Bishop Fairley Reflects On His First Year in Kentucky

August 31, 2017
Bishop Leonard Fairley began serving as the Episcopal leader of the Kentucky Conference on Sept. 1, 2016. Recently he sat down for a question-and-answer session with Alan Wild, of the conference office, to talk about his first year here:

Q: How has your first year been as Kentucky Conference bishop?
A: I think it’s been a blessing for me to be a part of the work of God’s kingdom here in Kentucky. The thing that’s impressed me most about Kentucky is the relationships that I’ve been able to build with the people, being out of the office, being in places like eastern Kentucky, northern Kentucky, and just traveling around the Annual Conference, and learning the many different and exciting varieties of cultures and varieties of people that you have in Kentucky. It has certainly been a blessing. When I came as bishop, my motto was sort of this: My late wife, Priscilla, and I came up with this when I was a superintendent. And it is: See the possibilities and live the promise. And what I see in Kentucky are just these amazing possibilities and with possibilities come promise. So I think that’s what I’ve had my eye and heart and spirit on as I’ve traveled throughout the conference, meeting with the different teams and different people, both clergy and laypeople. It’s been exciting.

Q:  Have there been any surprises during your first year here?
A: No. The people have been very gracious walking alongside me. They’ve been very patient, very prayerful. So, nothing really surprises me, except, maybe, the amount of glory sightings and just the spirit of the people. It’s just been an amazing spirit.

Q: You anticipated my next question. I was going to ask about any glory sightings that you’ve had this past year.
A: I think one of the things I’ve always thought about in my ministry as a United Methodist pastor before I became elected a bishop is that I don’t fear for leadership in the church. One of my early glory sightings here was that I had an opportunity to go to one of our camps, Aldersgate. And I was there during a time when candidates for ordained ministry were coming through and just had a chance to interact with those candidates. And that became one of my biggest glory sightings, is that the leadership is here in Kentucky. I think it always has been. I think our job is to nurture that and to grow that and to develop it, and to empower and encourage. I just see these amazing young men and women in the life of our conference, and I always pray, “Now Lord, I hope I don’t mess it up!” I hope that through encouragement and empowering and equipping, that what I see in these young people bodes well for the future of the United Methodist Church in Kentucky. And so, I’m excited about what I see there. That was one of my glory sightings.

A couple of the other glory sightings I’ve had is just in the district gatherings that I held when I first came, moving around the conference to each district, meeting with leaders, lay people and clergy, and just hearing and sharing stories. My personality, I’m more of a narrative-type person. Many of you have heard me say that. I really stake everything I am on the incarnation of God becoming flesh and moving into the neighborhood and being a part of our lives, part of our journey. So when I look for glory sighting, I’m listening for those stories of where God absolutely shows up in people’s lives.

Another glory sighting that I could talk about is I was in eastern Kentucky visiting Red Bird for the first time. So I’m driving down in eastern Kentucky, and at that time I hadn’t gotten used to the geography of Kentucky. In North Carolina, when I was driving east, I was going to the water. But driving east in Kentucky, you go into the mountains! So I’m driving to Red Bird, and I’ve got North Carolina on my mind, and all of a sudden I see these mountains and I go, “Oh Lord, I’m not in North Carolina anymore, I’m in Kentucky!” But when I got to Red Bird, with the churches and the mission itself, glory sightings just started popping out all over. One of the classic ones was I toured the site, and they saved this one stop for last, this last stop I went to was a building. And I’m going into this building and when I walk in, I see these young people from the Congo, from Mexico, from Asia, and they’re speaking in all these different dialects. And I’m thinking: In eastern Kentucky, you have this wonderful glory sighting of God in all these different dialects and all these beautiful young people. And I just told myself, I never would have thought it in eastern Kentucky, but there it was. And so God has showed up in many ways like that for me in Kentucky, and I think those have been the most exciting. And the times I’ve gone to worship, not to preach, just to sit and worship. I’ve been filled with joy getting to know the people, just to hear their story. I guess I would say that’s the major glory sighting for me.

I would like to somehow be able to capture that for the whole Annual Conference. I listened to superintendents this last time we met.  We’re doing this Learning, Loving and Leading. And part of our “loving” time was to talk about glory sightings. And to hear each one of the superintendents share places where God showed up in their districts. And I actually asked the superintendents, “Do you let your district know where you’ve seen God in this district?” And I began to dream about what that would look like if our superintendents would begin to share some of those glory sightings – let the people in the district know that we see God in your work; we see God in you. And here are the places where we’ve seen it. So I’m trying to figure out a way to capture that so that we can see it and experience it across the whole Annual Conference. I don’t know how to do that yet, but I’ve got good people around who will help me do it, I just don’t want to be the only one to experience those glory sightings. I think it will bless and inspire a lot of people across our Annual Conference.

Q: Do you think part of that might just be getting people involved, sort of the trickle-down theory, I guess?
A: I think so. And I think in a way, that’s what I’ve been trying to model by not just sitting in my office. Now, I know there are times I have to be here when there are meetings, but I definitely like to be out. And I’ll try to get to anything a person will invite me to. I went to a corn shucking one time and threw on a pair of gloves and helped them shuck corn. I worked for my supper! But while we were working, I was just having conversations with the people. It’s just been amazing. Even when there’s been disaster. I was up in northern Kentucky after the flood in late July. And just hearing stories of people. Even those who had suffered some devastation, just hearing their story – just the will to be the people of God.

Q: What were your top goals when you got here last September?
A: People know this about me: I hate the word “silo.” But I love these words: “team” and “collaborative alignment.” I love those words, because I think that’s the only way we can do this work. I absolutely fell in love with the mission statement of the conference: to discover, develop, and send passionate spiritual leaders and resources, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And so, one of my major goals was to get the teams to focus in that direction and to see what that looks like, if all of us were focused on sending and developing passionate spiritual leaders and resources. That would change the world. And that’s been one of the biggest pushes, is to make sure all the teams are working together. That means local church teams, district teams, Annual Conference teams. And just praying about what God could do if we had that kind of collaborative alignment with the Board of Ordained Ministry, with New Church Development, because Lord knows, I think in New Church Development is where you get that sense of excitement of growing the Kingdom of God. And how that kind of passion affects everybody in the building and everybody across Kentucky. I believe that we are blessed to be a blessing, and I think Kentucky has definitely been blessed.

One of my goals also is to help us to understand how blessed we are. Because I think that sometimes we tend to focus on scarcity, and we’re trying to get the Annual Conference to understand that God is not a God of scarcity but a God of abundance. Scarcity is our problem, not God’s. And so I’m trying to get the teams to share those kinds of stories. Of course you’re going to have challenges. Of course those things are going to happen. But the future is in front of us, it’s not behind us. So just trying to get the conference to move in that direction, to create a map, follow the map, and enjoy the journey.

I also want to be able to recognize potential leaders; I don’t want to miss them.  When I’m thinking about leadership, I’m looking for the kind of leader who could reproduce themselves, and that’s what they do. They know that eventually I’m not going to be here, so who am I coaching along who’s going to come behind me? Lots of people say that at Annual Conference, you have a leadership void, particularly when you’re making appointments, because the other goal in mind is to be able to make missional appointments. What I mean are those types of leaders who are appointed not just for that local church but to that community, so that when you drive into that community and ask somebody, “Where is the church?”  people will automatically say, “Well, there’s a Methodist church down there, and they do this, this and this.” I need that out of the Cabinet, too, to be the missional strategists of the district. So when I think about leadership, that’s what I think about – a person who can see who can come along, who allows God to live inside of them so that they can see the big picture. I call it “holy sight,” because to see the possible and to live into the possibilities, you need to have holy sight.

Q: What kind of shape do you think the conference is in overall?
Bishop Lindsey Davis and Bishop Leonard Fairley

A: Good. When they told me I was coming, I knew I was following Bishop Lindsey Davis, and this is the way I look at it: When I think about Bishop Davis and myself, I think of Moses, when he’s leading the people to the Promised Land and he gets right to the edge and he’s not able to see it, but he’s prepared the people to walk into it. And when I think about the transition that Bishop Davis has left for me, that’s what I think about: “Well, Leonard, I’ve taken them this far. We’re right at the edge of the Promised Land. And God is going to take us into it.” And so he made some decisions as a bishop that were tough but were beneficial for the conference. And I always tell myself: “I hope I don’t mess it up. I hope I can be like Joshua and take us on into it.” And so I think the conference was in very good shape. But I don’t want to just maintain it. I want to take it along. I think one of the struggles I’ve always had as a pastor is that I never wanted to do maintenance ministry. I wanted to take it to the next level. And so I think there was a pretty strategic role that Bishop Davis played to get us there. And he’s been great, by the way. I’ve put him on speed dial. Both he and Alfred Gwinn, my bishop in North Carolina, have been tremendous.

Q: What goals do you have for the upcoming years? Are they the same as the ones you mentioned earlier? Do you have some others?
A: I think another one of my goals that we’ll be talking about is to help us begin to speak more about generosity, especially at Charge Conference. For example, what would it look like if we worked on our generosity and every Charge Conference in the district was talking about generosity? Sometimes we can’t see what we have because we’re thinking scarcity. And oftentimes, scarcity has nothing to do with finances. There’s something about generosity that happens before the giving, before finances. You have to be in the right spirit to know what it’s like to be generous. One of the things I want to help Annual Conference to understand is that God has blessed you with a lot. One of my goals is to teach us not to live with closed hands but with open hands. That way, blessings go out and blessings come in. Somebody told me at Annual Conference, “Bishop, what we want you to do is dream big.” Well, I turned that question back around to the Annual Conference: Dream big with me. Because bishops will come and go. But people will be in this Annual Conference long after I’m gone.

I know this is going to come across as unusual, but naturally I’m an introvert. I guess it came from the way I grew up. There were nine of us; we were in poverty. So you didn’t want to draw attention to yourself, so I was very quiet. But I always daydreamed. I’d always think about things not as they are but how they can and should be. It’s what I would dream about. I knew what circumstances I was in as a child. But what I would tell myself was that it need not stay that way. So that’s my goal: to teach us how to dream, teach us how to be generous, and to begin to see the fruit of that leadership.

Q: What is the No. 1 pleasant surprise that you’ve found in Kentucky in your time here so far?
A: There are so many, I can’t even begin to think about it. It’s like trying to choose your favorite child. The biggest surprise I’ve seen is know the Kentucky Annual Conference has allowed me to be myself. I think that’s key. We have passionate, strong leadership in the Kentucky Annual Conference. My prayer is that leadership will coach and mentor others who will come after them. I’ve been surprised about the tenacity and the hope even in our smallest churches. Even in the smallest I’ve found that kind of tenacity and spirit. And I just hope that we don’t take that for granted, that we take that kind of spiritual capital and build on it.

Q: Kind of a tongue-in-cheek question: What’s been your biggest adjustment to Kentucky, lack of access to the ocean?
A: (laughing) Well, I’ve had to get used to the food. And another thing about Kentucky: I had never been in Kentucky in my life until July 31, 2016, when I came up to meet the conference staff and have worship with them and share communion and baptism renewal service with them. It was the first time I’d ever been here. And when I came, they had somebody ready to show me around, where to get a haircut, to show me around to where things were, which was great. So my biggest adjustment, number one, has been two time zones. Also, I have to drive though Indiana to get to Owensboro, so just the border states that I was not used to. And then, you have the state fair in August. In North Carolina, it’s in October. But I’ve not hit a wall to where I absolutely miss North Carolina. Somebody asked me, “Well Bishop, does Kentucky feel like home to you now?” And I thought about it for a minute and I said, “Yeah, because when I’m traveling, and I’m ready to come back home, I’m saying Kentucky; I can’t wait to get back to Kentucky.” I have loved traveling across the Annual Conference.

Q: Did you find that it was a surprisingly large state?
A: Oh man, yes. From east to west, from north to south, it’s just a very large state. Because sometimes where I go, it depends on when I’m leaving, I have to get a hotel room when I get there so I have time to do what I have to do. And like I said, I don’t mind driving. I think a lot when I’m driving. I’m an early riser; I get up early in the morning. And when I have a meeting in the Central Time Zone, I try to do it in the morning, because I know I’m losing that hour when I come back. I’ve been to a Reds game; they actually won the game, 8-3. So someone said, “Bishop, you’re good luck!” The other thing that’s been different, of course, thinking about athletics, is that I’m a Duke fan, but I’m not the fanatic that people think I am. I just like a good game.

Another glory sighting – sorry, I know I’m going back to earlier – is that I’ve been able to visit the college campuses. I’ve made it a point to meet with all the presidents once a quarter. And one time we’ll meet at Lindsey Wilson, one time we’ll meet at Union College. And all the presidents gather and I certainly love that. I’ve met with the retirement centers. And when I go somewhere, I don’t like just meeting with the leaders. I like to meet with what people call the “ordinary folk.” And of course, you know that my big thing is that God can take ordinary people and do extraordinary things through them. So I love just meeting with the ordinary people, like when I visit Asbury, the seminary, I tell them that I love hanging out with the president and people like that, but I want to hang out with the students: Let me hang out with the students; that’s where I want to be. Same thing when I go to one of the retirement centers. Sure, carry me around, let me talk to leaders. But I enjoy going to some of the rooms, because my grandmother was very influential in my life. And so, I love their stories. So that’s me; I just love being around everyone. I guess no one told me how to be the classical, quote-unquote, bishop. And I hope I never become the quote-unquote, bishop. Of course, I know there are things I have to do that a bishop has to do, but I hope to always have the time and the joy of being around all the conference clergy and lay people.

Q: Is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you want to address before we finish?
A: I am looking forward to the regional meetings in late September and early October this year in the districts. I am looking forward to unpacking a little more detail of my vision and my hopes for the Annual Conference. (The schedule for the series, called Ordinary People, Extraordinary Teams, is listed below.) Anybody can come. That sort of goes with who I am: If I’m sitting up there with a bunch of clergy, I know I’m in trouble! Because again, preachers come and go. Everybody’s appointed year to year; they’ll come and go. So I’m looking for leadership that will inspire and encourage and empower.
Meeting schedule
Bishop Fairley will speak at five regional meetings on building leadership through teamwork and how to create better and more effective teams. This is a great opportunity for your church ministry teams to attend.

Choose to attend one of the dates listed below with your team: Schedule (all times are local time)
6:30 p.m. - Refreshments and fellowship 
7:00 - Worship 
7:15 - Presentation by Bishop Fairley
7:45 - How to build a Ministry Action Plan, or MAP, from Kevin Burney, Assistant to the Bishop
Contact the district office hosting the event in your area about child care.