Young delegate gets help, homework from bishop

General Conference delegate Ricky Harrison, 20, is a sophomore at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. PHOTO BY GARY ELLISON/MCMURRY UNIVERSITY

It’s Ricky Harrison’s first General Conference, and, at age 20, he’s one of the youngest delegates in Tampa. But not only has he done his homework, he’s done it with the scholarly help of a General Conference veteran.

Mr. Harrison is the lead lay delegate of the North Texas Conference delegation as well as a full-time sophomore at United Methodist-affiliated McMurry University in Abilene, Texas. To prepare for the gathering, he’s been working for months in a special tutorial with McMurry’s bishop-in-residence, Dan Solomon, 75.

“My sense is that there will be few delegates that come to General Conference prepared any more thoroughly than Ricky Harrison,” Bishop Solomon said.

Mr. Harrison’s one-on-one work with Bishop Solomon began last fall, earning him six hours of academic credit and steeping him in Methodist history, doctrine and polity. That will provide a solid grounding as Mr. Harrison aims to bring a young person’s perspective to the conference.

“I’m really passionate about not being a passive participant in the church,” he said. “I want to be an active member who’s helping shape the church.”

“He brings a fresh perspective,” said the Rev. Clayton Oliphint, senior pastor of Mr. Harrison’s church, First UMC in Richardson, Texas, and another member of the delegation. “He’s not jaded from years of experience, with the years of the politics. You could call that ‘naïve’ or ‘idealistic,’ but I think it’s a fresh voice.”

Not the beach

Growing up, Mr. Harrison was involved in the youth group at First UMC Richardson as well as conference and jurisdictional leadership. Both of his parents are active in the church — his mother, the Rev. Georgia Harrison, is a deacon and his father, Charles Harrison, is a lay minister.

A religion major who is exploring ordination, Mr. Harrison had to make special arrangements with his professors in order to attend General Conference, which coincides with the last two weeks of classes at McMurry. (He’ll face final exams as soon as he returns.) When he tells classmates that he’s headed to Florida, some ask if he’ll be hanging out at the beach.

“Well, not really,” Mr. Harrison says, explaining that he’ll actually spend the 11 days in committee meetings, plenary sessions and worship gatherings. Even though McMurry is a United Methodist college, Mr. Harrison said, “explaining has become a regular task.”

Juggling has been another regular task. On top of his schoolwork, and the conference itself, Mr. Harrison has devoted long hours to attend every meeting of the delegation. He never missed one, despite having to drive three hours, each way, to attend.

Program of study

Mr. Harrison’s special “General Conference prep” curriculum was developed by Bishop Solomon along with McMurry’s chaplain, the Rev. Tim Kennedy, and a few other faculty members.

“We had the idea that this would meet the requirements of good, rigorous academic work as well as enabling Ricky to become better prepared as a delegate,” said Bishop Solomon.

For the study, Mr. Harrison read three books: Belief Matters: United Methodism’s Doctrinal Standards, by Charles Yrigoyen Jr.; Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism by Henry D. Rack; and The Organization of the United Methodist Church by Jack M. Tuell. He took notes at the delegation meetings and wrote papers on the readings. A few months ago, with the arrival of the advance Daily Christian Advocate (DCA), the pair also studied several pieces of General Conference legislation and study reports. Bishop Solomon said he was to remain a neutral “resource,” presenting both sides of issues but refraining from offering any opinions on how the young delegate should vote.

Ricky Harrison, left, worked one-on-one with Bishop-in-Residence Dan Solomon in a directed study program to prepare for General Conference. PHOTO BY GARY ELLISON/MCMURRY UNIVERSITY

Bishop Solomon and Mr. Harrison plan to meet for at least one more study session at some point during the General Conference.

“It’s been a huge blessing, getting to work with him,” said Mr. Harrison. “It’s been so helpful to have his wisdom and guidance.”

The bishop counts the study project as one of the most rewarding experiences he’s had since retiring in 2000.

“It provided me with an occasion to revisit and rethink foundational documents and experiences in the United Methodist Church,” he said. “I’m so glad to have been able to share this journey with him.”

A ‘celebrity’

The Rev. Jan Davis, senior pastor of First UMC in Rowlett, Texas, and another member of the North Texas delegation, says that Mr. Harrison was a bit of a “celebrity” when he turned up at the General Conference briefing, held in January in Tampa.

“I was surprised at how many people knew about him,” she said. “People came up and said, ‘You’re the young delegate from Texas. We’ve heard about you.’”

Interviewed just before General Conference began, Mr. Harrison said that the experience thus far had strengthened his faith in the denomination.

“In interviewing episcopal candidates, I was really impressed with the high caliber of every one of the individuals we met with,” he said. “We have really great pastors, and that gives me a lot of hope for our future.”

Ms. Davis chokes up just a bit as she describes Mr. Harrison’s efforts.

“You can tell he loves the church and he wants there to be a future,” she said. “That touches my heart.”


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