When Bishop Beard was just 11 years old, he got connected to church when his local United Methodist congregation invited him and his brother to something called “Cookies and Kool-Aid.” Soon he was asked to be an acolyte who would light the candles before worship. Bishop Beard sees this as a theme of his ministry ever since, “I want to see The United Methodist Church on fire in a good way.”
Bishop Beard shares about those early experiences with the church, his call to ministry, attending Asbury Theological Seminary, and his love of fishing. This delightful conversation is filled with joy and laughter. Listen and meet United Methodist Bishop Frank Beard of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
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This episode first posted on March 5, 2018.
Joe Iovino: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications’ and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
Today we get to meet United Methodist bishop Frank Beard who was invited to his local United Methodist Church when he was just 11 years old.
Bishop Beard: I got involved in that United Methodist Church through cookies and Kool-Aid.
Joe: It kind of stuck.
Bishop Beard: Cookies and Kool-Aid got me in the Methodist Church and I’ve been eating in Methodist churches ever since.
Joe: In those early experiences Bishop Beard finds the roots of his call to ministry.
Bishop Beard: Imagine my surprise when I went to church and they put me in charge of fire, lighting the candle. You know, firing up the church. And I think that’s been my mantra ever since is I want to see the United Methodist Church on fire in a good way.
Joe: The welcome he received from that congregation has stayed with him.
Bishop Beard: That Methodist Church took me in in 1968. The spring of that year was when Martin Luther King was assassinated. To think that an all-white church would invite two little black boys to come in through vacation Bible school and become a part of their church, that church opened their arms and welcomed us.
Joe: When Bishop Beard is not bishop-ing he’s probably fishing.
Bishop Beard: I love to fish. Somebody said, Hey, I hear you’re going fishing. I said, No, I’m not. I’m going catching ‘cause anybody can fish.
Joe: I loved meeting Bishop Beard and I know you will, too.
On the phone
Joe: Bishop Beard it’s so good to get to talk to you today. Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Beard: Thank you very much. And I appreciate the opportunity to share.
Joe: I want to start today with your early life. Where did you grow up?
Bishop Beard: You know, it’s a little complicated. My early years were spent in rural Arkansas, a little place called Blytheville, Arkansas. And my folks were sharecroppers. And I was a baby of 12 children. I have a twin brother, but he was born before I was. So I’m the baby of 12. So I tell ‘em my mom and dad quit having children when they got one they wanted. [Laughter] So we were in rural Arkansas. And then my dad got a better job offer up in Elkhart, Indiana which was a lot of manufacturing in that area. And he’s a construction worker, and got a job there. And so we loaded up the truck and moved the family.
Joe: Wow. And what were some of your favorite things to do as a child? What was fun for you?
Bishop Beard: Oh, you know, once we got to Elkhart getting involved in the life of the church…. Of course there was always church camp and district youth activities. And there was a group called Life Line Youth for Christ, which was ran by a fellow named Erv Polk and his wife, Sandy Polk. It was for troubled youth, boys and girls club. And I got involved in that. And I tell everybody I was not a troublemaker. I’m not with all the trouble….
Joe: Oh, okay. I understand there was a time in your life, though, and…and I believe I read this in your biography…when…when you got connected to a church as a young person. Was your family church attenders, or was this something…:
Bishop Beard: My folks were…were church attenders. They went to another denomination, was not United Methodist. But I never joined that church and went…. I meant, I went because I had to go. But learned early…. And this was a neat experience. I got involved in that United Methodist Church through cookies and Kool-Aid. A gentleman by the name of George Bennett invited me and my brother across the street for cookies and Kool-Aid. We had missed vacation Bible school that day and he saw us wandering the neighborhood, probably terrorizing the neighborhood, and invited us over. And then he got our name and address and took us home. And my grandmother watched us ‘cause my mom and dad both worked, and Grandma was widowed and lived with us my whole life. He got permission to get us every day to take us to vacation Bible school. Grace United Methodist Church in downtown Elkhart on Division Street. And that became a love affair with the Methodist Church. At the end of vacation Bible school they invited us to go to church camp. Well, we didn’t have any money. But the United Methodist Women and Men provided scholarships and we went to church camp. And it was there that I gave my heart to Jesus for the first time.
Joe: That’s fantastic. And about how old were you at this time?
Bishop Beard: I was 11 years old when I started going to that church. I started attending there in 1968.
Joe: And cookies and Kool-Air was kind of a thing?
Bishop Beard: I said cookies and Kool-Air got me in the Methodist Church, and I’ve been eating in Methodist churches ever since.
Joe: That’s fantastic. What were some of the things that made going to church there special?
Bishop Beard: Well, you know, there was a good group of men and women, all lay folks. George Bennett was probably the most influential because he took time to invite me in and just kind of nurtured me, took me under his wing. When I went to that church he called me one day and he says…well, call…he didn’t call; he came over. …and says, I want you to be an acolyte. I had no idea of a goose in a snowstorm what an acolyte was. But I knew George and it would always be something good. So I says, Yes. Imagine my surprise when I went to church and they put me in charge of fire, lighting the candle. You know, firing up the church. And I think that’s been my mantra ever since, is I want to see the United Methodist Church on fire, in a good way.
Joe: So this was really foundational to your faith. How do you think it affects you as a pastor and now as a bishop?
Bishop Beard: If you look back you have eyes that are a little bit clearer. That Methodist Church took me in in 1968. That was the spring of that year was when Martin Luther King was assassinated. There were all sorts of problems among different ethnic groups, especially black and white. And there were riots in our city as well as South Bend and Chicago area ‘cause that’s up in the northern corner of Indiana. To think that an all-white church would invite two little black boys…and other black folks were invited as well, to come in through vacation Bible school and become a part of their church. And we stuck around after vacation Bible school was over through church camp and getting involved as an acolyte and other things in the church. And that church opened their arms and welcomed us. Now, I’m naïve to think that everybody was that way. I did… I did some research on the church later on when they merged with three other Methodist churches to form what is now called Faith United Methodist Church in Elkhart, and read some of those minutes. And I was very proud of the pastor who said, you know, you all can go wherever you want; but we’re gonna be open to anybody that chooses to come to this church.
Joe: Wow. And so when did you first hear God calling you into ordained ministry?
Bishop Beard: You know, it was just kind of a gradual call all along. You know, on Sunday mornings after church, you know, when I put the candles out and I’m standing at the back, you know, in my little acolyte robe … would pat me on the head or slap me on the back and say, Son, you’re gonna be a preacher someday. You know, my prayer was if you all would just pray for me to stay saved that’ll be good enough. Anyways it was kind of a gradual call. But there was a moment when I was a junior in high school. And I knew that God was calling me to some form of Christian service. And we took a missions trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And at that time they…they timed it so you got to Port-au-Prince just as it was getting dark. And they would take you in this little truck, and they’d take you to the top of a mountain. And you could over and see the lights of the city. And I was up there and they said, You’re supposed to be off on your own and just pray for God to be with you through the week. I was really struggling with what to do with my future, you know, what…what is it that God’s calling me to do. And I remember going over by myself. And I’d just bowed my head and I was…I was crying. You know. Lord, what is it that you want me to do? I was just…you know, as a young teenage kid. And I remember distinctly raising my head and through my tears it looked like the lights of that city formed themselves in the shape of a cross. And I heard an inward voice that said, Don’t worry about what to do. Don’t worry about what to become. Just pick up your cross and follow me. I use that as a part of my call story. It goes on from there with other people just pouring into my life. But that was a moment when I just said, Okay. I relaxed about it and I never worried about it again. I just tried to concentrate on being faithful at the moment.
Joe: So there weren’t really like other careers you considered. This was…
Bishop Beard: I did…I considered…. I considered a career as a…in social work and in boys and girls clubs because that was my mentor. Erv Polk was the leader of a boys and girls club. So I went to Taylor University because Erv Polk went to Taylor University. And I started out…I was gonna major in social work. And you know, work in a boys and girls club. But that wasn’t what God wanted, and gradually called me to ministry. And I majored in Bible literature and went…went there. And then the church…the local church, Grace United Methodist, they encouraged me to go to Asbury. They had a strange way of doing that, but it worked. It was effective.
Joe: Can you explain that? What was their strange way of doing it?
Bishop Beard: So this guy comes to me. His name is Bob Seegly. He was a local barber in town, and didn’t have a whole lot of money. But he had a great heart. And he said to me, he said, “Frank,” he says, “we can’t afford to pay your seminary bill.” He says, “…but there’s a group of us in the church, we vowed that …every quarter we were gonna take up an offering. We’re not gonna take away from our regular giving to the church. It’s gonna be above and beyond. And every quarter we’re gonna send a check. Now you can go to any seminary you want to go to, but our checks are gonna arrive at Asbury.” [Laughter] And that’s how I went to Asbury Seminary.
Joe: That’s great. So that got you started in a good direction.
Bishop Beard: They did. And when I got out of seminary I had very little seminary debt because those folks were so faithful in their giving, and in their sharing.
Joe: And now you’re the bishop of the Illinois area. What are some exciting things that are happening there?
Bishop Beard: I’m the Bishop of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, which is everything from I-80, Joliet…south of Joliet. So Coal City all the way down to the Ohio River and border to border. Bishop Sally Dyck is Bishop of Illinois…Northern Illinois Conference. So I’ve got two-thirds of the State of Illinois. And I love it. It’s a lot of rural churches, lot of small churches. I say you can…you can always tell a community because there’s a Casey’s, a grain elevator and a United Methodist Church.
Joe: And I know being a bishop is a super busy job. But when you get a chance to simply relax what do you do just for the fun of it?
Bishop Beard: Most people know the fact that I’m a fisherman. And I…. I love to fish. And you’ll hear me say this. I was with a group of young clergy the other day and somebody said, Hey, I hear you’re going fishing. I said, No, I’m not. I’m going catching ‘cause anybody can fish. So I love to go out and catch fish.
Joe: Are you going into like streams and rivers and fresh water…
Bishop Beard: I’m headed down to South Carolina. I have fishing spot down there. They call it the Santee Cooper area. It’s actually Lake Marion Moultrie down in Cross, South Carolina. Eutawville, South Carolina, just north of Charleston. And I’ll be down there for a week. I’ve done that for 30 some years. I’ve got a really good fishing guide down there. And we…we spend a week together, take some other folks with me.
Joe: So you’re a very experienced fisherman it sounds like.
Bishop Beard: You know what? I’m very experienced and I do a variety of fishing. My specialty is trophy catfish. So Arkansas blue catfish, anything 25 pounds and up is what I’m after. But I fish for all kinds of stuff. Everything from bluegills to sharks.
Joe: What makes fishing attractive to you? Have you ever thought about that? Like, what…why…why did you choose that.
Bishop Beard: Well, my dad, you know, we were…. Like I said, we were raised in rural Arkansas. We didn’t have a lot of money. And so my dad to get away and kind of relax…and also another way of providing meat for the table, would…would go fishing along the Mississippi River or some of its tributaries down in Blytheville, Arkansas, Osceola. And so he would drag me along. And I guess I got the bug. And so I’ve enjoyed…I’ve enjoyed fishing over the years.
Joe: It seems like something that you do…. the myth always is, right, that it’s a place you go to be quiet and so you don’t scare the fish, so to speak. Is it that way for you? Is it just kind of alone time? Quiet time?
Bishop Beard: No. it’s alone time. There is some solitude in it. And I enjoy being out in nature. But as far as the whole myth about being quiet, it just depends on the type of fish you’re after. I am not the one to sit on the bank for hours and, you know, you don’t get a bite. Listen, if I don’t get a fish in about 10 or 12 minutes in one spot, I’m off to hunt them down. I have a boat and I’ll get out there. And I’ll have to tell you this. I hope I don’t get in trouble for it. The name of my boat is Prayer.
Bishop Beard: So when somebody calls the office and they say, Where’s the bishop? Oh, he’s in Prayer!
Joe: [Laughter] That’s fantastic. What’s something about being a bishop that you enjoy that we might not know about?
Bishop Beard: I think the biggest thing that I enjoy is being able to set the pace and the vision for an Annual Conference. Now I haven’t been here long enough to know what…what our specific vision is for Illinois Great Rivers Conference. But I know how to get us started in that. And so I’ve called our conference to deepen our walk with the Lord through prayer. And I think that once we…we intensify the prayer temperature of our conference, everything else will fall in place. And so that’s something that I enjoy, is just being able to encourage people to strengthen their walk with Christ through prayer.
Joe: That’s wonderful. And this may lead right into this next piece. But the last question I ask every guest of Get Your Spirit in Shape is if they would recommend a practice that they use that helps keep them close to God. What’s something that you do that helps strengthen your relationship with God?
Bishop Beard: I have…I have in my house, in the episcopal residence, I’ve got a prayer room. It’s actually a prayer closet. It’s a room that was just off down in the basement. And we…we completely modeled it and put carpet in it, painted the walls. I’ve got a big…we used to call ‘em grease boards, you know, chalkboard…and I…. A dry erase board, I guess is what we all ‘em now. And I’ve got a board in there. And I’ve divided it into different sections. And I put names up and churches and pastors and friends and missionaries. And I’ve started putting flags in from the different countries that I visit, so that I am reminded to pray for those folks on a regular basis. And that’s a practice that is very meaningful to me. in fact, when I get really busy and I’m away from the home and I don’t have my prayer closet, it…it kind a bothers me. So I like getting back home. Now when I’m not at home I take a picture of the board and so that I can still remember those…to lift up those prayer concerns when I’m away from the residence. But that’s…that’s a practice that I hope I get stronger at. I’m not nearly where I …where I need to be.
When I was in seminary there was a fellow by the name of Thomas Caruth. He’s dead and gone on to glory. But he encouraged me to become a man of prayer. And I’ve been reading a lot of things by Bishop Ruben Jobe and the spiritual life and prayer. And that’s been an encouragement. I’m friends with Dr. Terry Tacko who in the Methodist Church, United Methodist Church, is one of the leading advocates for churches and individuals learning how to pray. So the influence of those men and the desire to just walk closer with the Lord, that…that’s what’s been meaningful to me and a practice that I would heartily recommend folks to engage in.
Joe: I like the idea, too, the chalkboard, the dry erase board. That’s really visual. So you have it in front of you when you take the time to pray.
Bishop Beard: Yeah, and I am a visual learner. I have to see things. It…it’s very helpful. The only thing is it gets overwhelming. I mean, when you start thinking about the…the prayer needs. I was with a young clergy yesterday. And what I said with him I really, really strongly believe and want to practice and get better at it. I said to them, There should be no one who prays for your people more than you do. So, as a pastor, as a leader of a congregation, I don’t care if there’s 8 or 8,000 our job first of all as leaders is to pray for the folks. So my cabinet and my board of…my directors, nobody should be praying for them, the area office staff, nobody should be praying for those folks more than I do. And so that’s a practice that I’ve tried to work hard at. I’m getting better at it. I’m not there yet.
Joe: Well, Bishop, thank you so much. This has been a wonderful conversation. I so greatly appreciate it. Thank you.
Bishop Beard: Well, I’ve been blessed by it, and thank you so much for…for interviewing me. I appreciate it very much.
Joe: That was United Methodist bishop Frank Beard of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
To listen to more great conversations with our bishops go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for our United Methodist bishops’ faith stories. There are other podcasts to explore on that page as well.
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Thanks for listening. And I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.