Conference News

Wesleyan Wisdom: Ala.-W.Fla. Bishop Shares His Leadership Style

published 8/9/2012

(DONALD W. HAYNES, UMR COLUMNIST) - United Methodists love our bishops. One of the 1808 “Restrictive Rules” was that subsequent General Conference sessions could not “change nor alter any part or rule of our government so as to do away with the episcopacy.”

We usually see our bishops in their role as presiding officers and we are aware of their power to send pastors to local churches, but we seldom witness a bishop baring his or her soul.

At the 2012 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, Bishop Paul Leeland, who was assigned to a second four-year term as leader of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, gave this writer an hour and a half of enlightening conversation about his journey as a Christian, his modus operandi as an episcopal leader, and his vision for the church in his area and across the connection.

He states that his credo is to “balance personal humility with professional capability,” and he notes that at every level of connectional ministry, including the bishops, “we must be faithful with the covenant.” Sprinkling his conversation with Scripture references, he cites II Peter 1:8: “If these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The most influential person upon the young Paul Leeland was his great-grandmother, who reared him and his siblings. She was what early Methodism called a “mother of Israel,” steeped in the scriptures and Wesleyan ideology. Bishop Leeland’s practice of rising early to meditate upon Scripture and his mastery of the biblical idiom is a gift from this woman. Just as young Timothy had his “Eunice and Lois,” the future bishop had a dear saint who “trained up a child in the way he should go” in spite of encumbering circumstances that would have moved many to despair. Bishop Leeland remembers his great-grandmother’s faithful courage as she quoted Exodus 14:13: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm. . . .”

‘Guard your spirit’

“The office defines the person,” Bishop Leeland said, but he warned that the authority of the office must put every bishop on guard “not to be seduced by title, power and position. . . . You must guard your spirit and, as they say in theater, ‘have balcony time’ when you are off the stage and seeing the church as others see it.”

Every day in his morning prayer, the bishop prays for those he will interact with that day—the persons, the anticipated agendas, and any local churches under his shepherding care that might be brought before him. Similar to most bishops, he opens cabinet meetings by receiving reports of pastoral care needs from each district superintendent. Then he calls or writes to each pastor whose family or church is reported to be in need of care.

The bishop often cites Ezekiel 34:8, when the prophet conveys God’s lament that “my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep.” Just as Ezekiel’s insights came from his pastoral care—“The hand of the Lord being strong upon me, I came to the exiles . . . and I sat there among them. . . .” (Ezekiel 3:14-15)—Bishop Leeland puts a high priority on listening. He meets regularly with retired bishops, retired district superintendents and retired pastors, and has a “laity day apart” to hear the voice of the laity. He senses the danger of a bishop’s losing what he calls the “personal touch,” and he listens to the “engines of the local lay leadership who keep our churches going.”

Bishop Leeland tries to get laity and clergy “on the same page.” He does not embrace the role of “vision caster” so much as he seeks to be a “team builder,” working to get “everyone looking in the same direction.” He requires the executive committee of every conference board and agency to articulate how they are serving local churches. If a connectional body is not enhancing and motivating missional ministry in the local church, he feels we can do without it.

This bishop prefers Acts 11 to Acts 2. It was in Antioch, he notes, that the disciples were first called Christians. It was to Antioch that Barnabas brought Paul from his self-imposed exile. It was from Antioch that Paul, Barnabas, John Mark and Silas launched missionary journeys into Asia Minor and eventually answered the Macedonian call to take the gospel to Europe and the western world. It was in Antioch that Paul brought the first Greeks to live as an inclusive fellowship in Christ. This is our model for ministry today. We must be invitational.

Pastoral accountability

My conversation with Bishop Leeland turned to appointment making, the role of a bishop felt most pointedly by the local churches. Quickly he said, “We must not reward mediocrity; we must reward effectiveness.”

The bishop has resurrected the Town and Country Commission in the Alabama-West Florida Conference, which championed small, rural churches for many years before being scuttled. We cannot abandon God’s historic call for the Wesleyan connectional ministry to provide quality pastoral leadership to churches without regard to their size.

“Small membership need not mean that a church is small in vision and mission,” Bishop Leeland said as he noted that one of the districts in the conference has very few ordained clergy. Our history owes a great debt to the former “local preachers”—part-time and full-time. The bishop meets annually with his megachurch pastors and challenges them to be coaching younger colleagues.

Since district superintendents are the “linchpin of the connection” between the local congregation and the bishop, Bishop Leeland sets for his cabinet a high bar for effective leadership. He meets with each D.S. one-on-one and presses with questions like, “What is your passion?” and “How are you employing and deploying your laity?” and “Are you coasting?” He urges them to show up at barbecues, bazaars and homecomings, even if their presence not “on the program.”

In January he commits time to sit with each D.S. and discuss every potential appointment change, wanting to know the specifics of each perceived need for a pastoral move. He charts the pattern of “dashboard indicators” for that pastor’s track record—attendance, professions of faith, support of the connectional church, missional ministries on both the local and global levels, recurring conflicts, etc. He charts the same information with churches that repeatedly ask for pastoral changes. When the cabinet meets, non-confidential discussions, recommendations and concerns are immediately posted on the conference website—so laity and clergy can “see into the heart” of their superintendents and bishop.

I asked how we can evaluate bishops after they have been assigned to an episcopal post. Bishop Leeland’s response was, “I ask another bishop to meet with my Committee on Episcopacy in my absence.” His colleague then hears about achievements, and any tensions or misunderstandings.
He believes that bishops must be held accountable for effective service, and that “without mutual trust, any relationship breaks down.” He acknowledges that United Methodist bishops have tremendous authority but does not feel that “term episcopacy” is the answer. He is concerned about the potential for “creeping congregationalism” if the United Methodist connection is not both efficient and effective. He laments the tendency of clergy—pastors, superintendents, bishops, agency staffs—to put personal interest, creature comforts and convenience above the covenant to “have done with lesser things.”

Looking ahead

Somewhat surprisingly to me, Bishop Leeland is not that concerned that the “Call to Action” was debated, amended, substituted and finally declared unconstitutional in its final form at the recent General Conference.

First of all, he insists that some of the research done prior to General Conference motivated boards and agencies to trim budgets, cut staff and board membership and become more responsive to the grassroots.

Secondly, he notes that we now have four years to “build vital congregations.” We have models of effective ministry in every type of community; we know what a vital congregation is. Now we have the motivation to be sure that the paradigm and passion of the effective, vital congregation is made the expected norm for every church, regardless of its size or context. “We are a huge flotilla of ships, each with captain and crew,” Bishop Leeland said. “We have 48 months to build from the particular to the general rather than from the general to the particular.”

Lastly I asked if, as a global church, we must allow more structural diversity in order to be culturally relevant and effective. He noted how different our central conference churches are, from the Philippines to Africa to Europe. Our Board of Missions decades ago discovered that we must be sensitive to indigenous cultures. That is true regionally, even in the United States. We must do as our Lord and meet people where they are.
My conversation with the bishop left me with enormous encouragement for our future. God is not finished with United Methodism! “Rise up, ye saints of God! The church for you doth wait, her strength unequal to her task. Rise up and make her great.”

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email:


Six Graduate from Course of Study School at Emory

published 8/8/2012

On Friday, August 3, six Alabama-West Florida pastors graduated from the Emory Course of Study School in Atlanta. Five of these graduated from the Basic Course of Study: Dunford Cole, pastor of the Thomaston Charge (Demopolis District); David Hendrix, pastor of Beulah UMC (Montgomery-Opelika District); Ruth Knights, associate pastor of Gulf Breeze UMC (Pensacola District); Joel Wasson, Jr., pastor of Fairview UMC (Montgomery-Prattville District); and Bobby D. Williams, associate pastor of Christ UMC (Mobile District). Robert (Bob) Brown, recently retired, graduated from the Advanced Course of Study School.

Rev. Fred Grady, Chair of the Fellowship of Local Pastors for the AWF Board of Ordained Ministry and Rev. June Jernigan, Director of the Office of Ministerial Services and Assistant to the Bishop, represented the Alabama-West Florida Conference at the graduation ceremony in Cannon Chapel at Candler School of Theology.

The Course of Study School educates and trains local pastors in The United Methodist Church. To be admitted, students must be certified candidates for ordained ministry, have completed the requirements for license as a local pastor, and received endorsement of the annual conference Board of Ordained Ministry.

The five-year Course of Study School is conducted in two, two-week modules each summer for part- and full-time pastors. Successful completion of both modules fulfills one year of study. After completion of this program, students are eligible for the advanced Course of Study School. Candler also offers a Saturday Course of Study program for part-time local pastors.

The Course of Study School at Emory is sponsored by The United Methodist Church Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the Southeastern Jurisdictional Administrative Council, and Candler School of Theology.


{Pictured left to right: David Hendrix, Dunford Cole, Joel Wasson,
Bob Brown, Ruth Knights. Bobby Williams not present}

Back to School, Back to Church

published 8/6/2012

(Dr. Jeremy Pridgeon) - What would a simple phone call to the members of your church do to ensure the "summer slide" doesn't become a "fall flop?" As I have traveled the district this summer, many of you have mentioned a much higher degree of absenteeism among the congregations you serve. I have thought about this and it may be a positive indicator that people are traveling a bit more, meaning that perhaps the economic conditions have leveled off or are improving. But it does create a challenge to ensure that those who have not been in the habit of coming to church over the past couple of months return to worship.

An idea I have used (and would offer) is a "Back to School, Back to Church" calling program. Using leaders of the church - Church Council and other committee members, as well as volunteers who have great skills on the phone - set aside two or three evenings to call the entire membership of your church. This is a great way to share with them about upcoming fall events, such as Bible studies, concerts, new worship services, etc.; to update the church records in the database by getting correct physical and email addresses, telephone numbers or learn if your membership is on Facebook, Twitter or other social media; to find out if they have any questions about the church, such as the children's ministry, youth ministry, senior adult ministry, missions, etc.; and to learn whether there is anything that the church may need to know about, such as a pastoral care situation in the family.

A five-minute phone call opens the door for the person to return to pre-summer attendance habits and lets them know they have been missed by their congregation. The information collected by the callers can be directed to the clergy or other staff for follow up, creating an additional opportunity to contact the member. One caveat: The entire membership must be contacted, including those who have attended every week during the summer, so as to ensure that the church understands that ALL members are receiving calls and you are not singling out a certain segment of the congregation. I made sure even Abigail and I were called each year.

An additional opportunity is to create an email e-letter that can be sent to members and prospective members sharing about the upcoming fall at your church. This allows for persons, in their own time, to learn about your church and perhaps visit in the near future.

If you have additional ideas that you would share with your brothers and sisters about how to combat the summer slide, please feel free to pass them along. We can collect our "best practices" to share across the district and ensure that as we wrap up a great summer 2012 we prepare for an even greater fall season.


A Word from the Bishop: God is Good!

published 7/27/2012

(Bishop Paul L. Leeland) - Coming home is always a great feeling. My appointment as the resident Bishop of The Alabama-West Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church felt like coming home. Janet and I certainly express our gratitude to Dr. Steve Furr, MD, and Dr. John Ed Mathison, who served on the Southeastern Jurisdictional Episcopal Committee and made the appointments for every Annual Conference within the jurisdiction. There were several surprises when this committee assigned three bishops to serve their home conference, but is certainly within their ability to do so when two-thirds of the jurisdictional committee agrees to make such a request to the entire jurisdiction. From my perspective, I was reminded once more that ordained clergy, including bishops, are certainly itinerant and are appointed at the discretion of the church to serve where the church believes they will best serve the needs of larger faith community. For my family, this meant we would be returning to Montgomery, AL., to continue the work we have been building upon for the last four years. God is good.

Each jurisdictional conference creates a natural framework for our work together. This has been a time of reflecting upon personal needs of our family, the momentum and ministry that has been building in Alabama-West Florida, and listening carefully to the voice of the Church as expressed by this committee after careful consultation with each bishop to be assigned with the jurisdiction. Once again, Janet and I believe God desires us to be in Alabama-West Florida, and that God indeed has a plan for the entire Church. With joyful obedience we have returned home. God is good.

What exactly have we been doing to create fruitful leaders, clergy and congregations? Why is it an exciting place to serve? What is God saying to us to do and what are we doing about it?
My quick response would be embraced by the following expressions of our work:

  • We are engaging in ministry with the poor at several levels, but most clearly seen in the work of our Circles of Transformation.
  • We have been creating new places for new people and revitalizing existing congregations; starting 10 new congregations and faith communities this year alone.
  • Creating and enhancing the work of our Academy for Congregational Excellence to strengthen fruitful leaders and healthier congregations.
  • Combating the diseases of poverty and addressing global health issues such as malaria. Our Annual Conference offering for this alone was $54,000.
  • We have consecrated 35 Spiritual Directors who are in the process of becoming intimately involved in our conference to create a deep base of spiritual power for clergy and laity.
  • A new Comprehensive Plan of Inclusiveness to attract new African American Leaders, start new churches of diversity and broaden our partnership with persons differing in age, gender and diversity.
  • More congregations have joined the ranks of church contributing 100% of their missional giving – the fulfillment of the covenant established by our sisters and brothers.
  • We continue to focus on the characteristics of Effectiveness and Fruitfulness – both for church leaders and for congregations.
  • Finally, we are moving rapidly toward the weekly sharing from each church on “GLORY SIGHTINGS” where they can share where they have seen the Presence of Christ in the past week, as well as sharing the vital statistics of their weekly ministry.

Wow. God is good.

As this quadrennium begins I have already set dates to meet with clergy who counsel me and guide my perceptions of this great conference. We are engaged in multiple conversations about providing practical steps for “Turn Around” pastors and “Turn Around Churches” – those who can step into an existing environment and help them fulfill all that God would have us do. I encourage each leader within our churches to go to the Vital Congregations web page for The United Methodist Church. There you can find any conference with the United States, any district, and look at the vital statistics for that church over the past five years. If you need help with this, simply call Rev. Neil McDavid, our Director of Connectional Ministries, who has been working closely with the larger church in strengthening Vital Congregations. I personally want to applaud our district superintendents for their covenant to reward fruitfulness when we see it both in our clergy and in our congregations. It is our hope the Alabama-West Florida Conference will produce the best clergy and lay leadership found anywhere within The United Methodist Church. God is good.

While Janet and I were eating supper just before receiving our appointment for the next four years, I asked her, “Janet, we might be assigned anywhere within the jurisdiction, but would you like to see happen?” Janet replied, “I’d like to be returned to the Alabama-West Florida Conference.” And so it was. And so it is. God is good! 


The Harbor, "A New Place For New People"

published 7/25/2012

(Rev. Neil McDavid) - One of the ten new places for new people highlighted at our recent annual conference was The Harbor, a new church plant in Dothan, AL. This new congregation is being planted in the area where Love In Action ministries is located. Love In Action ministries serves the homeless, the marginalized, the poor, those often on the edge of or outside the mainstream of society. Efforts have been made to transport people in this area to Dothan United Methodist Churches, but The Harbor is a church being planted right where these persons live, right in their zip code. Worship space is being rented in the Love In Action facility and this “church for all people,” this new body of Christ will be officially launched August 11 under the leadership of Rev. Dwight and Vicky Deal. The vision of The Harbor is to reach out to all in the name of Christ seeking to serve and love the poor and homeless both physically and spiritually. The ministry of The Harbor includes the building of a worshiping, serving, community of faith around the mission “changing the heart of Dothan through the heart of Jesus.”

To learn more about this new church plant, contact Rev. Dwight Deal ( or find The Harbor church on Facebook


Page 119 of 127 previous 1 ... 117 118 119 120 121 ... 127 next