Exactly two weeks after being consecrated at General Conference 2019, new Free Methodist Church – USA Bishops Linda Adams, Keith Cowart and Matt Whitehead interrupted their crowded schedule of planning meetings and graciously honored this magazine’s request for an interview. On Aug. 2 in a small conference room at the World Ministries Center in Indianapolis, the bishops answered LIGHT + LIFE’s questions about their backgrounds, their historic election, and their perspectives on the FMCUSA and the global church.
Adams — the first woman to serve as a Free Methodist bishop — has served as the director of International Child Care Ministries since 2008. She previously served as a pastor for churches in Michigan, Illinois and New York. Cowart became the superintendent of the Southeast Region, which includes the Alabama-Georgia and South Atlantic conferences, on Jan. 1 after serving in Columbus, Georgia, as the lead pastor of Christ Community Church that he planted in 1997. Whitehead has served for the last 20 years as the superintendent of the Pacific Northwest Conference after 17 years as a local church pastor in the Pacific Northwest. The three new bishops said they have admired each other over the years, and they got to know each other especially well as bishop nominees this year through group calls and texts.
“One of the really cool things about the nomination process was the Lord began to knit our hearts together,” said Whitehead, whom GC19 delegates named as lead bishop in keeping with the recommendation of the Bishop Search Committee. “By the time we were elected and had that first meeting Wednesday (July 17) at noon, there already was a deep sense of ‘esprit de corps’ connection. It wasn’t like we had to start over relationally. There was really a deep sense of love, respect and admiration for one another that came out of the sense of wanting to be connected as nominees.”
Adams said that among all of the bishop nominees, “there was no sense that we were like candidates competing for the same office in any way posturing over each other. I thought it was remarkable that we were all in a place of really just submitting to the Lord’s will. We all had jobs we loved and would be happy to stick with if that’s what the Lord wanted.”
While preparing to become a superintendent, Cowart interviewed Whitehead for his advice as an experienced superintendent with an excellent reputation. Adams and Cowart have a friendship going back three decades to their time attending Asbury Theological Seminary together.
“Linda is actually the one that said to me when I was in seminary, ‘If you ever think about leaving the United Methodist Church, consider the Free Methodist,” said Cowart, who noted that it was also Linda who asked him if he knew another Asbury student named Pam Taylor. Though he knew of her, he had never met her. He remembers Linda commenting, “I don’t know. There’s just something about you two.” Two years later, Keith and Pam re-met and eventually married. Cowart noted, “The Lord used Linda to play a role in two of the most important decisions of my life.”
Respect for Predecessors
The newly elected bishops will become the FMCUSA’s top leaders Oct. 1 when Bishops Matthew Thomas, David Kendall and David Roller retire from their bishop duties. The new bishops expressed admiration for their predecessors and their effectiveness in working together.
Thomas, Kendall and Roller “did such a great job as a team, and we come in with such a solid foundation,” Cowart said. “It really does give us the freedom to be creative, because we’re not trying to come in and fix anything that’s terribly broken.” He noted that the three exiting bishops have been “sharing freely with us but not at all dictating or trying to set our course.”
Adams said that despite the “delightful variety” in the retiring bishops’ communication and leadership style, “there seems to be a good camaraderie and unity in the Spirit.” She also expressed appreciation for their support of women in ministry. “In these 11 years I’ve worked with them as a colleague, I have never once experienced anything but support and mutual respect as a female in a leadership role.”
Whitehead said the retiring bishops encouraged the new bishops “to really begin prayerfully and not move too quickly for area assignments for the world and area assignments for the U.S. but just to take an attitude of listening to the Lord, and that’s what we’ve done during these early days.” He said the new bishops have learned from their predecessors that “we don’t all have to be alike; we don’t all have to have the same styles of personality, but we can lead in unity, and they have done that to the highest degree.”
LIGHT + LIFE asked the new bishops about parts of their ministry background that most Free Methodists may not know.
Adams said that many people have heard about her work with African refugees at New Hope Free Methodist Church in Rochester, New York, that preceded her becoming the ICCM director, but they have not heard about her time in “intensely multicultural” Midtown Manhattan from 1985 to 1989 while her husband, John, served as the general manager of the New York Bible Society; the family lived upstairs from the society’s headquarters.
“It was my favorite place ever to live. I found out that although I was born in Spring Arbor (Michigan), I sure love New York,” she said. “That’s when I clarified my calling and started seminary.”
Adams later spent four years as the pastor of a Free Methodist congregation in the Chicago suburb of St. Charles, Illinois, while John directed the Olive Branch Mission 40 miles away in the city.
Cowart said that church planters are sometimes viewed as not caring about older and smaller churches, but he grew up in a small church and began his pastoral experience at a small, rural congregation of predominantly elderly members. He also said many Free Methodists may not be aware of his extensive missions experience that included two years as Free Methodist World Missions’ area director of Southern Europe, and Christ Community Church donated 25 percent of Cowart’s work time for the volunteer role.
Whitehead has served on the Seattle Pacific University Board of Trustees for 25 years. He currently serves as the vice chair, and he led the presidential search that resulted in the selection of current SPU President Dan Martin. “I have a real love and passion for our educational institutions. They’re so important,” said Whitehead, who added cultural challenges make serving as the president of a college or university one of the hardest jobs in evangelical Christianity.
Many Free Methodists outside the Pacific Northwest also may not know that Whitehead’s experience as the pastor of Seattle’s Lakeview FMC included using the church basement to establish a shelter for homeless women in the early 1990s. “We were the only evangelical congregation in the city that had a shelter for homeless women in our facility, and it really changed our church,” he said. “We were in a parsonage next door to the church at that point, so a number of these amazing women became our friends and colleagues, and I learned a lot from them.”
All three of the new bishops share a passion for racial reconciliation and ethnic diversity, and their ministry efforts have reflected that passion.
“We very intentionally pursued racial diversity,” said Cowart about his experiences planting and leading Christ Community Church, which has received national recognition for its ministry across racial lines. Derrick Shields followed Cowart as lead pastor, and Christ Community is now the largest Free Methodist congregation with an African American lead pastor.
“God has positioned us to be cross-cultural bridge builders,” Adams said. “God calls and gifts everybody differently, but it so happens He has put that passion in all of us and given us experiences to live it out.”
Whitehead said that he and his new bishop colleagues have experience “trying to lead in the context of understanding that God’s kingdom is very different, very diverse, and to use the bully pulpit God has given us to talk about issues of racial reconciliation.”
The Free Methodist Church has grown rapidly around the world, but growth has been much slower in the United States where the denomination began in 1860. The new bishops all have many connections to Free Methodists in other nations, and they said we can learn from our international brothers and sisters.
“They put evangelism and prayer front and center to their strategy and their methodology. They are about reaching lost people, and they are about prayer,” Adams said about Free Methodists in other countries. “I’m always humbled by their prayer life. I’m always challenged by how intentional they are about reaching another person or another village.”
Whitehead said brokenness and challenges occur throughout the world, but “there is a sold-outness that we see in our international brothers and sisters that is just hard to replicate here, and I think it’s partially because we’re so affluent in the West.” Because people in many other countries lack our resources, he said, they become more dependent on God, and “being in a place of dependency creates an incredible opportunity for God to do amazing things.”
For his GC19 “How to Disciple” focus group, Cowart included a panel of international leaders.
“We are moving into a more secular, post-Christian environment in the United States,” Cowart said. “Our international church has been there for decades or centuries even, and so I think there’s no question that, in terms of how to do ministry in a context that’s increasingly more hostile to Christianity, our international family can lead us. They can teach us.”
Click here for a special edition of the magazine with reports on General Conference 2019. Visit gc19.org/live to watch the bishops’ sermons from GC19 and a panel discussion featuring them and the retiring bishops.