Q & A with Rev. Paula Lewis, South Central District Superintendent
This is the first in a two-part series that will introduce the new District Superintendents
ADVOCATE: Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Have you always lived in South Georgia?
REV. LEWIS: My family moved back here from Mississippi when I was in fourth grade. I lived in the Thomasville area from then until I took my first appointment. When we first moved to Thomasville, we lived in a split-house apartment with my grandfather. I spent a lot of time with him, whether it was cleaning his house, cooking for him, or going to the senior center with him. We moved out of the city and into the county after he died, and shortly after that my grandmother came to live with us. So, most of my life experience has taught me about serving and taking care of people. I developed a love for knowing people’s stories because of my grandparents. They were from a time when the whole extended family ate together every Sunday at dinner. When dinner was over you either sat around the table or on the porch talking about life, family, and the good ole days when they were growing up. Lots of lessons were learned around the table.
ADVOCATE: What’s your faith journey?
REV. LEWIS: I honestly cannot remember a time when God and church were not part of my life. Many of my earliest memories are of church. When we moved to Georgia, we lived three houses down from a pastor. Though it was not his church we attended, the pastor and his wife would give me Highlights and other children’s devotional books and I would quickly complete them and ask for more. I accepted Christ at a summer camp when I was 13. I don’t remember what the message was about that night, but I remember feeling a flood of love and acceptance that I had never experienced before. My childhood was not easy, and like most people, I have taken my fair share of wrong turns, but God has always been my Rock.
I have not always been a United Methodist. We attended a Southern Baptist church before moving to Georgia. Then my family attended an Independent Baptist church. After Scott and I were married, we visited a United Methodist church because a friend invited us, and it felt like home.
I remember the day I felt God calling me into something more. At the time I really did not know what that was. As the pastor spoke of giving your life over to God more fully, my heart began beating so hard that as we stood for the last song I thought the person beside me could hear it over the singing. I finally let go of the pew and went to speak to the pastor about giving my life over to God more fully and what that might mean. My life has never been the same.
ADVOCATE: Tell us about your ministry philosophy and guiding principles.
REV. LEWIS: My fondest memories of my faith family are from when we lived in Mississippi. My dad was an alcoholic. The church we attended there was a huge part of him staying dry and supporting our family when he didn’t. When we moved to South Georgia, we did not find the same support system within or without the church. Life became very chaotic and unpredictable as my dad slid more and more into the darkness of his addiction. He still attended church as long as he had not been on a bender that weekend, and he also made me attend every Sunday whether he did or not. Still, the time after we moved to Georgia were some of the darkest days of my life.
I longed for someone to tell us it was going to be okay or at least to know that we were not alone. But the church that became our home did not know how to do that. When he was dry, they were engaging, but when he was not, they disengaged. I don’t think it was from a place of judgement, though it felt like it then. Rather, it was from a place of not knowing what to do or how to handle someone else’s mess as well as not understanding how, once you have acknowledged it, to continue to incorporate them, along with their messiness, into the life of the church.
What I would tell them now – and what I would tell any church – is that most of the time people just need you to sit through the mess in their life with them. They don’t need you to fix them or solve their problems. You can’t. Only God can do that. All too often we try to take on God’s job and, if we can’t fix people, we just leave them alone or tell them they are wrong because we don’t know what else to do.
No one could help my dad when he did not want help, but when people sat with us and loved us through what we were going
through, we had hope. Because that is what our church in Mississippi did for the first 10 years of my life, I had hope that God was with us for the rest of my life despite what the circumstances looked like, and that is why I am in ministry now.
ADVOCATE: What are your visions, goals, and hopes for the district?
REV. LEWIS: Wow, what a wide-open question! I shared with my pastors at the set-up meeting that the evening Bishop Bryan called me about this appointment I was teaching the first lesson in our Lenten study on Simon Peter’s call. Jesus came to the shore where Simon was working, got in his boat, and asked him to push out to shallow water. After teaching, he asked him push out to deep water. Reluctantly, Simon did, and that is where the miracle occurred.
Thriving in the deep water, where God does His greatest work through us, is really more about what God does than about what we do. My goal for now is to listen to God, to Bishop Bryan and the cabinet, to my pastors (who are one of the most important parts of my team) and to the churches, to get to know them, and to hear their stories. Then to let God speak to me through them about what our district needs and how we can join with the whole Annual Conference in living out and sharing the Good News that Jesus offers love and hope to all.
As I listened to Bishop Looney at Annual Conference remind us that more than half our church do not see a profession of faith in a conference year, my greatest hope is that, with God’s help, we can change that in the South Central District and begin to see our nets break.
ADVOCATE: What are the things that most excite you about the district and/or the South Georgia Conference?
REV. LEWIS: I love serving; I always have. Moreover, one of my greatest joys in ministry is when I can help people live into their callings more fully. What an honor it is to get to do just that as a District Superintendent!
ADVOCATE: What are some of the biggest challenges you see facing the Conference or district?
REV. LEWIS: One of the biggest challenges I believe we face is remembering what is important. Bishop Looney’s attention to the fact that more than half of our churches are not bringing people to Christ each year should be disturbing to us. We have to learn how to be a beacon of hope for the hurting and lost in this world who are longing for someone to say, “It is going to be okay; you are not alone. I will sit with you.” If we can do that, then Christ’s light will shine through us and those same people will ask, “What does God mean to you? Tell me about how God has changed you and how God can change me.”
ADVOCATE: What do you like best about serving in the South Georgia Conference?
REV. LEWIS: I love the people, both the clergy and laity. I think we have some of the most loving and kind people when we take the time to really get to know each other.
ADVOCATE: Tell us about your family.
REV. LEWIS: Scott and I have been married for almost 22 years. He did not marry a preacher. He married a school teacher, but I could not ask for a more supportive husband. We have four beautiful children that keep us busy: Riley and Mason are 15-year-old twins, Aiden is 18, and Mondo is 22. Mondo has been attending Reinhardt University and Aiden will be leaving for Young Harris in August. It is hard to believe that in three years we will be empty nesters! My children have always joined me in ministry whenever it is appropriate. It is one way we balance the demands of ministry with staying connected as a family. For example, Mason and Riley went with me to welcome pastors who were moving in our district.
ADVOCATE: What do you like to do in your free time? What are your hobbies and interests?
REV. LEWIS: In my free time, I like to go to the beach or the mountains. Both are equally refreshing. For renewal of my soul, I enjoy going to Green Bough House of Prayer. There, secluded, with no phones (cell service is more than sketchy), TVs, or other electronic devices, I find the time to relax and remember that I like to read, do puzzles, draw, or just drink in God’s beauty outside.
ADVOCATE: What’s one fact about you that most people don’t know?
REV. LEWIS: I am artistic, and that most often takes shape in the form of 3D cakes. I have made anything from R2D2 to a Georgia Bulldog cake. It takes a lot of time, which is why I don’t get to do it very often anymore.