I distinctly remember when Bishop Judy Craig was elected to the episcopacy in 1984 and was assigned to the Michigan Area. As a young pastor who did not grow up in a denomination that permitted women pastors, let alone bishops, I was fascinated by how Bishop Craig led the West Michigan Annual Conference. She was authentically herself, made annual conference fun, and did not take herself too seriously. At the same, she would hold us accountable as an annual conference and was not afraid to “take Thou authority” when needed.
One of my fondest memories of Bishop Craig was when she baptized our two youngest children at a district event at Ludington United Methodist Church. It was May 17, 1987. As the picture below indicates, our children were a handful, but Bishop Craig took it all in stride! Last week, when I had the opportunity to be with Bishop Craig after many years, the first thing she said was, “Oh, how I remember your children. What a bundle of energy they were!”
The North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops was meeting in Columbus, Ohio, where Bishop Craig lives with her niece. She is not able to travel far but was able to spend an hour with the College of Bishops and share dinner with the women bishops. What joy filled our hearts to be in the presence of this saint of the church! Bishop Craig was the third elected woman to the episcopacy in The United Methodist Church after Marjorie Matthews, elected in the North Central Jurisdiction in1980, and just hours after Leontine Kelley, the first African-American woman bishop, who was elected in the Western Jurisdiction in 1984. Bishop Craig served eight years in the Michigan Area, followed by eight years in the West Ohio area.
One by one, we greeted Bishop Craig with hugs, kisses, words of endearment, and great joy. Bishop Craig’s characteristic playfulness was in full force when she responded to our first question, “How are you?” “For the shape I am in, I’m terrific! My heart is full because I am with you. How much a part of me you are! Across the quadrennia, there remains a belonging. It’s the mystery of connectedness.”
Our conversation eventually turned to the Commission on a Way Forward, which was meeting in Berlin, Germany at the same time last week. Lamenting the divisions in the denomination that she loves so deeply and has served so faithfully, Bishop Craig said, “What must poor John Wesley think about the state of the church today? He was not concerned about opinions but about whether our hearts were right with God and each other. Would he say, ‘Oh, my sons and daughters, what are you doing?’” I had to hold back the tears.
Bishop Craig knows that this is a seminal moment in The United Methodist Church and expressed grief that our differences center around what she called “human theology.” “God made us as these wonderful sexual beings, and now we’re afraid of it. And now we are going to wreck the church over this.”
Then Bishop Craig challenged us. “What is your hope level?” Our College of Bishops reflects the diversity of The United Methodist Church, yet we were united in our expressions of hope for the church. We see hope in dying churches that choose to live by adapting and reaching out to the needs of their communities. We see hope in United Methodists who seek out those with whom they disagree and dialogue in love. We see hope in vibrant congregations that choose to grow by starting new worshipping communities and reaching new people for Christ. We see hope in the vibrant faith and joyful worship of our Central Conference churches.
We see hope in United Methodists who continually seek to deepen their own spiritual lives and engage others with grace, not judgment. We see hope when people join together in mission relief for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, wildfires in the western US, and earthquakes in Mexico—and no one asks what “side” they are on. We see hope when congregations create a culture of call that inspires children, teenagers, and young adults as well as second career persons to say, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” We see hope in ordinary people, rising up to say, “Because we love Jesus, we stand together in loving all of God’s one-of-a-kind creatures.”
Bishop Craig shared with the women bishops about her own election and consecration in 1984 in Duluth, Minnesota. She was finally elected on the 47th ballot, well into Friday night. It did not escape our attention that two of the first three United Methodist women bishops were elected out of the North Central Jurisdiction. Of course, it was much more of a challenge to be a woman bishop in 1984 than in 2017. Bishop Craig reminded us that her first cabinet was all male. When she discovered that the district superintendents were occasionally engaging in “decision-making” in the men’s room, she did not hesitate to stand outside the door until they came out!
Bishop Craig was not without personal advice for us and started off by saying, “Listen to your old mother!”
- “Worrying too much about the future can drain you of what God has called you to do.”
- “Three-month renewal leaves are the smart way to go. If you only take a month at a time, there is no opportunity to really disconnect.” Episcopal leaders are required to take three months of renewal leave every quadrennium. Periodic renewal leaves are highly encouraged for all clergy and are provided for in the Discipline. Some larger churches even provide renewal leaves for lay staff.
- “Don’t take yourself too seriously!”
- “Take a hot shower every night and wash it off. The next day, get up and pray, ‘Help me! Help me!’”
- “Pace yourself. There is almost nothing that cannot wait until tomorrow.”
- “What are you doing for fun?”
At the end of our time together, Bishop Craig emphasized that there is room for everyone in Christ’s church. God calls us to get on our knees and ask for the Holy Spirit and then spend our energy praying, teaching, mentoring, and embodying love for all rather than focusing on differences. Again, she said, “What is going on in our church today will not be solved by politics. The real issue is our hearts, not our opinions. I see an uprising. The church is of God and will endure to the end of time.”
As Bishop Craig reminded us, what might The United Methodist Church look like if there were room for everyone? What might happen if we recognize that God claims each one of us and still has work for us to do? And how might we reclaim, along with Bishop Craig, the mystery of connectedness, that in the midst of our diversity, there remains a belonging? Thank you, Bishop Craig, for your wisdom, encouragement, joy, and prayers. Our hearts are still full.