Five years after his appointment to the Western Pennsylvania Conference in the center of the Rust Belt, Bickerton retains his enthusiasm.
“I feel blessed to have come here from West Virginia, where I learned to understand what it means to lose security,” says Bickerton. In 1998, his appointment as superintendent of the Wheeling District took him back to West Virginia’s northern panhandle. Though the move returned him to his homeplace, Bickerton was dismayed to find himself in a landscape ravaged by the closings of steel mills and glass factories.
But the challenges there forged in him a sense of determination. “I try to bring a spirit of joy in the midst of cynicism,” he says. “In many ways, the people of western Pennsylvania are very much like those people in Africa who have a joy and determination in the midst of their troubles.
“Pennsylvania was among the states that sent the most volunteer work teams to New Orleans following Katrina,” Bickerton says. “They are the same folks who say, ‘We’re depressed; we don’t have anything,’ but when a disaster hits, they respond. My job is to remind them how much they can do.”
Soon after he arrived at seminary, Bickerton forged a close relationship with Ken Goodson, the new bishop-in-residence.
“I’d drop in and talk with him and he’d talk about the yoke of obedience and what it meant to serve God. To this day, he remains my mentor and inspiration for ministry.”
Among his Duke professors, Bickerton best remembers Tom Langford, Mickey Efird, Moody Smith, John Westerhoff, and Frederick Herzog, whom he recalls as “operating with grace and gentleness.”
And he appreciates that Duke is still teaching him, especially through the Episcopal Leadership Forum and other efforts of the school to support church leaders.
“Duke cared enough to want to help form bishops as we’re trying to lead the church. They realized that we needed an incubator to stimulate conversation on how to lead — not telling us how to lead — but helping us explore how to lead in the midst of big ideas.”
The answers to contemporary problems must come from many sources, he says. “All of us have gifts to share. Local church pastors have answers we bishops don’t have; laity have answers that pastors can’t generate. We need to listen and to align ourselves in such a way that we can walk into the future together.”
While he is grateful for the leadership of his many mentors, Bickerton says he’s now “looking down rather than up.” What he sees gives him more hope than ever.
“I get awestruck by some of my young clergy who are identifying with the emerging generation and willing to take this church into the 21st century. They are out there making the church come alive in the world.”
He points to Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church Associate Pastor Kimberly Greway, who served in Zimbabwe as a Peace Corps volunteer before earning her M.Div. at Duke in 2005.
Greway is a charter member of The Nyadire Connection, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting the United Methodist mission complex about 100 miles northeast of Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare.
“I see young people like Kim, who are showing us how to do missions,” Bickerton says. “And I look at what the Texas Conference is doing in Côte d’Ivoire.”
He applauds the partnership between Bishop Janice Huie’s Texas Annual Conference and the Côte d’Ivoire Conference. “People are working in hospitals and clinics, passing out bed nets with no concern about their own pensions or health care benefits. What they are concerned about is making the world a better place. Those are the heroes of the world today.”
More information about Nothing But Nets. Jason Byassee contributed to this article.