Stay Calm, Stay Connected, and Stay the Course
ADVOCATE: It’s hard to believe more than a year has passed since you were appointed and installed to the South Georgia Conference! How has being a bishop differed from being a local church pastor?
BISHOP BRYAN: Some of the differences would include expanding my parish area from a local community to an annual conference covering 61 percent of the state of Georgia. Another difference would be the shift in focus from one local church to working with the cabinet and conference staff to provide resources for more than 600 churches. Expanded denominational responsibilities would be another difference. But there also some striking similarities, such as: our wonderful connectional system, opportunities to be inspired by the amazing commitment of our laity and clergy, and the thrill of being Alive Together in Christ at a time when the world needs the redemptive leadership of hope-filled United Methodists.
ADVOCATE: How have you remained grounded yet focused on leadership and what you’ve been called to do?
BISHOP BRYAN: Fortunately I have been blessed to have had some excellent teachers and mentors who have encouraged the practice of spiritual disciplines as a way of remaining alive in Christ. So while much has changed over the past year, I have doubled down on practicing what John Wesley called “the ordinances of God.” I find The Book of Common Prayer to be a very helpful resource for daily prayer and Bible study. I am in a covenant group with several other bishops – we pray for one another and hold each other accountable for personal growth. The appointive cabinet and I begin our meetings with Bible study; currently we are studying the prophet Amos. Reading also helps me remain grounded. Two books I strongly recommend are Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger and The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. Then there is Sherrill. God uses her to keep me grounded. I love our early morning devotional time, our daily walks, and her constant encouragement throughout the day.
ADVOCATE: You are passionate about people owning their identities as being “alive together in Christ.” Why is this so important to you?
BISHOP BRYAN: I am passionate about that because in a confusing world that phrase gives us absolute clarity about God’s truth for us: Ephesians 2:5 says that when we were dead God made us alive together in Christ. Being alive together in Christ is God’s gift to us. Let’s claim that as the great treasure of our lives. We have all we need because we are Alive Together in Christ and that is the liberating light we have to offer to a world that is in bondage to death and disunity. That is what drives our prophetic proclamation and action. We cannot ask others do that which we are uniquely equipped to do.
ADVOCATE: What have you been most surprised at being here in the South Georgia Conference?
BISHOP BRYAN: First, I am surprised that I have the privilege of being here. What God did in July 2016 at Lake Junaluska still leaves me in awe and wonder. Second, I am surprised at how quickly and effortlessly the laity and clergy of this conference have embraced us with the hospitality of Christ. I already knew that was a wonderful conference for it gave me my first church home as a child. But I also know transitions can be difficult and yet the members of the South Georgia Conference have opened so many doors and provided so much love that Sherrill and I feel like we have been here all of our lives. No wonder John and Charles Wesley lived in South Georgia when they came to America!
ADVOCATE: You travel a lot and have the opportunity to meet and work with other bishops. What stands out to you about the South Georgia Conference?
BISHOP BRYAN: Our members may not realize that the South Georgia Conference is well-known throughout Methodism for several reasons. First, others travel here to visit the places where John and Charles Wesley lived and worked. Second, Epworth By The Sea is well-known and much appreciated as the most desirable site for meetings of the Council of Bishops, World Methodist Evangelism, and a host of other denominational agencies. Third, the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum is unique among all annual conferences. Fourth, the president of MissionInsite, a major demographic resource, lives in the South Georgia Conference. Fifth, the two fastest growing UM churches over the past 10 years are located in our conference. Then there is Wesleyan College – the first college in the world to offer degrees for women. And I could go on and on.
I often tell those outside South Georgia that I have been overwhelmed by the authenticity, the passionate devotion to Christ, and the rich diversity that I have found among our laity and clergy. I especially appreciate the many communities in which there is a vibrant downtown area often with a center square, an historic courthouse, and a Methodist church that is architecturally beautiful and a hub of community life. We have lots of those and I love it.
ADVOCATE: 2019 will be a pivotal year in the life of The United Methodist Church. What are your thoughts on that and what do you say to South Georgia United Methodists about the future of the denomination?
BISHOP BRYAN: To our churches I want to say: Stay Calm; Stay Connected; and Stay the Course. We are making disciples of Jesus Christ because we are Alive Together in Christ. That will not change after 2019. I do recognize that 2019 will be pivotal because of the special session of General Conference. The purpose of the special session is to move us beyond the impasse over sexuality. The proposals to be considered will come from the laity and clergy of the Commission on a Way Forward. They will first be acted upon by the Council of Bishops. Then they will come to all of us for our consideration. The leadership of the South Georgia Conference is already making plans to design a process that our churches can use to meaningfully consider whatever recommendations come to us. I anticipate that we will complete the design of that process and introduce it to the conference early in 2018. The members of the Commission on a Way Forward have committed themselves to recommend a way forward that does not continue the conflict and that honors the desire of United Methodists to be faithful to Biblical truth and to the historic Christian faith. This can be done in a way that respects the diversity that is part of a global church like ours. I believe it will be done and the world will be better for it. We are Alive Together in Christ and because of what the Holy Spirit is going to do we will continue to be Alive Together in Christ. Stay Calm. Stay Connected. Stay the Course of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
ADVOCATE: What is the greatest opportunity we have as United Methodists in the coming year(s)?
BISHOP BRYAN: After a year of listening and learning I have written the following statement to express what I see as the greatest opportunity we have: Laity and Clergy who are Alive Together in Christ through Redemptive Relationships and Hope-filled churches SO THAT the world may come to believe in Jesus Christ (and that is what transforms the world). By “redemptive relationships” I mean we have the opportunity to develop disciples who know how to bring people together, remove dividing walls of hostility, and create a unity in Christ that overcomes the violence, hatred, and disunity that threaten us all. By “hope-filled churches” I mean that while grace, faith, and love are of central importance, so is hope – in fact, hope is what so many individuals and people groups are looking for today. So our great opportunity lies in the fact that it is in our DNA as Methodists to practice redemptive relationships and to provide hope-filled churches to the communities of our conference.
ADVOCATE: What’s been the South Georgia Conference’s greatest accomplishment of the past year? What are you most proud of?
BISHOP BRYAN: It would be hard to find an accomplishment greater than the incredible response of our conference to four major disasters in the past 13 months. Our areas had not experienced disasters of this magnitude in the past 25 years. Then came Hurricane Matthew, followed by the storms in Albany and the tornadoes in several of our districts. Our members and churches rose to the occasion, led by Allison Lindsey and the conference disaster response team. Today, long after FEMA has left, one of our clergywomen continues serving as a caseworker for families affected by Matthew. And just last week we experienced Hurricane Irma – a storm so large that touched all areas of the Florida Conference and all areas of our conference. Thanks to all the Early Response Teams, the churches serving as shelters, and the special offerings that are being sent to our conference office. Well done, South Georgia!
I am proud that for the past 10 months I have monthly with the Strategic Initiatives Team and the Connectional Ministries staff to answer questions such as: Where are we alive in the South Georgia Conference? Where is God nudging us to be more alive? What are we already doing to realize these dreams? Who else needs to be at the table? How will we know when we get there? As the answers continue be discovered we are gaining momentum as we prepare for an upcoming meeting of the Leadership Forum.
I am proud of the continuing progress in paying our apportionments so that we can participate in the ministry of The UMC all over the world. Our conference treasurer recently noted that coming out of the summer we are 3 percent ahead of where we were last year in terms of apportionments paid. Hallelujah! Congratulations to our laity and clergy!
I am proud that we are continuing to strengthen our Hispanic, Korean, and African-American churches while also encouraging all of our churches to engage with their surrounding communities. There is a healthy appreciation for the diversity that is part of being Alive Together in Christ in South Georgia.
ADVOCATE: What’s your biggest goal for your second year?
BISHOP BRYAN: To help position the South Georgia Conference for fruitful ministry for quadrennia to come: I want to see us reach our goal of an overall increase in average worship attendance; I want to continue connecting all the areas of our conference ministry so that we have increasing clarity and alignment for the benefit of the local church; and I want to see us design an innovative process for growing redemptive leaders and hope-filled churches. This is what it means to be Alive Together in Christ.
I want to work with our laity and clergy leadership to design a process for receiving and responding to the recommendations that will come to us from the Commision on a Way Forward. I want us to make good use of this unique opportunity to respond to the Holy Spirit calling us to renew the Methodist movement in our churches and communities.
ADVOCATE: What’s been your greatest joy of the past year?
BISHOP BRYAN: Getting to know hundreds of our 120,000 brothers and sisters in Christ in more than 600 churches. Preaching. Working with the Appointive Cabinet and the entire conference staff. Annual Conference was a joy. Watching the outpouring of love and service in response to hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and other crises. And of course, the birth of our grandson!
Bishop Bryan and Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, episcopal leader of the North Georgia Conference, sat down to reflect on their first year of ministry here in Georgia.