When Bishop Martin D. McLee assumes episcopal leadership of the New York Area on September 1, he will be returning to some familiar territory. The newly-consecrated bishop holds fond memories of his faith journey as a youth at Cuyler-Warren, Hanson Place and Bethany UMCs in Brooklyn. His first camping experience came at the old Sessions Woods camp in Connecticut.
McLee, 56, was one of three new bishops elected by the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference July 18-20 in Charleston, W.Va. McLee was elected on the 21st ballot; he received 140 of 224 votes. Prior to his consecration as bishop, McLee had served as the superintendent of the Metro Boston Hope District of The United Methodist Church since 2008.
A Brooklyn native, McLee will succeed Bishop Jeremiah J. Park, who has been appointed to serve the Harrisburg Area/Susquehanna Conference in Pennsylvania. Park, who has served the NYAC since 2004, will be replacing Bishop Jane Allen Middleton, who is retiring. Middleton was an episcopal candidate from the NYAC.
The conference may well have a second “singing bishop” or even a “shouting bishop” on its hands. After his election, McLee broke out in a version of Nina Simone’s “If He Changed My Name,” singing, “I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name – and he did on the 21st ballot.”
In finishing his remarks before the plenary, McLee turned to express his gratitude to the NEJ bishops and quoted “that famous theologian” Sly and the Family Stone: “Thank you for letting me be myself.”
New England Bishop Peter Weaver said of McLee, who has been a member of Weaver’s cabinet, “It’s my honor to introduce one who loves Jesus, one who loves justice, who is contagious in joy, and invites anyone and everyone to rise from the dead.”
In his first meeting with the NYAC delegation on Friday, July 20, the gregarious McLee said he was both elated and humbled to have been elected bishop, especially on the 21st ballot. He declared that he is living out his walk with Christ, and “what you see, is what you get.
“I have no set agenda, though I am at my best in the urban center,” he said. “I am looking to learn from you. I want you to walk with me.”
McLee said he is a servant leader at heart, and employs a collaborative style of leadership. He challenged the delegation to “lean in together and listen for God.”
He brings a love of passionate worship, stating that United Methodists have become too “shy in our passion. We need to step it up.” He believes that cross-cultural sharing is one way to strengthen the worship experience. McLee cited the words of Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” as one of the guiding scriptures of his faith.
Known as a bridge-builder in his Boston area ministry, McLee is committed to bringing people into relationship with Christ through both evangelism and social justice ministries.
Besides preparing to make his move to New York in the next few weeks, McLee will also be tending to a torn quadricep muscle. He injured the leg just three days before the NEJ Conference began, and was limping a bit through the interview process.
McLee is the former senior pastor of the Union UMC, a reconciling and inclusive congregation in Boston’s South End. He is an adjunct professor in social work at Simmons College, and has also taught at Brandeis University. He has been a community activist and frequent lecturer on issues concerning HIV/AIDS and the faith community, and race and racism.
McLee earned a master’s in divinity degree in 1998 from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University; and a Juris Doctor degree in 1988 from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University. He also holds a master’s of science in education from Fordham University; and a bachelor’s of science in health from Hunter College.
McLee’s candidacy was endorsed by the New England Conference, Black Methodists for Church Revival, and the Northeastern Jurisdiction Multi-Ethnic Center.
In addition to McLee, the NEJ also elected as bishops Sandra Steiner Ball, 50, on the fifth ballot, and Mark Webb, 47, on a record 35th ballot. Steiner Ball, formerly the director of Connectional Ministries for Peninsula-Delaware Conference, will serve the West Virginia Conference. Webb, a district superintendent in the Susquehanna Conference, will serve as episcopal leader for the Upper New York Conference.
Rev. Allen Pinckney Jr. and Carolyn Hardin Engelhardt represented the NYAC on the NEJ episcopacy committee. Engelhardt stepped in when Fred Brewington had a trial conflict and could not attend the conference.