The Moderate Methodist | Interview with David Graves, SEJ Episcopal Nominee

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Below is the text of an interview with David Graves, currently superintendent of the Kingsport District and the 2012 Holston Conference Episcopal nominee.
1.      Please introduce yourself-describe briefly your experience and qualifications to be bishop and list churches/ministries you have served.
I am in my fourth year as the District Superintendent for the Kingsport District of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. Over the last year, I have served as the Dean of the Cabinet and started a new congregation, LifeSpring UMC, which meets on Saturday nights, and served as the Senior Pastor in the early beginnings. I served as Senior Pastor of Ooltewah United Methodist Church, a large membership church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for 11 years. Prior, I served as pastor of two Kingsport area churches, St. Matthew and Mountain View United Methodist. I was on staff and given my first appointment at Hixson United Methodist Church in the Chattanooga area, where I served 11 years.
I am a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration and from Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, with a Master of Divinity. Nancy and I have been married for 31 years, and we have two children. Casey is Director of Student Ministries at Rock Spring United Methodist in Rock Spring, Georgia, and Gregg works and lives in Chattanooga. One of my best friends with whom I enjoy long walks is Charley, my golden retriever.
Every church that I have served has grown in professions of faith, membership, worship attendance, Sunday school attendance, mission outreach, and financial giving. I have been a part of moving a small membership church to a medium-size congregation and a medium-size congregation to a large membership congregation. Over the last two years, I have led the Kingsport District, comprised of 59 churches, from 35 years of decline to gains in professions of faith (two years in a row) and increases in worship attendance and Sunday school attendance. In addition during these tough economic times, I have helped work and encouraged all churches to be generous stewards of their financial gifts. They did this by each church paying 100% of their required conference tithes, district apportionments, and direct invoicing. Developing a District Ministry Strategy is at the core of these successes within the Kingsport District. Working together with clergy and laity, we have broken down walls of mistrust and fear and replaced them with hope, tools for ministry, developing shared ministries, and restoring the strength of being a connectional church.
Because of my work as a pastor and District Superintendent, I have been seen by my peers as one who has been a team player on a church staff, given leadership and grown the local church and have done the same in a District and given leadership to other Superintendents and to the Annual Conference. This is what the Holston Conference has seen in me to place me before the Southeast Jurisdiction as a nominee for bishop.
If you are interested in further clarification and information, all of this work is explained in more detail on my website:
2.      Are you a member of any affiliated groups or caucuses? If so, please tell why you have chosen to join these groups. Please include official and unofficial groups.
 I have been a member of the United Methodist Church since 1970 and a clergy member of the Holston Conference since 1989. Otherwise, I am not a member of any affiliated groups or caucuses.
3.      Describe one situation in which you have succeeded in ministry. How did this develop your skills as a minister and leader?
I have been an avid student of leadership my entire ministry. Being a student of leadership has allowed me to provide leadership to the Cabinet of the Holston Conference, local church, laity, and pastors. God has blessed me my entire ministry, and my leadership with the leading of the Holy Spirit has enabled me to experience many God moments. If you are looking at one situation, it would be moving an entire district from decline to vitality. As I mentioned earlier, the development of a District Strategy was the key component of this process. In developing a 14-member Rethink Church team of clergy and laity working together over the last two years, we discussed the hard questions and brought hope to each congregation. Specifically, we asked each congregation to answer and reflect on four questions:
1.      Who are we as a church?
2.      What is our purpose?
3.      Who is our neighbor?
4.      What is our next (one) step?
By working with these questions and the Call to Action document, it has enabled each congregation to work toward vitality, mission, and focus while making a difference in the communities in which they are located. In being a part of this movement, it has helped me to grow as a leader while helping others achieve success.
My personal mission statement is winning people to Jesus, seeing people that others don’t see, transforming lives, and changing the world. This begins with one person and one congregation at a time. If I am expecting transformation and world change, the first work begins with me. I am one who is always looking to go to the next level personally and professionally.
4.      Describe one situation where things have not gone as you planned. How these roadblocks have influence you or taught you to modify your plans?
There have been many things that I have tried and failed. I think this is a key for a successful leader in that there will be things that will not go or work as planned. Most people will not try new things for fear of failure. Fear often paralyzes one or a congregation from moving forward; thus, what is known or comfortable prevails.
The one situation that stands out for me is the failed merger of the St. Matthew and Mountain View congregations. This roadblock/opportunity came during my tenure as a pastor of both churches in the late 1990s. Through this roadblock and others, I learned many things that over time helped me to be a better leader. Some of the lessons learned was the need to spend more time developing relationships, getting by-in from more people, having a more diverse group around the decision making table and most of all discovering God’s timing is different from our yearly calendar. Foremost, this experience was a catalyst for spiritual growth and development. I grew to a new level spiritually through that which I consider the hardest point of my ministry. In the midst of this perceived failure, God did some amazing things.
This is why I am driven to help other pastors and laity in this Kingdom work while at the same time help others not have to go through some of the pitfalls that I walked through.
5.      Explain your thoughts on how the ministry of the laity and clergy intersect, and how clergy and lay persons should relate to one another.
I could write pages on this intersection and speak on it for hours. More detail is contained on my website around leadership, but to summarize, clergy and laity must work together, and we must empower each of them to know they are a part of the Priesthood of Believers. It has been my experience as a pastor and District Superintendent that empowering laity for ministry and equipping them (providing tools) to be successful has enabled me to be very successful. However, the end product is that the Kingdom of God has grown. As a District Superintendent, it is important to provide tools and support to clergy so they can be the leader/shepherd that God has called them to be.
In building upon question 3 around district strategy, we provided tools for both the clergy and laity to be in ministry together, focusing around four questions:
1.      Who are we as a congregation?
2.      What is our purpose?
3.      Who is our neighbor?
4.      What is the first next step we take in ministry?
The District Rethink Church Team developed 10 leadership teams consisting of 40 persons, both lay and clergy. The District Rethink Church Team provided them training, and they are assisting other churches to reflect and answer around these questions and their Call to Action Report.  Not only are clergy and laity working alongside one another, but they are learning and growing to reclaim their neighborhoods and discover what God would have them do in being vital congregations. This work has built trust and broken down walls of fear.
6.      What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the UMC in the upcoming years? How would you help solve this issue?
Clearly, the biggest challenge is around trust. The 2012 General Conference was evidence that within the connection of the United Methodist Church, we do not trust one another. Moreover, both the clergy and laity do not trust denominational leaders. This mistrust layered with the facts – some areas and congregations are declining in vitality and the oncoming death tsunami – adds up to a huge challenge not only for the United Methodist Church, but the denominational church in the United States.
My approach to this opportunity would be prayerful strategic planning. This strategy is the same strategy I have used and relied on as a pastor and District Superintendent. If given the opportunity to serve as a bishop, I would bring clergy and laity alongside to develop strategies for the Annual Conference, giving development and building of relationships priority while being transparent and establishing trust. It is crucial to build trust or else all other efforts will not produce much fruit. This trust building could be summed up as relational, visionary, and spiritual leadership, which moves into the next question.
7.      I’ve heard the position of bishop described in multiple ways. One being the pilot of a ship, steering clear of large obstacles, but maintaining the course set by General Conference. Another is that of a prophet providing the church with outspoken leadership. Is there a metaphor that would represent your understanding of the role of bishop?
The one word that comes to mind for me around metaphor is servant. I am called by God to serve in ministry, and at times I have been the pilot of the ship guiding the local church or a district. There have been times in my role of pastor and District Superintendent where I have been out front proclaiming God’s vision for the church. At other times, I am comfortable sitting in the boat and encouraging others to fulfill their call by God. I am a team player who in baseball terms can play all nine positions on the field. Therefore, in modern terms and for this summer season, the baseball metaphor, David Graves is a utility player, who can play any position when called upon.
I hear other people refer to me as a passionate leader. This passion flows out of my purpose statement which is to win people to Christ, see people other people do not see, transform lives, and change the world. My pastor’s heart and what gets me out of bed every day is around this passion. Therefore, I would see myself as a change agent, a pastor, and a visionary. I have had the privilege to start the first contemporary worship service in a region, to develop worship services that have grown and even worked through changing worship times around being strategic in reaching new people, to build buildings, to put people in the right seats of leadership, and to cast bodacious vision, and along the way I have sought to love all people, hear everyone, and extend grace. Moreover, I helped an entire district turn around 35 years of decline in worship, discipleship (Sunday school and small group opportunities), financial giving, and professions of faith. I have begun a new church as a District Superintendent and served for several months as the Senior Pastor. I have been one who thinks strategically and help others to do the same. I rejoice in providing others tools for ministry and helping others achieve success. I love adding value to people’s lives and ministry. At the core of my being is my pastor’s heart; I believe a pastor’s heart is a key factor for folks following someone who is a visionary and brings about change. When this happens, it creates in us a new heart and prepares us for the next step in our Kingdom journey.
8.      Recently, a group of retired bishops wrote a letter encouraging the Church to change the Book of Discipline to allow more inclusion of LGBT persons as pastors. What is the role of the bishop in a situation such as this? Is it acceptable for bishops to take a public position in opposition to the Book of Discipline? If so, are there any limits to taking stances contrary to state United Methodist positions? If not, explain how a bishop should handle disagreement with official church policy.
To put your questions into context, you also have bishops who want to defend particular positions around exclusion of LGBT persons as pastors. Just like in our culture, we tend to take polarizing positions on this issue and other matters. General Conference has spoken on this matter, and now it is time to focus on our mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world. For me as a pastor, District Superintendent, and – if elected bishop – we are to defend the Gospel message of Jesus Christ and uphold The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. It is my interpretation of Church Discipline that the role of the bishop is to uphold the present Book of Discipline as defined by the General Conference. Therefore, it is inappropriate for a bishop or group of bishops to speak against or take a stand contrary to The Book of Discipline. This is a covenant that I as an ordained elder have pledged to uphold and for which I am held accountable.  
How I would handle this issue is to focus on the passion that Christ has put in my heart of winning people to Jesus, seeing people other people do not see, transforming lives and changing the world … one life … one church … one district … one annual conference at a time. Moreover, we all are held accountable to this mission as put forth by the Bishop’s Call to Action Report. If we focus our energies here, it will be amazing what will happen in the United Methodist Church and the Kingdom of God.
9.      In a tweet, explain what your goals as bishop would be for your first quadrennium of service? (A tweet is 140 characters, including spaces and punctuation).
To seek to develop relationships, build trust, cast vision & develop strategies around winning people to Christ, outreach & transformation
10.  How can people contact you with questions that we have prior to Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference?
You may email me at or call me directly on my cell at 423-240-9460. I welcome personal dialogue.

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