Humility. Kindness. Wisdom.
Those were a few of the words repeated often at the retirement celebration of Perkins Bishop in Residence D. Max Whitfield, held virtually on August 20.
Bishop Whitfield officially retired on August 31 as Bishop in Residence and as Director of the Center for Religious Leadership.
Noting that Whitfield launched his career from Perkins – he earned his M.Div. in 1969 — and now was concluding his career at Perkins, Dean Craig Hill said, “You’re coming full circle. You’ve had a 50-year relationship with Perkins. Instead of retiring, you came back to continue to shape church leaders.”
Nearly 30 Perkins faculty, staff and students were on hand for the Zoom gathering, as well as the bishop’s wife, Valerie Whitfield, and their five children, Kevin Whitfield, Rodney Whitfield, Kristen Laughlin, Laurie Bishop and Karen Maleare. A few of the couple’s 12 grandchildren made appearances too. Betty Self, a friend of the Whitfields, was also on hand.
Colleagues recounted Whitfield’s contributions to a range of initiatives at Perkins, and praised his humility, problem-solving skills, and reassuring presence.
Priscilla Pope-Levison, Associate Dean for External Programs, noted that Bishop Whitfield will be especially missed by the Office of External Programs, because he was a regular for monthly staff lunches at La Madeleine — always turning up at the French bistro in a cowboy hat.
Speaking on behalf of the Center for Religious Leadership advisory board, Pope-Levison also noted Whitfield’s work initiating and leading the Academy for Adaptive Leadership, a weeklong gathering of denominational leaders at Lake Texoma.
“When you add that up, Max, that’s been more than 50 pastors that you have worked with, closely, to strengthen their ministry and in turn to strengthen the church’s ministry,” Pope-Levison said. She concluded by expressing her appreciation to Whitfield “as a mentor, a listener, a guide, an advocate, a steady presence, and a friend.”
Rebekah Miles, Professor of Ethics and Practical Theology and a fellow Arkansas native, praised Whitfield as a “United Methodist polity genius” and as a beloved pastor who spent 30 years serving churches in Arkansas.
“I talked to several pastors from his district, including among the most conservative and the most progressive of our conference, and they all praised his unfailing graciousness, his humility and his good humor,” Miles said.
She also recounted a gamble that Whitfield made at a swim party in 2000, shortly after his name was put forth for bishop. He promised to get a Speedo swimsuit if elected – a safe bet, because no Arkansas pastor had been named bishop in the past 40 years. When he was elected, Arkansas clergy members presented him with a Speedo – but a Speedo t-shirt, not a swimsuit.
Whitfield retires as Bishop in Residence after serving since 2012. Previously, he was Bishop of the New Mexico and Northwest Texas Conferences of The United Methodist Church from 2000 – 2012. He was ordained as an elder in 1970 in the North Arkansas Conference. In addition to his M.Div., he earned a D. Min. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1983.
At the gathering, Whitfield said that he’s retiring to spend more time with Valerie, his wife of 27 years, and to enjoy some traveling.
“The Perkins community welcomed me with open arms in 2012, just as it did when I was a student,” Whitfield said. “You treated me as a colleague, which is the greatest honor that could be bestowed. These past 8 years have brought great joy and fulfillment.”