Rev. Dr. Candace Lewis answers the need: Here I am, Lord. Send me.Announcements Conference News Social Justice
"Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" – Isaiah 43: 18-19
As a Gammon Theological Seminary student in Atlanta, Candace Lewis was filled with conviction that she would one day change the world. Her instructors quickly discovered she had the intellect and drive to do just that.
"We all believe that at first, but then you realize you can't do that alone," she said.
Maybe not, but as the now-Rev. Dr. Candace Lewis prepares to leave the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, the change she dreamed about as a student in 1992 did happen in the lives of people she met and mentored along the way.
On April 1, she will take her place as the 17th President-Dean at Gammon – and the first female in a line of succession that dates to 1887. Her selection came after what the school described as "an extensive search with the assistance of The General Council on Finance and Administration's UMCSupport."
"We are excited for this historic milestone. The Board of Trustees is committed to Gammon and its continuing witness," search committee Chair Dr. Mackie Norris said.
"We pledge our support to Dr. Lewis and offer a spirit of collegiality as together we embrace the present and the future at the School of the Prophets."
This agent of change and social justice now accepts the challenge of turning eager and seeking students into the next generation of African American church leaders and pastors.
"She is a visionary in addition to a leader, which is not necessarily the same. We always know when a holy person is seeking discernment. She is very focused. She's passionate about moving forward and doing the right thing and the best thing," said longtime friend and mentor Beth Potter, the Conference Congregation Vitality Specialist.
"And then I think the woman is incredibly intelligent. She's a critical thinker. She can take massive problems and situations, and with that focus, she can look for the common thread. She can distill what might happen and move forward. That is a huge gift that she has brought to the district, and she will take that on to Gammon."
She is a graduate of the University of Florida and received her Master of Divinity degree from Gammon in May 1996.
In June 2000, she graduated from the Harvard Divinity School's Summer Leadership Institute on Faith-Based Community Economic Development. She completed her Doctorate in Ministry degree at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
Going full circle
Retired FLUMC pastor and Gammon alum Geraldine McClellan was the first to tell Lewis she should apply for the position.
"She laughed and said, 'You're joking,' " McClellan said. " I said, no, that I feel God has gifted you to lead us in such a time as this. She said she would pray about it, and she obviously did. The response from the Lord was, let it be so."
What did she see that made her believe Lewis was right for this task?
|(left to right) Rev. Geraldine McClellan, Rev. Dr. Candace Lewis, and Rev. Joretha Capers|
"The light bulb that went off in my head was to see a gifted, intelligent, Black woman who was called for such a time as this," McClellan said.
"She has that kind of spirit that embraces Philippians 4:13 – I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
Returning to Gammon brings Dr. Lewis full circle from her current role as Superintendent for the Gulf Central District in the Conference into the next history-making chapter in her life.
"Dr. Candace Lewis has been a very effective superintendent with the Gulf Central District and a transformational leader in our anti-racism initiative. Her background in new church development and congregational vitality has strengthened our Cabinet's focus, and her inclusive vision has led us to take steps toward more diverse leadership over the past five years," Florida Resident Bishop Ken Carter said.
"We will miss her presence at our Cabinet table, and yet at the same time, we celebrate the singularly important witness of Gammon Theological Seminary and see her call to the presidency as a work of the Holy Spirit. Our prayers and support will go with Dr. Lewis as she assumes the presidency of Gammon."
Dr. Lewis understands the extraordinary challenge she faces.
Student enrollment is down, and the cost of maintaining a seminary has spiked dramatically. Other seminaries compete for the same students Gammon must attract. The pandemic erected another high hurdle that must be cleared.
But with challenge comes opportunity, and Gammon's new president is ready for that.
"I am deeply passionate about personal and spiritual growth and serving others. Each leadership position has allowed me to learn to negotiate with patience and purpose, hone and develop strengths in myself and others," she said.
"And most importantly, I am an adaptive leader who courageously leads pastors in navigating the current and changing ministry and societal landscape."
A big and complex task
The Gulf Central District has 83 churches spread over four counties. It's a grand mix of small and large churches, rural and urban, serving the needs of diverse congregations and communities.
A leader had to be calm but firm, caring, nurturing, and understanding that each church and pastor have distinct needs.
"Candace has led in extraordinary ways as a District Superintendent. Her passionate and insightful leadership helped the Cabinet team navigate the last few years," said Rev. Alex Shanks, Assistant to Bishop Carter.
"Her accomplishments and contributions in the Gulf Central District and the area of New Church Development will live on. She will be greatly missed."
|Candace Lewis and the Florida Conference Cabinet|
Clarke Campbell-Evans, the Conference Director of Missional Engagement, worked closely with Dr. Lewis and saw her navigate difficult initiatives by staying focused and bringing people together.
"I first met Candace when she first came into the Conference but got to know her best as she stepped into her appointment to start a new church in Jacksonville. We have also served on the Delegation together a few times and recently immersed ourselves in the Anti-Racism Task Force that Bishop Carter initiated," he said.
"What has always struck me about the gifts that Candace brings to her work is her ability to deal with complexity with an eye to the deep purpose and direction we are going. In her clear and direct way, she helps shape the work ahead. We are immensely proud of her and happy for Gammon Seminary."
There also could be a direct benefit to Florida.
"She will be great in that role. She will find creative solutions and work with other people," longtime friend Rev. Terri Hill said. "When I heard what was going on, I Facebooked her immediately. The only thing I asked her on her Facebook page was, please, send us some good pastors back to Florida."
Into the world to serve
Her first appointment after graduation in 1996 was to start a new church in Jacksonville.
That's where she met Hill, who served as District Superintendent at the time. Dr. Lewis said Hill was "very, very instrumental in my early pastoral development."
While pastors guide the flock, superintendents and other leaders help guide the pastors.
"I remember when I hit my first really tough spot in ministry, I went to her office," Dr. Lewis said. "She helped me out so much."
Hill, now the pastor at Key West UMC, remembers quickly forming a bond with the eager, driven young woman from Gammon.
"She was in her first role with the Conference, and I had just been appointed District Superintendent in Jacksonville. We were brand new to the job," Hill said.
"The thing that impressed me most about Candace was her faith. Second would be her creativity. She is very open to new solutions to solve old problems. Even when the establishment did not well receive her creativity, she had the confidence to stay the course."
Confidence, yes. But planting a church where there was no church is not an easy task. It takes a special set of skills. Hill quickly realized her new friend had what it takes to do that job well.
"She is really good at working with other people. She is excellent at developing leaders. When you're new to a church and don't have any people, you have to attract people and develop them as leaders," Hill said.
"She's also excellent at listening to people. Candace has that wonderful combination of innovation, creativeness, and courage. When you're going to break a barrier and be the first at something, you have to have that trait of collaboration.
She's very courageous. She tells the truth and speaks the truth in love, and she has the courage to speak her convictions."
Lewis stayed at New Life Community UMC for 12 years.
"The church is still going, thriving, and in mission in the community," she said.
The experience profoundly shaped Lewis as she became more immersed in church planting. Not just any kind of church, though. She used the opportunity she had for leadership to open doors for others in the same way.
She moved to Nashville to work at the United Methodist General Church. As the associate general secretary in the New Church Starts Division, she was assigned to work with the church planting denomination.
One problem: There was no blueprint to do that.
"There were no books, no resources," she said. "I had to learn the hard way."
Instead of letting the hard way derail her, Dr. Lewis was free to create on an unpainted canvas. She had two major objectives: to expand ministry and opportunity for women and African Americans.
She accomplished both.
"She is cautiously fearless and is willing to take appropriate calculated risks," Beth Potter said. "She will challenge people to think in different ways.
"She's also very good at identifying people she can surround herself with to maximize their collective gifts and make the impact she wants to make."
Back to Florida
In 2016, Bishop Carter named Dr. Lewis to lead the Gulf Central District as Superintendent.
Maggie Corrigan was already at the district office as an executive assistant when the new boss arrived. It was an unusually busy time. There were several new churches in the district on top of the new people with whom Dr. Lewis had to meet and form a working relationship.
"She came in and hit the ground running," Corrigan said. "She believed this was the best way for her to get to know the churches and for them to know her. This was an opportunity to be in their context and to see what opportunities were in their surrounding areas."
Corrigan quickly learned that Dr. Lewis' management style was adaptive and flexible.
"She is always ready to learn and pivot as the need arises," Corrigan said.
Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, the Florida Conference Director of Connectional and Justice Ministries, recalled a meeting when Lewis was a Provisional Elder in the Conference.
She could tell that Lewis was on the path to significant achievement.
"I was immediately struck by her youthful vivaciousness and spirit of innovation. As the president of an accredited seminary, she will serve where few women and fewer African American women have served," she said.
"I commend Gammon Theological Seminary for their astuteness in pursuing President Lewis, an alumna for this role and in this season. She will bless countless clergy and, as a result, a new generation of church leadership. Madam President, I am proud to be your sister and colleague as you embark upon this journey!"
A New Challenge
That "journey" comes with its own set of challenges.
"Theological education has changed in the last 25 years. We are seeing a decline in students and a need again for seminaries as a whole, not just Gammon, to serve the present age and connect with students and raise resources," Dr. Lewis said.
Her two biggest immediate tasks: Student recruitment and fund development. The cost of attending seminary can be prohibitive, but the new president hopes to alleviate that through community and corporate partnerships.
"I'm excited about this new ministry opportunity. I think the possibilities are great," she said. "I look forward to following God and leading this into the future."
Beth Potter recalled that's the approach she took when facing money issues as district superintendent.
"One of the things she expanded in this district is fund-raising, to use a secular term," Potter said. "There were times where we needed money to do things, pure and simple, and she was so innovative.
"Candace was like, OK, let's look at what the secular world does through sponsorships and the like and try that."
The COVID-19 pandemic complicates matters, which restricted Gammon students to distance learning. It's just another challenge to be met and conquered.
Or, as Dr. Lewis put it, "It's a new opportunity."
That's the attitude she takes into this new position. She will be focused, aggressive, and determined to provide the best learning and development atmosphere possible for the young students to prepare for their turn to change the world.
Rev. Dr. Candace Lewis is ready.
As she noted in a statement to the search committee, "It's at this time Gammon in search of its 17th Dean and President hears the question 'Whom shall I send, and the Board of Trustees and Presidential search committee is asking 'Who will go for us?'
"Prayerfully, I simply [humbly] respond, 'Here am I, send me.' "
Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for FLUMC.org
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