Superintendents and Bishops
CENTRAL ILLINOIS – Champaign District
My first Superintendent was William W. Wohlfarth of Champaign, Illinois. He had a very difficult church in Wapella. A Baptist type had agreed to support Methodism and he was appointed there. He was very dynamic. An outsider might say that he lied. He preached against Methodism, touching on the anti-communist hysteria of that era. The church voted to become an independent church, leaving Methodism. Dr. Wohlfarth calmly processed their desires and then asked for the church keys. “Why?” asked the puzzled anti-Methodists. “Oh,” Dr. Wohlfarth said, “You have the right to be anything you want to be, but the building belongs to the Methodist denomination.” “Oh”, said the congregation’s leader: “I move reconsideration of the previous motion.” And they remained Methodist, but proclaimed they would never again accept a student pastor from Illinois Wesleyan University. So, Dr. Wohlfarth appointed Dr. Richard Leonard as the pastor. Dr. Leonard was a Professor of History at Illinois Wesleyan University. He then contacted me and asked me to be his Associate Pastor. He would preach and I was to do all the pastoral calling and more. We would split the salary. Dr. Leonard said that at the end of one year, they would ask for me to be the pastor. It worked.
I served the church for one year as the pastor. Rather than coast, I worked hard. I made over 900 pastoral calls in that one year and made some significant changes. At the end of one year, there was a suggestion that the salary be raised $10 per month and the conservative bent of the congregation came forth. I lost heart. I decided to go to seminary and study full-time. I felt my parents would help me financially.
Dr. Wohlfarth kept offering me positions in his Champaign District. I kept saying “no”, as all the offers would mean working with Church Boards and I didn’t relish that task. Finally I was offered a position on the staff at St. James Methodist Church where I would not have to deal with a Church Board. I took it and my salary increased 300% overnight. I agreed to stay at Wapella for 3 extra months, giving Dr. Wohlfarth time to recruit another student pastor. Part way through the summer, I lost my temper and took my anger into the pulpit and I was fired. Dr. Wohlfarth once again had to deal with some angry people, who proclaimed that “What he said was true, but he should not have said it”. And then they said, don’t send us another student pastor. I had placed a high school student on the Council and she spoke up and carried the day for another student pastor. I was so proud of her, second-hand, as I was not present in that meeting. The youth program had been revitalized on my two-year watch and this was my reward. I moved on to the next church and the Superintendent didn’t have to come to any meetings about me there.
Bishop Edwin Voight ordained me as an elder, but he also commissioned both Barbara and myself as missionaries. He would not do it until we were married, so we got married on Saturday and commissioned the next day at St. James UMC in Danville, Illinois. I was well loved there, so the church was packed.
Barbara and I drove to Urbana to pick up the Bishop at the train station. The bishop forgot about Daylight Savings Time and his schedule was one hour different than our schedule. Instead of arriving at 10 a.m., he would have arrived at 11 a.m., the exact time the service was to start 36 miles away. Sadly, the train was running late. I was driving a brand new car. When we got to the super highway, I floored the gas pedal. We went at speeds of 90 MPH. The bishop didn’t say a word. We got to Danville at approximately noon, when the service would normally have ended. Everyone that could stayed. The Bishop, in his wisdom, preached a full length sermon and then he commissioned us and we had a party. After the service was over, the bishop took me aside and said: “Young man, I understand why you did what you did, but don’t drive that fast ever again.” And I obeyed. It would not be the last time I obeyed a bishop..
When we went to Alaska, we were on our honeymoon. I had married my bride, graduated from seminary, gotten ordained as an elder and both of us were commissioned as missionaries, all in ten days. The Board of Missions had us pick up a new car in Wisconsin and we drove to Seattle – paid honeymoon.
The Superintendents in Alaska acted as Bishops in one sense of the word. In the 1950’s, they lived in Philadelphia, but by the time I got there, the Superintendents actually lived in Anchorage. And they were very much in charge.
Prior to getting engaged, I was on track to be the Associate Pastor with David Fison at Ketchikan, but when I got engaged, I was now deemed able to handle a church all by myself. So I was appointed to a three-point circuit on the Kenai Peninsula, where I averaged driving 33,000 miles each year. Three families at the Kenai Church had shared social times and baby-sitting with my predecessor. Not only did we not have children, we were not interested in baby-sitting. The females in that group turned a bit vicious and life was “hell” for a while. One husband was chair of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee and in front of witnesses he ordered me to order Barbara to stop working as a substitute teacher in the public school. I told him off, saying “Barbara would stop when Barbara wanted to stop.” Two of the women circulated a petition, asking for my removal as the pastor. And that is where the Superintendent comes in. He declared that it would not be good for me to leave after one year, even though I was ready to do so. And we stayed. Fortunately the other two churches on the circuit loved me and some would greet me with these words: “Well, what has Kenai done to you this week?”
The Superintendent was correct. Glad to have his insight. Things got better. The next Superintendent was Meredith Groves.
Meredith was a strong-willed superintendent and he did many wonderful things. He assisted us in building a new building for the Tustumena Church and I assisted him in purchasing property for a church in Soldotna. Later he moved the Tustumena Church to Soldotna as the first unit there. I strongly disagreed with that decision, but I was no longer the pastor.
When I was moving from Kenai to Chugiak, he took possession of the Rambler I had driven for 100,000 miles and while shopping, a rear wheel came off because of a broken axle. Glad it happened when he was driving slowly and not when I was driving at full speed on the Sterling Highway on the Kenai Peninsula.
After the three-year term was over, I went above the Superintendent to Bishop Grant and asked him if he wanted us to stay in Alaska. He did and he expressed dismay that many pastors came for three years and left. Did he talk to them about it? No! But I did and I got to stay. After the 1964 earthquake, Bishop Grant preached a sermon whose title I remember: “The Community of Hope has Moved to Higher Ground”, based on a headline in an Anchorage newspaper.
Anchor Park in Anchorage was open in 1965, but the superintendent didn’t think I should get such a big church in my second appointment, so he moved the pastor at Chugiak to Anchor Park and I was appointed to Chugiak. Chugiak was not happy. Fortunately I was deeply involved at Birchwood Camp that was part of that parish, so I was known. A lay person from the church, O. W. Lowe, bounded across the auditorium when appointments were read and he shook his finger in my face: “John, we fought like hell to keep Leo (my heart stopped) and we will fight like hell to keep you.” Ah, I had arrived at paradise.
There was a rule in place that pastor’s spouses (read wives) could not have full-time employment. This came about when there was a raise in the salaries and it was one way to deal with jealousy over those who were living in places where employment might be readily available.
That rule died when the superintendent’s son married an active school teacher. Try telling your new daughter-in-law that she had to resign her teaching position!
There was one unusual experience. As Meredith prepared to retire, he was lobbying the bishop to appoint one of the pastors as his replacement. That bishop, without any warning, asked 18 pastors to take a card and write who they thought should be the next superintendent. The pastor being pushed by the superintendent got two votes. Ten pastors wrote: “not anyone serving in Alaska”. No one got more than two votes. Meredith was crushed and the bishop selected a veteran superintendent named Ac Wischmeier, who served for nine years. .He helped us get our financial house in order, including increasing the pension rate from the lowest in American Methodism to the second highest. When we started serving in Alaska, it was $50 per service year. In 2017, the rate had risen to $775. Thank you, Ac.
At least two active bishops died while in office while we were in Alaska. So we would get substitute bishops. I was then serving as the Conference Secretary, so I would sit next to the bishop. One time there was a vote and I voted loudly in the negative. The bishop didn’t know which side had the most votes. So he took a count vote. It was 35 to 1. I was quieter after that experience.
The Superintendent and Bishop allowed me to run for the State Legislature in 1968 in order to defeat a member of The John Birch Society. I didn’t get elected, but neither did he.
We built a new sanctuary and finished a new lodge at Birchwood Camp during our four years at Chugiak, then the Superintendent Meredith Groves arranged for me to be the pastor of the Juneau United Methodist Church. The pastor at Juneau, who was taking a secular job there for a while, had lobbied for my appointment. The next year, for financial reasons, the Superintendent asked me to also serve Douglas Community United Methodist Church. On the side, I worked as a lobbyist with the legislature. Our Juneau Church was right across the street from the capitol building.
Then all hell broke loose. The State of Alaska took the Juneau property by right of imminent domain. A court house would be built on the site. What to do? The Superintendent helped us through that process and Juneau United Methodist united with Northern Light Presbyterian to become Northern Light United Church. We let them keep their name (I liked it) and they let us pray the Lord’s Prayer the United Methodist way (using trespasses instead of debts). Life can be so interesting. Superintendent Ac Wischmeier was extremely helpful through this difficult process.
But he was urging us to return to Illinois and make something of ourselves. He even tried to get a twelve-year rule passed. I took that personally, though he claimed it was not. After years of urging us to give our lives to Alaska, the worm turned and personnel were being asked to leave. Ac made it clear he would never appoint me to Nome. I went behind his back and had a conversation with Bishop Jack Tuell. I asked him if he would consider me for Nome, if and when it became open. He agreed. When Ac Wischmeier and Jack Tuell met to work out the appointments, I was the only name on the list and I got the appointment to Nome. Several years later, Ac would say, behind my back, that it was the best appointment he ever made. I think I am the only clergy person who ever asked to go to Nome, but I may be wrong.
Then life got interesting. We were in Nome for seven years. I behaved myself for four years and then I got upset over the issue of alcohol and what the wide open attitude there was doing to people. I was conducting too many funerals from alcohol abuse. Barbara was deeply involved in the community, first as Director of the Nome Community Center, then as Special Assistant to the Governor of the State of Alaska Jay Hammond, and finally as a member of the Nome Common Council (City Council). She agreed to support whatever I decided.
I decided to call for a local option on the issue of the sale of alcohol. During a very hectic two years, Superintendent Ac Wischmeier knew what I was going to do before I did it. I didn’t ask his permission, but I keep him informed. He was very grateful. When bar owners would call him, he knew what they were calling about and he was able to deal with the issues with minor stress, if not some glee. Bishop Tuell was also very supportive. One time he told me that if I could not take the pressure in Nome, all I had to do was let him know and I would be assured of an appointment elsewhere.
As a reward for my good work, he wanted to appoint me to the largest church in Alaska at Fairbanks. Can you imagine this? They didn’t want me. I had to stay in Nome one extra year. We left after eight years. The local newspaper editor had written that I would destroy Nome and then leave. Partly true – I would leave. I took joy in the fact that the newspaper editor left town before I did. He moved to Fairbanks and died, probably from his alcohol abuse.
During that extra year, there was a new pharaoh elected and selected. My bishop was now Cal McConnell and my Superintendent was Ed Stanton. Ed believed in people getting along and he advised me to see the newspaper editor and be reconciled. Very biblical idea. Over my time in Nome, the editor had written fifteen editorials attacking me personally.
In February I was in Fairbanks to preside at a meeting of the Alaska Christian Conference of Churches, as I was the President. The Bishop and Superintendent called me into the pastor’s office (ironic to say the least) to talk about my future. The Bishop informed me that, based on what he had heard, I was unappointable in Alaska. This meant – go home to Illinois. I told the Bishop off. It took twenty minutes. I rehearsed all my fine pastoral qualities, shared some experiences unknown to others, and proclaimed that I was more than my public reputation. By the time I finished, I was bawling like a baby. And I walked out of the meeting. But, first I told the Bishop I DESERVED the best Alaskan appointment he could give me. And then I asked if he heard me. He nodded yes and then I walked out. Ed Stanton was and is a friend and he came to me later and asked why I didn’t show that side of my personality more often. I told him I didn’t appreciate people who cry all the time. As of 2008, Ed and I participate in the same local church: Federal Way United Methodist Church in Auburn, Washington.
I was then appointed to East Anchorage which was, as far as I know, the ONLY appointment available in Alaska. I changed my style a wee bit. When a public issue came up, I gave the organizer a significant donation and told him to keep my name out of it. It worked.
Occasionally, the bishop would consult with me. A major issue was what to do with Ed Stanton when he was finished as the superintendent. The bishop intended to appoint him to Homer, but he had heard some rumblings of objections. He wanted to know what the pastors thought, so he called me. I didn’t know, so I found out. Even the nay-sayers didn’t have the guts to tell me what they thought, so I reassured the bishop that the appointment was okay with the personnel.
But things started going downhill. The next superintendents resented me very much. I am not going to speculate why, though I have my opinions. I slowly started to get involved in non-church programs, such as the Board of Directors for RuralCAP (War on Poverty program) and the AARP Legislative Committee for Alaska. This provided me the opportunity to travel around the state and be involved. The native leaders appreciated my witness in Nome, and my Juneau years enabled me to know how to work with legislators.
But Superintendents were being less than helpful. And I was getting older. Ketchikan made it known they didn’t want an older pastor and that meant I couldn’t be on that list. The superintendents would not consider me for some openings. And they had the power to block appointments. No more working around them, at least in Alaska. The pharaohs kept changing.
Some of my more interesting encounters were with Thomas White Wolf Fassett. While at East Anchorage, I became very ill and spent a few days in the hospital. Every United Methodist pastor came to visit me, including the superintendent. I disappointed some of my church members, as I requested that they stay away. Ten visitors were too many.
I really enjoyed my work at the Hope Retreat Center and the superintendent usually showed little to no interest in such details. But when he learned that I had leased the building for an Independent Baptist to hold services, he ordered me to cancel the lease. I informed him that I could not and would not do that. Being my father’s son, I figured my word was my bond, as far as an agreement was concerned. My guardian angel came through, as the Baptist pastor broke the lease. He had as much difficulty gathered a congregation in Hope as the Methodists had experienced for many years. This is why we changed from a church to a retreat center. So my defiance was short-lived. But I did learn that I am my father’s son. For this, and many other reasons, our relationship was strained.
In 1987, this superintendent made a serious run for becoming a Bishop, but he was elected as the 3rd alternate. That didn’t give him much standing to be a candidate. Keith Wise was elected on the 5th ballot. Judith Bither-Terry was elected first alternate on the 9th ballot and Dennis Holway was elected second alternate on the 12th ballot and Thom White Wolf Fassett was elected third alternate on the 13th ballot. I was the Conference Secretary, so I kept the ballots. One of my friends once said: “Don’t get mad…get even.” In subsequent years, Thom White Wolf Fassett was a serious candidate in his own jurisdiction (Northeast), but he was never elected.
Due to a crisis in pastoral leadership in Sitka, Superintendent Fassett appointed me as the pastor there in 1988. It was a wonderful experience for me.
However, the superintendent got an idea. He wanted every pastor to summarize the essence of the ministry of our local church in five slides. Then his plan was to create a slide show to use in promotional work. I spent two full days on this project. It was a challenging and spiritual experience. The selection of the five slides was made and I submitted them to the conference office. We didn’t hear anymore about the project and several months later I gently inquired about how the project was going.
Oh, came the response from the superintendent, the response from the pastors was so small that he decided “not to do it”. After recovering from the shock of the situation, I told the superintendent: “Next time you get a brilliant idea, please let me know when 50% of the pastors have responded; then I will work on the idea.” I never heard from him again, regarding a group project. No, I don’t remember what photographs we selected. I just remember working on it for two days.
While praising superintendents, the next superintendent came to a meeting and warned us all about pastoral misconduct. “Why, she said, there was one pastor who had a hot tub ministry and he got into serious trouble.” Several members of the group giggled. The superintendent wanted an explanation. Quietly, she was informed that I had a hot tub ministry. We will never know if she felt better when we assured her that it was a ministry with men or not. It turned out to be a good evangelistic tool – all the men joined the church. All two of them.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST CONFERENCE – STATE OF WASHINGTON
It was obvious that I would not be able to finish my ministry in Alaska. I had some interest in serving Ketchikan, but they were looking for a young pastor and after 30 plus year of service in Alaska, I was no longer young. I was effective, but not young. I could have stayed in Sitka for a long, long time, in my opinion, but also, in my opinion, I didn’t think that would be good for me or for the church.
So we started looking at the west coast. We didn’t want to return to the Midwest. I asked the bishop of the Seattle Area, Bishop Calvin McConnell, if there would be a place for me in the Pacific Northwest Conference. Remember? I was unappointable in Alaska. He promised to find a place for me. But he also reminded me that he wouldn’t be the bishop there forever. He was a man of his word. I was given, shoehorned, into a very good appointment in Spokane, Washington. I told him I would like to get appointed on the west side of the state and he offered me a small 3 point circuit on the ocean. I went to Spokane. When I went for the introduction experience at Manito United Methodist Church, we stayed at the Superintendent’s home. She had told the Staff-Parish Relations Committee that I was old. Years later, I enjoyed reminding her of this as we learned that she was exactly the same age as yours truly.
One time Bishop McConnell and his wife attended Manito without warning. He came to the first service. It was a Sunday we encouraged everyone to come to the second service. Only the stubborn ones came to the first service. I had a dialogue sermon and Bishop Cal participated. I think he enjoyed it.
I planned to retire from Manito in 2002, but I changed my mind. Now I had no allies on the cabinet, bishop or superintendent. Perhaps even some resentment of the great appointment given to me by Bishop Calvin McConnell. I had indicated I was in no hurry to move in 2000 and that I would not move to a smaller church. (400 members). In two weeks, my appointment to Stanwood UMC was announced. The cabinet was unable to assign a pastor to Manito and they were without a pastor for one year. Almost unforgivable. No, it was unforgiveable.
When I was introduced to Stanwood UMC, the superintendent knew nothing about me, except what I told her minutes prior to the introduction. I was not impressed. The price I paid for having Calvin McConnell “take care of me”.
Now I was on my own. The cabinet was focused on bigger things. After a rough start at Stanwood, I had eight good years there. Retired in 2008. Life is good, with or without superintendents or bishops.
As I was retiring, Bishop Ed Paup, asked me to be Conference Secretary. I had said that I would not do it while I was an active pastor. He remembered. He also had just recognized Barbara with the Bishop’s Award, so I was a soft touch. I served for four years with Bishop Grant Hagiya, in this volunteer position. For a variety of reason’s, I was not motivated to do it for a second term.
But my volunteer work did not end. I was asked by the Board of Pensions to be the Minister to the Retirees, so I serve on three conference boards or agencies in retirement, as of 2018.