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Reluctance turns to motivation

Admirers nominated him for Methodist bishop; he withdrew his name but was elected anyway. Now he will head the Florida conference of 743 churches.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


Timothy Wayne Whitaker resisted when supporters nominated him to be a candidate for bishop in the United Methodist Church.

He was elected anyway. Furthermore, in April he will begin presiding over the Florida Annual Conference, a jurisdiction of 340,000 United Methodists east of the Apalachicola River to Key West.

"Even though I did not want to be a candidate and I was surprised that I was elected, I am delighted that I was assigned to Florida," Whitaker, 52, said this week from his home in Virginia.

He will succeed the late Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson, the conference's first African-American bishop, who died in December after a two-year battle with cancer.

"Bishop Henderson was a remarkable person of exceptional gifts, and I regret that because of his untimely death he was not able to use all of his gifts in his service to the church," Whitaker said.

"I know there is a lot of grieving over having lost him. However, it's been my experience that the church is able to accept pastors with different kinds of gifts and different personalities and I believe they will accept me. I will not try to be like Bishop Henderson, because he was unique."

Whitaker's Feb. 27 election occurred during a special session of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference in Lake Junaluska, N.C.

"I did tell the conference when I came here that I did not want to have my name included on the ballot," he said the day after his election.

"I was a candidate last summer and I was not elected and I very cheerfully accepted the will of the church in not being elected. I didn't think that there would be another jurisdictional conference for another four years and I thought they would have forgotten about me."

That was not to be. Whitaker's admirers nominated him during the special session called to elect a bishop to fill the vacancy created by Henderson's death. Though Whitaker proceeded to withdraw his name, he went on to win the election on the 17th ballot.

For the freshman bishop, the day of his election was steeped in spiritual insight.

"I knew that the spirit of God was moving through the church and was calling me. So I was stunned, not so much by the voting, which I was not watching, but by the spiritual experience I had."

As he explains it, the previous day, he had unequivocally declared that he would not seek the position of bishop. But God had other plans.

"People from so many delegations came to me and said, "We just feel led to vote for you,' " Whitaker recalled. They added, he said, that they would draft him as Ambrose, the reluctant fourth century bishop, had been drafted by his supporters.

"I was aware that the spirit of God was moving and the call that I had not found in my heart was placed into my heart. . . . I can't explain it," Whitaker said this week.

"I knew then that I was going to be elected and it was a matter of my getting used to it."

His wife, Melba, was stunned by the turn of events. She had not attended the special session, instead remaining in Virginia to work at her month-old job as a librarian. Mrs. Whitaker was able to attend her husband's consecration the following day only through the quick work of the Rev. Steve Rhodes, of River Road United Methodist Church in Richmond. Rhodes called a member of his congregation, Richard Sharp, chairman of the board of Circuit City stores, who provided a corporate jet to rush Mrs. Whitaker to the North Carolina ceremony.

"It fell into place, but it was different than usual," Whitaker said, laughing that during his first moments as bishop he had been forced to "stumble on stage" without his spouse.

"I told them that I came to vote, not to be elected, and I came without wife, robe or speech."

Before his election, the new bishop had been superintendent of the Norfolk District in the Virginia Annual Conference. He has a master's of divinity degree from Emory University in Atlanta and was ordained an elder in the Mississippi Conference in 1974. He has lived since 1975 in Virginia, where he served a variety of congregations. Whitaker and his wife have two sons, Scott, 28, who is married, and Eric, 25, who will move to Florida with his parents. The bishop's hobbies include cycling and reading 20th century American poetry. He is a "big fan" of contemporary poets Mary Oliver and Donald Hall.

With his change in status, Whitaker may have little time on his hands.

"I think there are several responsibilities a bishop has," he said the day of his consecration.

"I think the first one is pastoral. I think the bishop has the privilege of getting to know laity and clergy all across the conference and with them assess the mission of the church in the name of Christ. I believe bishops should represent the faith of the Christian church, and we have a responsibility to be teachers of that faith. Beyond that, of course, there is a lot of administration involved."

For a while, at least, Whitaker will rely on the guidance of retired Bishop J. Lloyd Knox, 72, who has been presiding over the Florida conference since Henderson's death.

"He has been very gracious and extremely helpful," Whitaker said of Knox, who lives in St. Petersburg.

"He knows the conference very well and he's going to be a big asset as well as a friend. . . . I also appreciate what Bishop Knox has done. He has come out of retirement and he has done it with such grace and Florida Methodists owe him a great deal and so does the rest of the church."

This week Whitaker visited Florida in preparation for his new responsibilities as head of the conference of 743 churches. He will return on March 19 to meet with district superintendents and hopes to start his new job April 2.

Whitaker said his wife has recovered from her initial shock.

"We understand that in the ministry of the United Methodist Church, you go and serve where you are sent. We've done that throughout our lives," he said.

"In the end, this is just another experience of our being sent. Our attitude is that you go with joy."

As he prepares to take his post as a leader in the 9.8-million worldwide United Methodist Church, Whitaker, one of 68 active bishops, is realistic about the denomination's challenges.

"I think we United Methodists are going to have to learn better how to evangelize people of all ethnic groups and social classes. Originally, that's what we did best . . . and we got away from that," he said.

"I think like other Christian communities, we are going to have to learn to live in a pluralistic, secularized society and know how to be a distinctive, alternative community in the world. It's a matter of really understanding the distinct identity of the church, the behavior in being a follower of Christ and living according to that identity and those behaviors. Now to be a Christian is to make a conscious decision."

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