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W.Va. Methodists get first female bishop

Lori Kersey
Rev. Sandra Steiner Ball was elected bishop of the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In her 26-year career as a minister in the United Methodist Church, Rev. Sandra Steiner Ball has been the "first woman" in every appointment she's ever had.

The latest -- bishop of the church's West Virginia Conference -- is no exception.

Ball, 50, originally of Delaware, officially began her work in the Mountain State on Sept. 1.

"In coming to West Virginia it has been the most welcoming, supportive reception I think that I have ever received as the first woman in a particular position," Ball said.

The women in the West Virginia churches that she serves have welcomed her, she said. That hasn't been the case in every church she's led.

"In a lot of my other appointments in ministry, many times it's been the women who have most vehemently objected [to having a female pastor]," Ball said. "So it's just an interesting dynamic."

Ball is one of three new bishops elected by the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the UMC in July.

The decision to serve the church's West Virginia conference was not Ball's - a committee paired her with the conference -- which encompasses most of the state and Maryland's Garrett County but excludes the Eastern Panhandle.

Before moving to Charleston, Ball's experience with West Virginia was limited. She once visited a high school friend in Bluefield, she said.

Still, when she learned that she had been elected bishop, she hoped to be placed in West Virginia.

That's partly because her home state of Delaware has a lot in common with the Mountain State. Both have small churches, which, despite their size, are vital to their communities, she said. Both have rural areas.

Then there are West Virginia's mountains.

"There's something about the mountains that is very intriguing," Ball said. "... Even in Scripture we talk about mountaintop experiences -- the places where we meet God. There's really some connection there when you have such a beautiful geographical area as West Virginia.

"Being able to see the creation that God has given us both for our health, wholeness and enjoyment, but also a wonderful environment where we have the responsibility to care for that environment so that it continues to be a place for people to live and grow well into the future."

As a child, Ball lived with a severe learning disability that made it difficult for her to communicate.

She remembers standing in a doctor's office as a second grader after a teacher recommended that she have her eyes checked. Perhaps sight problems were the root of her troubles in class, the teacher thought.

"Right in front of me, the doctor says, 'There's nothing wrong with her eyes, she's just stupid,'" Ball remembers.

But even as a small child, she found a refuge from all the problems at school in her church.

"I was devastated," she said of her physician's words. "But at the same time, what was running through my mind was, 'I am not stupid.'

"And in the midst of that kind of message and in the midst of the challenges and struggles at school, church -- the United Methodist Church-- was the place where I learned I'm not stupid and I have a lot I can contribute."

Ball was later diagnosed with dyslexia. She graduated in the top 10 of her high school class.

The bishop is in the process of developing goals for the West Virginia UMC for the next four years.

Being a prayerful community is one of those goals.

Ball is encouraging West Virginia Methodists to pray daily during their lunchtime.

In praying, she wants church members to reflect on how God is working in their communities and how they can partner with other denominations and organizations in that work.

"One of the really important things is to be a prayerful community of faith," she said. "Prayer changes things. Prayer is a powerful thing."

Other goals are to address poverty and children's health in West Virginia.

"I believe the West Virginia conference in partnership with others can make a tremendous difference and dent in the work that needs to be done to combat poverty and to raise our health to a better place," she said.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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