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 afternoon sun.
More than a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, it was one of the rare times conference staff have been together in person. The new leader blended right in amid the laughter and conversation.
When the fire alarm turned out to be false, Wallace-Padgett sped back to the 3rd floor where she continued her marathon day of introductions and meetings. At 5:50 p.m., she sat down to answer questions for The Call.
After nine years of leading the North Alabama Conference as resident bishop, Wallace-Padgett now steps into a dual role as episcopal leader for the Holston Conference. Her biography details the path that led the now 63-year-old pastor from the Kentucky Conference to become one of four bishops in the Southeastern Jurisdiction overseeing two United Methodist conferences at once.
Here is her Sept. 1 conversation with The Call.
The Call: Thank you so much for this opportunity. How was your first day?
Bishop Wallace-Padgett: I’ve had a wonderful first day. I’ve met with several of the cabinet members and also had a Zoom conversation with one of our clergy. I’ve heard consistent responses about the strengths of the annual conference and also, some insights about opportunities to grow and expand. It’s been a good day, a good first day.
The Call: It's also been such a long day. How are you feeling?
Bishop: I’m very energized as I think about serving here in the Holston Conference. I look forward to what’s ahead for us as an annual conference. I am pleased with many aspects of what’s happening here, and I am starting to sense some stirrings in my heart about directions and next steps into the future. I’m going to spend the rest of the year doing a lot of listening, and the discernment for next steps will come out of the listening to the people – listening to clergy, laity, churches and leaders – and doing all that in conjunction with prayer and listening to God.
The Call: You mentioned “strengths of the annual conference.” As you arrived at your new assignment here, what were your initial impressions or perceptions of Holston Conference?
Bishop: Holston has a reputation for being a mission-minded conference and is also perceived as being a hospitable place. I have found those impressions to be confirmed in the first interactions I’ve had with leaders and people from Holston.
The Call: Does it remind you of Eastern Kentucky, your home, or your now second home in North Alabama?
Bishop: I see some similarities between Holston and Kentucky and also between Holston and North Alabama – the geography and the fact that all have an Appalachian flavor to them. The warmth and the genuineness of people prevail in all three conferences. I feel like I’m home already.
The Call: When people learned you were going to be the next episcopal leader for Holston Conference, they were excited. But they also wondered, how can any bishop lead two large conferences at the same time? Can you share anything about your plans for trying to make it work?
Bishop: It’s about four hours between Birmingham and Alcoa. At least in the beginning, we’re going to alternate between spending one week in Holston and one week in North Alabama. We’ll evaluate at the end of the year if that works best, or if two weeks here and two weeks there, consecutively, would be best. The intention is that we will spend half of our time here and half of our time in North Alabama.
The Call: That sounds exhausting.
Bishop: (Laughs.) I’m a collaborative leader, so I’ll be in conversation with both cabinets and the episcopacy committee for each area to assess how this is working. Also, there are three other bishops in the Southeastern Jurisdiction who will be serving two conferences, and we’ve already had one conversation. We plan to have another one this fall sharing best practices. We’ll be learning from each other how to do this as effectively as possible.
The Call: You’ve been with the North Alabama Conference since 2012, when you were elected as bishop, so you know them pretty well now. How will you get to know folks in Holston better?
Bishop: I plan to do district listening days. Those will be virtual or in person, depending on what is happening with COVID. I also have been, today, having individual conversations with some extended cabinet and appointed cabinet, and then I’ll be listening very carefully in other meetings of which I’m a part. I’ll be meeting with a variety of different groups: clergy, laity, people from different demographics, people from various ethnicities. So my focus in the next four months is to immerse myself in understanding who the Holston Conference is, and I can learn it best from the people of the Holston Conference.
The Call: You mentioned that you are a collaborative leader. Are there other ways you would describe your leadership style?
Bishop: I’m a team leader. I’m a process-oriented leader. I’m focused on the mission of the church. I’m a leader who encourages other leaders in role modelling the importance of being grounded spiritually as we lead.
The Call: When the “Protocol for Grace and Reconciliation for Separation” was released in early 2020, I read some news articles about how you worked hard to help the North Alabama Conference process the information. Many United Methodists are thinking about the next year or two and all that we might have to go through. How would you see using your leadership to help Holston Conference move through those difficult times?
Bishop: As we move through the next couple of years, it will be very important for us to hold on to each other tightly. To be respectful of one another’s perspectives. To always be cognizant that people from outside the church are looking in. We have an opportunity to be witnesses by how we relate to one another and how we handle our differences. It’s critical that we -- even in uncertainty, even as we’re looking ahead -- be as fully present to this day, to this moment in time, and to be investing lots of energy in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The Call: I learned a lot about you through this summer’s United Methodist Communications podcast, "Get Your Spirit in Shape.” So you’re a musician?
Bishop: Yes, piano is my primary instrument. I played percussion instruments when I was in middle school and high school. By the time I arrived at college, I had played piano for about 10 years, and I left the discipline at that point. But I resumed it about three years ago, and I am quite disciplined about playing four or five times a week simply for the sheer joy of experiencing the music. My husband [Lee] has built me a dulcimer, and I’m at some point going to learn how to play that.
The Call: You’re still an avid hiker? It sounds like you have done a lot of hiking in North Alabama. Have you have picked some places in Holston Conference where you might like to hike?
Bishop: Yes, my husband and I love to hike. We have not yet explored Holston options, but we will. We are confident with some of the beautiful trails and geographic areas here in the Holston Conference, we’ll find some time to do some hiking. That’s one of our favorite leisure activities.
The Call: You have used the words “discipline" and "energy” in our conversation today. Do the music and exercise help you with your stamina and demanding schedule as a leader?
Bishop: They are huge factors in maintaining balance in my life. I will sometimes sit down at the piano and play for 30 minutes and get up and go resume whatever work I was doing, feeling fresh and energized. The exercise often helps my outlook and attitude and lifts my spirit.
The Call: What do you want people in Holston Conference to know about you, especially on your first day?
Bishop: I want people to know that I consider it an absolute gift from God to be called to serve in ministry wherever I am. It is certainly a great opportunity to serve as episcopal leader in the Holston Conference.
The Call: What can people do to help you and welcome you here?
Bishop: I appreciate very much people praying for the Holston Conference, for my effective leadership, and for our life together here as United Methodists.
Did you like this story? Sign up for a free weekly subscription to The Call.
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.