In this conversation, the president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and resident bishop of the Florida Annual Conference shares memories of sitting in church as a child with his parents and grandparents, the joy he found leading an inner city youth group, his love for the outdoors and baseball, and what he does to keep his spirit in shape. Listen and meet Bishop Ken Carter.
Bishop Kenneth H. Carter
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This episode posted on August 27, 2018.
This is Get Your Spirit in Shape, the podcast by United Methodist Communications and UMC.org to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
In our conversation he talks about his faith background, his love of the outdoors and baseball, his early days in the church, and what it is like to be the president of the Council of Bishops at this time in our denomination.
Meet Bishop Ken Carter.
Joe: Bishop Carter, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Carter: Thank you. Thank you.
Joe: It’s really a privilege to get to talk to you today, and as we get to meet all of our bishops. When was your first experience with church?
Bishop Carter: My first experience in church, in my memory, is sitting in church with my mother and my grandfather at a small church in which we grew up. It was a Baptist Church. My grandfather was actually a Quaker, and his father, my great grandfather, was a Congregationalist. But the community that we lived in, it was the nearest church. I just remember being around family.
Then my next memories are…and my parents were wonderful people. They experienced a divorce. And then we were not in church for a while. Then one of my mother’s friends invited us to their United Methodist Church. I was by now, maybe, in junior high school.
So that was my introduction to the United Methodist Church. It was, again, not a large church, but a warm and loving church that kind of made space for this new family. And I appreciate the invitation of…. My mother was a school teacher. And so one of her teacher friends invited us.
Joe: Did you take to it right away? Did you get involved in Sunday school or youth group or any of those things?
Bishop Carter: You know, I can remember being in youth group and then kind of youth choir and going on a youth mission trip. It was sporadic. I also played sports during that time. And of course with…in a blended family our patterns were… differed from time to time. But it was kind of an anchor, I would say, and began to meet some friends in that church. Those were some of the experiences that were important to me.
In college that really began to go deeper. I was asked to be the youth minister of an inner city United Methodist Church in a kind of medium-sized Deep South U.S. town, Columbus, Georgia, and agreed to do that. I had no formal training for that, but worked with about 18 to 20 youth. This group became kind of the center of their social life. And I met with them 3 times a week and grew to love them. They were not the children or grandchildren of the mostly retired people in that church.
Those really were the experiences where I began to grow deeper. I also did some work in the Western North Carolina Mountains, leading groups on hikes, kind of a week at a time. Those were really formative experiences.
Joe: I should have asked, where did you grow up?
Bishop Carter: I grew up in Columbus, Georgia. So all of this was happening…. The church that we became a part of was Epworth United Methodist Church and the church where I was a youth minister was East Highland United Methodist Church. It was in those experiences that I came to really find that work rewarding, especially the work with those youth.
And you know, my spiritual life was just sort of making it up as I went along, but just grateful that they gave me that opportunity. By then I realized this was sort of the church I wanted to be a part of. I began to also explore that.
My family really had a pretty ecumenical background. My great grandfather, whom I knew very well, had worked in race relations in the South with the Congregational Christian Church. And then my grandfather had been actually a conscientious objector during World War II. And so their faith was very important to them. And I realized I needed to sort of figure that out for myself. And this seemed to be my path.
Joe: And that was when things…when you started to kind of make your faith your own was in those years. Is that what I’m hearing you say?
Bishop Carter: I think it was. And I think it was just some experiences of being asked to kind of be a leader, again, of a…. I’m assuming that the church was simply trying to find a person to work with these young people. So it was sort of having some sort of very basic experiences of leadership and, in light of that, reading the Bible in preparation for that.
I remember one spring I read the New Testament sort of from beginning to end. And that had a pretty profound influence on me.
Again, I think coming through some family experiences where there was a lot of change. The church kind of became, again, a kind of a home and an anchor and a way to serve.
As I was sort of in college, what that became was what…I was investing more and more time in that kind of pursuit and wondering how this related to what I was studying and all that was sort of, I guess, the background for attending seminary.
Joe: Tell me about that. What was your call to ministry like? When did you first start feeling like God was calling you into ordained ministry?
Bishop Carter: You know, I think it was a couple of experiences. One was in that church… and again, I was that inner city church youth ministry. I was their Sunday morning teacher. We met Sunday evening. We met Friday evening. I’d been with them for a couple of years and we realized that none of them had ever been baptized. None of them had ever joined the church. And they kind of wanted to…. That was something they wanted to do. So I went to the pastor and said, I feel like this is something I need your help with. You’re gonna need to help us with this. And so a Sunday or two later they all kind of walked down the aisle of that small church. They all were baptized. They all became a part of that church. So that kind of experience was really exciting to me.
I realized that that was on a minimalist level, at a very local level what our denomination kind of experiences. That church had about 20 people who were teenagers and about 80 people who were over 70 years of age. And no one in between. And they had missed a couple of generations. I realized that’s sort of where a lot of the churches I visit find themselves. Wonderful, retired persons who love their churches, who’ve sacrificed for them. Then maybe some kind of at-risk children or youth who sometimes are near the church or sometimes in the church and then we’ve often missed those groups. So that was important.
And I would also say the…the leading…the being in the mountains was to me…sort of the hiking, leading backpacking groups, I think just feeling close to God and creation. Those things combined just set me off on a… kind of in a questioning model of, “How would you do this kind of work?”
It was not an audible voice. But it was definitely, this is a path. And I remember having a conversation with one of my professors. I was studying biology at the time. He wanted me to be part of a field research project one summer, which they’d gotten a grant for, and to do research on streams.
I just kind of said, you know, I have this opportunity to do this work again in the mountains this summer. And I realized this feels like a turning point. And so that was really when I began to think about how I would shift my focus from what I had been thinking I was doing to how do you prepare? And I think the idea of going to seminary was simply, H ow could I be better prepared to do this work?
Joe: I get the sense that your love of nature kind of led you in both of those directions. On the one hand was the biology and understanding those things and the other was the spiritual. And it came down to that choice at some point. That’s really interesting.
Bishop Carter: Yeah, yeah.
Joe: You mentioned as a child that you were kind of into sports. What sports did you play? Was there one particular…?
Bishop Carter: Well, I’m tall. I’m almost 6’7”. So I always loved baseball and basketball. I played a lot of football and I did not love football. In fact I’ve often…. One of the memorable experiences of my life was telling my father one year I was not gonna play anymore football. We had a very interesting discussion about that. And he, of course, finally was okay with it. But I realized I was doing this to try to please him.
But I loved baseball and I loved basketball. And, you know, one of my experiences of playing basketball was I grew up in an era, again in the Deep South, when the schools were being integrated. My 9th grade year of high school was actually the year in our city that the schools were fully integrated. I think it was 1971, maybe. Again this was fully 10-15 years before schools were integrated in some other parts of the United States. I can remember being one of one or two Anglo players on our basketball team. It was an experience of relationships with African Americans. I just enjoyed that. Basketball.
Enjoyed baseball as well and probably today I enjoy… I’m a big baseball fan. Florida has spring training baseball which is really wonderful. O ne of the things I enjoy about baseball today is just simply…the game has a fairly slow pace. And you can really talk to people. You can sit with someone. You can talk between pitches, between innings. And so that was a very, again, a very fun part of growing up.
Joe: Growing up in Georgia, are you a Braves a fan?
Bishop Carter: I’m a Braves fan, although I’ve come to just enjoy baseball in general. But certainly did grow up as a Braves fan and enjoy them. Yeah.
Joe: I grew up in New Jersey. So I’m a Mets fan. So we don’t always get along.
Bishop Carter: That’s right. Yeah. And I think, of course, these teams are trading a lot of their good players. Some of them are rebuilding. So you go through real dry spells. But I’ve been to about a third of the major league parks. The Red Sox. The Yankees. The Nationals. The Dodgers. The Cubs. And I just sort of, year by year, that’s one thing I try to do, is to see a new baseball stadium. That’s been a lot of fun.
Joe: That’s great. That’s great. And I imagine you do a lot of traveling as a bishop in the church. So that might give you some opportunity to do that.
Bishop Carter: Yeah, it does. Sometimes I can just personally tack on a day, kind of at my own expense and see something like that. And this winter… or this summer actually, I was asked to preach at the Cal-Pac Conference in Southern California, and sort of tacked on a day early and saw the Dodgers with my daughter who lives in L.A. So that was really great.
Joe: So tell me about… You’re the newly elected president of the Council of Bishops. What does that mean?
Bishop Carter: Well, first of all I’ll say I’ve served as a bishop for 6 years. I’ve been grateful the church called me to do this work. And I loved being a pastor, first of all, of a church. I did that for 28 years. I never really had an aspiration to be the president of the Council of Bishops. But was, again, asked to do that.
It’s a group of (I don’t know) 65, 70 active bishops from around the world. You know we’re on 4 continents—Africa, Europe, Philippines/Asia and U.S. And so it’s a very diverse group. And even within the United States it’s a very diverse group.
I have come to know almost all of the bishops fairly well. Having been on the Commission on the Way Forward a third of the commission were bishops, a little less than a third. So I came to know several of the African bishops really well, the European and the Filipino bishops, as well as some of the U.S. bishops. So a part of that is just getting to know them as people.
Sometimes I’ll just ask a bishop… We meet twice a year for about 4 days, which is really not a lot of time for that kind of group. I realize it’s very involved to get people from around the world together a couple of times a year. So I try to really ask them, “What’s important in your context? What’s important to you?” We just live in a very diverse contextual world. You know, what’s important in the Southern part of Alabama may be very different than what’s important in New England.
My role really is to try to guide and preside in the meetings. The same with…we have an executive committee of about 18 people, which also meets twice a year, and to try to work with a group of pretty high capacity people just in service of helping the bishops’ meetings to be better. That purpose is not an end in itself. It’s really to try to help the church and to try to unify and strengthen the church.
The work we’ve been doing in this particular season has been about trying to help the church to find a way forward, to be whole as a denomination, and to work on these plans, and to support the delegates who will go to the special session of the conference. What I really try to say a lot to people is for us it’s not…. We really honor the leadership of lots of different constituencies in our church. So that’s a part of it.
Of course, my basic work is serving the Florida Conference. So it’s just another layer of work. We don’t have a polity where someone is president of the council and that’s all they do. Some other denominations do. I’m not advocating that we do that. But I would say it’s just… You know, if anyone listening has ever had a couple of jobs at one time, that’s exactly what it is.
Joe: …What it feels like. Yeah.
Bishop Carter: And so it involves conversations most days with one or two bishops who just have questions about things that are going on in the world. Recently, it’s been about…you know, there’s the statement the Attorney General made about separation of families. It’s been about the missionaries who were detained in The Philippines, and getting prepared for the fall. Sometimes the bishops are asked to make statements about emerging things that are going on in the world. That’s actually not so different from….
I’ve been in Florida for 6 years and we’ve had the Trayvon Martin death and the Pulse shootings and the Parkland shootings. And then when there are natural disasters we try to support each other. We’ve had that in the U.S. in Texas and in Louisiana and in Florida, and New Jersey earlier. But then also we’ve had mud slides in Sierra Leone. We have things that just happen around the world. So it’s just trying to work with that group of leaders. And most bishops think in terms of their own area and where they’re assigned. Again, it’s very contextual. But we are brought together a couple of times a year to try to think about the good of the whole church.
Joe: I know your job is super busy, but I wanted to ask: When you get a chance to do something just for you, when you get a chance to do something just to relax, what are some of your favorite things to do?
Bishop Carter: That’s a great question. Well, as I said, I love sports. I love watching baseball. I’m a Duke Basketball fan. Those are great. And I’ll find myself watching some college football in the fall. It seems like I’ve gotten away from pro football. Some of that’s just…some of the issues around concussions and other things. And then often I’m just busy on Sundays.
I love music. And when I’ve had time I love going to concerts. I love kind of roots music, Americana kind of music. So that’s fun. We have a small cabin place in the mountains of Western North Carolina. That has always been a very restful place for us. We’ve always lived in parsonages. So that’s been something we began to do. My wife has a background in interior design. And she also works with the hurricane disaster recovery in Florida. So when we can we’re there.
Then we have a one-year-old granddaughter. So we have 2 daughters, son-in-law and then this one-year-old granddaughter. So really we increasingly find that if we have some days we can place into the calendar, we want to be with them, and that’s just a lot of fun.
An image I’ve had for myself is not the image of balance. I don’t think I probably live a balanced life. Few people do who are in this role. I have been able to sort of place in the calendar things that are fun. So in Florida, you know, Disney is here. I’ve been there a number of times. And Harry Potter World. Our daughters loved that. But then like the Florida Keys are here. And there are just some beautiful places on the coast. Just trying to appreciate kind of what’s here all in the midst of it. And so I guess those are things….
I also love to read. I, of course, read a lot for the church, but I try to also read some things that are not related to the church.
Joe: One last question. We like to ask our guests for recommendations for a practice that they use to help keep their own spirit in shape, the ways you kind of keep close to God. What’s something that you do that you’d recommend other people try?
Bishop Carter: Well thanks. And thanks, Joe, for the conversation.
A few years ago, I began to use the Moravian Daily Text, which is a small book. And it just has a verse every day from the Old Testament, a verse from the New Testament, a couple of fragments from hymns, and a prayer. Then it has some suggested Scripture reading. I would say I begin there. It’s a small book. You order it every year. Of course Moravians have a historic connection with Methodists.
Then currently our cabinet this year is reading, every month, Isaiah 40-66 and Romans 8 and Philippians 1-4. So those verses, those chapters, one chapter a day, all adds up to a month. Then we repeat the cycle every month. And we’re doing that…starting to do that, actually, the Florida and the Louisiana conferences. Bishop Fierro-Harvey is doing it as well. These were chapters in the Bible that our cabinet and strategic leadership team came to about resilience, about sort of staying focused and spiritually anchored and grounded in the mist of complicated times with the denominational processes, with American society is very polarized. So currently I’m reading through Isaiah. I think right now Isaiah 59 and 60. It’s just very encouraging. So those are important things.
I try to write each month in about 4 days that are kind of Sabbath days, and try to really not…. They don’t always fall on a Saturday or Sunday. There might be a 10-days stretch where there are just things going on.
They talk about, in an airplane, putting on your own oxygen mask first. And I think people have to stay spiritually grounded. Otherwise they become depleted. And otherwise it just becomes about ego or we begin to resent people, or we begin to not see people in terms of the image of God in them. So that’s something that I’ve always tried.
Then I’d say, conversations with a few close friends, and those kind of relationships. That’s sort of how I try. But I would say it’s a work in progress. So probably like everyone listening to this, it’s something you sort of try to do day by day.
Joe: I just love that image of the oxygen mask and taking care of yourself. That’s a great…. For those of us that sometimes feel guilty or feel like it’s selfish to take the time, what a great and helpful image.
Bishop Carter: Absolutely.
Joe: Bishop Carter, thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.
Bishop Carter: Thank you as well. Blessings to you.
I thrilled that I got to share with you this conversation with Bishop Kenneth Carter of the Florida Annual Conference, who is serving as the president of our Council of Bishops.
If you would like to hear more of these conversations, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for a section called“Bishops’ personal faith stories.” On the page for this episode, I’ve put some links to learn more about Bishop Carter and the Council of Bishops, and I included a link to the Moravian Daily Text that he mentioned was part of his daily spiritual practice.
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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.