Mending Broken Vessels: SEJ Female Bishops Celebrate a Beautiful Message


By Heather Haun 

(UMNS) At last week's Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, United Methodist women took a break from discussing the church’s challenges to celebrate the strides woman have made across the denomination.

Retired Bishop Charlene Kammerer presented a visible reminder of that progress — a mended bowl and pitcher.

Kammerer recounted that clergywomen in the Southeastern Jurisdiction had bought the brown-and-turquoise pottery in the 1980s for the Rev. Helen Crotwell, their endorsed bishop candidate. Crotwell had served as an assistant dean of chapel at Duke University and as the first woman district superintendent in the North Carolina Conference.

“Helen was a remarkable pastor, prophet and priest,” Kammerer said. However, Crotwell’s election wasn’t to be. The clergywomen sent the gift anyway, but when it arrived the pottery had broken in transit.

Crotwell decided to leave the pottery in pieces until the Southeast elected its first woman bishop.

That happened with Kammerer’s election in 1996. That night, Kammerer and Crotwell joined in a celebration that cracked the glass ceiling and literally mended the broken vessel.

By then, Crotwell was ailing and blind. Kammerer guided her hands to glue the broken bowl back together.

On July 14, 2016, the jurisdiction’s women gathered in the very same room at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center for their celebration.
“Helen’s spirit is with us today,” Kammerer said. “She is in the heavenly kingdom with Leontine and many others.”

The pottery remains as a testament to Crotwell’s ministry in the North Carolina Conference, where Bishop Hope Morgan Ward now serves. “These are really holy vessels to us,” Ward said.

With the election of Bishop Sharma Lewis and Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, the Southeast now has five active women bishops. Lewis was nominated endorsed as a canididate for bishop by the North Georgia Conference and Haupert-Johnson was assigned to serve as North Georgia's next bishop. 
“I’ve had the blessing of being a lot of ‘firsts,’” Lewis said. “But even in being the first, I really believe in reaching back and pulling up. We’ve got to reach back to the seminary students and even babies who think they have a call.”

The Southeastern Jurisdiction’s women bishops join in celebration. They are retired Bishop Charlene Kammerer and active Bishops Mary Virginia “Dindi” Taylor, Sue Haupert-Johnson, Sharma Lewis, Hope Morgan Ward and Debra Wallace-Padgett. 

Looking to the Future

Linda King, a Kentucky Conference delegate, was among the women who got tears in her eyes when gazing at her jurisdiction’s new women leaders.

“When I went to Western Kentucky University, the counselor said to me: Do you want to major in secretarial science or be a nurse or a teacher, and I didn’t know any different,” said King, who became a teacher.

“You are opening doors,” King told the women bishops. “God has blessed us.”

The United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women long has advocated for the denomination’s women to be able to live out their calls from God.

Dawn Wiggins Hare, the agency’s top executive, was a delegate from the Alabama-West Florida Conference and voted in the Southeast’s bishop elections.

“For young women and men to see equality of women in leadership, to see the opportunities for women in leadership and to respect women in leadership carries over into our communities and reflects on our ability to transform the world,” Hare said.

Virginia Greer, 23, was among those at the celebration. She is an admitted clergy candidate in the Virginia Conference and student at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

“This means my way will be a little bit easier because of all these amazing women,” she said.

Both Lewis and Haupert-Johnson paid tribute to the women who blazed the trail ahead of them to the episcopacy. Along with others in the jurisdiction, they “called the roll” of previous African-American and Southeastern Jurisdiction women bishops.

“We look forward to the day when we can't name them all because there are so many,” Haupert-Johnson said.

Excerpt from Heather Haun's article "New women bishops make history"