Bishop Kenneth L. Carder: Pointing to the Kingdom
On a sunny afternoon in the early summer of 1946, a red-headed 5-year-old played with his brothers and sister in the yard of a big white farm house, high on a hill in the mountains of east Tennessee. While their mother worked inside, cleaning and ironing for the farm owner’s wife, the children were Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, American GI’s storming the beach at Normandy, and sometimes even both at once.
But that day the farm owner—who provided a two-room house and a share of the crops in exchange for their family’s
The 5-year-old froze, face flushing scarlet as he remembered being caught that morning on the roof of a farm shed. “Get
Now, lurching into the yard, the man stopped, his eyes zeroing in on the boy and widening in recognition.
“You’re the one who was on top of my building,” he sputtered. “I’ll teach you to respect me and my property.” The man
“I’m going to drown you!” he said. Hearing the children’s cries, their mama and the man’s wife raced outside into the yard
Sixty years later, the red is gone as is most of the hair, but Kenneth L. Carder remembers that moment as if it just happened.
Like Augustine’s tale of the stolen pears, it’s a story from his youth, the first of two stories, actually, that were pivotal moments in his spiritual journey. As the one from Hippo could have told you, bishops can grow from the rockiest of soil.
“I tell that story because the only other place I felt that same sense of terror was in church,” says Carder, whose earliest years were spent attending a fundamentalist, “hell fire and damnation,” independent Baptist church. “That’s what we were told every week—that the end of the world would happen any second, and that God held you sus-pended over the abyss, like I was held over that rain bar-rel, and would destroy you at any moment.”
Although the drunken farm owner, after a brief standoff with his wife, released the boy unharmed, it was another five years before Carder escaped his fundamentalist church. After his family moved into a small house in a nearby community, Carder, then 10, persuaded his parents to let him go to the nearby Methodist church. That first Sunday, he walked alone to the church and was directed to the big room where children’s Sunday School met.
He knew the teacher, Mrs. Mahoney, by reputation. She had a disabled child, a daughter with mental retarda-tion who lived at home and was rarely seen. He walked slowly to the door, not knowing what to expect.
“Well, we got us a visitor today,” Mrs. Mahoney said. “Come on in.” And then she hugged him. It was some-thing he had never experienced before in church.
Her lesson that day was the parable of the good shep-herd who goes out in search of the one lost sheep. As she taught, she occasionally pointed on the wall to a faded lithograph of the good shepherd with a lamb draped around his shoulders. “Now he’s picked that lamb up, and he’s going to carry it back and put it in the fold with the rest of the sheep,” Mrs. Mahoney explained.
“My parents and grandparents loved me greatly,” Carder says. “But until then I had never made the connection that God was like family. To me, God was like that landlord who held me over the barrel. For the first time, I saw that God is the one who loves, welcomes and seeks to protect, rather than the one who is out to destroy and punish. That morning, I was the lost lamb and Mrs. Mahoney became the Good Shepherd. I didn’t miss a Sunday after that.”
Ever since, Carder has worked for the God he met that first Sunday with Mrs. Mahoney, and against the other.
Now, after recuperating from a heart attack that prompted him to step down from the active episcopacy, Carder has come to Duke to continue his work, this time as professor of the practice of pastoral formation and director of “Pulpit & Pew: The Duke Center for Excellence in Ministry.”
“We want to help get the gifts of scholarship back into the life of the church and the pastoral gifts of the church into the seminary,” says Carder. “I hope we can strength-en this partnership for the mutual benefit of God’s mis-sion in the world.”
According to those who have worked with him, it is a task ideally suited for Carder. After more than 30 years experience as a pastor in churches small and large, and 12 years as a bishop, he brings a wealth of gifts. He is partic-ularly adept at bridging the gap between theory and prac-tice, says David Lowes Watson G’78 of Nashville, Tenn.
“He takes deep theological principles and makes them concrete,” says Watson.
The director of the Office of Pastoral Formation for the Nashville Area of the UMC, Watson says Carder is a master at holding in creative theological tension the harsh reality of the world as it is and the world as God intended for it to be, the church as it is and the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to announce.
“Bishop Carder is always pointing us to the horizon, to the world as it one day will be,” says Watson. “The best way to summarize his theology is to quote the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’”
Throughout his essays and sermons and even in conversation, Carder describes the church as “a sign, a foretaste, and an instrument of God’s new creation.” It’s a succinct phrase that packs a lot of theological weight, at once describing the church as something that is here now, yet always pointing to the Kingdom.
“Time and again he is reminding us of this in ways that seem to reveal the extent to which we have or have not been faithful,” says Watson.
Methodists in Tennessee and Mississippi know what Watson is talking about. For them—indeed for many Methodists anywhere in the U.S.—Carder is a bishop like few they have ever seen. Described by the Nashville Tennessean as “a compass for congregations to steer by” and “true spiritual leader,” he challenged churchgoers to reach out beyond their congregations, to step out in mis-sion to the poor and marginalized, to those in prisons, nursing homes, and housing projects. Rather than press-ing pastors for numbers on membership and giving dur-ing annual reviews, Carder asked them to describe the signs of God’s presence in their ministry.
In both states, Carder spoke out against capital punish-ment, prompting a flood of threats and opposition from within and outside the church. Inspired by the reconciliation effort in South Africa, he organized a “Journey of Remembrance and Reconciliation” and held cabinet meetings at the sites of civil rights battlegrounds in Mississippi in the 1960s.
Both Mississippi and her people were made better by Carder’s tenure as bishop, says the Rev. Vicki Sizemore-Tandy D’78.
“I know it sounds hokey, but it’s true,” she says. “He made us better. Many people changed just by his example.”
Carder appointed Sizemore-Tandy as the state’s first African-American woman district superintendent and assigned her to the Senatobia District, in the heart of the Delta.
The reaction in the churches, she says, was “Are you kidding?”
“But Bishop Carder approaches things in such a wonder-ful way, people trusted him not to do anything destructive to the church. Race is hard to overcome in the Delta, but by putting me in this area, he made great strides.”
Soft spoken and gentle, solicitous to a fault, Carder is occasionally underestimated as a pushover, but don’t be fooled, warns the Rev. Karl Netting D’71, a former associate pastor under Carder at Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.
“He’s one of the best street fighters I’ve ever met,” says Netting, now a hospice chaplain in Richmond, Va. “To serve churches today, you have to have a clear vision of where you want to go and a lot of spine to back it up. Ken has both.”
In December 2001, for example, only a few months after he took office in Mississippi, Carder joined Catholic and Episcopal colleagues in Jackson in calling for the adoption of a new state flag, one without the Confederate battle flag. As a Southerner, Carder knew how controver-sial changing the flag would be. As a new arrival to the state, he could have easily taken a pass on the issue.
But he didn’t.
“I wouldn’t have chosen to deal with it as one of my first actions as bishop, but we don’t always choose the time of issues,” he says. “I felt it was an important issue at a critical time in Mississippi history, a teaching moment, whether it won or lost.”
While some dismissed Carder as a “liberal social activist,” intent upon enacting his own political agenda, nothing could have been further from the truth, he says. It was about God, and about God’s Kingdom.
“Opposition to the death penalty and ministry to thepoor are often seen as political agendas, but I never setout with a political agenda,” says Carder.
In his years as a student at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., Carder learned that there isn’t a per-sonal Gospel and a social Gospel. There is just a Gospel, with personal and social dimensions.
Ironically, much of Carder’s theological vision—certainly its clarity—comes from those fundamentalist preachers who so terrified him when he was young. Even in those years, he says, prevenient grace was at work, leaving him with two abiding gifts: a deep respect for the Bible and an appreciation for the power of the atonement.
“If the Bible says it, you better take it seriously,” says Carder. “That doesn’t mean you take it literally, but the Bible is the word of God.”
Secondly, with all their limitations, those preachers from his childhood were convinced that Christ had died for him and all humanity.
“Their theological understanding of the atonement is very different from mine,” says Carder. “But for a youngster who was struggling with feelings of exclusion, inferiority, and powerlessness, to feel in the depths of my being that the God of the Universe would die for me, was enormously powerful.”
For Carder, justice and ministry to the poor are not abstractions. His father, Allen Carder, worked every morning in the fields, then left to work the 4 p.m. to midnight shift in a textile mill. Although his father preached the value of hard work as the key to success, little seemed to improve for the family.
The younger Carder, whose only escape from the world of poverty was in school, developed an inchoate understanding that hard work alone wasn’t always enough, that systemic injustices stunted human lives. Admitted to a special high school established by the fac-ulty at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, he became the first in his family to graduate from high school. He was awarded a scholarship to the university. But all through high school, he never revealed to his classmates where he lived.
It wasn’t until his mid-30s, when he was pastor of Concord UMC, a booming successful suburban church in Knoxville, that Carder made peace with his childhood. He wasn’t even aware of the scars it had inflicted until church leaders asked him why he was so angry, especial-ly when he preached on the dangers of wealth. Through support from friends and his congregation, Carder realized that, as pastor of a large and growing church, he had achieved a certain level of “success,” and was at once enjoying that success and resenting it.
“I came to realize that my experience in poverty and struggles with inferiority were not something to run from, but gifts,” says Carder. “I began to experience the grace that I had been preaching about: that I was a child of God and that my identity had nothing to do with wealth or poverty, and that I didn’t have to do anything to earn that identity other than to accept it.”
He continued to preach about the dangers of wealth and affluence, but his tone changed. “I wouldn’t choose [poverty] for others, but I experienced things for which I am profoundly grateful.”
One of the challenges of the Center for Excellence in Ministry is the culture’s understanding of excellence. A church that defines excellence based on growth and numbers is idolatrous, he says. “Success, upward mobility, wealth and power, are the very things Jesus refused to be part of in his temptation in the wilderness. Excellence in ministry is rooted in God’s excellence, which the world often sees as ‘weakness’ and ‘foolishness.’”
It’s talk like that that prompts the Rev. Peter Storey, who has known Carder since hosting him on a 1995 visit to South Africa, to call him “the most prophetic bishop in the United Methodist Church.”
A bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and prominent critic of apartheid, Storey often played host to American dignitaries studying “the South African problem.” It was a duty he did not always relish, as many of his visitors didn’t “get it.”
Carder, though, was a bishop who “got it.”
“Ken had an authentic sensitivity to the issues we were struggling with,” says Storey. For some pastors, “being prophetic” means sounding off on every issue for the sheer nuisance value.
“But Ken is a prophet in the deepest Biblical sense,” he says. “He has a pastoral love of people and a faithful-ness to Christ and Christ’s teachings that require him to speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.”
Long ago, the red-headed boy found his voice.
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