With women in leadership all around her, Laura Merrill never thought that she could be limited in being a pastor. She is a fourth-generation first-born woman. Her mother worked outside the home, despite the culture of the time. With the noted superpower of helping, Merrill remarked how her mother created space for Merrill’s leadership, following her to meetings and caring for the children while Merrill attended to business. Merrill’s grandmother went to college even when her father told her that she could not. Her great-grandmother was the oldest child and was removed from school in fifth grade to take care of her siblings, but she made space for her daughters to go to college and then she joined the suffragettes of Mason County, Texas.
Merrill’s path for leadership is not just formed out of her own family. When she was ten years old, she had a clergy couple duo as her pastors, Bob and Janice Huie. During a life-changing moment when her parents were divorcing, she found the Huies providing her with formational leadership, mentoring, and affirmation of her place in the Church. Since Merill was a young girl, Bishop Huie has supported her and watched Merrill from afar. Merrill noted how this experience brings her in with the second wave of women bishops. In the most interesting turn of events, now Bishop Merrill has followed Bishop Huie into the Arkansas Conference, where Merrill is the second female bishop to serve the episcopal area.
As a child, Merill was never unfamiliar with the roles of the pastorate, as her father was a pastor. However, she never wanted to be a pastor when she was younger. A mission internship in Chile and a mission on the United States border brought her into the work of bridging people to the church. Following those missions, she went to Candler School of Theology, or as she lovingly named it herself – ”grad school” – and discovered she had gifts for the Table and for the pulpit. She remembered that it felt more like a pulling instead of a calling.
Merrill served the local church until 2010, a time in which she recognized it as some of her proudest work. She laughed when she recalled the Easter morning when she impeccably timed three different worship services and they were all exactly timed and nothing ran long; she named it as “awesome.” She loved building a community that was diverse in thought and could express themselves in a way that continued the community. She relished in the ability to be creative in leading worship.
In 2010, she entered the superintendency, where she worked to continue the bridging culture that she learned as a mission intern. She oversaw the merging of the Southwest Texas and Rio Texas Annual Conferences into the Rio Texas Annual Conference in 2015. In 2020, she moved to a different district and returned to her hometown of Austin. She was excited because she knew her home district and knew how to have an impact in the ministry of the superintendency.
In the Southwest Texas (and later Rio Texas) Conference, Merrill noted the bright spot the conference held in the larger United Methodist Church, where the first wave of clergywomen set high expectations. In her first appointment, clergywomen of the conference met to discuss General Conference elections and who to watch for the episcopal slates. In 2016, Merrill was drafted into the election. Leading into 2020, Merrill found her name again in the conversation for the episcopacy. However, COVID’s impact to the General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference required her to reconsider. She had just returned to her hometown and had to rediscern in 2022. She felt that her gifts were useful in the chaos and disruption happening in the denomination. She had seen enough of the role, however, to be scared of it. She did not feel like she had to be a bishop, but she decided to simply offer herself, tell the truth, and go boldly into the process with as much authenticity as she could. Besides, she said, “itinerancy is always your decision.”
At the 2022 South Central Jurisdiction, a near miracle happened. Many of the delegates had been working together to coordinate a decisive election. On the first ballot, three bishops were elected. Merrill joined Dee Williamston and David Wilson as the “triplets,” what Merrill saw as a “beautiful blessing.” At the moment of election, she remembered that she had little faith in the one ballot they were taking at the close of the first day of the jurisdictional meeting. In fact, the announcement was visualized before it could even be announced due to an audiovisual error. On the screen, it showed that there were three elections and the conference erupted in joy. Merrill noted that it must have felt like what Pentecost must have been for the early Church – holy chaos, a Spirit moment.
Being a woman in ministry has not always been easy for Merrill. She described how she learned not to share all things in her life when you are in leadership because it can become vulnerability fodder. She drew boundaries. She got over cultural teachings about women in leadership. She created her own sense of agency. The women that she saw leading were wired differently than those with which they were surrounded; they were different types of women. This is how Merrill also aspired to lead.
Bishop Merrill brings tremendous leadership skills to her episcopal role in Arkansas. She loves to ask questions, specifically to get down to the why, the purpose, of what people want to see and do. She is comfortable doing bridge-building work and detecting the gaps, which she learned specifically as she monitored conferences with COSROW. But, she also wants to bring joyfulness to the role and have fun while doing the tough work of ministry along with Arkansas United Methodists.
In her time as bishop, there are a number of things that Bishop Merrill hopes to see in the Church. She knows that this is a moment when the structure of the denomination is shifting. She is looking for people that can lead with all-hands-on-deck to build relationships. She wants the church to learn from its community. She knows the value of relationship building in the church, which is the only way that it can be truly connectional.
GCSRW is thrilled that Bishop Laura Merrill was elected and consecrated for ministry in the South Central Jurisdiction and for membership in the Council of Bishops. GCSRW further celebrates the impact of women in ministry and how they lift up other women and call out gifts and graces for the next generation of United Methodist clergywomen and laywomen. We pray for Bishop Merrill as she leads boldly in Arkansas and that her leadership in the UMC will be a part of raising up a third wave of women bishops.
Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain is a PhD student at Boston University, where she focuses on 19th and 20th Century American Christian History and the intersectionality of faith and gender. She earned her B.A. in History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007 and graduated with an M.A. Religion and M.Div. in 2019 from Claremont School of Theology. She's an ordained United Methodist Deacon in the North Alabama Conference, and entered academia after serving for 9 years within the United Methodist Church where she worked in Connectional Ministries. Emily served as a reserve delegate to the 2016 General Conference and as a delegate for the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She has served on the GCSRW board since 2016.