Feb 26, 2021

Many are remembering the Rev. Junius Dotson, top executive of the United Methodist Church’ Discipleship Ministries agency. He died Feb. 24, less than a month after announcing his battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 55.

His unexpected death brought together United Methodists of varied theological views in an outpouring of grief and love for a leader whose ministry touched lives across the denomination. 

Dotson told his staff and board Jan. 28 that he was battling pancreatic cancer. “Despite the low percentage of survivors, I am determined to fight,” he said in a statement to UM News announcing his diagnosis. “I intend to beat the odds. I also plan on working as long as the Lord allows.”

Discipleship Ministries, based in Nashville, Tenn., is one of 13 general agencies of the church, helping local church, district, and conference leaders fulfill “the shared dream of making world-changing disciples,” according to its website. But Dotson held multiple denominational leadership roles, in addition to helming Discipleship Ministries since July 2016.

He was set to offer a teaching session at the Eastern PA Annual Conference in May, which was rescheduled from last year’s pandemic-shortened session. But he had to cancel because of his illness. 

“Rev. Dotson did visit the Peninsula Delaware Annual Conference a few years ago and presented a visionary, hopeful and inspiring talk about outward focused evangelism in the community and the world,” said Bishop Peggy A. Johnson.  “Everyone came away with practical, life-giving ideas for their churches.  

“Across the connection, we mourn his passing, and folks in the Philadelphia Area are describing him as ‘prophetic, compassionate, inclusive, a bridge-builder,’” she continued. “He was all of that and more.  We have lost a great leader among us. His legacy continues here as he shines in Glory.” 

“He had an indelible way of pulling leaders to their full potential,” said longtime friend Toska Medlock Lee, who has known him since they were undergraduates at the University of Texas at Arlington. Lee organized prayers for Dotson during his illness. United Methodists around the world signed up to pray. “His other legacy was his ability to see a hopeful future for our denomination.”

Dotson was one of 16 church leaders who negotiated the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, the widely endorsed proposal that seeks to resolve the longtime United Methodist debate over homosexuality through a denominational split. As part of the negotiations, he represented multiple centrist advocacy groups that seek greater freedom in church policies related to same-sex weddings and gay ordination.

The protocol needs the approval of General Conference to go forward, but the legislative assembly is now postponed until 2022.

The Rev. Tom Berlin, another centrist protocol negotiator, called working with Dotson on the future of the church “a friendship accelerator.”

“Junius Dotson was an exceedingly faithful disciple of Jesus Christ,” said Berlin, lead pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia. “His love for Christ expressed itself in conviction about the nature of the church — who the church should include, how the church should be in ministry and a desire that all would know the love of Jesus.”

Other protocol negotiators with very different perspectives on LGBTQ status agreed about Dotson.

“I am a better follower of Jesus because of the time I spent with Junius,” said the Rev. Keith Boyette, who leads the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which seeks to uphold a traditional understanding of marriage and is planning a new denomination.

Boyette said Dotson labored hard to find a Christ-honoring way to resolve differences in The United Methodist Church. “Junius embodied the ministry of reconciliation and peacemaking.”

Jan Lawrence, who leads Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for full LGBTQ equality, said Dotson’s passing leaves a hole that is immeasurable.

“I will miss this beloved friend — his smile that could warm any room, the way he could bring a piano to life, his passion for justice, his way of seizing teaching moments, his capacity for love, and so much more,” she said.

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, a fellow negotiator and leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, said: “Junius took Discipleship Ministries to an entirely new and profound height and offered bold visionary leadership to the denomination and beyond.”

Before coming to Discipleship Ministries, Dotson was both a church planter and a megachurch pastor.

He planted Genesis United Methodist Church in California’s Silicon Valley in 1996, four years after his ordination, and saw it grow to nearly 500 members. At the time, the area saw plenty of technology startups, and Dotson saw church as “a spiritual startup.”

He later was senior pastor of 3,500-member Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas, for 14 years. While at Saint Mark, he expanded the church into a multi-campus ministry.

The church’s former southeast campus is now its own congregation, Heart of Christ United Methodist Church, led by the Rev. Ronda Kingwood, who previously was a minister at Saint Mark.

“To be honest, I would not be in the position I’m in if it had not been for his leadership and mentorship,” Kingwood said.

The Rev. Robert G. Johnson, Saint Mark’s current senior pastor, called Dotson “an organizational development genius, a bold visionary, a brilliant strategist and overall an extraordinary human being.” Both men were members of Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s oldest African American fraternity.

Dotson remained deeply connected to the Great Plains Conference, where he had been elected a delegate to the coming General Conference. He also was a co-chair of the centrist group UMCNext.

“He was an outstanding and inspiring preacher, a great leader and a faithful friend,” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. “He loved The United Methodist Church with its emphasis on evangelism, discipleship and social justice and devoted himself to helping churches to live into this vision.”

Dotson most recently led the agency that promotes disciple-making across the denomination and houses the Upper Room, publisher of prayer resources around the globe.

In his time at Discipleship Ministries, he led the agency’s restructuring. He also initiated its “See All the People” initiative to help churches — as the nursery rhyme says — see the people in their communities and make world-transforming disciples of Jesus Christ. In promoting the initiative, he has been a frequent speaker at annual conference sessions around the denomination.

Bishop Mark Webb, Discipleship’s board president, said Dotson “modeled urgency and boldness, with a clear call to stay singularly focused on the task of equipping leaders and congregations for the work of evangelism and discipleship.”

“His legacy will be multi-faceted but the greatest will be the depth of spirituality by which he lived and worked,” said Webb, who leads the Upper New York Conference.

Even amid the agency’s changes, Dotson continued Discipleship Ministries’ commitment to support ministries that reach out to the denomination’s growing ethnic diversity.

“Junius not only provided pastoral and professional leadership to Discipleship Ministries but was a voice and advocate for ethnic ministries and worked diligently to ensure doors were opened for the continuance of intentional ministry with the Native American community,” said the Rev. Chebon Kernell, director of the Native American Comprehensive Plan.

The Rev. Michael Bowie, director of Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, said Dotson had deep experience with the Black church and it showed.

“He was able to provide leadership and experience to SBC21,” Bowie said. “He saw us as strategic partners and key players in where Discipleship Ministries was going.”

Dotson also has served as the convener of the General Secretaries Table, which brings together the top executives of the denomination’s 13 general agencies and other denomination-wide bodies. He also was a leader in the denomination’s initiative to dismantle racism

“When I heard the news of my colleague and friend Junius Dotson’s passing, the exhortation of Hebrews 13:7 immediately came to mind,” said Erin Hawkins, his predecessor as the table’s convener. The Bible verse says: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”

Dotson told Discipleship Ministries staff Jan. 28 that he was battling pancreatic cancer.

He said he first learned something was wrong with his health earlier in January when searing pain in his back and stomach sent him to the emergency room. Doctors informed him — and tests confirmed — that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer with metastasis to the liver.

He said he hoped to use his experience to raise awareness of how pancreatic cancer especially afflicts African Americans.

Dotson had the heart to tackle big issues, said the Rev. Brian Milford, top executive on the United Methodist Publishing House.

“He and I once spent an evening sharing frankly about our experiences and questions about the scourge of white privilege and racism,” Milford said. “Over a meal he invited me to disclose my story and with unflinching honesty and trust shared his own. His prophetic and pastoral witness deepened my understandings and sharpened my inquiry.”

Council of Bishops President Cynthia Fierro Harvey said Dotson will have a long legacy.

“His passion for justice and full inclusion impacted the life of the UMC as he made his voice clearly heard and known in every place he served,” she said.

Dotson died surrounded by his family. Information on funeral arrangements will be coming soon.

NOTE: Most of this article was written by Heather Hahn and published of UM News.