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Bishop Morgan, ‘leader of leaders,’ dies

By Heather Hahn
March 17, 2014 | NASHVILLE, Tenn (UMNS)

Retired United Methodist Bishop Robert “Bob” C. Morgan, who twice oversaw the merger of annual (regional) conferences and mentored a number of active bishops, passed away Sunday, March 16. He was 80.

“I always refer to him as a ‘leader of leaders,’” said Bishop Lindsey Davis, who served as a district superintendent under Morgan and considers him a mentor and friend. Davis now leads the Kentucky Annual and Red Bird Missionary conferences.

Funeral Arrangements

“He was so highly respected, and his leadership skills were so strong that he really attracted other leaders to him.”

Davis in a remembrance counted five other bishops who served under Morgan before being elected to the episcopacy.

Even bishops who never served directly under Morgan shared how much they valued his guidance.

“Bishop Morgan was a great Christian visionary, an inspired teacher and a spiritual adventurer,” said Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who served as a bishop in Mississippi after Morgan’s retirement and now leads the North Carolina Conference. “He left a great legacy in Mississippi and was a strong and loving support for me during my years there.”

Will Willimon, former bishop of the North Alabama Conference where Morgan spent his retirement, called Morgan “a wonderful role model of a strong, able bishop who knew how to lead and who expected the best of his pastors.”

Willimon, who is now a professor at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School and pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., said Morgan also never lost sight of the God he served.

“He felt that God had given him unique opportunities to lead, and he felt great responsibility to God to lead well.”

A gift for mergers

Morgan, who began his ministry in Alabama, was elected a bishop by the Southeastern Jurisdiction in 1984. He first served as bishop for eight years in Mississippi, where he oversaw the merger of two conferences into one statewide conference in 1988.

He next served as bishop in Kentucky from 1992 to his retirement in 2000. There, he also oversaw the merger of the Louisville and Kentucky conferences in 1996.

“These two mergers in Mississippi and Kentucky would not have happened without his strong leadership,” said Davis, who co-chaired the Kentucky uniting conference. “We talk a lot in the church about visionary leadership. Well, Bob Morgan was the real deal.”

Bishop Bill McAlilly, who now leads the Tennessee and Memphis conferences, served under Morgan in Mississippi and said the late bishop also cast a vision for planting new churches. They included a new church development to which Morgan appointed McAlilly in 1986.

“He said, ‘You can go up there, and if it goes well, you can stay 10 years,’” McAlilly recalled. “It went well, and one Sunday night after I had been there four years, he called and said, ‘I want you to move.  Be in Jackson tomorrow at noon.’”

McAlilly walked into the conference office with a bunch of reasons why he should not move.

“He told me all the reasons why I should, then said, ‘if you can give me a moral reason why you shouldn’t, I'll accept it.’ Of course, I was silent. I went and it was a wonderful appointment.”

McAlilly said his mentor “understood appointment-making and believed they were ‘his’ appointments when they were announced.”

That gift for appointing clergy stood Morgan in good stead in merging conferences, said Bishop James E. Swanson Sr., who now leads the Mississippi Conference.

As part of the merger, Morgan made appointments of clergy without regard for which conference they had historically served. “It really created a sense of oneness,” Swanson said.

Swanson, Mississippi’s first African-American United Methodist bishop, said the merger also helped draw together the state’s United Methodists toward greater racial integration. “Having overcome a sense of dividedness between historically white annual conferences, it paved the way to talking about separation period.”

To celebrate the merger’s 25th anniversary, Swanson invited Morgan to speak at the 2013 Mississippi Annual Conference. Swanson credited Morgan with helping people to see and work toward the greater good, rather than focusing on their individual fears and desires.

“That takes a great deal of skill, and Bob Morgan was able to do it.”

Ministry bookended in Alabama

Morgan was born Sept. 15, 1933, in Birmingham, Ala., and he died there in his home on Sunday morning. He was educated in Birmingham Public School and graduated from United Methodist-related Birmingham-Southern College.

He earned his master of divinity from Candler School of Theology at United Methodist-related Emory University before returning as a pastor to the North Alabama Conference. Davis noted that Morgan’s leadership skills gained recognition early, and he was appointed a superintendent of the Tuscaloosa District when still in his mid-30s. He was the senior pastor of Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church in Birmingham, when he was elected bishop.

As bishop, he was a member of the United Methodist boards of Discipleship and Global Ministry. Morgan was president on the United Methodist Board of Church and Society from 1988 to 1992.

“I remember Bishop Morgan not only for his great faith, deep voice and ready smile but also for his particular care for the staff of the board,” said Jim Winkler, top executive of the National Council of Churches and former top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. “It was comforting to me to know he was genuinely committed to our welfare.”

Morgan also was president of the Council of Bishops from 1999 to 2000.

After his retirement as an active bishop in 2000, Morgan became bishop-in-residence and a religion instructor at his alma mater, Birmingham-Southern College — a position he held until his death.

After Morgan joined the faculty, the number of students bound for seminary increased, and his courses regularly attracted more students than there were seats. Thirteen of his recent students are now studying at United Methodist seminaries.

“He taught with such excitement, so it was very hard for students not to be excited too,” said Laura Sisson, Birmingham-Southern College’s director of church relations. “He taught Paul with such enthusiasm that everyone wanted to go to Turkey. He taught parables with so much passion that students wanted to devour the New Testament”

She added that Morgan had a talent for recognizing other people’s gifts, even if they did not see it themselves. Lora Parker, one of Birmingham-Southern’s recent graduates, attested on Facebook to Morgan’s effect on her own sense of calling.

“’Bishop’ is the one who looked me dead in the eye as a sophomore and told me, ‘Lora, you’re supposed to be in ministry,’” said Parker, who is now the youth director at First United Methodist Church in Oxford, Ala., and director of summer programs at Sumatanga, the North Alabama Conference's camp. 

 “To say this wonderful person had an impact is a slight understatement. His persistent support, encouragement and love helped get me to where I am today and I could not be more thankful for that. ….Man, did heaven just gained a lot of sass and awesome!”

Morgan is survived by his wife and ministry partner of more than 50 years, Martha; four children and eight grandchildren.

"Bishop Morgan has shown remarkable leadership to the church across the years,” said a statement by Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, who now leads the North Alabama Conference and served under Morgan in Kentucky. She will be among the speakers at his funeral.

“He will be sorely missed by the North Alabama Conference, the Council of Bishops and the church as a whole."

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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