Passion Drove Results of Bishop's Ministry with AU

Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey helped raise millions of dollars for Africa University and its students and faculty with a passion driven by his deep-seated desire to repay the people who made his own higher education possible.

Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey served as a volunteer fundraiser for Africa University for more than a decade.

After a decade of volunteering to help annual conferences and congregations organize fund-raising campaigns as Executive Vice President for Development for Africa University (AU), the retired bishop from the Carolinas has retired once again.

“You can't do the kind of work that he has done and be as successful as he has been unless, number one, it's a calling, and number two, you have a passion,” said James H. Salley, Associate Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement for Africa University. “He has a passion for people, for education. And a heart for Africa. That's very clear.”

When McCleskey retired in 2008 after 12 years as bishop in the South Carolina and Western North Carolina annual conferences, Salley asked him to help the AU Development Office. He agreed to volunteer for three years and stayed for a decade.

“I have always been deeply committed to the United Methodist Church's ministries in higher education,” McCleskey said. “I've always believed that education is such an important key to all kinds of things in the ministry of the church and the development of society and development of individuals.”

The bishop said he was only able to attend Duke University for his undergraduate education because he received two scholarships – one from the university and one from his home church, Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Florida.


“I knew personally the importance and the effect of the generosity of other people in making higher education possible for me,” McCleskey said. “When Africa University was started, it just captured my imagination immediately. I was captured by the pan-African nature of the school. I was captured by its vision of bringing together people from across countries, across cultures.”

He learned quickly that scholarship money was critical for students to get an education at AU. Working in the university’s development office provided the chance to help raise money for scholarships, faculty endowments and facilities.

“It gave me the opportunity, in a sense, to repay the people that I could never repay otherwise for my own education,” McCleskey said.

McCleskey was an active United Methodist clergyman for 45 years, serving as pastor in seven churches, as district superintendent and in two Episcopal assignments.

Unveiling plaque at SC's Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey FOT Building in 2003.

In 1988, he was a delegate at the General Conference when AU was created. As a pastor a few years later, he led a church capital campaign at Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, North Carolina, that included $100,000 to build the university’s first athletic and soccer fields.

Under his leadership as bishop, the South Carolina Annual Conference raised $2 million for the university, including $1.7 million to build a theology building and the remaining funds for scholarships. The Western North Carolina Annual Conference raised $1.2 million for scholarships when he was bishop.

Reporting on friend-making and fundraising efforts with Bishop Ken Carter (Floriada area) and Mr. James H. Salley.Fundraising strategies for AU used by the late Bishop R. Sheldon Duecker helped with both conference campaigns, and McCleskey continued to build on Duecker’s template during his time in the development office. He worked with bishops and annual conferences and called on individual donors, focusing on building endowments for scholarships and capital projects.

Ruth Ellen Stone, a volunteer coordinator for Friends of AU in the Indiana Annual Conference and a longstanding lay adviser and advocate for the university in the Indiana area, said McCleskey was extremely helpful to the leaders working on a fundraising campaign.

“I think the most significant thing he did was to meet with our leadership team and set the goals for our campaign to endow a chair in the Department of Agriculture and endow several scholarships,” she said. “They set a goal of $1.6 million, and he was very influential in helping them. He had a very clear and relatively simple means for determining what a reasonable goal would be.”

Celebrating the opening of the FOT building with former chancellor, Bishop Emilio de Carvalho, Mrs. Marilina de Carvalho and his wife, Margaret.McCleskey has made five visits to the AU campus at Mutare, Zimbabwe, often accompanied by his wife, Margaret, or one of their three adult children.

Africa University, a fully-accredited institution of higher learning established on the African continent by action of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church, is home to students, faculty and staff from more than 28 African countries. The university has 50 undergraduate and graduate programs that focus on meeting Africa’s vital needs, such as food security, improved public health, peace, good governance and sustainable economic growth.

“I can't imagine a more satisfying and deeply gratifying way I could have spent those 10 years than doing what I did for Africa University,” the bishop said. “It's been one of the richest parts of my life.

“I really believe that Africa University, in my judgment, is the most significant educational outreach ministry that the United Methodist Church has done in my lifetime. There's nothing else that I have seen to match it. It has spawned other schools on the continent, and will, I think, continue to do so,” he said.

Salley, who has been friends with McCleskey since he was a church pastor, said the bishop would have worked to support AU regardless of whether he received any credit for it.

“He worked to help build the kingdom. I consider him a great kingdom builder. That is what I think you need to know about Lawrence McCleskey,” Salley said. “He’s gracious and he's a committed person, and he loves people, he loves Africa; he loves education, particularly higher education; and, of course, he loves God.”

Article by Tom Gillem, a Nashville-based freelance writer and editor.