Next month, Bishop R. Lawson Bryan will retire after 46 years of ministry, the last five of which have been in the South Georgia Conference. As bishop, he has focused on helping all South Georgia United Methodists become Alive Together in Christ.
We sat down with Bishop Bryan and talked with him about his ministry, his time in South Georgia, and what he looks forward to in retirement.
It’s been said, “You can’t go home again,” but you have come home. Tell us about what it’s been like to come back to South Georgia as a bishop and for your final five years of ministry before retirement.
I have a great appreciation for South Georgia and having been raised here. Living in Bainbridge until age 12, it’s been an incredible experience to come home to this area. Having lived here, I have a greater sense of the region and the communities of South Georgia; it’s home! And I am grateful for the fine and faithful members of our local churches, like the one that nurtured my faith, Bainbridge First UMC.
How would you describe yourself as a bishop and your time here in South Georgia?
My aspiration has been to act in alignment with the vision cast by St. Paul when he said, “...we are ambassadors for Christ….” (2 Cor. 5:20). My time in South Georgia has been devoted to serving “God’s hidden purpose … namely, that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10). I want to be part of that great work that God is accomplishing through Jesus Christ. So I have tried to live and act as an “ambassador for Christ” whose main emphasis is to encourage and challenge us all to accept Jesus’ invitation to come to His table and then extend His table into the community.
Ephesians 2:5 holds great meaning for you and has shaped your ministry in South Georgia. How has that verse influenced you and your ministry?
This verse shapes my understanding of the Church as God’s creation and not a human invention. It reminds me that it is Christ who keeps us alive, even when the circumstances in which we find ourselves look bleak and uncertain. Ephesians 2:5 also reminds me that Christ Himself is our source of unity; He holds us together. And this verse expresses my desire to see all people come Alive Together in Christ.
What are some highlights of your five years in South Georgia? What about your entire 46 years in ministry?
Watch Bishop Bryan answer this question via video
Without any sense of exaggeration, this entire five-year opportunity to serve in South Georgia has been one big highlight for us.
Of course, returning to the Conference that gave me my first church home where I grew up as a child has been a very rich experience. A highlight for me has been being in our local churches. I never feel more alive than when I am together with people worshipping in the local churches. It just reminds me that our local churches are the highlights in every community. We bring people together, we offer healing and hope through Christ. I hope our churches will know they are the highlight; nothing is more important than the local church. That’s why we have all the rest of the operational structures we have in the Conference. The local churches, the laity, and the clergy are highlights for me. And I thank every one of them.
And I could not have imagined five years ago that we’d go through a period where we’ve had one major weather event after another. Hurricanes, tornadoes, straight-line winds … and the people of South Georgia have responded by building a disaster response structure that now involves the Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, district disaster response coordinators, lots of training for Early Response Teams, chainsaw trainings, and the thousands of dollars South Georgia has given to help others outside of our Conference. So I would say a highlight for me has been watching how this Conference addressed the disasters we’ve had in the last five years, and now a structure is in place that continues to serve us well.
Another highlight for me are the processes that I have seen us put in place. Plans and programs are important, but they have a shelf life. A process is a way of living together; it goes on and on and reforms and refashions and renews itself. I think about the processes we now have in place: OnBoarding, Appreciative Inquiry, Strengths Finder, Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), the Compass Group, the Leadership Forum Task Force, the Laity Cabinet, the Bishop’s Emerging Leadership Initiative, and Conscious Culture Building. These are all ways of being Alive Together in Christ that are not one specific program related to one time period, but they will serve us well going forward and they are ways that keep us Alive Together in Christ and allow us to have a kind of synergy by using the giftedness God has given to all of those in South Georgia.
So I am particularly happy about the processes that we now have in place. We might use the term Conscious Culture Building to refer to what we’ve been doing - consciously building a culture that will glorify God by allowing us to be Alive Together in Christ.
When you look back over your 46-year ministry, what do you hope your legacy will be? What do you hope to be remembered for?
I’d like to be remembered for helping people connect with Jesus Christ through worship, Bible study, prayer, church membership, and mission in the world.
What’s next? What are you looking forward to, in life and in your next phase of ministry?
We are looking forward to more time and involvement with our son, daughter in law, our four-year-old grandson, and our two-year-old granddaughter.
We’re looking forward to more time to connect with our extended families, who mean so much to us.
Sherrill and I also want to be alert to the promptings from the Holy Spirit as we open ourselves to new areas of ministry in the years ahead. I will be teaching Sunday school and helping with the Respite Ministry at First UMC in Montgomery, Ala.
Recently, Sherrill and I have been focusing on Psalm 92:14 as an expression of our aspiration for the years ahead: “They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green.”
As you prepare to retire, what’s your hope/prayer for the people of the South Georgia Conference?
My hope and prayer is that the people of the South Georgia Conference be filled with confident awareness that our local churches are just what each community needs. It is through the local church that the ministry of Jesus and the truth of the Bible become freshly alive for children, youth, and adults. We must not ask others to do that which God has uniquely equipped us to do. Let’s be confident that we are right where we need to be.