June Brunson Willson | Sept 6, 1945-Dec. 2, 2018
SUMMERVILLE – June Willson was a mentor, a friend, a second mom. She was a pioneer, an advocate, a shepherd. She cajoled, encouraged, empowered, believed, welcomed and loved.
And “Mrs. June” was a troublemaker.
“She created holy trouble at every turn – calling the church to be better and throwing open as many doors as she could for young people around our state,” said Johannah Myers, director of Christian formation at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Greenville, who spent the summer of 2004 as an intern with Willson.
“She drew in kids from large churches and small ones, from big cities and rural towns, and gave them all the opportunity to lead,” Myers said. “She showed us at every turn what the church could be, what it could look like, and how we were all called to take our place at the table.”
Willson – whose ministry with the youth of the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church spanned four decades – died Dec. 2 after a long battle with a degenerative disease. She was 73. (Read her obituary here.)
After holding youth positions at Bethany UMC (her home church) and Stallsville UMC in Summerville, Aldersgate UMC in Greenville and North Charleston UMC, Willson took her passion for youth ministry to the conference level in 1980. She served as youth coordinator for the Conference Council on Ministries (now Connectional Ministries) from 1980 until 1993, when she became associate director for Youth and Age-Level Ministries. She retired in 2008, having served also as a congregational specialist.
“June was well ahead of her time in many ways in youth ministry,” said Chris Lynch, the congregational specialist who now leads the conference’s youth ministries. “She had a great impact, particularly in equipping youth to be in leadership. June never hesitated to turn the reins of a youth event over to youth leadership teams – from planning through execution.
“Through that practice alone, youth in South Carolina began to understand what it means to be in ministry in the local church and beyond. Her legacy is clear; just look around the conference at the many leaders, within and beyond youth ministry, who were influenced by her ministry.”
The Rev. Kathy James, conference director of Connectional Ministries, described Willson as “the face and heart of conference youth ministry” for decades in South Carolina.
“The fruit of her ministry is evident in the many church and community leaders who were shaped by her,” Rev James said. “Her witness to the love of Jesus Christ lives on in them, and I am thankful for that. What an example for us all.”
- Visitation: 10-11:30 a.m. Thursday, Bethany UMC-Summerville
- Funeral: 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Bethany UMC-Summerville
- Burial: 4 p.m. Thursday, Evergreen Memorial Park Cemetery, Sumter
Meredith Hawley Pysnik is among the countless young people – now living as faithful, fruitful adults, some in ordained ministry, some serving as laity – who grew up in United Methodist churches around South Carolina and today credit Willson and her ministry with changing their lives.
Meredith Hawley was “an incredibly shy and self-conscious teenager” attending Trinity UMC in Greenville when Willson entered her life and helped her learn that she had a voice and that she could and should use it.
“June Willson was so many things to so many people,” said Pysnik, who now lives with her husband and daughter in Durham, North Carolina. “I’ve been trying to figure out just what she was to me. It’s complicated and layered, but I keep coming back to ‘shepherd.’
“I witnessed this strong woman use her power to do all the good she could, by all the means she could, in all the ways she could, in all the places she could, at all the times she could, to all the people she could, as long as she ever could.
“In June, I witnessed a woman who loved and cared so deeply, and who always fought for those who need an advocate.”
Willson’s influence has played a role in many aspects of Pysnik’s life, but never more so than last year, when she and her husband learned that the baby they were expecting would be born with Down syndrome and significant heart defects.
“Steve and I decided not long after this that our little girl needed to be named after strong, brave, compassionate women,” Pysnik said. “Her first name would be Cora, after my paternal great-grandmother, a true spitfire. And for her middle name, we chose June.
“Our Cora June faces challenges so bravely and has brought an overwhelming amount of light and love into our lives. Every day she teaches me what it means to be truly vulnerable and that I am stronger than I ever imagined.
“She is the greatest blessing in my life, and will forever be a reminder of her beautiful, loving, resilient namesake.”
Skyler Nimmons was an active youth at Trinity UMC in Orangeburg when his life was first touched by June Willson. As youth leaders on the local church and conference levels, he and others experienced Willson’s ministry up-close and in real time – whether it was traveling to events across the state and region in her Cadillac, during retreats at Springmaid Beach, or just hanging out at her home.
“I can’t begin to say how many of us know ourselves and our faith so much more deeply because of the impact and influence of her wisdom, love and grace,” said Nimmons, who has served as communications director for the Western North Carolina and Indiana United Methodist conferences.
“She had a particular way of encouraging others to see those who were forgotten or underserved. She helped many of us see a world we might never have seen or known about because she believed in us and that we could do good.”
Nimmons recalled Willson’s “notorious” and “infectious” smile and laugh, as well as what he called “the antics of being June Willson.” But he also cherishes the time spent in conversation with her, “sharing what was on our hearts about our joys, fears and uncertainty.”
“There are still days when I wish I could take a long trip with Mrs. June and ramble away with what was weighing on my soul,” he said, “because each time she helped me see things a little differently and reminded each of us that we are not alone.
“I am so thankful for June and the nurturing that she provided us and the questions that she used to help push us to see more in this life than what is surface.”
‘Where do you see God?’
He grew up attending Wesley UMC in Columbia, and he credits much of his success in life to Willson’s “tremendous love, leadership and grace.”
“I was so blessed to have had her in my life as a young person,” said Taylor. “She always used to ask us, ‘Where do you see God?’ I can honestly say, without hesitation, it was always in her.
“She taught me how to love like Jesus. She taught me to give of myself to help those less fortunate than me. It was because of June Willson that I spent much of my young adult life serving as a youth minister at various local churches in the South Carolina Annual Conference. She taught all of us through her actions and her deeds.”
Taylor was a “shy, awkward” 13-year-old seventh-grader who didn’t know what gifts he had to offer to the world when he first met Willson.
“June saw something in me that I didn’t know I had,” he said. “She gave me the opportunity to break out of my shell and taught me what it meant to be a leader. She opened so many doors for me.
“June Willson will forever be a part of the fabric of my life.”
‘The church of now’
The clergy and lay volunteers who worked alongside Willson share similar recollections about their time with her. They describe a dedicated, innovative and caring servant who always put the interests of youth first, but was there for colleagues, as well.
“June Willson was responsible for getting me to step out of my comfort zone and helped open doors for me that I never thought possible,” said Skipper Brock, a member of St. James UMC in Spartanburg who has volunteered in youth ministry for more than two decades in the Spartanburg District and on the conference level.
“She showed me that it was OK to work with young people and still be who I am, and that I can do the same when I work with adults.”
The Rev. Ken Nelson, the conference Clergy Services coordinator who worked with Willson as a congregational specialist, said she was a pioneer in leadership development long before the concept became ubiquitous.
“June saw in unsure, unsteady, angst-driven youth and young adults the ability and need to lead now,” Rev. Nelson said. “She expressed how essential these persons were to the church of ‘now,’ rather than the church of the future.
“She had a peculiar way of affirming the particularity of each young person. It was not just that they were needed and wanted, it was that there was an expectation that each had something to offer that would make ministry, the team, and the world stronger and better.”
And when the situation warranted, Willson and her husband, Joe, didn’t hesitate to help out youth and young adults when they needed a hand – even finding them a job or opening up their home.
“June genuinely loved young people,” said the Rev. Jim Arant, a congregational specialist who worked with Willson in a number of capacities over the years. “Many times, young people who needed a place to stay were welcomed into their house with open arms.
“One time, a student of my friend, who was the Wesley Foundation director at Auburn University, needed an internship for the summer. Joe, an excellent engineer who was working for The Water Project, arranged for the internship and Joe and June provided her with a place to stay for the summer.
“There are a hundred stories just like that.”
More remembrances of June Willson
“June Willson empowered me as a teenager to lead and welcomed me into her heart like a daughter. Her love was radical for the time I was growing up in South Carolina – inclusive in all aspects of the word and generous. She helped me to believe that another world was possible both inside and outside the walls of the church, to imagine it, and then to get to work creating it.”
– Lanecia Rouse Tinsley
“She was a mentor, a confidant, a bold and occasionally uncompromising visionary who worked tirelessly to both listen to and empower the young people of the state of South Carolina. And if you had any ideas about standing in her way on that score, she would bless your heart then politely wreck your afternoon, whether you were a venue coordinator or the bishop.”
– Jeff Ashworth
“June Willson’s influence upon my life was and is manifold. She’s present in my education, my life’s work, my friendships, and even in my penchant toward holy mischief.”
– Chase Bannister
“I will never forget her advice to me when faced with difficult friendships. She would tell me, ‘Kill them with kindness.’ I have carried that with me for the past 16 years and will hold on to it for many more to come. She showed me what it means to be a great leader for the church.”
– Rebekah Harbison
“It was appropriate that she died on the first Sunday of Advent, when she adored Christmas! She and Mr. Joe had just finished reading the book of Colossians, they listened to two preachers on the radio, and she was watching Tom Brady and the Patriots. She is indeed hearing, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ as she joins the great cloud of witnesses!”
– Rev. Narcie Jeter
“I have often wondered how many times I upset Mrs. June with my unorthodox, irreverent and childish antics at Springmaid. Then I remember that she never once told me to stop or change anything I did. She just loved me and supported me in how God used me to reach out to and love and help young people grow closer to Christ.”
– James Grubb
“I will always think of her as a woman who loved God deeply, saw community multi-dimensional and included anyone. To meet her meant that you were instantly family.”
– Jennie Murray-Kostryukov
“When we got the call about June Willson, my heart sank and my head bowed. And then I couldn’t help but smile when I thought about her famous questions: ‘Where have you seen God this week?’ and ‘How’s your soul?’ Can you imagine her answers now?”
– Christina Jepson King
“When we think of June, we think of the words, ‘The Jesus in you sees the Jesus in me.’ Save a sleeping bag for us in the mansion, June. We promise not to wear our pajama pants to the feast!”
– Cindy Blakeney