By Larry R. Hygh Jr.
“I think that the responsibility as a bishop is understanding what you believe as a call of the church and in the time in which we live,” said Bishop Leontine Turpeau Current Kelly.
Bishop Kelly was one of the four subjects of my doctoral dissertation. I had the opportunity to meet the bishop, who died June 28 at age 92, on several occasions before spending the afternoon with her to discuss leadership.
She insisted that I come for lunch, a visit, and then we would proceed to the dissertation interview. I am grateful to have been able to spend the day with the first African American female bishop of the United Methodist Church and the first of a mainline protestant denomination.
Bishop Kelly described her style of leadership as a “team” style.
“I would not want to be an autocratic leader. I don’t know how to begin that and justify it from a Christian viewpoint,” she said.
She spoke of the ultimate example of Christian leadership being Jesus Christ who was a servant. “You give who you are to — as a leader, to the people you are leading and you learn from them and it kind of meshes together to become a common leadership together as a body, whatever the body is.”
Bishop Kelly was small in stature, but a giant of the faith. She had a gentle, but firm style. In every way Bishop Kelly was a servant leader, challenging and pushing the United Methodist Church and the broader community on issues of racism, sexism and human sexuality, without pause or prejudice.
She spoke directly to the sinner and those sinned against. Her conversation and call for justice and equality did not waiver whether in the company of dignitaries, among strangers or with those she knew well.
The church and the world could learn immensely from Bishop Kelly’s leadership style. In a time when our nation is divided between red states and blue states, conservatives and ultraliberals, I hear Bishop Kelly speaking to me about a leadership that evolves out of care and concern for all people.
Her political party affiliation and personal opinions did not overshadow her Christian witness in a poly-cultural world, with seemingly limited worldviews. I hear her telling me about leaders being authentic and sincere. “Leaders give of themselves,” she said. “Leaders take risks and are on the cutting edge.”
Bishop Kelly spoke through sermons, interviews, printed articles and speeches that may not have been recorded. What she said on righteousness, fairness, equality and inclusion of all who are created in the image of an all-loving God will live on in all of us who ever heard or saw her in action. Others will know of that same powerful witness as we attempt to live it as well as she lived it all the days of her life — not to make history, but to secure our future.
I will be eternally grateful to Bishop Kelly for opening herself to explore ideas about what it means to be a leader. She challenged me and encouraged me on my journey.
Thank you Bishop Kelly for being a servant of God, a pioneer, an inspiration, and a trailblazer for all people.
*Hygh is the associate general secretary, director of communications, for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.