By Lindsay Peyton
Rev. Romonica Malone-Wardley was raised in a denomination that did not allow women as clergy. “I did not realize that was an option for me,” she said.
Now, she looks back on her life and sees God’s hand guiding her to a place where she never could have imagined. Ordained as an Elder in the Texas Annual Conference in 2010, she has served as an associate pastor, senior pastor and district superintendent.
Malone-Wardley has also held posts as General Conference Delegate, member of the Strategic Mapping Team and the Board of Ordained Ministry in the TAC. In addition, she served on the nominations committee of the South Central Jurisdiction of the Black Methodist for Church Renewal and on the South Central Jurisdiction Mission Council.
Now, Malone-Wardley is heading in a whole new direction – as Assistant to the Bishop. Starting in July, she will be the first woman and first African-American to serve in the role.
Initially, Malone-Wardley assumed her career would focus on teaching, but working at an after-school program sparked an interest in finding deeper ways to help families and children. She switched her major at Texas State University (then Southwest Texas State) from education to social work.
While in college, Malone-Wardley witnessed a woman named Rev. Beverly Sonnier applied to become pastor at a Baptist church she was attending in Austin. To prepare the congregation, the senior pastor led a sermon series about women in ministry, as well as Bible studies on the subject.
“He lovingly put it out there using God’s word,” Malone-Wardley said. “And she got the job.”
The two became friends. At one point, Rev. Sonnier told Malone-Wardley, “God is going to do something with you that you can’t even put your mind around.”
Malone-Wardley remembered laughing it off – certain that social work would be her destiny.
During her time in university, she also embraced the United Methodist Church. She had been struggling with her faith, until receiving a cold call from Rev. Anthony Brown at Jackson Chapel UMC in San Marcos.
Malone-Wardley opened up over the phone about her experience and concerns. “He laid out the United Methodist understanding of grace – and I was just hooked,” she recalled. “This was what I was searching and looking for but wasn’t quite finding.”
When Malone-Wardley told the pastor that a few of her friends were also questioning, he proposed a meet-up. “We scheduled a meeting in my apartment,” she recalled. “He was in the room with us and answering questions.”
The authenticity and commitment of the pastor inspired Malone-Wardley to start attending his church.
Later, after graduating in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in social work, she started working in family counseling in Lufkin, less than an hour’s drive away from her hometown of San Augustine in East Texas.
While there, Malone-Wardley started attending
, a congregation a friend introduced her to earlier. “I loved the church, the ministry and the preaching,” she recalled.
She told then pastor Rev. Lawrence Young that she was eager to learn more about the United Methodist church. He encouraged her to become more and more involved, inviting her Bible studies to sign up for leadership opportunities. He also asked her to become the secretary of the Charge Conference.
At the event, Malone-Wardley met then DS Keith Whitaker. He asked participants if any would be interested in attending a lay speaking school.
“All of a sudden, my hand was going up,” Malone-Wardley recalled. “I didn’t even know what was happening.”
Later, she brushed the application aside, but the following Sunday, Rev. Young brought another and dropped it in her lap, saying “Just in case you lost yours.”
Malone-Wardley explained that this type of intervention became a trend on her journey. “I start to feel this internal tug to do something, not being able to name it, then others externally help me to name the call,” she said.
At one point, she scheduled a meeting with her pastor, barely even able to say the words, “Could I be called to ministry?”
He told her his own story – and asked her to journal and to pray, to really ask, “Is this what God has been calling me to all along?”
Malone-Wardley took his request seriously. “It started to add up,” she said.
She remembered how her grandmother insisted she go to worship each Sunday, how she had started young adult ministry in college, and taught youth Bible studies at Abundant Life. Even older women at church told her they sensed a call.
“I was getting confirmation – this is what God wanted me to do,” she said.
Then, Malone-Wardley enrolled in the Gammon Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta, where she earned a Master of Divinity.
At the time Bishop Alfred Norris retired and became the Bishop in Residence at the seminary. She got a call that he wanted to meet her.
At the time, Malone-Wardley was still not completely certain where her path would lead. She assumed perhaps to Christian counseling or education, instead of the pulpit.
Bishop Norris told her that women growing up in denominations without women in leadership often “struggle to see themselves in pastoral ministry.”
“Journeying through seminary was really an opportunity to open my mind and gain clarity to what God was calling me to do – even beyond the limitations I had set for myself,” Malone-Wardley said.
By the time she graduated from seminary in 2007, she was completely sure that joining the clergy was for her.
“I know what it’s like to be that person who, because of your upbringing or experience, you let others dictate who you are or set limits on you,” she said. “Then you watch as God begins to break that down. Through God, we have no limits – if we just open ourselves up to the guidance of the Spirit.”
Malone-Wardley was first appointed as Associate Pastor of Westbury UMC, a multicultural church in Houston. She served there for seven years, under three different senior pastors.
In 2014, she became Senior Pastor at Houston’s Blueridge UMC and remained there until 2020, when Bishop Scott Jones appointed her to serve as the Southeast District Superintendent.
The timing was a challenge – in the middle of a pandemic. Still, Malone-Wardley felt equipped by her experience as a pastor to help other local churches navigate the storm.
“I love coaching, teaching, supporting and coming alongside others,” she said. “I love looking at the big picture of what could be, then finding the steps to take to get there.”
Malone-Wardley vowed to lead with an open heart, to listen deeply and to offer support, encouragement and resources for churches to be successful.
“Sometimes, we live in ‘used to be,’” she said. “We think about who we used to be, instead of trying to see our gifts and figuring out how we can use those skills right now, how God is calling you uniquely to use your gifts to help build the Kingdom.”
During COVID, Malone-Wardley saw congregations find creative ways to continue worship and outreach. Members found new roles and ways to support their churches. “It was beautiful to watch,” she said.
Now, Malone-Wardley is poised to reach new heights as Assistant to the Bishop, supporting churches Conference-wide. “I will enter into it prayerfully, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, building upon the experience and guidance from Kip, and all of the great work he has done over the past two years,” she said.
She looks forward to continuing to work with Rev. Kip Gilts, who is moving from Assistant to the Bishop to DS in the West and Northwest Districts. She is also eager to serve alongside the TAC’s new Bishop Cynthia Harvey.
“I’m excited about Bishop Harvey, her vision and her energy,” Malone-Wardley said. “She is looking with hope into the future, and I want to do whatever I can to support that.”
She is also enthusiastic about the future of the Conference – and the denomination. “We are claiming and walking boldly into our new identity, not what we used to be, or what others say we are, but who we know God is calling us to be,” she said. “I’m excited to be a part of it. There are so many people who need us – the grace and the love the UMC has to offer.”