"Bishop Tim" finds place in ecumenical history of Florida UMC

Bishop Whitaker laughing at the farewell video on Saturday.  -Photo by Rev. Armando Rodriguez

He was at the helm for 11 years, a relatively short space of time in the annals of Florida Conference history. But Bishop Timothy Whitaker – affectionately dubbed ‘Bishop Tim’  – and his wife, Melba, left a stamp of leadership that many Methodists across the state will miss.

“He leaves this Conference better in so many ways, and he leaves us better than we were and stronger in the faith,” said Russ Graves, incoming Conference lay leader, in a farewell gathering that marked the end of four days of business, training and worship for Florida Methodists at their Annual Conference.

Graves also called Whitaker “a model of decorum, integrity, mercy and kindness.”

Over 1,700 people registered and attended the 2012 event at The Lakeland Center, the last to be presided over by Whitaker, who is retiring to his home in Virginia.

A new bishop is expected to be selected next month and begin service Sept. 1 in Florida.

 Rev. Bill Barnes presents Bishop "Van Morrison" Whitaker a guitar and microphone.  -Photo by Armando Rodriguez

Organizers of Saturday’s sendoff said Whitaker told them to keep the proceedings light and entertaining but sprinkled with worship. Several who had a hand in the preparations poked fun at aspects of Whitaker’s personality, including his penchant for cerebral pursuits, particularly those steeped in religious writings and history.

They displayed a video in which Rev. Bill Barnes, senior pastor of St. Luke’s UMC, Orlando, portrayed the bishop as having plans to follow in the steps of his favorite rock star, Van Morrison. In it, Barnes sang and danced to “Three in One,” with lyrics referring to the Holy Trinity put to the tune of Morrison’s “Brown-eyed Girl.”

Others were more serious, recalling how Whitaker stepped in after the painful loss of former Bishop Henderson and presided over a tumultuous time for the Church, as it faced steep declines in membership and criticism over inability to deal with rapid change and increasing diversity in the population.

“He has served as a bishop of the Church with integrity and diligence and with a deep sense of dependence on God in all of his decisions and all of his actions,” said Rev. Bob Bushong, chairperson of the Committee on the Episcopacy. 

Rev. Geraldine McClellan, chairperson of the Commission on Religion and Race, praised Whitaker for his efforts to “erase differences” and initiate a new path toward including people of all ethnic backgrounds.

 “Thank you for helping us to remove the complacency that keeps us uninvolved,” she said.

She and others also commended the work of Melba Whitaker.

“We know you could not have done what you have done had it not been for Mrs. Bishop,” McClellan told the bishop. She then spoke to the couple:

“God bless the both of you in your retirement, and always know that we will never forget you.” 

 Melba Whitaker receives gifts of appreciation from the Annual Conference.  At right is Rev. Wayne Wiatt, dean of the Cabinet.  -Photo by Armando Rodriguez

Earlier in the Conference, about 50 people attended a luncheon honoring Melba Whitaker. Icel Rodriguez, who oversees the Global Mission program for the Florida Conference, credited the bishop’s wife with starting a mission in East Angola in 2004, when it was a country torn apart by war.

The Florida Conference has sent funding and missionaries to the country, sheltered orphan refugees and educated hundreds, some to the point of seeking college degrees.

Rodriguez said Melba listed the success of that program as her greatest legacy, both at the luncheon last week and when she met one of the college-bound students from Africa in February.

“She was crying when she hugged him,” Rodriguez remembered. “One of the things I love about Melba is her humility. For me, that’s her trademark.”

Rodriguez, who spent a year in East Angola doing missionary work, said Melba Whitaker never stopped reminding Conference leaders to keep funding and supporting the work in Africa.

“She’s a sweet, sweet woman of God with a heart for the people.” 

The assembly that gathered Saturday rose to its feet to sing with Whitaker his choice of “Be Thou My Vision” from a decades-old hymnal. Bushong said the bishop requested the hymn because later versions left out the verse he deemed most important:

“Riches I heed not, or man’s empty praise; thou mine inheritance now and always … my treasure thou art.”

 Rev. Wayne Wiatt, center, and Rev. Bob Bushong, right, present Bishop Whitaker with a $10,000 check in support of Justice for Our Neighbors. -Photo by Rev. Armando Rodriguez

In lieu of a farewell gift, the bishop requested that donations be made to Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), a Methodist program that advocates for immigrants. As of Saturday, about $10,000 had been collected, Bushong said. Those who wish to give may send a check made out to the Florida Conference Treasurer and mail it to Mickey Wilson at the Lakeland office .

The crowd remained standing as Whitaker made a brief farewell speech. He said he knew when he sought the bishop’s post that he did not possess all the “gifts” needed, and no one person can.

“I believe that the Holy Spirit called me to be one wee voice, witness to the living Christian tradition,” he said.

“I am fully confident that the Holy Spirit is preparing a way for the call of someone through the Church to be your next bishop, and I am fully confident that that next person will have gifts that will be relevant for the needs of the life and mission of this Conference at this moment in history.”

He thanked his wife for her support, thanked the people of the Conference for respecting him even in disagreement and thanked the crowd for “a wonderful day of memories and of meaning.”

He then delivered his last benediction as bishop:

“Go in peace and joy to serve God and your neighbor in all that you do. The blessings of God Almighty, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with you always. Amen.”

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