United Methodists in North Georgia have a new bishop, the first African American woman to preside over the Atlanta-based conference of about 320,000 lay members and 700 churches, including dozens in the northwest portion of the state.
Robin Dease took the office in a ceremony Sunday featuring music and prayer at Oak Grove United Methodist Church in Decatur, Georgia. Attendees read the Apostles' Creed, and pastors talked Scripture.
Dease is highly intelligent and values brevity and justice, said conference official Terry Walton, by way of introduction, adding that the new bishop will seek to move the denomination from an "us and them" mentality to a "we" mentality.
Walton said Dease has an array of interests -- motorcycling, playing pool, jazz and basketball -- and a background in fashion and the culinary arts. Conference cabinet members, he said to the laughter of the assembled, "will be well dressed and well fed."
Bishops appoint clergy, apply church rules and regulations and preside over each conference's annual meeting. Dease will oversee a conference whose ranks have somewhat slimmed in the past year amid a denominationwide schism, fanned by debates over church sanction of homosexuality. Many generally theologically conservative churches are leaving, or trying to leave, the denomination.
Just days before Dease became bishop, her predecessor, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson, announced the conference would no longer accept disaffiliation requests from churches. Critics say the conference is the only one in the nation to have applied such a policy.
It is unclear if Dease, who was not available for an interview, was consulted about that before she took over.
In her speech, Dease remembered familial infighting when she grew up in Brooklyn as one of 13 siblings. Nonetheless, she said, every day, before church and chores and cartoons and school, her parents woke the children and made them kneel at their bed and pray.
She invoked the unifying message of Martin Luther King and proclaimed her own dream of a church being a light that calls people together.
A church publication featured Dease in a December article, saying her family -- originally Southerners -- went to New York for work. Dease said she got involved with the United Methodist Church when she moved to Atlanta to attend Bauder Fashion College and lived with her sister, who attended Kelley Chapel United Methodist Church in Decatur.
She studied elementary education at Claflin University in South Carolina, and at the recommendation of an adviser, she took a course on the philosophy of religion.
Soon she was teaching Bible study. She attended Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C, where she also worked as a cook, according to her resume. She went on to attend the Culinary Institute of America.
Her part-time seminary and cooking period lasted about seven years, according to the conference.
In 1998, Dease returned to the South for her first pastoral appointment, at Wesley United Methodist Church in Johns Island, South Carolina. She went on to work as district superintendent and as the senior pastor at St. Andrew by-the-Sea United Methodist Church in Hilton Head.
A write-in candidate, she was elected to become a bishop on Nov. 3, 2022, by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, which encompasses 14 conferences in the region. She officially began her tenure as bishop in the North Georgia Conference on Jan. 1.
In her speech Sunday, Dease emphasized the idea of unity in diversity, a concept which she said reflects the nature of creation.
"God didn't create just one flower, or one type of animal," she said. "Don't you know that there are a thousand ways to cook a chicken?"