Prior to beginning in pastoral ministry, Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi spent 17 years as a school psychologist, helping students and parents see beyond barriers toward potential and possibility. Today, this daughter of a United Methodist pastor uses those same gifts as she leads the Western Pennsylvania Conference.
In our conversation, we talk about what it was like to grow up a preacher's kid, how a dream helped clarify her call to ordained ministry, and how she uses meditation, lectio divina, and acupuncture to help keep her spirit in shape. Listen and meet Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi.
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Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi
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This episode originally posted on May 23, 2018.
Joe: 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.
In this episode we get to meet United Methodist bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, who grew up the child of a United Methodist pastor. In her early life, there may have been some foreshadowing of what was to come…
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: We did things as a family. So we all packed up and we went to Annual Conference together. I can remember sitting on the floor at Annual Conference and just saying, “Wow, this is really exciting stuff.”
Joe: Before becoming a pastor, she worked for 17 years as a school psychologist, helping children and parents look beyond limitations to see possibility and potential. Today the bishop uses those same gifts in the church.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: We are providing an atmosphere for people to first recognize their gifts and then to live into the full potential of their gifts so that God’s kingdom might be built.
Joe: In this conversation, we talk about growing up in the church as a preacher’s kid, a dream that helped clarify her call to ministry and how meditation and acupuncture help keep her spirit in shape. Meet Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi.
Joe: I’m on the phone today with Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi. Welcome, Bishop.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: Thank you.
Joe: I understand from your bio that you grew up a PK—a preacher’s kid.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: I grew up not just a preacher’s kid, but also on my dad’s side of the family, 4th generation Methodist; on my mom’s side of the family 3rd generation Methodist. So Methodism is all through me.
I grew up around the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, as my father got appointed to different places. My mom, throughout my growing up, was a stay-at-home mom. So church was our life. I remember as a small child going to board meetings, going to church conferences, just always being around the life of the church.
Throughout most of it—actually until I was in high school—we lived next door to the church. We always lived in the church parsonage which was, when I was first born, right across the street from the church. During my early elementary years it was…the church was down the hill from the parsonage. And then when I in middle school the parsonage was on a corner of the parking lot of the church. So always in very close physical proximity to the church—physical proximity but then also spiritual proximity to the church.
Joe: Did you say you were going to meetings and stuff with your dad?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: Yeah. I can remember that we would take our school homework to board meetings, and my mom would set us up in the kitchen or some other place in the church. And we would sit down and we’d do our homework while they were meeting.
Joe: Yes. My mom was a church secretary and I have similar memories of sitting on the floor and coloring or doing homework while some meeting was going on that I had no clue what was actually happening.
Did you move a lot? Was that an easy thing or difficult thing?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: We didn’t move a whole lot. We were at the same church while I was in elementary school and my first year of junior high school. We did move when I was in 7th grade, and that was a hard move, as you could imagine. That’s a hard time for anyone, particularly a girl, to have to move to a new school and learn a new place. So that was a challenge of a move. But we kind of filled in pretty quickly to the place.
We moved from Aberdeen, Maryland, which was a kind of a rural community at the time. In fact, our neighbors on one side were cattle. And on the other side there was a forest. We moved from that setting to Silver Spring, Maryland, which is an urban setting. And so I had to adjust to a different lifestyle and also new kinds of friends. But the church really embraced us. Quickly I gained some good friends that went to school with me and were part of the church, because the church was very active and had an active youth group. So that made a difficult transition easier than it could have been.
Joe: What were some of the fun things about being a preacher’s kid?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: Being a preacher’s kid, I can remember a lot of church dinners, and that being fun. Helping out for those church dinners. And then my parents were very—my mom and dad were very loved in the church, and we often had church meetings in the parsonage. So I can remember the excitement of watching my mom prepare a meal, some kind of refreshment for the folks that were going to be coming over to our house. I actually enjoyed that kind of thing. I enjoyed sitting on the steps and listening in on the meetings.
Joe: Indication of things to come, I guess.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: I can also remember loving going to Annual Conference. Annual Conference was not something that my dad enjoyed going to at all. But again, we did things as a family. So we all packed up and we went to Annual Conference together. And I can remember sitting on the floor at Annual Conference and just saying, “Wow, this is really exciting stuff!” As a young kid I remember that.
Joe: But ministry wasn’t your first career, right? You went to school and became a school psychologist?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: That’s correct.
In high school I had an inkling that I had a call to the ministry, but I resisted that call for a whole lot of reasons. I went into school for psychology and enjoyed doing that. I worked for a public school system for 17 years, and really like that kind of work—working with kids who others had written off, working with parents who were struggling to figure out how to find the appropriate resources for their kids, and working with parents, particularly mothers, as they went through that process of grief, of mourning the child that they thought they had while coming to a real understanding of the child that they had. And for me to point out to them the strengths that their child had that they needed to build on and to help them not focus on their child’s weaknesses or their child’s disability, but help them more to focus on their child’s abilities, and for them to see then what the possibility and potential was for their child. I really enjoyed doing that kind of work.
Joe: I can imagine. It sounds difficult but really rewarding.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: Yeah. To see a child learn something that somebody said they couldn’t ever learn, that was really rewarding. To work with a teacher—to help a teacher see the real potential in a child. That was exciting. Then to be able to make some real systemic changes in a school building so that all children in that building enjoyed an atmosphere that was more conducive to learning. That was really rewarding, too.
Joe: Were there any skills that you see from that career that carried over into pastoral ministry and in your work today as a bishop?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: Oh, absolutely. You’re looking at some of the systems, and looking at how you evaluate a system in order to determine whether or not a system is doing its best to help everyone reach their potential. I did a lot of that work as a school psychologist, and a lot of that is what I do as a bishop.
As a bishop, a lot of what I do is making sure that we are providing an atmosphere for people to first recognize their gifts and then to live into the full potential of their gifts so that God’s kingdom might be built. So those skills certainly transfer over. Then, of course, all of the assessment skills I learned as a school psychologist transfer over into being a bishop. Looking at individuals and their strengths and their weaknesses certainly transferred over. Then just basic listening skills. Listening to folks, hearing their passion, hearing their fears, hearing their joys.
One of the things that I get to do as a bishop that I didn’t always get to do as a school psychologist is to be able to point out to folks where God is in their story, as I’m hearing their story. To be able to point out those places where God showed up and really made a difference and helped their story turn this way or that way. I get to do that as a bishop and that’s really rewarding.
Joe: What made the change? When did you decide that it was time to move into pastoral ministry and out of the school psychology?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: As a lay person I was very involved in the church. In the years when we had lay speakers, just lay speakers, I was a certified lay speaker and was very involved in my local church, but also on the district level. People kept saying to me, “You’re called. You’re called. You’re called.” And I kept saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
My pastor at the time, Bruce Haskins, allowed me the opportunity to preach a number of times during the course of a year. I distinctly remember that after one time that I preached a dear old prayer warrior in the church came to greet me at the back of the sanctuary and she said, “When are you gonna answer your call? It’s clear you’re called.” And I said to her, “I fully believe that you have heard from God, but I haven’t yet heard from God.” And she said to me, “Then I know exactly how to pray.” I knew when she said that, it was over. After that God just gave me sign after sign that was undeniable, just sign after sign. So I couldn’t run anymore. I told my parents and I told my pastor, and I started down that path.
Joe: I’m fascinated with these call stories because I think so many of us hear God speaking and we’re really unsure of it. So when you talk about “sign after sign,” can you tell me more about that? What did you see that pointed you in this direction?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: One of my wrestlings with God was that I was making good money as a school psychologist, and because I had been to all the charge conferences I knew how much money my dad made, how much money my current pastor made. I said to God, “You know, God, I like nice things, and I’m not sure how this pastor thing is gonna work out.”
I had been in a time of prayer about that when I went to an event where there was a Cokesbury display. I picked up a number of things, as I always do whenever I’m at a Cokesbury display, and I went to the cashier. The cashier said, “You look like you could use the clergy discount.” I said, “There’s a clergy discount?” And she said, “Absolutely.” And I said, “Well, I’m not clergy, but it’s good to know there is a clergy discount.” Then God called back to my recollection that wrestling time I’d had with God about the provisions that there were for a pastor, and God just said to me, “I’ve got this. Don’t worry about that.”
Then there was another time where I was away at a Black Methodists for Church Renewal Convention, and a clergy friend of my father’s invited me to have lunch with him. He and I were sitting, having lunch, and we were talking about a number of different things. I had not shared with him that I was wrestling with a call at all, but in the middle of the conversation he said, “So when are you gonna answer your call?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “It’s clear to me God is telling me that you’re called to the ministry. What are your reservations?” Yeah. So he and I had a conversation about my reservations, and he helped me to see how God had already made a way in the midst of all the concerns that I had.
Then another thing that happened. I had a dream. In the dream there was a real high pulpit and I felt as if I was being pulled or drawn to that pulpit. I said to the force that was pulling me there, “That’s not my pulpit; that’s my dad’s pulpit.” And the voice, the force that was pulling me there, said in a voice that I could hear, “No, that’s not your dad’s pulpit. This one’s for you.”
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: Yeah. Part of my wrestling had been that my personality is completely different than my dad’s. My dad was a shepherd-type pastor. I’m more of an administrator-type pastor. So I had been wrestling with that. I’m not that person. That’s my dad. Then I had that dream.
Joe: Now you’re a bishop. And I know that being a bishop is a super busy job. But what do you do when you have some free time? What do you do just for yourself to relax?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: So I am madly in love with the man that I’m married to, Raphael Koikoi. So we try to spend as much free time together as we can. We try to make sure that we have scheduled date nights.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: We schedule time to go out to the movies or we’ve been learning about the restaurant scene here in Pittsburgh, so we’ve been spending some time eating out, which has been fun.
I also like to sew. So when I do have some free time I do some sewing. The robe that I particularly wear when there are formal events where we have to have a white robe for, I typically wear the robe that I made. So, yeah, I like to take time out to do that. It kind of calms me down a little bit.
Joe: That’s fantastic. So, the question that I ask everybody that I have on Get Your Spirit in Shape is what’s a practice that you use to help keep your spirit in shape that you would recommend that others try?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: I’ve got a couple. One is meditation. I’ve got a meditation tape that I listen to when my mind starts racing a lot. It really helps me to help empty my thoughts so I can hear from God. So if there’s a decision that I need to make, I put on that meditation tape. If I’m stuck in sermon writing, I put on that meditation tape.
I also like to do lectio divina and I often try to combine that with meditation. That really helps me to focus on God’s word and to hear God’s way in new and relevant ways.
Then lastly, I’ve found that combining meditation or lectio divina with acupuncture is phenomenal. I’ve had some real times where I have felt the presence of Jesus Christ with me while meditating and doing acupuncture. It’s really been… I’ve had some phenomenal experiences.
Joe: I’m just curious. How did you get exposed to acupuncture?
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: I used to go to a doctor—he since has died—but I used to go to a doctor who was trained in both Western medicine and also in more Eastern types of medicine. He was an internist, but also did acupuncture. I was going through some health issues and he suggested acupuncture, and because he also was very spiritual, he suggested to me… He said, “I know you’re a woman of faith. Why don’t you try praying while you’re undergoing this acupuncture?” I did and it was phenomenal.
Joe: Well, I just want to thank you so much for being a part of this today, and for having this conversation.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: Well, thank you so much for all that you’re doing to help make bishops more real. I appreciate that.
Joe: That was United Methodist bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of the Western Pennsylvanian Conference. To learn more about her go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for the page for this episode. To hear more conversations from our bishops, look for Bishops’ Personal Faith Stories, also at UMC.org/podcasts.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.