Q & A with Bishop R. Lawson Bryan
Episcopal leader of the South Georgia Area
“God’s prevenient grace has met me at every turn of the road …”
As Bishop Bryan begins his service as the new episcopal leader of the South Georgia Conference, the Advocate asked him a series of questions to get to know him and his guiding principles.
ADVOCATE: Welcome back to South Georgia! You spent part of your childhood in Bainbridge. What’s it like to return to South Georgia?
BISHOP BRYAN: I am grateful to have spent the first 12 years of my life in a wonderful community like Bainbridge, where a young child was free to move about and experience many childhood adventures. I had the watchful eyes of a caring community around me. Looking back I see God’s providential care in it all. I am thankful for my South Georgia roots and especially for what Bainbridge First United Methodist Church meant to my faith development and to my family during those formative years.
ADVOCATE: What’s your faith journey?
BISHOP BRYAN: To quote the main character in Wendell Berry’s book, “Jayber Crow,” “Looking back now for a long time I cannot shake the feeling that I have been led.” That certainly applies to my life and my faith journey. God’s prevenient grace has met me at every turn of the road from childhood to adolescence and throughout my adult years. The family brokenness of my earliest years served to focus me on the strong presence of God as my Rock. The love of church families in Bainbridge and Dothan brought the healing presence of Jesus Christ into my life. And when I got to college in New Orleans I found that the Wesley Foundation was just what I needed.
I majored in biology and worked in a cancer research lab. But during my junior year I began to awaken in the middle of the night wrestling with the question, “Are you going to be happy doing this for 40 years?” I had not yet learned that God sometimes calls us by disturbing us in the way we are going. Amazingly, I was working for a Jewish medical researcher who arranged for me to meet with the dean of Tulane Medical School who just happened to be a Methodist minister and a medical doctor. Actually he had been a chaplain in the military and then had gone to medical school. He encouraged me to go to seminary as a way of discerning my call. Once I got to seminary I knew I was where I needed to be. The past 40 years in pastoral ministry have given me the privilege of serving Christ with so many faithful United Methodist laity and clergy. I cannot shake the feeling that I have been led.
ADVOCATE: Tell us about your philosophy of loving, listening, learning, and leading. Where did that philosophy come from, and how does it guide your ministry?
BISHOP BRYAN: That philosophy came to me several years ago as I participated in an inspiring week of continuing education led by Dr. Ken Callahan. At one point he said he was going to give us a succinct summary of the whole field of leadership: loving leads to listening; listening leads to learning; and learning teaches us what we need to know in order to provide leadership in a given situation.
This philosophy has guided my ministry in the sense that I am often in new situations and have to determine what type of leadership is really needed. I remind myself that I am here to love God and to love my neighbor. Such love leads me to want to listen. If I listen well I will learn a lot about the situation. What I learn helps me decide what leadership needs to look like in that situation. What I really want to learn is how God is already at work and how I can cooperate with that.
ADVOCATE: One of your other ministry philosophies or guiding principles is “Immediately,” from the gospel of Mark. You’ve said that one of the chief functions of an episcopal leader is to create an environment that sets people free for ministry. What about that word resonates with you and how will you go about living that out in South Georgia?
BISHOP BRYAN: Those who read and study the Gospel of Mark have long recognized that the work “immediately” occurs regularly in that book. Over 40 times, in fact. Jesus acts immediately, people respond immediately, and lives are changed immediately. It seems to me that “immediately” is a helpful word for Christians today. It challenges us to ask questions like: based on what I already know about the mission of Christ in the world what specific action could I take today that would support that mission? As individuals and churches are there some things we have been considering for years and yet have not acted on? What is the next best step we could take in the immediate moment? I hope that our use of the word “immediately” can free us as laity and clergy to take one step toward that which is likely to bring vitality and fruitfulness in our lives and our churches. And then we take another step. And another. Soon we will find that momentum is building as we respond to the ways the Spirit is nudging us toward fruitful, effective ministry.
ADVOCATE: You’re passionate about people owning their identities as being “alive together in Christ.” Tell us about how that verse has shaped your vision and ministry, and how you see the South Georgia Conference living into that passion and vision.
BISHOP BRYAN: “Alive Together in Christ” is taken from Ephesians 2:5. Earlier in that letter Paul declared that God’s hidden purpose is to unite all things in heaven and on earth in Jesus Christ (1:9-10). What a blessing it is to know God’s purpose and to have it stated so clearly in scripture. For this purpose, Ephesians 2:5 says, God has made us alive together in Christ.
The local church, whether in Ephesus or South Georgia, is where God’s cosmic purpose becomes incarnate in those who have responded to Jesus Christ. Paul gets even more specific when he paints the picture of the local church as the place where dividing walls of hostility come down, Jesus is our peace, and we become one new humanity in Christ. Looking back I realize that my life has been shaped by being part of local churches whose members were alive together in Christ. The vitality I experienced included worship, Bible study, supportive fellowship, and mission outreach.
One way to live into that passion is to remind ourselves that we cannot ask others to do that which God has uniquely equipped us to do. It is in our DNA as United Methodists to bring people together so they can experience what it means to be alive together in Christ. This is the underlying goal of our ministries with children, youth, and adults of all ages. It is also the goal of our outreach ministries. Being alive together in Christ enables us to ask: What needs to happen in this community that is not likely to happen unless the church does it? Now that is an exciting question! As we answer that question we will discover anew what it means to be alive together in Christ.
ADVOCATE: What are your visions, goals, and hopes for the Conference?
BISHOP BRYAN: My immediate goal is to connect as much as possible with the laity, clergy, local churches, and extension ministries of our conference. This is being accomplished through specific days in each district, preaching in churches, and attending gatherings of a wide variety of groups within our conference. I want to thank the district superintendents for their leadership in helping arrange many of these meetings. I want to use these relationship-building times as an opportunity to practice loving, listening, and learning in order to give effective leadership.
My hope is that together we can focus on God’s purpose to unite all things in Christ and then ask how we are aligning ourselves and our ministries with that purpose. God’s purpose is powerful and the power we need is found in aligning ourselves with that purpose. I also think this is just what the world needs today. Our DNA as Wesleyans uniquely equips us for this present moment. For this purpose God has made us alive together in Christ.
To give an example of one very specific goal, I applaud the way the 2016 South Georgia annual conference enthusiastically adopted the goal of a 10 percent increase in average worship attendance by 2018. I have become aware that resources are being developed to assist churches of all sizes and in all locations in achieving this goal. There is no substitute for worshiping God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Worship is a key to our being alive together in Christ. I fully support this goal and want to do all I can to help us reach it.
ADVOCATE: Tell us about your family.
BISHOP BRYAN: Sherrill and I have been married for 43 years. We often quote Barbara Brokhoff’s statement, “everything good that has ever happened to me has come either directly or indirectly through the Church of Jesus Christ.” We were brought together through the church.
When I first met Sherrill she was working in business and was serving as an adult youth leader in her local church. Over the years she has been a partner in a lady’s apparel store, directed a performing arts center for inner city children, and come alongside countless numbers of people to help them navigate through difficult situations. She is beautiful, funny, energetic, and passionately alive in Christ. Sherrill is always asking: what needs to happen and how can I help?
We have one child, Philip, who lives in Montgomery and is chief of staff for the president pro-tem of the Alabama state senate. He and his wife, Brittany, were married last October. She works for the Alabama State Employees Association. We thank God for bringing them together and are enjoying the love and respect they show for each other. They are actively involved in worship and young adult Sunday school at First UMC in Montgomery, Ala.
I have three younger sisters; two are elementary school principals and the other is a nurse. Sherrill has an older brother who lives in Punta Gorda, Fla. Her sister, Mollie, died of a brain tumor in 2010. Mollie’s legacy of service to others and courage in the face of suffering continues to inspire us each day.
ADVOCATE: What do you like to do in your free time? What are your hobbies and interests?
BISHOP BRYAN: I like going for long walks with Sherrill. We typically do this in the early morning. I especially like to travel because it allows me to explore new areas and meet new people. Reading is a pleasure for me and a great source of refreshment. Since childhood I have been interested in science. I majored in biology and continue to pursue my interest in science as much possible.
ADVOCATE: What’s one fact about you that most people don’t know?
BISHOP BRYAN: I played the snare drum in my high school band and in the band at Tulane University.