Bishop D. Max Whitfield began his career at Perkins, and soon, he will wrap it up at Perkins.
Bishop Whitfield (M. Div. ’69) officially retires on August 31 as Perkins’s Bishop in Residence and Director of the Center for Religious Leadership. He returned to Perkins in 2012 to serve as Bishop in Residence after 12 years as Bishop of the New Mexico and Northwest Texas Conferences of The United Methodist Church. Prior to his election to the episcopacy, Bishop Whitfield served as Superintendent of the Batesville and Fayetteville Districts in the Arkansas Conference UMC, after more than 30 years as senior pastor in various United Methodist congregations in Arkansas. He was ordained deacon (1967) and elder (1970) in the North Arkansas Conference. In addition to his M.Div., he earned a D. Min. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1983.
Bishop Whitfield spoke to Perkins Perspective writer Mary Jacobs on August 7; here are excerpts.
Why retire now?
Part of the reason is that a Bishop in Residence works on a four-year contract and this is the end of my second four-year term. Also, age is creeping up on me. I’ll celebrate my 76th birthday in October.
There are a several different things that my wife Valerie and I have been wanting to do. We’ll always stay in contact with the Perkins community, but we will be less active. We live in Richardson and are planning to remain here. We also plan to continue our involvement in our local church, First UMC Richardson. We’re both involved in Sunday school. I’ve done some teaching and some pastoral and hospital calls from time to time and will continue to do that.
If we can ever get back into Bridwell, I’d like to look at some polity issues and research the background of those issues. I’m intrigued with a question that my wife raised: “When did the Methodists take the word ‘obey’ out of the marriage vows?” I found out that the words “serve and obey” were both removed in 1864 by the Methodist Episcopal Church during the civil war. The MEC was involved in the abolition of slavery, so both words were taken from the ritual.
We look forward to doing more with our family. Between the two of us, Valerie and I have five children and 12 grandchildren and look forward to doing more with them. We’ve been married for 27 years; we were both in our 40s when we widowed, and we met and married.
Valerie is the artist in the family and has been doing some stained-glass work. I’d like to try that. When it’s safe to do so, we also want to do some traveling and see the remaining states we haven’t yet seen. We’d like to visit New England.
What does a Bishop in Residence do?
When I took the job, Bill Lawrence was the Dean at Perkins at the time, and I asked him that question. He said, “You reside.” I didn’t know what that meant. I spoke with Bishop John Wesley Hardt, who had served as Bishop in Residence (1988-2000) previously, and who was still active and still very sharp at the time. He told me, “Well, you find out. Each bishop will do different things and you’ll do whatever you want.” For the past eight years, I’ve been trying to figure out what a Bishop in Residence does. But I would say that I was more of a pastoral presence. That’s is a role I’ve played, and I’ve certainly enjoyed it.
When I took the position, Dean Lawrence told me I wouldn’t do any teaching. But a few months later, he asked me if I could teach UM Polity. I said yes and ended up teaching that class 15 times over the past eight years. Also, the faculty has been just marvelous in their willingness to let me be part of the community. They’ve shared their scholarly research and allowed me to attend various committee meetings and decision-making bodies.
The last few months of your career at Perkins have been under the restrictions of COVID-19. Is that a source of regret?
Yes, that has been a regret — missing the graduation, the awarding of diplomas and honors, the worship service that we do at the end of each year. We look forward to seeing the students come back after their internships and meeting their families at graduation. I’ve missed that very much. I would add that teaching online has been very hard. In the classroom, I loved being able to see the eyes of the students and to see their expressions. I missed that a great deal. I taught a course online this summer. The students were still able to learn a great deal, but only through hard work and extra effort.
In 2014, in addition to your position as Bishop in Residence, you were named Director of the Center for Religious Leadership at Perkins. Any highlights you’d like to share from that work?
Leadership has been an interest of mine for a long time. I served on a board of ordained ministry for years. I realized there are three things we need from clergy: leadership, leadership, leadership.
I’m especially proud of the Academy for Adaptive Leadership, an intense five days of helping clergy who’ve been out of seminary 8-10 years. We had about four or five different groups over the years. The pastors who participated were great individuals. Seeing them grow, develop, and acquire leadership skills was a delight. I enjoyed helping to design that program and to see that come to fruition.
Looking back over the past 8 years, what makes you most proud?
Just seeing the students grow and develop. To see them grow in their faith, to grow intellectually, to see them prepared to go forth and to serve Christ and to serve the church, and to think that, in some small way, that I was contributing to what they are becoming and what they are doing — that is the greatest achievement. The faculty at Perkins is outstanding. Some are world-renowned scholars. I think we are providing a superior theological education. Just to be part of that community has meant so much to me. Most of my work has been around the lunch table — visiting students as they’re dropping by and talking, just being able to answer some of their questions, to point them in directions they may not have considered before. Being a part of that has been a joy.
It is impossible to overemphasize how blessed I have been in the ways the faculty and staff welcomed and included me. Dean Hill welcomed me as a member of the Perkins Administrative Council and asked me to serve as the Parliamentarian at Faculty Meetings. These opportunities provided me with a perspective to understand the heart and mission of the Perkins community. I have had the privilege of functioning in a wide variety of settings. Serving Perkins in this position produced unspeakable joy.