By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
Methodist pastors across Northeast Mississippi look forward to the arrival of Bishop James Swanson to the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Swanson will be the first African-American bishop to lead the conference, but many pastors see his race as a non-issue.
“He’s not coming as an African-American, but as a bishop,” said Dr. Jimmy Barnes, superintendent of the Tupelo District.
The Rev. Jim Curtis, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tupelo, the Rev. Warren Coile, former pastor of FUMC in Amory now in Brookhaven, and the Rev. Prentiss Gordon Jr. of FUMC in Corinth all agree.
“People won’t even see race,” said Curtis.
“Our church rose to the occasion for the first female bishop in the conference,” said Coile, referring to Swanson’s predecessor, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who has been transferred to the North Carolina District.
“Many African-Americans have served at very high positions in our church,” Coile said.
Despite being one of the largest conferences in the 15-conference Southeastern Jurisdiction, the Mississippi Conference has not been immune to the decline of Methodist membership in recent years. To many pastors, this diminishment is the forefront issue of the church, and one of the biggest challenges they face. Hopes are high that Swanson, with his history of congregational growth in Georgia, will be able to revive Methodist membership.
“Mississippi has a lot of churches that are struggling to survive,” said Barnes, who has crossed paths with Swanson numerous times over the past few years, including at a Methodist conference in South Africa last August.
“We tend to judge churches by size, but our smaller churches are very active, and add to their rural communities,” Barnes said.
Gordon believes Swanson, who has served the last eight years as bishop of a conference that includes portions of Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia, is up to the challenge.
“He’s very enthusiastic about evangelism,” Gordon said. “A change of style and pace can do a lot to re-energize congregations and spur growth.”
Coile recalled that Swanson spoke at the Mississippi Annual Conference and was well-received, showing himself to be an “outstanding motivator.”
As for churchgoers, changes will be subtle. A bishop’s job is to ensure the church’s discipline is carried out throughout the conference.
“The church will be the church,” Coile said.
However, Swanson does not overlook or neglect the “people in the pews,” Barnes said. “People will see how receptive he is to them.”
Gordon said the new bishop will have a positive impact in the state.
“People are looking for strong leaders like Swanson,” he said. “That’s what Mississippi needs.”