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Three bishops once wore different kind of uniform (UM News)

November 9, 2023

As Veterans Day approaches, three episcopal leaders of The United Methodist Church reflect on how military service enriched their lives and helped them become the leaders they are.

Bishops Delores J. “Dee” Williamston, Lanette L. Plambeck and Cedrick D. Bridgeforth were elected to the episcopacy last November.

Williamston’s episcopal assignment is to the Louisiana Conference.

She served in the military from January 1982 to June 2004, with most of those years in the Kansas Army National Guard and five of them (1983-1987) in the New York Army National Guard. In June of 2004, she retired with the rank of sergeant first class.

Her long military service began when she was 17 years old and a high school dropout.

“It occurred to me I had to do something with my life and I could not live at home and do nothing but work at Church’s Fried Chicken. So, I decided to join the Kansas Army National Guard,” she said, adding “and the journey began.”

“That call as a soldier, I still feel today as a soldier for Christ. And it remains a powerful call, like Jeremiah (20:9) said … ‘a fire shut up in my bones.’”

Williamston said when people hear she served 22 years in the military, that often opens doors to sharing their military experience, and they often express appreciation for her service.

“I have on occasion in conversations, depending on the context, weaved my military experiences into group conversations or in my testimony or in sermons of how God used and continues to use that time in my life to shape who I am today as a follower of Jesus Christ,” she said.

When asked if young people come to her for advice about joining the military, she said not that often.

“When I have opportunity, to share with young persons some of my story, I remind them that God can use every aspect of our lives and experiences.”

Plambeck, a U.S. Army veteran, serves as bishop of the Dakotas and Minnesota conferences.

She enlisted in the Army after graduating from Morningside University in Sioux City, Iowa.

She received her training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. She was deployed to Desert Storm/Desert Shield as a military intelligence analyst from 1989 to 1992. In the Army, she studied Russian language and culture and spent almost a full year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. She also served as a licensed counselor in family systems and chemical and substance abuse from 1992 to 1997. 

“Ministry with veterans has been a keynote ministry in all my settings,” she said. “There is a particular trust I was granted as both a pastor and veteran that created sacred and safe space for persons to share their hardest stories.”

Bridgeforth, a four-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, serves the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest conferences.

“I enlisted in the Air Force because the recruiter, SSgt (staff sergeant) Tom McRae, was a professional, good looking, well-spoken, African-American man who presented me with an image of who I could become,” Bridgeforth said.

The future bishop served four years as a security specialist.

“My time in the Air Force helped me learn what it means to make community and create family amongst strangers,” Bridgeforth said. “Being with men and women from all walks of life and from many parts of the country helped me see that people are people. All of us have struggles and gifts. All of us need each other.”

Williamston said experiences in the Army taught her to listen to people who have more wisdom and experience, to stand up for herself and to keep going no matter what.

She demonstrates that with a story from battle skills training. When it came time for her to lead the squad on a charge running downhill, she gave the order.

“We went charging down a hill. I, in the lead, hit a rock, twisted my ankle, and rolled down the rest of the hill,” she said.

Even as her squad came to check on her, she told them to keep moving. She said, “Somehow, I mustered the strength to finish the task.

“All this to say, sometimes I have fallen literally, and we all have. But we have to get back up and keep moving no matter what,” she said.

It was a life lesson for her.

“I take this lesson with me everywhere I go and in everything I do for the Lord, knowing that God will be with me every step or limp of the way in life, community, ministry and the world.”

Plambeck learned a powerful lesson from her company commander while in training at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert in California in preparation for deployment to Desert Storm. She said he was a person of faith and as they were stargazing one night he reflected on how God didn’t intend for any of us to know war.

“It was powerful to hear him pray with and for us that we and the world would one day know peace. He was the first person who taught me the importance of maintaining Sabbath — even in the midst of difficulties — and to anchor myself deeply in prayer, community and the reading of Scripture.”

In her travels, Plambeck said she always looked for the Cross and Flame of The United Methodist Church and knows she can find a familiar place to worship.

“It was always a joy hearing a familiar hymn sung in a language not my own and to know no matter where I was in the world, I could find the people called United Methodist,” she said.

Bridgeforth still remembers his introduction to McRae.

“He was the embodiment of what was possible for me. His presentation of himself, not the Air Force, drew me in and never let me go. His presence inspired me to want to be just as professional, committed and prepared as he was.”

He said requests to him for information about military service have dwindled over the past 10 years or so.

“It seems the military is viewed as the ‘last option’ on a long list of other options young people have to consider,” he said.

But the military taught him the benefits and burdens of itinerate living, he said.

“There is a blessing in receiving new people and a blessing in knowing others will also gain from them in their next place.”