New leader says churches must go into community.

Editor's Note: The StarNews' 12 to Watch series profiles noteworthy people poised to be high achievers. To submit a nomination, email Julian.March@StarNewsOnline.com. To read past stories, visit StarNewsOnline.com/12toWatch.

In 30 years of ministry, Edie Gleaves has held a number of jobs.

She's pastored at five different churches, most recently Wrightsville United Methodist Church, where she spent nearly six years as associate pastor.

She's lost track of the number of countries she's visited -- more than 50, at least -- during a decade spent recruiting and training missionaries. On July 1, however, she took up a new role: superintendent for the Harbor District of the church's N.C. Conference. Under her charge are 99 United Methodist churches in New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender and surrounding counties.

"I'm going to be moving around a lot," she said with a sigh, as she cleared boxes out of her old office. "My new office will be the back seat of my car."

Gleaves will be the first African-American to serve as the Harbor District's superintendent. She was already the first African-American woman ordained in the N.C. Conference.

"Edie has been an effective and faithful pastor and mission leader," said Gleaves' boss, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who heads the N.C. Conference. "She has a presence, a gift for dealing with people and a dedication to Christ's ministry."

One of the district superintendent's duties is to preside at "charge conferences," annual meetings at which United Methodist churches choose local leaders and make other important decisions for the year. Once, each church held its own charge conference, "but now we hold them in clusters of several churches," Ward said, "so that they can better connect with their neighbors."

"We help them reach out and achieve their mission," Gleaves said, "which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ and work for the transformation of the world."

Reluctant preacher

The granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Methodist ministers, Gleaves had a family tradition of working for the church. She grew up in the small town of Maxton, in rural Robeson County. Her high school graduating class had just 76 students.

Gleaves said she received her calling when she was 16. The pastor at her home church had preached a stirring sermon on Isaiah 6, "the section where God asks, 'Whom shall I send?' and Isaiah answers, 'Here am I. Send me.'"

The words stirred her and troubled her. "I didn't want to preach," she said.

Then she came under the influence of an associate pastor, the Rev. Emma Ruth McLean. "She saw in me a call, and she encouraged me," Gleaves said.

Gleaves graduated from Wake Forest University and earned her master's degree in divinity from Duke University. Her biggest challenge, she said, was an early congregation that didn't object to her race but was concerned she was a woman.

"For me, racism and sexism are just different sides of the same coin," she said. "Fortunately, most people have received me and been willing to give me a chance."

She said she's leaving Wrightsville United Methodist with fond memories, and she was impressed by the big farewell dinner church members threw for her. (Gleaves will still have an office in a corner of the Wrightsville Beach church for when she's not on the road.)

She acknowledges she has her work cut out for her. Like other mainline Protestant churches, the United Methodist Church has been shrinking nationwide in recent years -- down from around 11 million members in 1968, when it formed from the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, to slightly more than 7 million today.

"People just don't attend church as they did in the past," Gleaves said. "It's not part of the culture any more."

As a result, she said, United Methodists need to "reach out with love."

"Our churches have to send people out into the community," she said. "When people realize that the church does care, that will bring people in."

Gleaves, who is single, remains close to her family, particularly her 95-year-old mother, who lives in a Wilmington nursing facility. When she has free time, she likes to play with her dogs, ride horses or get in some saltwater fishing.

One of her most prized possessions is a simple piece of jewelry, a small cross shaped from an anchor that she wears as a necklace.

"The Anchor Cross is the United Methodist emblem for missionaries," she said.

The United States Religious Organization Density Heat Map | FindTheHome Reporter Ben Steelman can be reached at 910-343-2208 and Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com.