The connectional and itinerant system that is the United Methodist Church means families and friendships are seldom six degrees away of separation.
Reappointed a year at a time, clergy moves are frequent within the groupings of churches, called Conferences.
This one, South Georgia, takes in the lower half of the state, and contains 646 churches.
“It’s a group of very committed people. It has a familial feel. The tentacles of the familial ties are all throughout South Georgia,” said Bishop Michael Watson, who on Wednesday was honored along with his wife, Margaret, for their eight years of service in South Georgia. Next month, Watson will be appointed along with other bishops to a new Conference in the denomination, but he doesn’t know yet which one. He’ll start his new ministry Sept. 1.
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With eight years traveling the cities and towns that make up this area of United Methodism, Watson spoke Wednesday like someone who had come to Georgia and fallen in love. As a bishop, he has also represented this Conference at national and global gatherings.
The couple have family in Columbus, including Margaret’s mother, Rosa Brooks Lee, and Margret’s sister, Libba Neal, and extended family.
“South Georgia has a great spirit,” said Watson, whose offices are in Macon. The Conference has extended offices on St. Simons Island. South Georgia has nine districts, headed by clergy called District Superintendents.
The couple’s ministry started here with an unfortunate bang. On the afternoon of April Fools Day 2001, the Watsons were driving back to Macon from Columbus. In Lizella on U.S. 80, a driver in another car crossed the middle line and hit them head-on. Margaret was driving and was badly hurt. He was hurt slightly, and the passenger in the other car was also badly hurt. The two others were teenagers. Margaret has had multiple surgeries and used a wheelchair for months after, including at the Annual Conference in 2001 in Columbus.
“She doesn’t remember it at all,” said Watson, 58, who had just moved from Alabama. At the time of his election, he was the pastor for 10 years of Dauphin Way Church in Mobile.
Watson’s election in the summer of 2000 came around a more joyous occasion. Around that time their daughter, Elizabeth Riddle, was expecting a child — their first grandchild. Watson joked Wednesday that she was accommodating to his schedule and delivered two weeks before his election.
Prior to his time at Dauphin Way, Watson served three other Alabama churches beginning in 1975. In addition to his Master of Divinity degree from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Watson earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from Vanderbilt University in 1975.‘Great encourager’
Clergy and laity praised the bishop and his wife in a ceremony Wednesday at the Columbus Civic Center.
Before he made more serious comments, the Rev. Hal Brady of St. Luke in Columbus read a Top 10 list of what makes Michael Watson successful. One was that he understands suffering because he’s a University of Alabama graduate and fan. Another was his adjustment to modernity; along with his crozier and Bible, he is never without his Palm Pilot. Brady went on to praise Watson for his “personal witness and corporate leadership. . . . He’s a great encourager.”
Dr. James Crosse, a Columbus physician and St. Luke member, announced a gift Wednesday to honor the Watsons. It’s the establishment of a scholarship fund at Candler. It will bear the name of Waton’s parents, the late Allie and Excell Watson. The fund is about $30,000 on the way to $100,000 needed as seed money for the scholarship.
Watson, in an interview after the close of the meeting Wednesday, said he and Margaret dated 13 years before they married in 1949. He said she’s the extrovert, and he’s not. And, she was at Dothan First United Methodist with him the night he dedicated his life to full-time ministry. When she went home and told her parents about her then-boyfriend’s decision, her father said, ‘Do you think that’s going to affect you?’ and she said she thought it would.
On Monday, the Watsons will have been married 35 years. In addition to a daughter, they have a son, Ben Lee Watson. Michael and Margaret now have a second grandchild, and a third on the way.
He’s spending this Father’s Day weekend away in Alabama with friends, and in July will report to Jurisdictional Conference in North Carolina where, though he doesn’t face re-election, will become part of the itinerant system once again. Following the election July 18, Watson will be sent to one of 15 Conferences that make up the Southeastern Jurisdiction.
The idea of moving United Methodist bishops — in most cases every eight years — is so one person doesn’t begin to wield too much authority in one area of the Church, Watson said.
“You go where they send you,” he said.