When David Graves stepped into the pulpit last Sunday at Hixson United Methodist Church, he felt a sense of coming full circle in his ministry.
Graves' first appointment in a United Methodist church was youth pastor at Hixson UMC in 1989; he returned Sunday as the newly elected bishop of the denomination's Alabama-West Florida Conference.
"A lot of the youth I'd had were sitting there with their teenagers," says Graves. "It was very affirming to hear how many people said, 'David, we saw these leadership aspects in you when you were here.' They'd had a part in my life and I'd had a part in theirs. It was a feeling that my time there helped prepare me for the journey I'm getting ready to go on."
Graves, 58, was elected bishop on July 13 by delegates at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in Lake Junaluska, N.C. He most recently served as senior pastor at Knoxville's Church Street United Methodist Church in the Holston Conference, which stretches from Northwestern Georgia through Tennessee and into Southeastern Virginia, containing more than 880 churches.
Graves was the second of five new bishops elected at the conference. The first ballot resulted in the election of the Rev. Sharma Lewis of the North Georgia Conference, the first black female to be elected bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. She was assigned to the Virginia Conference. Both Lewis and Graves begin their new assignments on Thursday.
Graves' Alabama-West Florida Conference covers the lower half of Alabama from just above Montgomery then across the Florida panhandle from Panama City to Mobile — eight districts with 621 churches and 140,000 members.
Prior to pastoring Church Street UMC, Graves served six years as superintendent for the Kingsport District of the Holston Conference. He has been an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church for more than 27 years and also served 11 years as pastor of Ooltewah United Methodist Church from 1998 to 2009.
"Every experience I've had has prepared me," he says. "In all those places, the church grew and I was with strong senior pastors and laity who taught me a lot.
"A lot of pastors have never experienced a growing church, but every year at Hixson we took in 150 new members, mission work grew and those experiences helped prepare me when I became a senior pastor at Ooltewah.
"When I was district superintendent for six years in Kingsport, that prepared me to work with small congregations. As a district we grew, which is almost unheard of now. We grew in membership, missions emphasis and professions of faith. All those experiences have helped me."
Eric Light, Ooltewah UMC director of connectional ministries, believes leadership skills and the ability to organize and inspire church members are strengths that Graves brings to his new position as bishop. The two men met 17 years ago, and Graves later was the senior pastor at Ooltewah who hired Light.
"David is a unifier, a real consensus builder," Light says. "So I think his gifts are very timely because we have some issues that are divisive within the church. I appreciate David's deep spiritual faith and how he leads from that spiritual center."
Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor of the Holston Conference concurs. She has known Graves and his family for nearly 40 years.
"Perhaps David's greatest gift is the ability to bring different voices together around the table and build bridges that advance the church's vision and mission," she says. "He is deeply committed to the United Methodist Church and is always working to help the church live out its calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."
The Rev. Amy Nutt, pastor of White Oak UMC in Red Bank, says Graves mentored her through the process of becoming an ordained minister. The two met at Ooltewah UMC after Nutt brought her daughter to vacation Bible school there.
She says she felt called to the ministry at age 8, but in her previous denomination women weren't allowed to fill leadership roles, so she allowed that dream to die. By the time she and Graves began discussing her calling, she was working "her dream career" in marketing and public relations for a mental health agency.
She began her ministry at Ooltewah UMC in a part-time job visiting shut-ins. Recognizing that the job wasn't fully using Nutt's talents, Graves encouraged her to explore the path to ministry.
"I said I didn't have the education for that, and I wasn't qualified. He said, 'God qualifies you,'" Nutt recalls.
She says the process of being ordained took three years and required obtaining a license from pastor school and going back to college to receive an undergraduate degree. She started seminary last year at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta and is working on her ministerial degree through online courses while pastoring White Oak UMC.
And Graves has been integral to her journey.
"David's been a district superintendent and pastored one of the largest churches in the Holston Conference, but he still makes time to call me at least once a week to see how I'm doing, if I'm on target," Nutt says. "He's a visionary; he sees people's strengths and how to connect them with a purpose."