I’m composing this within a few hours of hearing of the death of Bishop Monk Bryan at the age of 97. Monk Bryan is widely known to many pastors and laity in Missouri and across the connection. After some years of service in Texas, he moved to Missouri (the Saint Louis Conference at the time) to become the founding pastor of St. Luke’s church. From there he moved to Centenary in Bonne Terre, Maryville, and then served for nineteen years as pastor of Missouri United Methodist Church in Columbia until his election to the Episcopacy in 1976. He led the Nebraska area for eight years as Bishop before retiring to Lake Junaluska, and later to Dallas.
When I was endorsed for the Episcopacy, someone asked which Bishops I admired most and why. I did not know many bishops and was not prepared for the question, and so I answered that I appreciated the gentleness of spirit and quiet wisdom of Eugene Slater (the first bishop I ever met when I was a teenager), the steel courage and good humor of Ernest T. Dixon, Jr, (the bishop who ordained me and appointed me), the focused commitment of Ray Owen (who resolutely embraced the mission of the church), and the ability to mobilize people with grace and effectiveness of Janice Huie (my long-time colleague who had been elected bishop). I even mentioned admiring the fictional bishop from Les Miserables who exhibited Christ’s unexpected and costly mercy.
This answer was formulated before I knew Monk Bryan, or I would have included him. Monk modeled a ministry of encouragement that I deeply respect and that has helped me personally in profound ways. I’ve only known him in his retirement, but he frequently managed to find the right words at the right time to renew my spirit. His notes, handwritten or emailed, always caused me to smile, to take a larger view, to step forward with new energy. Our most recent exchange was two weeks ago. He never interfered or second-guessed any decisions I have made, including the ones that grieve the heart, and I appreciated his complete confidence and undying support. He offered counsel, perspective, focus, and confirmation. He was a blessing.
Monk Bryan’s stories, anecdotes, sermons, and prayers were interlaced with a delightful good humor, sophisticated word play, and a disarmingly unexpected sharpness of memory and attention to detail. The simplest note of appreciation or invitation had an unmatchable literary quality. He was a master storyteller and preacher. Without notes he could weave elaborate narratives that drew you in and then caught you by surprise with a turn of phrase that was at once poignant and wonderfully good-humored. He’d speak with a serious demeanor, and just at the twist in the tale his eyes would twinkle and you could detect the hint of a smile, and then you’d realize that you’d been delivered to a unexpected insight and spiritual truth. As a friend mentioned to me before the Memorial Service, Monk’s preaching satisfied all the senses: he stimulated the intellectual elements of the spiritual life as well as the emotional.
And Monk was a walking repository of Methodist history. He remembered names, numbers, dates, events, and places unlike anyone I’ve ever known. He told stories of sleeping under the stars at Mt. Sequoyah in the first years of the camp’s founding, and of work alongside hosts of Methodist leaders in Texas whose names now appear on seminary dorms and campus student centers. He served in Missouri during a time when Methodism was burgeoning and robust and enjoyed an undying confidence about the future.
And Monk was Methodist to the core. Generations of Methodist preachers preceded him in his family and generations have followed in the calling to ministry. He was first elected to General Conference in 1956 (a year before I was born!) and attended each one since. No one loved the church more than Monk Bryan. At the Council of Bishops meeting, he seldom spoke, listened attentively, knew the details thoroughly, and made any points he desired to make through story and anecdote.
Monk was from another generation of Bishop than me. During most of the seven years we served together on the Council of Bishops, I was the second youngest of the bishops while he was second oldest. Forty-four years and generations of pastors separated his experience from mine. He was from an era of bishops in black suits and white shirts rather than khakis and denim. Visiting his family in Columbia while I was out of town, he stepped into my office while I was absent. Later he expressed his utter surprise and complete bewilderment in discovering that I have no desk. How could a bishop have no desk! The difference in work styles and challenges are stark between what he faced as bishop and what I see today.
A couple months ago, Esther and I had the privilege of hosting Monk and Twila at our home in Columbia for dessert. Monk had wanted to see my collection of 18th and 19th century Methodist hymnbooks, and we spoke of the history of Methodism in Missouri. It was a delightful evening, and I’ll miss him as colleague, friend, and mentor. If I should be blessed with health of mind, body, and spirit into my retirement years, then I want to be like Monk Bryan when I grow up. He lived the autumn season of life with fullness, grace, and energy. I pray for a touch of his graciousness, good-humor, and passion for all of us who carry forward the ministry in Christ that we have inherited from him.
Yours in Christ,