Leadership lessons from Bishop Kelly

Larry Hygh and Bishop Kelly

By Larry R. Hygh, Jr., Special Contributor …

“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, who died June 28 at age 92, was one of the four subjects of my doctoral dissertation for an Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership from Pepperdine University.

My dissertation is entitled, “A Qualitative Leadership Study of the Four Female African American Bishops of the United Methodist Church.”  I had the amazing opportunity to sit and interview four dynamic women to discuss their defining leadership moments and their personal philosophies of leadership.  It was a privilege to learn from these gifted women, Bishops Kelly, Beverly J. Shamana, Linda Lee, and Violet L. Fisher.

In my quest to understand defining moments and better articulate personal philosophies of leadership, my approach was professional and concise in the manner of invitation and design of the interview process. I knew I needed to be concise and collaborative to gain the insights needed for my research and self-edification. I had the opportunity to meet Bishop Kelly on several occasions before spending the afternoon with her to discuss leadership.  Upon arrival to conduct the interview, she insisted that I come for lunch, a visit, and then we would proceed to the actual task at hand, 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,” said Bishop Kelly.  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 or among familiar strangers.

What I gained from watching her witness through the years and from taking copious notes during our interview, is that 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 ultra liberals, 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 has spoken through sermons, interviews, printed articles, and speeches that may not have ever been recorded, but the content focused on righteousness, fairness, equality and inclusion of all who are created in the image of an all-loving God is most evident in her eternal witness that 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.

Dr. Hygh is the Associate General Secretary, Director of Communications, for the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.


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Larry, you are so on point with these comments. Bishop Kelly emitted the power and presence of Christ in all circumstances. Her gentle counsel and courageous leadership helped to shape many of us who were post-civil rights advocates. The greatest lesson learned from her through the years is that power concedes nothing without demand. Even though she lead out of the team concept, her prophetic voice rang throughout the UMC. Her legacy lives on in the clergy and laity whose lives were touched by her ministry.

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