Bishop Chamness, calm leader, dead at 78

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Friends remember Bishop Ben R. Chamness — the rare bishop to oversee conferences in two U.S. jurisdictions — as someone who embodied grace under pressure.

“If there was a picture of a non-anxious presence in the dictionary, it would be his,” said the Rev. David N. Mosser, senior pastor of Salado United Methodist Church in Texas.

“Whenever there was anxiety, he put people at ease. Some of our clergy wondered if he had any blood pressure because he was so calm all the time.”

From 2000 to 2008, Chamness was bishop of the Central Texas Conference in his home South Central Jurisdiction. He led the conference as it took on hosting duties of the 2008 General Conference, when the denomination’s multinational lawmaking assembly gathered in Fort Worth.

He came out of retirement in 2011 to serve for a year as interim bishop of the Tennessee and Memphis conferences in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. During his time as bishop, he also served as president of the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits — helping to lead the pension agency through some big changes.

The Rev. Sky McCracken, who was a district superintendent in the Memphis Conference during Chamness' time in Tennessee, said the bishop was a gentle but firm leader.

"That is a very hard balance to achieve, and he did it really well," said McCracken, now senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Jackson, Tennessee. "His style of leadership was something I wanted to emulate. ... When things were really tough, that is when he could be calm and firm and discern what the right thing was to do." 

Chamness died Dec. 22 in Huntsville, Texas, with his wife, Joye, and family by his side. He was 78.

“I experienced Bishop Chamness as a steady encourager, someone I could always consult with,” said Bishop Mike Lowry in a video asking for prayers for Chamness’ family. Lowry followed Chamness at the helm of the Central Texas Conference.

Lowry recalled conversations with Chamness about one of a United Methodist bishop’s chief tasks — appointing church pastors and naming the clergy who serve on the bishop’s cabinet.

“Every time we had that conversation, there was a thoughtful care that he put into his responses,” Lowry said. “But beyond the thoughtfulness and the perseverance, the integrity and faithfulness, there was also the warm sense of a friend.”

Chamness was born June 16, 1940, in the East Texas town of Carthage. He went on to earn all his degrees at United Methodist institutions. These included an associate’s at Lon Morris College, the now-closed two-year college in Jacksonville, Texas; a bachelor’s at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana; a Master of Theology at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas; and a Doctor of Ministry at Drew University at Madison, New Jersey.

He married Joye Fay Stokes in 1960, in Henderson, another East Texas town. As an elder in the Texas Conference, he served both rural and urban congregations and eventually was superintendent of the Houston Northwest District before his election to the episcopacy.

As bishop, he navigated the usual challenges episcopal leaders face with calm and an attentive ear, said his friend Mosser.

“He was so other-person-focused that you could have a conversation with him for an hour and when you got done with it, you realized that he had hardly said anything,” Mosser said. “But he had listened very intently. For a bishop, he was a listening genius.”

He also knew how to get results. In his year serving two Tennessee conferences, he took significant steps in moving forward the conferences' longtime discussions of joining together. Chamness had the two conferences' cabinets begin meeting together, a change that remains in place. He also began the process of having a United Methodist Financial Advisory Consulting Team come in to examine the feasibility of turning the two into one. 

The Rev. John Collett, a Tennessee Conference district superintendent at the time, said Chamness was a thorough administrator. "He provided stability for us," said Collett, who is now retired. "He was very kind and compassionate but was all business when it came to doing the work."

Chamness excelled at leading groups in making major decisions, said Barbara Boigegrain, the top executive of the denomination’s pensions agency. The agency now does business as Wespath Benefits and Investments.

“What he did was really help bring people together to have discussions to work through complex issues,” Boigegrain said.

He joined the board in 2002 as an at-large member to its benefits committee and immediately had the task of helping to design a new clergy retirement plan. From 2004 to 2008 as board president, he guided the agency’s move in the Chicago area from Evanston to Glenview. Boigegrain said the move came after its previous building-mate, the denomination’s finance agency, moved to Nashville, Tennessee.

Perhaps most significantly, Chamness took the lead in ramping up fundraising in 2007 to support clergy pensions in central conferences — church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. When the Central Conference Pension Initiative reached its $25 million goal in 2013, Chamness joined in the celebration.

“It is truly a matter of justice that our central conference ministers have support in retirement when their careers in ministry end,” he said. “This is a significant effort that now recognizes and rewards a life of service to the Lord.”

He and his wife showed a knack for fundraising in other ways. In 2007, the Central Texas Annual Conference raised $100,000 during a single meeting for Nothing but Nets, a precursor to The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria initiative.

People eagerly passed the plate to fight malaria after Joye Chamness celebrated the couple’s 47th wedding anniversary by giving $10 for each year of their marriage. The giving resulted in one of the biggest special offerings received at the Central Texas Annual Conference, according to the conference’s remembrance of Chamness.

Chamness shared the insights he gleaned in his years of ordained ministry in the book Notes to New Pastors.

He also served on the boards of multiple United Methodist-related or approved organizations including Southwestern University, Texas Wesleyan University, Harris Methodist Health Systems, the Methodist Children’s Home, Wesleyan Homes and Brite Divinity School at Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-related Texas Christian University.

In addition to his wife, the bishop is survived by two sons David and Steve, their wives Caroline and Edy, and six grandchildren. A memorial service is scheduled at 11 a.m. CST Jan. 4 at First United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Texas. 

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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