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Remembering our Roots: Leontine T.C. Kelly, the First African American Woman Elected as Bishop in the United Methodist Church

The Methodist ancestors we have featured in this series so far have been from our more distant past, but today we are going to highlight the achievements of someone more contemporary. Back when these posts appeared on Facebook, I had mentioned that these posts would not necessarily be in chronological order. Therefore, let us focus our attention today, one day after what would have been her 100th birthday, on the first African American woman to be elected bishop in the United Methodist Church, Leontine T.C. Kelly.

Looking at her biography, her whole life seems to have lead her in the direction of active ministry. According to her obituary from the SF Gate, she was born in a parsonage in Washington, D.C., and The United Methodist Church (or “UMC”) General Commission on Archives and History states that “from an early age she knew she would be in a job where she served others.” She also idolized the local YWCA secretary and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, for their service and accomplishments. She would eventually marry a Methodist pastor, and according to the National Women’s Hall of Fame, “Her life as high school social studies teacher, mother of four and wife of a Methodist minister was like that of many other women until her husband’s death in 1969.”

After the death of her husband, Kelly eventually felt called to ministry herself, though not right away. She initially refused offers from the district superintendent and her bishop to become ordained and serve, believing she hadn’t been called. This soon changed when she did feel called after the Virginia Conference School of Christian Missions when she taught a class on “The Inner Life” by Harvey Potthoff, according to the UMC General Commission on Archives and History. Her life of service flourished as she served as a minister at multiple churches and gained a reputation for her skills in administration and preaching, according to the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She was eventually elected as a bishop to the California Nevada Conference in 1984, the second woman and first African American woman to be elected as a bishop in the United Methodist Church.

As we might imagine, her election as a bishop was not easy. According to Bishop Judith Craig, elected just hours after Kelly and quoted on, “She made a bold journey from the Southeastern Jurisdiction to the Western Jurisdiction. It was as audacious as her whole life. She never ran from challenge or controversy, and she also stood fast in her convictions.” In other words, her election to bishop meant moving from her home jurisdiction, where the idea of electing her as bishop was not as welcome as it was in the Western Jurisdiction. At this point, there were only three women on the Council of Bishops: Marjorie Matthews (elected in 1980), Kelly, and Judith Craig mentioned above. Craig stated that they would work together, and that after Marjorie passed away, “I was very grateful for [Kelly’s] presence. It made me realize how lonely Marjorie must have been.”

Today, there are more than fifteen active female bishops in the United Methodist Church, and six of them are women of color. It is curious that the 1:3 ratio of women of color to women overall seems to still be relatively steady, but the number of active female bishops increased by a factor of five times in one generation. Retired Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher stated upon Kelly’s passing: “Bishop Leontine Kelly has been the spiritual mother of many clergywomen and especially the women bishops…She called us into futures we never anticipated for ourselves, would not let us capitulate to our insecurities and druthers, and coaxed us into new lives that gave new leadership to The United Methodist Church. Her feisty, God-centered spirit is embedded deeply in our souls and will continue to form and instruct us.” Because of Kelly, many women felt they had been given a place in our denomination that had at one point been closed off to them. It does not take long for an idea that seems unusual or unheard of to become normal, or at very least to not be seen as controversial.

As this series hopes to provide some background into our faith and denomination as we prepare for General Conference in May, I hope this post helps to highlight at least one thing: If there were bishops in Leontine T.C. Kelly’s home jurisdiction that didn’t think she should be elected bishop because she was an African American woman just one generation ago, then we still have hope that the next generation will not think twice about having multiple bishops from the LGBTQIA+ community.


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