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Bishop's Column: Hearing the call

Posted: December 3 2022 at 12:00 AM
Author: Bishop John L. Hopkins

Watch Bishop Hopkins' farewell video

“I will whistle for them and gather them, because I have ransomed them.” Zechariah 10:8 (CEB) 
When I think of being called into ministry, I think of my father. Oh, he wasn’t a pastor. He was a mechanic who quit school in the eighth grade and was mostly a “home” Baptist. That means he did not go to church very much. He was “spiritual” but not “religious” long before those were sociological categories. 
I was born about nine months and two weeks after my father came home from WWII, where he served in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He must have loved me a lot because he always wanted me to come home when he whistled. That was the signal! 
I can remember him whistling like it was yesterday, even though my father died in 1983. Sometimes he would use two fingers in his mouth; other times he didn’t need to. In either case, his whistle was a shrill sound that traveled through the neighborhood and beyond. 
On more than one occasion, when I was out playing several blocks away at a neighbor's house, or nearby park, I would hear that whistle, and I knew what to do. There was no hesitation—I was on my way home! 
I could be at bat in the sand-lot championship. The game could be tied in the bottom of the 9th inning. The count could be three balls and two strikes. The pitcher could have started his windup, but if I heard my father’s whistle, I would drop the bat and run home.  
Oh, it wasn't that I wanted to, but I knew from experience I had better! Often, I was upset at having to drop everything and go home. Sometimes I would arrive to find my father angry because I hadn't completed yard work or taken out the trash. Sometimes I would see him smiling and ready to hop in the car to go on a spur-of-the-moment fishing trip. 
I always did a lot of thinking and praying on that double-time trip home, trying to figure out what Dad wanted. That could be how I learned to pray on the run. But I always knew what that whistle meant. 
As I reflect on God’s call in my life, I think of my father’s calling me home. Even when the call meant going to places and people that were new to me, I knew what to do. It must be normal to have anxiety about the work that needs to be done. This is certainly true for clergy ordained to serve wherever Jesus and his Church need you. 
Ordination requires a call from God, a relationship with Jesus, and a love of the Church. It also requires sacrifice for the mission. So, when I was baptized in 1960, ordained an Elder in 1974, and later consecrated as a bishop in 1996, I vowed to serve God whenever and wherever the church called me to serve. “I could not separate Jesus from his Church and its mission.” 
Therefore, when I received the call to serve as Interim Bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference starting January 1, 2021, I left retirement, packed my bags, and headed for Chicago. I also started praying on the run. And what a run it has been. 
  • I began in the middle of the COVID pandemic, just before the January 6 attack on the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., the inauguration of President Joe Biden, and amid continued racist attacks on people of color, especially Blacks and Asian Americans.  
  • I presided over a virtual and an in-person Clergy Session. 
  • I conducted three sessions of the Annual Conference, including two virtually. 
  • I ordained and commissioned three classes of clergy and recognized clergy retiring after many years of service. A total of 42 candidates and 30 retirees.
  • I worked with the Cabinet and appointed 100 pastors to local churches and extension ministries. I issued many local pastor licenses.
  • I greeted Laity Convocations, United Methodist Men, Women of Faith, the Renewable Energy Summit, and training events. 
  • I Zoomed with individuals and many small groups of clergy and laity. 
  • I met with a variety of program and administrative committees as well as the Annual Conference Shepherding Committee. 
  • I shared sermons online and wrote over 20 articles for The Reporter and eNews. 
  • I reached out as a pastor, made calls, and sent notes to clergy and lay members struggling with illness, grief, or despair. 
  • I rejoiced with Northern Illinois paying all of its apportionments in 2021 and raising over $250,000 for ministry in Ukraine through the 2022 Bishop's Appeal. 
  • I have tried to be honest in sharing the good and bad realities confronting our Church. 
  • I have prayed and dreamed about what is possible when we focus on the work in our local churches in order to have a strong Conference. 
  • I have imagined every church with baptisms, new members, mission outreach, and a balanced budget paying all apportionments.  

Of course, I leave with some regrets. Most of all, I regret not preaching more in local churches and districts. Worship in local churches fuels our ministries and builds up the body of Christ. I had hoped to have a tour of the conference and join David Price playing guitar in his band to raise money for UMCOR. It would have also been wonderful to play tennis with Jeremiah Lee! 
It is impossible for a bishop to serve effectively without the support of others. Although I cannot single out every committee and task force leader, I am grateful for our Lay Leaders Eugene Williams, Connie Augsberger, and Mark Manzi. The Co-Chairs of our Shepherding Team, Liz Gracie, Myron McCoy, and Hwa-Young Chong, have provided steady visionary leadership.   
Special thanks go to the Extended Cabinet: Jeffry Bross, Arlene Christopherson, Jacques Conway, Brian Gilbert, Fabiola Grandson-Mayer, Brittany Isaac, Martin Lee, and Darneather Murph-Heath. Our District Superintendents support our pastors and churches as an extension of the bishop’s office. Their pastoral, administrative, and personnel support is crucial to keeping our connection vital. 
Arlene Christopherson, serving half-time as Director of Connectional Ministry, coordinated the work of our boards and agencies and staffed the Annual Conference Shepherding Team, the Annual Conference Program Committee, the Nominating Committee, Safe Sanctuaries Training, and many more groups.   
Lonnie Chafin, Treasurer/Director of Administrative Service, has led us to pay apportionments in full in 2021, spent countless hours on the Boy Scouts of America settlement, secured support from the Paycheck Protection Program during the COVID pandemic, and worked with the Trustees to relocate staff offices to 303 E. Wacker Dr.
Martin Lee, Director of Congregational Development, kept us focused on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. His academies, workshops, and training events have equipped pastors and church leaders for the work of evangelism and outreach. He has also served as my personal chauffeur, driving me in heavy traffic to meetings around the conference. 
Anne Marie Gerhardt walked me through the virtual world, helping me with many videos, eNews updates, and Reporter articles. Her joyful spirit and enthusiasm for telling the stories of our ministries will be missed. 
Finally, Marva Andrews, my Executive Assistant, provided daily assistance with phone calls, correspondence, speaking requests, scheduling, and tending to the Episcopal Residence when I was in Indianapolis. She has provided concierge services for everything challenging and fun in Northern Illinois.  
As you can see, responding to the call to be your interim bishop has blessed Elaine and me with an abundance of relationships and significant service. Thank you for memories that will last a lifetime. 
When Jesus called his first disciples to follow him, he went to people who were wounded from sin, sorrow, and brokenness. He preached good news to the poor, release to the prisoner, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. His followers were called to give witness to a Resurrected Christ who forgives sin and heals all that is broken.   
God still calls people to carry on the ministry of Jesus. Can you hear that call? Are you willing to follow Jesus and give witness to a living, loving, healing Lord? I have been with you to bear witness to Jesus Christ so you can respond when God calls you. 
Even after two years, there is so much more to share, but I must go now. I think I hear my father’s whistle! 

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