Meet Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the New York Episcopal Area. He was raised in West Virginia where his family worked in the glass industry and raised him in the church from day one. At West Virginia Wesleyan College, he developed an appreciation for the stories each person has to tell, which later deepened as he had opportunity to travel the world. When asked about the best part of being a bishop, he responded, "Being a bishop." Bickerton is clearly enthusiastic about his ministry. Although a self-described driven personality, he talks about the importance of stillness, encouraging us to "just breathe" as an act of spiritual discipline.
Please note: We recorded this conversation before the global pandemic.
Bishop Thomas Bickerton
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This episode posted on May 29, 2020.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
If you’re a regular listener to Get Your Spirit in Shape, you probably know how much I enjoy our Meet a Bishop episodes. I always find it interesting. I get the opportunity to talk to our bishops as people of faith and pastors. I never know what I’m gonna learn.
Before talking with our guest today, Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the New York episcopal area, I learned that we had both graduated from the same college. Then as we talked I learned about his knowledge of glass and his upbringing, his focus on stories that people of faith all over the world have to tell just how much he loves being a bishop. Bishop Bickerton also shares some spiritual advice for those of us who, like him, are most comfortable on the go.
Just a quick note before we get started, we recorded this conversation before the global pandemic. Meet Bishop Thomas Bickerton.
Joe: Bishop Bickerton, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Bickerton: Thanks, Joe. Good to be with you.
Joe: When I was preparing for this conversation I learned that you and I share an alma mater. We are both graduates of West Virginia Wesleyan College. And that was fun for me to learn about.
Bishop Bickerton: All right. When did you graduate?
Joe: I graduated in ’87.
Bishop Bickerton: Aw, I’m a 1980 graduate.
Joe: We didn’t quite overlap, but almost. It was pretty close.
Bishop Bickerton: I bet we had some common professors.
Joe: I was gonna ask you about that. My major was in religion and I minored in English. Do you remember any of the religion professors? Doctor Berkovitz was one who was kind of important to my early academic formation.
Bishop Bickerton: He was very formidable for me as a college student. Yeah, we’ve kept in touch over the years. He was just a great influence in my early education.
Joe: Yeah, I have the same…. We didn’t keep in touch unfortunately.
Bishop Bickerton: Marvin Carr was another.
Joe: Right. In the Christian Education Department.
Bishop Bickerton: Right.
Joe: Very good. So what was your major at West Virginia Wesleyan?
Bishop Bickerton: I was a double major—Sociology and Psychology. And I also did an emphasis on Appalachian Studies.
Joe: Oh, wow. What drew you to Sociology/Psychology?
Bishop Bickerton: You know, I was originally a Bio/Chem major, thinking I was gonna become an optometrist. And when the call to ministry came I wanted to focus on building relationships and understanding contextual ministries. And so that led me into Sociology and Psychology. And being a West Virginian I became very interested in Appalachian Studies, especially when my senior year I served a six-point charge in rural West Virginia. And those learnings from Appalachian Studies were just very valuable to me over the years in my ministry.
Joe: What did you draw from that?
Bishop Bickerton: A lot of it was related to how Appalachian people think and what is a priority. So rich emphasis on heritage, on storytelling, on understanding context, understanding poverty and the deep-seated relational skills that were necessary for people to survive. I always took a lot of…. I still take a lot of pride in being an Appalachian because those basic fundamental priorities—so relationship building, focusing on story, focusing on context—still serve me very well today as a bishop of the church.
Joe: I can imagine those skills that you developed along the way are also really helpful as a bishop in the church and as one who has focused quite a bit of your ministry in missions. Is that correct?
Bishop Bickerton: That’s right. So those 3 things that I’ve mentioned have just found their way into just about everything that I have done. My missional focus has really drawn on those components. It is about understanding context and what people are going through in their particular situation. It’s about building relationships so that you can participate, you know, in a broader understanding of mission. And it is about story. And that’s a real key component, is listening…doing a deep listening so you understand someone’s story. And then being able to tell that story to a broader audience, to involve them in the work of mission across the world.
Joe: Can you talk more about understanding the story of the other?
Bishop Bickerton: Oh, gosh. You know, Joe, there’s…this church of ours is so diverse and very complex. But when you think about having 13 million people across the world, and you then inject the whole concept of context and story into that reality, there are beautiful expressions of God at work all over this world. And our ability, especially as leaders, to communicate the multiple stories and the complexity of those stories to the broader church is why we’re connectional. Our inability to tell that story is why we become congregational. We have a broader story to tell, and it’s a beautiful story of wonderful expressions of ministry that are taking place and each of those contexts is something that we should be really proud of as United Methodist Christians.
Joe: You had opportunity to see a lot of that up close, as a bishop but also as one, again, who focused in ministry. You’ve traveled around to different places to learn the stories of others. Are there any that kind of leap out of you, any of the experiences that really were formative or helped to shape you?
Bishop Bickerton: Well, there were several. You know, my first trip to Africa was 1986. And I spent 6 weeks in Africa evaluating mission projects that we were supporting. And that was a game changer for me. It changed my whole focus of ministry because I had had a limited world view up until that point. And to experience people who had absolutely nothing in terms of material possessions, but everything in terms of spirituality, was just a game changer for me. I saw faith at work in ways that I hadn’t every seen before, and have been blessed to see multiple times since. But when you, for example, go to a leper colony and you see people whose physical bodies are falling apart, you get out of a van and you’re greeted by a choir who sing “Soon and very soon, we’re gonna meet the king. Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re gonna meet the king.” And they actually mean it. I mean, they’re not just singing it; they’re living it. And to have someone in that same colony say, “If I die, then…and went to heaven today, I will have lived a full life. And I look forward to that next expression of what God has in store for me.” And mean it. You know, those kind of life-changing experiences just inform your own faith journey. They humble you, no doubt. But they also bless you with a type of bench mark to which we all should aspire in our Christian journeys.
Joe: You mentioned earlier that you are a native of West Virginia, that kind of drew you into that Appalachian Studies. What was it like growing up in West Virginia as a young man?
Bishop Bickerton: Well, I grew up along the Ohio River in the northern part of West Virginia. I was born and raised north of the Mason-Dixon Line. So I grew up in an industrial area that was largely populated by power plants, the glass industry which my family was directly related, the coal industry, the steel industry. And so it was a really hard-working, blue-collar, middleclass upbringing. West Virginia is often associated with deeply rural context. But my context was more small-town industrial. And it was very multi-cultural. There was a lot of recruitment done over the years to bring people in. So a real mix of folks that I grew up with. And that blessed my journey in ways that I didn’t know until much later. But growing up in that small town in West Virginia was just very formative. I mean, I now am in New York City, but I was raised in a small town in West Virginia. And I draw upon those West Virginia roots every single day. And they inform the way that I lead today. And they…you know, just building a sense of comfort around people, being able to appreciate and understand their stories. It’s a real blessing that I draw from every day. I celebrate being a West Virginian. It’s a real special gift.
Joe: It’s remarkable how those early days continue to form and shape us long after we’ve moved from that place.
Bishop Bickerton: This is true.
Joe: You talked about your family being in the glass industry?
Bishop Bickerton: Yeah, my grandfather worked for Fostoria Glass Company for 52 years. My dad worked there for 32 years until the company was bought and shut down. So we grew up understanding the glass industry. I can still evaluate a piece of glass like no others. I can tell when it’s a factory second. I can tell when there’s bubbles or seams and…. It’s just in your blood. But we had conversation after conversation around the dinner table around particular patterns that might… My dad was a mold maker. My grandfather was a supervisor in what they called the ‘hot metal’ division, where they actually made the glass. So, it’s still, after all these years, still very much a part of who I am.
Joe: Were your family regular church attenders? Is that something you guys did just growing up?
Bishop Bickerton: It’s everything I’ve ever known. You know, I was born on a Wednesday and on that Sunday I was in church. In the Bickerton household it was Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. No questions asked. Grandparents who sat on the 4th pew o the right. Mom and Dad with my sister and I sat on the back row on the left, which probably was a commentary on our behavioral patterns. But we never missed. I fondly tell the story of, you know, every Sunday, while people were leaving church at the end of the service, I was walking in the church to greet my grandparents who sat on the 4th pew on the right. And built relationships with the members of that church every Sunday. I kind of jokingly say it’s why I don’t have any hair on the top of my head. The people at the church rubbed it off. But they nurtured me, surrounded me, loved me when no one else would. Was a refuge from the storm. I probably learned more theology on the back porch of my grandmother and grandfather’s house at 110 Poplar Avenue, than I did in seminary. It’s been everything that I’ve ever known. The only paycheck that I ever received that didn’t have United Methodist written on it was I stocked shelves in a grocery store for 2 months between my freshman and sophomore year in college. This is everything I’ve ever known.
Joe: So, when you went to college you said you went thinking about optometry, but did it quickly change into pastoral ministry?
Bishop Bickerton: I spent a year in Bio/Chem. And really was focused on optometry. It was a…. There was a gentleman at a optometrist’s office in Moundsville that had a really influence on me. His name was Joe. And I just wanted to become an optometrist, go back to Moundsville, give Joe all the competition he could handle. And because I had been so intimately involved in the church, both in local church and conference youth ministry work in West Virginia, I kinda was on people’s radar screens. So I got offered a youth ministry job in Clarksburg, West Virginia. And I didn’t want the job. In fact, I was 3 hours late for the interview on purpose, and I still got the job. And I really only took the job for the money. And what happened was that that local church, even though I’d had this…was steeped in this local church upbringing, that church (Dust Street United Methodist Church) in Clarksburg really nurtured my calling. And so when I accepted my call I was so excited about sharing it with people in that church, with my family at home, and when I shared that I’d been called to ministry, it was almost like a shrug of the shoulder, and people said, Well, we’re glad you finally came to your senses.
Joe: Like you were the last one to figure it out.
Bishop Bickerton: Yeah, I was really. And it became just a natural. So I immediately continued in youth ministry. And then I served that six-point charge my senior year in college. And kind of the rest is history after that.
Joe: I had friends who did that at West Virginia Wesleyan as well, who were serving multiple-point charges. I don’t know how you guys did that. That was a massive undertaking.
Bishop Bickerton: You know, the reality is there are some churches out there that understand what their role and function is. Those multiple-church charges in West Virginia around West Virginia Wesleyan, they all understood what their role was. Their role was to groom young called leaders into their ministry. They knew that they were only gonna have us for a year or two. They took what they could get. They, whether knowingly or unknowingly, shaped us in ways that are indescribable and I owe a great deal of my ministry success to what happened in those six little churches in Upshur County, West Virginia.
Joe: I can only begin to imagine how they helped to shape you.
Bishop Bickerton: Oh, if we had a couple of hours I could wear you out with story after story about what I learned in that one year.
Joe: I can imagine. So, I imagine you went right from college into seminary?
Bishop Bickerton: I did. I’m one of those rare birds that went right through. And when I went to Duke I decided I wanted to become a student. I did not want to serve a church. So I did field education at Duke, but I was primarily a student for those three years, knowing that it was the last time that I would have a chance to really focus particularly in that area.
Joe: Yeah, that must have been an exciting time to be able to do that as well.
Bishop Bickerton: It was great. It was great. I feel like I was led in certain directions and going to Wesleyan and then going to Duke. Those were, I describe as, providential moments. I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.
Joe: You’ve been a bishop for some time. Correct?
Bishop Bickerton: Fifteen years. Ah, fifteen and a half. I’m working on year number sixteen right now.
Joe: That’s amazing. What’s the best part about being a bishop?
Bishop Bickerton: Being a bishop. There’s not many things I don’t feel called and led to and enjoy in this work. There are annoyances. There are frustrations. There are regrettable realities that you have to deal with.
Bishop Bickerton: Honest to goodness. I wake up every morning and the first thing I say when I wake up is, “God, I can’t wait for what you have in store for me today.” It’s been a fifteen and a half year journey that I have just cherished. What I’ve experienced across the world, the people that I’ve met, the blessings I’ve received, the opportunities I’ve been given to serve…I continue to feel like I owe my entire life to the church. And for everyone that wants to find something bad about the United Methodist Church, they probably don’t want to be in my company because my cup continues to overflow with the blessings of doing what I do. I absolutely love what I do. My preaching has changed from…. I was a local church pastor. I would be able to shepherd a congregation in a series of things week after week. Now I go into a church and my primary role is to be a motivator, to inspire. And then I go down the road and hopefully I have helped that pastor in their work by the motivation that I’ve been able to provide. I get to see things from the 30 thousand foot view. And that’s one of the primary blessings of being a bishop, is that I have the responsibility (going back to this emphasis on story)…I have this responsibility to tell the church of the wider ministry of the church that most folks don’t get to experience. So if I can bring that alive to a congregation or a parish or a district, then I’ve done my job well.
Joe: I know being a bishop is a very time-consuming job. But when you have some down time and do something just for you, what’s some of your favorite things to do?
Bishop Bickerton: Oh, gosh. I’m a golfer. I love playing golf. I’m a move-goer. I could go to the movies every week if I had opportunity. On my bucket list, I’d like to be a voice in a Pixar movie. I’m a big baseball fan. I’m a Pirate, Penguin and Steeler guy. But I live now in New York so I go to Mets and Yankees games.
Joe: Okay. I’m a Mets fan. So that works.
Bishop Bickerton: There you go. They should have a pretty good season this year. And here I am in New York where there's this amazing diversity, not only of thought and practice, but amazing culinary diversity. So Ali and I are just hitting a different restaurant every week and thoroughly enjoying every stop we make. And you know, our horizons have really been broadened from a culinary standpoint. So we’re being taste tasters across this region.
Joe: Sounds like fun.
Bishop Bickerton: It’s a lot of fun.
Joe: We call this podcast Get Your Spirit in Shape where we try to provide spiritual nutrition and spiritual exercises for people. When you think about the ways that you keep your spirit in shape, what’s something that comes to mind for you?
Bishop Bickerton: You know, one of the things that I’ve had to really work on, especially the last fifteen and a half years in this role is…. I’m a type A personality. So I like to get down the road. I like to achieve things. I like to explore and get after it. And those characteristics don’t always translate into effective spirituality practices. So one of the things that I’ve really worked on and tried to hone in this role in particular is just the art of being. What does it mean to rest your mind, body and soul in thought and reflection? So, I’m a constant reader. So I’m always looking for some passage, some paragraph, some chapter that will then send me into a spirit of reflection. And just learning how to be. And I celebrate that because as I’ve worked on that spiritual gift of being, there’s been a whole new world that’s opened up to me that I’ve not noticed before. Sometimes when you run the race, you miss a lot of things along the way. And it’s been a really precious thing for me to learn how to just be.
Joe: Are there any tips you would offer for someone who wanted to follow down that same path?
Bishop Bickerton: Well, last year in the midst of all these emerging issues in the church, I sent every one of my pastors a bracelet. And the bracelet simply says, “Just Breathe.” And I remind myself as I wear my bracelet every day about what it means to employ the art of being and breathing. Just to breathe out all of the junk that’s inside of you and breathing in the breathe of God that will bring a different perspective, that will cause you listen more deeply. It’ll cause you to forgive more freely. It’ll cause you to be the face of Christ more completely. I think in the midst of all that’s going on in the church we’re really not shy on getting people’s opinions. You can Google United Methodist Church and read about every person’s thoughts. You can get on social media and read every person’s thoughts. And I just want to say to the church, “Just settle down and breathe a little bit. Just let the Spirit of God guide us in these days.” And we can’t figure it all out by ourselves. But it’s all a matter of surrendering ourselves to that mysterious presence of the Holy Spirit that will guide us through. But it takes our ability to settle down long enough to sense it, to feel it, to hear it, to respond to it. And that’s all part of breathing and being.
Joe: I like that message. Just relax and breathe and be. Well, Bishop, I thank you so much for taking the time today to share a portion of your story with us.
Bishop Bickerton: Joe, thanks for asking. And it’s been a pleasure and I wish you well in your journey.
Joe: Thank you.
Joe: That was Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the New York episcopal area of the United Methodist Church. I really liked his spiritual advice to just breathe—to exhale all of the junk, as he said, and inhale the breath of God. Somehow during this season of stay-at-home orders and quarantines it’s getting harder and harder to do.
As always you can go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode called “Meet Bishop Thomas Bickerton, to learn more about him, to email me, and to subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.