Sharon Austin: A passion for service and a heart for the oppressedConference News Leadership
When the Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin was a student at Berry College in Mt. Berry, Ga., in 1975, the Holy Spirit gave her an unmistakable message and a challenge.
She knew she had received a call to ministry.
But where? And what kind of ministry?
She was baptized in the Congregational Church and raised in Lutheran churches on Long Island, N.Y., before joining the Baptist Church after her family moved to Florida. By then, she had a keen sense of civic and ministerial duty.
And it was part of her family.
“My father responded to a call to ministry a few years after we moved to Florida. It took our nuclear family by surprise. Classmates would often tell me that my life would change and become restrictive because I was going to become a preacher’s kid,” she said.
“My father’s theology and balanced perspective prevented his call from becoming a negative influence in our lives. It probably helped that they had the influence of other traditions, even though my mother grew up in the Baptist Church. My parents were practical and comfortable leaning into Biblical interpretation and not Biblical literalism.”
She served as an active layperson and taught Sunday School at age 16. She was actively involved in her neighborhoods, churches, schools, girl scout troops, and dance classes—culturally diverse organizations that raised the young African-American's expectation of diversity and inclusion.
But as she grew, she also noted that she felt restrained by the "Baptist Church's exclusive boundaries, which grew more stringent."
Her future path began to unfold after she became acquainted with a young United Methodist chaplain. He became a mentor and advocate for the young seeker, inviting her to join the chapel choir and serve as a chapel assistant. She began to blossom as she was exposed to a more grace-filled understanding of scripture than she had experienced at the Baptist Church.
In contrast, the United Methodist Church was affirming and welcoming, allowing her to stretch her boundaries and imagine what her future could be with God's guidance.
Still, it would be about 20 more years before she joined the United Methodist denomination..
Now, after more than 25 years as a United Methodist clergywoman, Rev. Dr. Austin is the Florida Annual Conference’s Episcopal nominee for the 2022 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She offers a life led by a steadfast faith in Jesus Christ, shaped by a firm dedication to social justice for all.
Since 2013, Rev. Dr. Austin has served as the Florida Conference Director of Connectional and Justice Ministries.
Rev. Alex Shanks and Molly McEntire, the first elected clergy and lay delegates from the Florida Conference, shared this statement:
"We give thanks for the discernment of the Florida Conference delegation in lifting up Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin as our episcopal nominee. Sharon is a faithful servant of God who has consistently followed God's call on her life and served our United Methodist connection,” they said.
"We pray you will take the time to get to know Sharon through her website so you can experience first-hand her passion for justice, transformational ministry, and evangelism."
A visionary leader in empowering the oppressed
Rev. Dr. Austin was born in 1955 in Jamaica, N.Y. when the civil rights movement in the United States was stirring.
America in the early 1960s was awakening to the racial divide, where a person's skin color could determine their chances for success and advancement in life. The still-evolving Austin found that she had a cause where she could, through the example of Christ, make a difference in the decades that would follow.
That became clear to Rev. Timothy McDonald, III, the Pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. He and Sharon were college and seminary classmates.
"Sharon is a true servant of the Lord who embodies integrity, walks in humility, serves with compassion, and communes with justice. She is a trailblazer and trendsetter in ministry," he said.
"We have marched, prayed, worshiped, and served together in the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and abroad."
Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin
The desire to serve was one of the first things Dr. Ruben Hopwood, the Founding Director & Psychologist of Hopwood Counseling & Consulting, noticed when they served together at the Chaplain's Dept. of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.
"During that time and in the friendship that developed, I came to know Sharon as a passionate and intentional witness in word and deed. Sharon's grace-filled conversations form connections between factions, and she is instrumental in forging alliances and compassion where once there was distrust and painful separations," he said.
"Sharon is a service-oriented leader of integrity who lives her faith and changes the lives she touches for good. Sharon embodies the grace of God in her open acceptance of all people without judgment and undergirded by deeply faithful love."
Florida Conference Director of Missional Engagement Clarke Campbell-Evans praised her "heart for people."
"I have known and worked alongside Sharon Austin for more than two decades. I love her, and her family and I love her commitment to social justice and full inclusion," he said.
"She has a heart for people and a deep desire to see God's love bloom in their lives and communities."
That heart for justice was shaped by an incident when she was in the 10th grade after a fight between a black student and a white student erupted into a mass exodus from the school, which became a race riot.
"The police were called and chased us as we ran. They followed black students and sprayed neighborhoods with tear gas, creating dangerous conditions for the students," she said. "It was also dangerous for senior citizens and children at home because the tear gas could drift into their homes through open windows."
But it also led to an important lesson as she listened to her parents' conversations with teachers and politicians as they stood up and made demands on behalf of their neighbors.
Rev. Dr. Austin's passion for justice also extended to areas that might have escaped notice.
Joining with colleagues at the home of East Angola.East Angola Conference Bishop Jose Quipongo during a mission trip.
In an op-ed for FLUMC.com, she cited the words of General Board of Church and Society staffer Susan Greer Burton, who wrote that racism could exist beyond economic and inclusion factors.
"There is one glaring fact we've not yet addressed: the role race plays in health outcomes. We must deal with the fact that black mothers are 243 percent more likely to die as a result of pregnancy than white women," Burton wrote.
"There are wealth and education disparities between white women and black women in the U.S., but these disparities alone do not account for the massive increase in risk for black women. Wealthy and educated black women are still more likely to suffer severe complications than working-class white women who don't have high school diplomas."
In her op-ed, Rev. Dr. Austin told about her grandson, who was born by emergency Cesarean section.
"Our anticipated joy and the knowledge of the statistics of black women and childbirth encouraged us to keep vigil with our daughter-in-law and son," she said. "Collin entered the world healthy with a loving family and with both of his parents alive and healthy to raise him.
"Black lives, health, and families, matter. They don't matter more than other lives, health, and families, and they don't matter less!"
Came up through the ranks
Rev. Austin has had many roles in The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
She served five Cross-Racial/Cross-Cultural Appointments, including appointments to three local churches. She was the District Superintendent of a district with 90 large, small, urban, and rural churches.
Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin and her son, Nick.
Rev. Dr. Austin represented The Florida Annual Conference at General and Southeastern Jurisdictional Conferences in 2012, 2016, and General Conference in 2019.
"She is a dynamic, passionate witness of God's love for all people. I have benefited from her leadership as my District Superintendent and Conference staffer, and even more, as a friend and colleague," Senior Pastor Rev. Magrey deVega of Tampa's Hyde Park UMC said.
"She offers profound wisdom and encouragement to the people that she serves, and it is exciting to think about how God might expand her influence throughout the wider connection."
Prepared to serve
In The United Methodist Church, a bishop serves as the general Superintendent for a geographical area.
Bishops also ensure that the rules and regulations developed by General Conference are followed, and they set all clergy appointments in the annual conferences they serve.
They provide vision, leadership, and guidance to a diverse collection of churches that may have different needs and outlooks on the issues of the day.
Episcopal Nominees are nominated by delegates in individual annual conferences or organizations. In the Southeastern Jurisdiction, there are nine episcopal nominees. The Southeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy recommended the election of three bishops at the 2022 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference to be held November 2-4 at Lake Junaluska, N.C.
Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin was nominated in 2020 by the Florida Delegation, and her nomination was affirmed by the 2022 Florida Annual Conference.
"Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin exudes a passion for equity, justice, and the holistic impact of The United Methodist Church in our world," said Rev. Dr. Latricia Scriven, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's UMC in Tallahassee.
"As one who possesses both the endurance and excitement necessary for transformative ministry in these challenging times, Dr. Austin's consistency in ministry over the past four decades testifies to her experience and readiness for this office. Rev. Dr. Austin embodies our connection in a way that inspires joy and resilience among local churches, colleagues, and friends."
Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for FLUMC.org.
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