ALCOA, Tenn. -- Four months into her new assignment as Holston's resident bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett has preached at six local churches, fielded questions at nine “district days,” and looked into the eyes of pastors and staff sharing their hearts at five “onboarding” sessions.
She has also gone bowling with college students, dined on hamburgers at a famous Knoxville restaurant, walked the trails at Holston camps, and seen firsthand the ministries that make her district superintendents proud.
The 2022 calendar for Bishop Wallace-Padgett is just as demanding, while she oversees two United Methodist annual conferences at once, splitting her time between Holston Conference and the North Alabama Conference on alternating weeks.
“She’s incredibly busy, between wanting to meet with clergy and leaders in the office building and those who are leading our committees and teams,” said the Rev. Tim Jones, director of communications. “She’s go-go-go as soon as she gets here.”
“I have been joking with her that she’s already had to replace her brakes on her car,” said the Rev. Jeff Wright, Appalachian District superintendent.
Holston Conference hasn’t shared a bishop with another annual conference in at least 50 years, yet Wallace-Padgett and her Cabinet quickly set into motion several projects when she arrived for her first day on Sept. 1.
To aid the transition for clergy, staff and other groups to begin working with a new leader, “onboarding” sessions were scheduled. With the help of a facilitator, groups were invited to debrief as well as share their hopes for the future and ask questions of Wallace-Padgett.
Between September and December, onboarding sessions were organized for the Extended Cabinet, conference staff, large-church pastors, and small-to-medium-church pastors in two locations.
As senior pastor at Fairview United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, the Rev. Mickey Rainwater was invited to participate in the large-church group. He said the pastors in his session felt “safe” to share their thoughts and appreciated being asked for feedback.
“As we all know, sometimes just being asked for one's experiences and thoughts is important,” he said “It was a way of beginning to build relationships between Bishop Wallace-Padgett and this particular group.”
Future onboarding sessions are planned for both female clergy and young adult clergy. The insight gleaned from the onboarding sessions will be combined with comments and concerns collected during the nine “district days,” Wallace-Padgett said.
“It’s an ongoing process,” she said. “We have people who are doing a deep-dive analysis of what we can learn from the insights that came from the ‘district days’ and the onboarding. If a comment is made one time, that’s still important and may be very important to note. But if a comment is made 25 times, then that’s something we really need to pay attention to.”
The “district days,” which began Sept. 21 in the New River District of Southwest Virginia and concluded Nov. 15 in the Chattanooga area, gave Wallace-Padgett a chance to introduce herself to clergy and church members as well as to sit in small-group discussions.
The visits to each of Holston’s nine districts also gave superintendents a chance to show off their regional and ministry assets. In the Tennessee Valley District, the Rev. Ann Robins said the bishop was gifted a Lady Vols basketball shirt and a Coach Pat Summitt book. Wallace-Padgett also dined with other United Methodists at Litton’s Market and Restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In the New River District, the Rev. Kim Goddard took Wallace-Padgett to visit Camp Dickenson and two small churches that have formed a bond through caring for their community. The Rev. Dina Clower said the bishop’s visit “kindled a fire in their hearts” at Woodlawn United Methodist Church in Woodlawn, Virginia, and Shiloh United Methodist Church in Hillsville, Virginia.
“I think she understands the small churches,” Clower said of Wallace-Padgett. “She was like one of us.”
In the Three Rivers District, Wallace-Padgett worshiped and ate fried chicken with students at the ETSU Wesley Foundation in Johnson City, Tennessee.
Then she went bowling.
“It meant a lot to us that she attended the worship service and dinner, but to go bowling with us afterwards was really cool,” said the Rev. Caleb Frazier, Wesley Foundation director. “It left a real impression on the students.”
Another initiative that began in Wallace-Padgett’s first month as resident bishop will help leaders reevaluate and discern God’s vision for Holston’s mission and organization. In September, the Extended Cabinet began monthly meetings with coaches from Spiritual Leadership Inc. (SLI)
The process and monthly meetings will continue into 2022, said Wallace-Padgett.
“Together over the next several months we’ll discern mission, vision and strategies,” she said. “We have a strategy team that has done remarkable work over the last seven years ... So we’re incorporating and continuing the work discerned by the Holston Conference Strategy Team.”
The chair of the Holston Conference Strategy Team, Michael Eastridge, has joined the 18-member Extended Cabinet in the study, as well as Rainwater, who is chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry.
“The SLI team has been intentional about recognizing the work of the Holston Conference Strategy Team in these discussions, and although we are just in the beginning stages of this discernment process, the goals and objectives are clearly congruent with the work of [the Strategy Team] over these past few years,” Eastridge said in a recent letter.
According to Rainwater, the process led by Spiritual Leadership Inc. is about “renewing passion for ministry.”
“This process is coming at a good time, as we continue to move through the pandemic and the isolation we have experienced,” Rainwater said. “Much of the experience in this process is about team building, and how we share that experience in our respective settings.”
Ultimately, the discerning process will help Holston’s 850 local churches be more effective in making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, Wallace-Padgett said.
“As we have a clear focus as an Annual Conference, it impacts our priorities and it impacts the local church,” she said. “In fact, the Annual Conference’s role is partially to resource and to assist the local churches in being the best they can be. Local churches are not here to support the Annual Conference. The Annual Conference is here to support the local church.”
Several other groups have also connected with Wallace-Padgett since September. Listening and get-acquainted sessions were scheduled with the Order of Deacons, Conversations on Race group, and representatives from Black Methodists for Church Renewal, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, and the African American Ministry Task Force.
Wallace-Padgett has already preached at six local churches in Holston: First United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tenn.; Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City, Tenn.; Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.; Powell United Methodist Church in Powell, Tenn.; First-Centenary United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Bethel United Methodist Church in East Knoxville, Tenn.
On Jan. 9, she is scheduled to preach at Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.
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Holston Conference includes 850 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
ALCOA, Tenn. -- On Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett’s first day at the Alcoa Conference Center, the fire alarm went off. She seemed to be smiling behind her mask as staff members streamed out of the building, joining in an impromptu gathering in the ...