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Bishops’ Bonds Began at Duke

By Ken Garfield

Editor’s Note: June 2008 - Following a change in the mandatory retirement age for United Methodist bishops, William Hutchinson has decided to serve four more years as bishop of the Louisiana Conference. This decision was announced after DIVINITY magazine was published.

A couple of old friends from the Class of ’66 are retiring.

Retiring isn’t exactly right. Bishops William W. Hutchinson, 66, of the Louisiana Conference, and J. Lawrence McCleskey, 67, of Western North Carolina, are giving up their offices Sept. 1 and moving into the next phase of doing God’s work.

The two became friends at Duke Divinity School more than 40 years ago. With their wives, they shared meals and social outings between classes and long hours in the library. They each remember the other as a fine student and friendly presence. As he looks back, Hutchinson also recalls with fondness William Stinespring’s Old Testament classes, and how the civil rights movement raging at the time sharpened the focus on social witness. Kay Hutchinson and Margaret Fowler McCleskey belonged to Divinity Dames—a group of student and faculty wives who met regularly and brought a little laughter to serious divinity school lives.

“Now,” Margaret Fowler McCleskey notes, “divinity dames are going to seminary.”

In the years since they graduated from Duke, Hutchinson and McCleskey have served together on the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. They’ve watched each other deal with the complexity of overseeing a conference in the United Methodist Church, at a time when mainline denominations struggle against malaise and declining membership. Now, as each prepares to leave the bishop’s office, they’re proud to look back at what they’ve accomplished.

After Katrina, ‘An Encourager’

Katrina marked nearly every day of Hutchinson’s ministry since the hurricane struck in 2005.

Hutchinson

He cites as his proudest achievement the fact that no pastor went without a salary and a place to serve in the days, months and even years after the initial devastation. “All congregations had spiritual leadership in the midst of it,” he said.

Hutchinson described his role as “an encourager,” helping clergy and the 125,000 church members feel God’s presence even as they worked to repair and rebuild homes and sanctuaries. There were hard decisions to make: Hutchinson said 100 of the 530 conference churches were damaged or destroyed. Ten churches were permanently closed, and several others merged. In a column in the Winter 2008 issue of Divinity, Hutchinson wrote of the powerful role that the church played through it all.

“Where there has been injury,” he wrote, “the church has brought healing. Where there has been destruction, the church has rebuilt. Where there has been hopelessness, the church has provided hope.”

After eight years as bishop in Louisiana, Hutchinson will move from Baton Rouge to Las Cruces in his native New Mexico. He plans to work part-time with the Foundation for Evangelism based at Lake Junaluska, N.C. Financially and in other ways, the foundation supports efforts by organizations to develop leaders within the United Methodist Church.

He leaves the bishop’s office with a spirit that Katrina could not destroy.

“I just had a calmness about me that we would be able to come through it if we trusted and stayed the course.”

‘Something Bigger Than Ourselves’

McCleskey met the challenges that came with overseeing the Charlotte-based conference of 1,100 congregations and 300,000 church members. At the end of his four years as bishop in Western North Carolina, he points to his work raising morale among clergy, strengthening the financial footing of the conference, and spearheading a conference reorganization that is still taking shape. Among the reorganization highlights: adding a district in the fast-growing Lake Norman area north of Charlotte, and creating small accountability groups—called covenant peer groups—for clergy and laity.

McCleskey

Throughout his ministry, he also stressed the importance of education—a conviction reflected in his plans for so-called retirement. McCleskey will work part-time raising money for Africa University, a United Methodist-related institution in Zimbabwe. He will also lend his name and wisdom to the McCleskey Scholars Program at Pfeiffer University. Intended to encourage church-related vocations, the program will provide scholarships of up to $4,000 per year to each of five students. It will also include internships, missions work and more. McCleskey says he looks forward to sharing his experience with students.

“I just believed for years,” McCleskey says, “that education is the key in the life of the church and the life of the world.”

McCleskey and his wife, Margaret, will settle permanently at Lake Junaluska, though their home is not among all the other retired United Methodist clergy who have settled on Assembly grounds.

“I have normal neighbors,” she jokes. “Not all preachers.”

As he winds down a career in ministry that spanned 45 years, McCleskey still emphasizes the theme he preached from one job and sermon to the next: The world that God created is bigger than one person, one church, one conference.

“Life,” McCleskey says, “is much richer when we are clear that our commitment is to something bigger than ourselves. Knowing that there’s something more important than us.”

Ken Garfield, director of communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., writes often about religion for Divinity and other publications, including The New York Times and Charlotte magazine.