In November 2022, Bishop Laura Merrill was elected as a United Methodist Bishop and assigned to the Arkansas Annual Conference. She has recently moved to Arkansas and begun serving in her assignment, and she has plans to travel to meet as many clergy and laity as possible over the next few months.
So that you can get to know a little bit more about Bishop Merrill before she is in your geographical area for a meet and greet, I have asked her some questions that come from a “person in the pew” perspective.
Amy: What are your main priorities for your time as the Episcopal Leader in the Arkansas Annual Conference?
Bishop Merrill: My priorities will surely change over time, but right now I want to get to know the conference. Churches–clergy and laity–and their communities, as well as the character of the conference as a whole. I look forward to traveling to different parts of the state and learning about the important initiatives that Arkansas United Methodists are already committed to, which are impacting our communities in important, tangible ways. And I look forward to charting a course together for what’s next.
As I learn, I’ll be joining the ongoing disaffiliation journey and process in Arkansas, which I know has been distressing and exhausting to many of our people. We need to tend to our spirits and our relationships during this time, to restore the fabric of our connection. I hope we can help each other remember that it is the love of God that gives us life and keeps us faithful.
Amy: What are you most looking forward to about living in Arkansas?
Bishop Merrill: I am very excited about discovering the natural beauty of the state, which I’ve experienced only a little. And I’m already feeling at home among the open hearts of the people I’ve met. We have hard things we’ll need to accomplish, but I’m encountering in so many places a spirit of willingness and hope for the future.
Amy: Do you mind sharing your call story with us? How did you determine that God was calling you into ministry?
Bishop Merrill: I’m one of those who started out very clear that I wasn’t going to be a pastor. My daddy and my mama’s daddy were both preachers, and I took a path instead as a young adult into missionary and peace with justice work, in South America and on the US-Mexico border. But I did find my way into seminary, where the call into the worship life of the church and a fascination with the study of scripture finally got the best of me. I decided to seek ordination, and it’s been a fascinating life ever since. I’ve found myself in different settings and roles, always challenging me to grow as a person who trusts Jesus and loves his people. Nearly all of it would have been impossible for me to imagine back in my 20s, yet God has been so good to me, and I’m grateful to find myself where I am, here with you.
Amy: What do you see as your greatest challenge as a Bishop of the United Methodist Church?
Bishop Merrill: I’m sure the list of challenges is actually much longer than I know! For now, one of the top challenges for me is to help us navigate the path of disaffiliation, while keeping our eyes on our longer-term work, learning how to employ who we are and what we have in the service of transformational love in our communities. This chapter of the church’s life is a difficult one, but maintaining our focus on fruitful ministry beyond this moment is the way we’ll get through it.
Amy: Do you plan to push for any updates of the disaffiliation process in Arkansas? Do you plan to address the untruths swirling?
Bishop Merrill: We are looking at ways to update and share good information about the UMC, celebrating the strengths of this denomination. I want to communicate that there’s room in this church for people of different perspectives who all want to live as joyful disciples of Christ. And we will follow a path of clarity, respect, and integrity as we move through this transitional time in the life of our church.
Amy: This week, another bishop has left the United Methodist Church. Are you committed to staying United Methodist?
Bishop Merrill: I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t committed to and hopeful about the future of the United Methodist Church. I am grateful for the way we have traditionally made room for people who don’t agree on everything, but who do hold the power of the love of Christ in common. That’s been part of our identity for a long time, and I hope we can continue to be that kind of church, together.
Amy: In closing, Bishop Merrill, how can we best support your ministry? And any last words?
Bishop Merrill: My ministry is one that I hope will support the lives of our churches and their people, and whatever we hope to accomplish together will need to be rooted in the basics of our life of faith. Make space to reflect on the goodness of God and your own gratitude for the grace that surrounds you. Gather regularly with fellow Christians, in the community of the Holy Spirit, to hear the word, break the bread, and sing the songs of the faith. Pray with hope and an open heart, to know how Christ would have us serve in his name in our communities. And act with love toward those whose lives touch yours.
I also covet your prayers for me and for us together. I look forward to meeting the United Methodists of Arkansas and continuing this road into God’s good future!