Bishop Delores Williamston Marches to Louisiana

Mark Lambert
January 02, 2023

Bishop Delores J. Williamston, the newly elected leader of the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church, is certainly a historic figure, the first African American female bishop in Louisiana and in the entire South Central Jurisdiction.

But her take on this historic perspective is that people should know that it was a result of her appointment, not the reason for it.

“It’s about qualifications for me,” she said. “Do you see my qualifications first before you see I’m a black woman? That’s important to me that I’m qualified, and I just so happen to be a black woman.”

Indeed, her appointment is more than historic: It is consequential. The Louisiana Conference requires a leader with determination, patience, and vision as it manages disaffiliation and its after-effects through the next several years.

So, again, who is Bishop Williamston?

It is impossible to completely describe anyone’s qualifications in any meaningful fashion, but a few peeks into her life can start to paint a broad look:

  • The 22-year veteran of the Kansas Army National Guard is a highly experienced spiritual leader and is equally at ease wearing church vestments and dog tags.
  • After leaving high school before graduation, she went back for a GED and kept going, receiving a bachelor’s degree in management, a Master of Divinity, and is on track to receive a Doctor of Ministry degree later this year.
  • She loves to watch birds fly and nest but has no idea what kinds of birds she’s watching; yet she has a pet Shih Tzu named Oden Oldie Buster Inky-Do Slick-Rick Houdini Fluffy-Pants Mister Williamston.
  • For relaxation, this enthusiastic student of history likes to complete paint-by-numbers panels.
  • She is a breast cancer survivor and a biking enthusiast, a part-Scandinavian (10%) Bishop who will be the first Black woman to lead the Louisiana Conference.
She holds a confluence of ideas and viewpoints, perhaps exactly what the Louisiana Conference needs in the moment – a newly minted bishop preparing to shepherd a network of United Methodist churches that is frayed by disaffiliation. She sees forward by looking back, likening the future of the conference to the opening credits of a 1960s television show.

“This actually is an opportunity to reclaim our movement heritage as United Methodists, when God moved like fire from the east coast,” she explained. “This is an opportunity for us to be like the map on Bonanza, burning across the screen. That can be us.”

Disaffiliation has left many people “who remain as United Methodists in a building that is no longer a Methodist church,” she said, noting that the disaffiliating meetings at some churches often were better attended than Sunday service. “What can we do now? This is an opportunity to empower our laity in those places.”

Bishop Williamston recounted a trip she took in 2016 to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where some Methodist churches had no pastor.

“Laity started meeting in homes, and when the groups got to a certain size, they’d ask the district superintendent to send clergy in,” she said. “It worked. We can navigate that through grace and hope and healing.”

Bishop Williamston’s first day in the Louisiana Annual Conference was January 3. It’s a long journey from her beginnings at Asbury Mount Olive UMC in Topeka, Kansas, when 12-year-old Delores gave her life to Christ.

The teens years and life intervened, and Williamston drifted from the church. More than a decade later, living in Brooklyn, New York, with a two-year-old son, she began to miss home and moved back to Kansas, where she reconnected with her hometown church.

As she built a career in the Kansas Army National Guard, she became more involved with the United Methodist Church. After 22 years, she retired from the Guard and took on a part-time pastor job while pursuing her Master of Divinity at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.

After obtaining her degree, she progressed through the system with three pastoral appointments before becoming a district superintendent.

At the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in November, she was elected on the first ballot, with 141 of 151 delegates voting yes. Williamston was clearly joyful, but she also had an interesting perspective.

Bishop Delores Williamston reacts to her historic election 

“I didn’t go through school the traditional way, so I never got to participate in student government,” she said. “The whole thing was a spiritual mic drop from heaven, but it was so humbling.”

Those who have worked with her along the way say they value her inclusiveness, bravery, and humility.

“She’s created a space for some of the voices who hadn’t been heard, and she’s been pretty intentional about it,” Rev. Kathy Williams, clergy leadership, said in an article published by the Great Plains Conference.

“There was always the awareness that she was the supervisor and director of our team, but I always felt like her peer,” administrative assistant Heather Clinger added. “There wasn’t a separateness. It was us instead of me and you.”

Rev. Dr. Shelly Petz, clergy wellness consultant, said Bishop Williamston’s personality makes her an approachable leader, some who is “serious about her ministry, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously.”

Her good nature and humble demeanor, however, does not necessarily mean she will be a “get-along, go-along” bishop. In her written remarks to the jurisdictional conference when her name was first submitted in 2019 (the jurisdictional meeting was postponed until 2022), she wrote that the “most critical issues” for the church are race, human sexuality, class, gender equality, environmental concerns, and abortion.

“These are deeply troubling matters with no easy answers on how to eradicate, yet their weight continues to saddle the church with deep conflict,” she wrote. As a bishop, she would work “to topple systems that support discriminatory practices. I would also respond with immediate grace and a heart of compassion and peace by asking questions. I would respond with the hope that hopeful dialogue can happen at that moment and through the framework of the Wesleyan quadrilateral and without condemnation.”

Although it may contrast with her military background, engaging in “hopeful dialogue” is clearly important to Bishop Williamston. It was important in the wake of the murder of George Floyd when she participated in a podcast to discuss matters of policing and race with other ministers.
I would respond with the hope that hopeful dialogue can happen at that moment and through the framework of the Wesleyan quadrilateral and without condemnation.
Bishop Delores Williamston

“We can’t just let these issues be smoothed over or not talk about it,” she said. “Maybe we can find some common ground that we are all human beings, and we all deserve respect, and we all deserve to have a good life.”

Bishop Williamston readily admits to having an oversupply of “gumption,” something she inherited from her Great Aunt Evelyn.

“She would always say, ‘You’ve got to have some gumption to live in this great, big world.’ She was 105 when she died, and so she had a lot of gumption, and I come from her. We have to have gumption as people of God, we’ve got to have gumption as preachers, we’ve got to have gumption when we say we are Christians.”

She said she is looking forward to meeting new people and learning a new culture in Louisiana, but she does not seem concerned about shaking up the status quo.
“I’m a boots-on-the-ground person. Let’s take some risks in the Louisiana conference,” she said. “Let’s get out there. We cannot do ministry from behind closed doors. We have to get beyond the doors of the church. We are disciples beyond the four walls, that’s what I’m trying to say.”

Texas Conference Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, Louisiana’s bishop for 10 years, said she has had several transition conversations with Bishop Williamston and has been “greatly impressed” by her “resolve, her vision, and her great hope for The United Methodist Church and the Louisiana Conference. She will lead with grace, faithfulness, and a love for God’s people.”

Bishop Williamston said she knows that some may look at how the disaffiliation process has been so disruptive and conclude that the United Methodist Church’s best days are in the past. She tells a story about doing mission work in Haiti, not long after the devastating earthquake in 2010.

“In Haiti, there were roosters running all over the place, day and night. They were everywhere, and they were crowing at 3 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “I thought they were only supposed to crow when the sun comes up, so I asked our interpreter, ‘why are roosters running all over the place, crowing at 3 o’clock in the morning?’ He looked at me and said, ‘The roosters remind us that the morning will come.’”

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