The Challenge is Not a Delegation: The Challenge is Lay Leadership Development
When I was 15, as I was just getting ready to start my sophomore year in high school, a new clergy appointment was made to my home church in Fieldale. Rev. Robert (“Bob”) James Callis, Jr., came with his spouse be our preacher.
As her memoir from the 2003 Annual Conference Remembrance Service read, Bea Callis was “a woman before her time.” She answered the call in 1954, and joined Rev. Bob in ministry. Mrs. Bea, as she preferred to be called, was never ordained an elder in the Virginia Annual Conference, but was licensed as a local pastor in 1954, ordained a deacon in 1961, and ordained a local elder in 1963. Also noted in her memoir is the fact that she “would always carry a white handkerchief in one hand and a yellow legal pad in the other, writing down new ideas as God spoke to her.” To this day, I carry one of her handkerchiefs with me whenever I am invited to sing for a funeral.
Maybe Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea carefully observed gifts and graces that I was beginning to display in my teenage years. Maybe they just knew that my mom and I were still in transition from the death of my dad a little more than a year before their arrival in Fieldale and needed some extra nurturing. For whatever reason, Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea took me under wing and offered me every imaginable opportunity to explore my gifts in service to the church.
Not long into their ministry in Fieldale, Mrs. Bea asked me if I’d be willing to create weekly bulletin boards outside the church office door to go along with the Sunday message. At one point she even handed me scraps of fabric and lace from her wedding dress to use in designing something for a special service of renewal of wedding vows for any of the couples in the church that wanted to participate. This was my entry into creating visuals to enhance worship experiences.
Rev. Bob soon asked me if I would consider being the youth representative on what was then the Martinsville and Henry County Cluster of churches on the Danville District. I attended those meetings as the only young person and usually the only female in the group. Being old enough to drive by then, I would go alone to the meetings, sit there and try to share my opinions with the group of older white men. These days I hope First Church in Martinsville and the Danville District have child protection policies in place that would never allow that to happen. This was my entry into leadership beyond the local church.
Mrs. Bea was a tremendous preacher and was often asked to preach for services across the area. One Advent she spoke at Ridgeway UMC and extended an invitation for me to come along to sing a solo. I had never heard the hymn she asked me to sing. I practiced and practiced and practiced until I thought I finally had it down. That night in front of the congregation in Ridgeway I was just like Sarah Grace standing before the Annual Conference on Saturday morning. Whatever I sang was awful; I wouldn’t even say it was a unique version. I was devastated that I had let Mrs. Bea down. I just wanted to run and hide. Yet, Mrs. Bea hugged me, telling me what a wonderful job I had done. I will tell you that to this day I cannot sing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” without thinking back to that most embarrassing moment.
With all that they did to encourage me in my call, the greatest gift that Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea gave me was experiencing so closely their passion for making disciples. The services they planned were different, not the same sitting in the pew listening to 3-point preaching that I had grown up experiencing. The church filled with people. My little church was making a difference: advocating for change, serving the community, making life-long learners. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the older white men that had control of the church – financially and otherwise – would say that they didn’t want a female offering as much leadership as Mrs. Bea was providing. From my memory, they especially didn’t like her preaching from the pulpit. After only three years, and days after Rev. Bob brought the message for my high school baccalaureate service, they were appointed to a new church.
The gift they left with me was one of forgiveness and reconciliation. They loved the community and people so much that they declared they would return to the area when they retired. And they did in 1991. Not long before he died in 2011, Rev. Bob gave me Mrs. Bea’s licenses and ordination certificates to take to the Conference Achieves. To their last breaths, they continued to see potential in me that I couldn’t see clearly in myself. Mrs. Bea was one of the reasons I considered entering ordained ministry, only to be told just a few short years later by the male minister that followed them in Fieldale that he would not support my decision since ministry in the UMC was not a place for young women.
We have a challenge within our Virginia United Methodist churches with helping laity discover and explore their calls to ministry. Actually, the challenge is everywhere in the church. On Saturday at this year’s Annual Conference, we were urged by representatives from the Commission on Ethnic Minority Concerns and Advocacy (CEMCA) and the Commission on the Role and Status of Women (COSROW) to enter into holy conversation about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity on the newly elected General and Jurisdictional Conference delegations. The challenge is much larger than the makeup of the delegation. It is an overall lay leadership challenge. On a district and conference level, we’ve never been able to fill all the positions needed to truly represent an inclusive church on levels outside the local church. And our local churches continue to be the most segregated places around. If we don’t begin to focus a true priority on developing our lay leaders, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.
Of the 80+ lay nominations (including those from the floor of Annual Conference), approximately 1% were people of color and diverse ethnic backgrounds. One percent. At least one of those persons when asked about why they wanted to serve on the delegation had no idea what the major challenges before the denomination even were. Regardless of their cultural and ethnic background, is that the type of person we want to send to General or Jurisdictional Conference? Unless we educate leaders on the current realities of the denomination, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.
There was a lay member of one of our larger churches in the Annual Conference who stood before me at the Laity Meet and Greet for nominees on Thursday that said he did not have specific questions for me, but needed assistance. The person went on: “This is my first time at Annual Conference, and I have no idea what I am to do. Can you help me understand what I’m supposed do?” This was a lay member representing one of our larger congregations. We need to help those we name to any role understand the expectations and responsibilities of the role they are filling. Unless we better prepare leaders, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.
Another person shared that they had been in a training I offered for their district for new local church Lay Leaders. By the best of my recollection, given the district, that training must have been at least 12 years ago. As we continued to talk, the individual added, “And I’m still the Lay Leader.” As lay leaders in all roles, our main task is to multiply leaders, share our experience and mentor others. Unless we are intentional in leadership development, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.
There is a huge leadership problem when individuals who put their names up for nomination to the most important gathering in the life of our church say they have no idea what is going on. There is a huge leadership problem when our Lay Members to Annual Conference look you straight in the eye and say they don’t know what they are supposed to do. Until we make lay leadership development a true priority for the roughly 360,000 of us lay people in the Virginia Conference, things are not going to change. The issue is not about the makeup the delegation. The question is about how we encourage our laity to use their gifts in leadership positions inside and outside the local church. Only when we do that will our delegations to General and Jurisdictional Conference look different.
However, we do have to recognize that this delegation is very different in other ways from any past Virginia delegations.
It’s younger. Take away us oldest folks and my guess is that the average age would be somewhere close to 40.
Nine of the 22 General Conference delegates have not served before. New, passionate voices for a new reality in the life of the denomination!
I’ve heard people say the delegation doesn’t represent the small church. It does, just in a very different way. Most of us even from the Richmond, Northern Virginia and Tidewater areas grew up and have our roots in small churches across the Conference. A number of folks on the delegation are active in those small churches. A few of the young leaders are in new church plants. They are small churches, yet they are different. They are small churches that are new expressions of what it looks like to be church in their communities.
Even though I tried for so many years to make a difference in lay leadership in the Virginia Conference, my efforts weren’t as fruitful as I had dreamed. We’re still pretty much in the same situation we’ve always been. For that reality, I will always carry a heaviness in my soul. Yet my heart feels so much more joy after gathering with Virginia United Methodist last week. Between the UMCNext gathering in May and events of Annual Conference, I saw a glimpse of what the Beloved Community looks like: diverse in age, experiences, lifestyles, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, ability levels and more.
I still don’t know what form the United Methodist Church in the United States might take, but I’m excited by the leadership potential that I see in this new delegation for moving this journey forward. More than likely I won’t be here on this earth to see what fully develops. Yet I know that I have tremendous faith in those younger than I am on this delegation to make sure that our Wesleyan heritage continues in ways that will impact generations to come after me.
I hope Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea are proud of what they started. May I follow their example in helping raise up the next group of leaders for the Virginia Conference – but I’m not going to ask any of them to sing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
Martha Stokes serves as the Director of Church and Community Relations for Pinnacle Living, our Virginia Conference-related organization for senior living. Prior to her position with Pinnacle Living, Martha served for 14 years as the Director of Inclusivity and Lay Leadership Excellence for the Virginia Conference of The UMC. As the first elected lay delegate to the 2016 General and Jurisdictional Conferences, Martha served as the chair of the Virginia Conference delegation and led the delegation to the Called General Conference session in 2019.