The biggest driving force for Robin Dease in pastoral ministry is to make change. Her call to ministry story is one that shows tenacious work ethic and the highest of standards.
Before she was appointed as a district superintendent, Dease needed to believe that she could make an impact in that new role. In fact, she went on to make extraordinary progress with rural churches and cooperative parishes. She brought significant change to her district by supporting women and men to be their best selves in ministry and helped them imagine how different the church could be in the world. She established a clergy wellness program, which was vital to sustaining the community of clergy in South Carolina. During her ministerial journey, Dease has seen her strongest characteristics as wanting to keep people at the table; and her election to episcopacy may prove to be the toughest opportunity to exercise this strength.
Robin Dease, a native New Yorker, has spent most of her life far south of where she was raised. She attended Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina for her bachelor’s degree. There she took religion courses and was the only woman in all of her classes. It was at Claflin when she realized her call to ministry. Her New Testament professor, Rev. Kevin Smalls, a United Methodist, affirmed that call despite her male colleagues constantly pushing back on her vocalization of it. Rev. Smalls subsequently invited her to lead a Bible study at the Claflin Wesley Fellowship. From there, she began working at Trinity UMC in Orangeburg. In all these vocational and leadership opportunities she never saw a woman in ministry and had no women as colleagues until she reached seminary.
Dease recalled tender memories of serving as a pastor in the local church and experiences she had with formational colleagues. Her first mentor and supervising pastor was Eben Taylor, a fierce advocate for racial reconciliation. His commitment to social justice was strong and he was a well-regarded member of the community. Another important figure in her formation was the Rev. Willis Goodwin, who launched a rural mission on Johns Island, South Carolina. There, he focused on establishing healthcare and housing for people in the community while pastoring five congregations. He was the first Black pastor in South Carolina to accept a woman, the Rev. Angelin Jones Simmons, as an associate pastor. Simmons later became the first Black district superintendent in South Carolina and is one of Dease’s mentors. One of Dease’s favorite memories of working with Goodwin was in 1998. Goodwin called her, told her to grab her sneakers and asked her to join him and other colleagues as they marched to Columbia to take down the Confederate flag flying over the capitol building.
Her call to ministry deepened after completing her Doctor of Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary. She was asked by Claflin to return and serve as the chair of its Department of Religion and Philosophy. She had previously served as an adjunct professor at Claflin so when her name arose as a candidate for the chair position, she found new and encouraging support from women colleagues including Katie Geneva Cannon, Miller St. Brown, Alison McLetchie, and Dean Peggy Ratliff.
Although Dease loved serving at Claflin, her local church and conference colleagues kept encouraging and challenging her to return to church ministry outside of academia. In fact, she declined her own bishop twice when asked her to serve as a district superintendent in South Carolina. Finally, she said “yes” when he asked her a third time. She finds much joy in serving among the churches and people – and went so far as to laugh when saying she does not like to be in an office all day.
Dease recalls the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in November 2022 as one of the toughest experiences she has had so far. During the conference, her name was nominated from the floor as an episcopal candidate. When she was nominated, she felt a strong sense of obligation to her newest appointment. She had just begun serving a cross-racial appointment where she was finding new life and energy after her time on the cabinet. While trying to maintain people at the table, she realized her nomination would possibly split a vote for a Black candidate and withdrew. After a few ballots into the elections, she was once again written in as a candidate by the body, deepening her call to ministry and discernment. Eventually, she was the fourth and final elected bishop for the Southeast Jurisdiction.
Dease has been assigned to serve the North Georgia Annual Conference. She has already communicated that she does not intend to spend her episcopacy sitting in an office. She wants to be out with the people in her conference. As she begins her service, Dease is committed to make positive change while upholding the highest standard of the episcopal office. She is observing how appointments work in North Georgia, specifically at large churches and at cross-racial appointments; She plans to seek ways to mentor persons who can succeed in large churches; And she also wants to appoint more Black women on the cabinet, not just as token appointments but as superintendents who are collaborators and vision-casters.
In her new role as bishop, Dease knows she can be pastoral to United Methodists in North Georgia where the season of disaffiliation has brought much tension. But she also notes that while she will work to be pastoral, she will also be keeping an eye out for new leaders. She hopes to be a bridge builder, a collaborator and point to new ways for United Methodists to create relationships and sustain community. These tasks are part of her vision to “build your Kingdom where[ver] you are.”
GCSRW celebrates the election of Bishop Robin Dease into the Council of Bishops and her assignment to the North Georgia Conference! As an agency, GCSRW strives to be a resource so that no other clergywoman or laywoman in the United Methodist Church feels isolated or alone in their ministry. We pray for Bishop Dease as she leads and casts a vision for the future of United Methodism. We also pray that she identify a new generation of leaders, especially Black women, who will lead with courage and boldness to continue to build God’s kindom in Georgia.
Celebrating Black History in the Making: Bishop Dease is First African American Bishop Assigned to the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church
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.