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March 16, 2001


Surprise election sends Whitaker to Florida

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               Photo by Tita Parham  

Following the special session's service of consecration Feb. 28 Bishop and Mrs. Timothy Whitaker were presented to the delegation. Whitaker's wife, Melba, was flown in by private jet, arranged by a parishioner in Virginia, so she could attend the service.
bblock.gif (871 bytes)Election outcome surprises delegates and new bishop.

By Tita Parham

LAKELAND —The Florida Conference has a new bishop, the Rev. Timothy Wayne Whitaker, 52, formerly superintendent of the Virginia Annual Conference’s Norfolk District.

The episcopacy committee of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference (SEJ) made that recommendation with the rest of the jurisdiction’s appointments for bishop in its Feb. 27 report to delegates during the evening session of the jurisdiction’s special called session. Delegates approved the appointments, effective April 2.

Committee members unanimously agreed on the decisions, according to Denny White, the committee’s chair.

The special session began Feb. 26 in Lake Junaluska, N.C., and was held to elect a bishop to fill the vacancy created by the death of Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson, 66, who died Dec. 7 after a two-year battle with cancer. Henderson was serving in his second appointment as bishop of the Florida Conference. Retired Bishop J. Lloyd Knox was appointed bishop of the conference after Henderson’s death and during Henderson’s six-month medical leave of absence in 1999.

United Methodist bishops in the United States are ordinarily elected in regularly scheduled jurisdictional conferences held every four years.

Election stuns new bishop

Whitaker’s election came as a surprise to many delegates and the bishop-elect himself.

"I am stunned by my election," Whitaker said in an interview following the announcement. "I had decided I did not want to be a candidate."

Whitaker withdrew from the election the first night of the session in a 10-minute presentation to delegates after being nominated that evening on the first ballot. He re-emerged on the 13th ballot, took a significant lead over the two leading nominees on the 15th ballot and was elected bishop on the 17th ballot with 395 out of 497 valid votes. He needed 299 to be elected.

Whitaker said he had not accepted a nomination and endorsement from his conference prior to the session because he did not want to go through the election process again. He was a nominee and strong contender during elections at the jurisdictional conference last July. When competition for the third opening narrowed to him and one other candidate, he withdrew, paving the way for the election of the Rev. James R. King Jr.

He said nomination for the special session would be a distraction to his life and ministry during a time when he was becoming refocused.

Whitaker also felt he was not the right fit for the position because he sensed the delegates’ view of the role of bishop was different from his. He said the bishop’s office is one of a "pastoral theologian" and administrative, but many people feel bishops are more like CEOs, chief executive officers, of companies.

"At the end of the conference there was this tremendous movement to elect me, and I felt it would be a sin against the church and the Lord if I did not accept," he said. "I accept it as the church exercising its judgment and the church believing this was a movement of the Holy Spirit."

Florida delegates say Whitaker is good choice

Many members of the Florida Conference delegation said they were pleased with the appointment.

Knox said he felt good about the decision because Whitaker is "an excellent leader and a wonderful pastor who will lead the conference into the 21st century."

"I believe the Holy Spirit led us in choosing the best person," Knox said. "That was seen in the deadlock and rising of the name that fit Florida."

"We are thrilled," said Mary Alice Massey, head of the conference’s delegation and a member of the episcopacy committee. "We perceived God’s will would be done."

The Rev. Dick Wills said the appointment, not the election, surprised him. "Before coming up here [the delegation] there was a lot of positive discussion about him. It was a disappointment when he said he did not want to be nominated," Wills said. "You can imagine the thrill when his name appeared again."

His appointment was a clear answer to prayer, according Wills. "He has a heart for God and an intense desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ," Will said. "That translates into dynamics of church growth and a movement of the Holy Spirit which empowers that. The groundwork Bishop Henderson laid — we’ll now see the fruit of that with this bishop."

Other delegates felt the outcome was spirit driven. "I think the Holy Spirit was there this afternoon, in spite of us," said John Dowell, president of the Florida Conference United Methodist Men.

Jacksonville District Superintendent Thom Shafer said it was a "God movement." "When you can experience the Spirit moving in a way you can transform an entire event, it’s a God movement," he said.

Shafer said the greatest strength Whitaker brings to the Florida Conference is being who he is. "He always qualified his statement [about his nomination] that he is responsible to the direction of the Holy Spirit in his life. I trust that," Shafer said. "If that truly does describe him then he is working with the Holy Spirit in his life. He’s committed because he’s committed to God."

The Rev. Marta Burke, a delegate from the Miami District, said she feels Whitaker will be a good bishop for Florida, but felt the election fell into "some old patterns of electing a bishop" when it became deadlocked between the Rev. Al Gwinn and the Rev. Nancy Rankin.

Burke had hoped for a forum of conversation between the leading nominees and the delegates. "The only conversation we had is when people declined [their nomination] or in between breaks," she said. "I was hoping we could trust the process and interface with each other."

The election’s progression was a reaction to a fear of facing the different ideologies and philosophies of the two leading candidates, according to Burke.

"We’re saying we’re a diverse church, but we don’t want to deal with our diversity. We don’t want conflict — we’d have to face our diversity," she said. "We missed an opportunity to be the church."

bishwreceptionlg.jpg (30234 bytes)

Photo by Tita Parham

Bishop-elect Whitaker greets delegates from the Florida Conference and other regional areas at a reception given in his honor following the announcement of his appointment as bishop of the Florida Conference Tuesday evening of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference's special session.

Ministry enters a new phase

    Whitaker was consecrated a bishop Wednesday morning during the last session. Although his wife, Melba, had not been with him throughout the conference she attended the consecration service, thanks to a church member in Richmond, Va., who arranged for a private jet to transport her to the conference. No commercial flights would have gotten her to the service in time.
    When Whitaker gave his withdrawal presentation early in the election he said he came "without wife, robe or speech."
    Prior to his appointment as district superintendent, Whitaker served as pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in the Richmond District from June 1993 to June 1997 and other appointments in the Virginia Conference from 1975 to 1993.
    Whitaker was also pastor and student pastor of churches in the Mississippi Conference and student pastor and minister of youth in the Georgia Conference. He was ordained an elder in the Mississippi Conference in 1974.
    Whitaker has served a variety of churches, "from small and rural churches to downtown churches with ministries to the homeless and poor," according to Wills.
    Whitaker received a bachelor of arts degree in 1970 from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., and a master of divinity degree in 1973 from Emory University, Atlanta, Ga.
    Whitaker and his wife have two sons, Scott, 28, and Eric, 25.
    The special session ended after the consecration service. A total of 524 of 540 lay and clergy delegates attended.
    The Southeastern Jurisdiction is one of five jurisdictions, or regional areas, in the United States and comprises 12,309 United Methodist congregations and nearly 2.9 million members.
    The Florida Conference is the second largest of 65 annual conferences in the United States, with 743 churches and more than 340,000 members. It extends east of the Appalachicola River to Key West.
    For Whitaker's complete biographical sketch and photo visit http://umns.umc.org/elections/bios/twhitaker.htm

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2001 Florida United Methodist Review Online