leader of the North Georgia lay delegation. “We have seen the division in our nation, in our media, and in our church. People are crying out for leadership. What we saw today is that people believe Sharma Lewis is a person who lead and who can unite. She has the gifts, the work ethic and the heart to be the leader the people need.”
Lewis, a graduate of Mercer University, earned her Masters of Divinity from Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta. She currently serves as District Superintendent of the Atlanta-Decatur-Oxford District. Prior to being appointed District Superintendent, Lewis served at Wesley Chapel UMC in McDonough, Powers Ferry UMC in Marietta and Ben Hill UMC in Atlanta.
The first African American woman to be elected bishop was Leontine T.C. Kelly, in 1984, in the Western Conference.
It was an extra special day for the North Georgia Conference, the largest conference in the U.S., with more than 350,000 members at 930 churches. Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, who was elected here four years ago, was presiding over the session when Lewis was elected. Holston, currently serving as bishop of the South Carolina Conference, also earned his Master of Divinity from Gammon and also served as District Superintendent of the Decatur-Oxford District prior to Lewis.
Since 1984, all three bishops from the North Georgia Conference have been products of Atlanta’s Gammon Theological Seminary: Lewis, Holston and Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson, who was elected in 1996, and passed away in 2000 while serving as bishop of the Florida Conference. “I am very humbled to have been given this trust,” said Lewis. “I feel like this is an Ecclesiastes [Chapter 3] moment. There is a time and purpose for everything under heaven. I believe this is a God moment. The world is in a crazy place and people need to know the hope that we have in Christ. We are all God’s children and need to come together for the sake of us all.”
The five new bishops elected by the Southeast Jurisdiction will find out Thursday where they will be serving for the next four years.
A consecration service will be 10 a.m. Friday (July 15) at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center and will be streamed on the web, according to North Georgia Conference UMC web site, ngumc.org.
Glenn Hannigan is a journalist and Methodist minister in Roswell
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