Throughout his ministry, Bishop Michael J. Coyner worked to bring people together, and he succeeded in the tough task of merging two conferences.
His unexpected death also brought together United Methodists of varied views in an outpouring of love, prayer and grief. A constant refrain in their tributes was Coyner’s fairness and faithfulness.
The bishop died Jan. 8 at the age of 70, less than two weeks after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus that had spread to his liver.
“He was a true servant leader,” said the Rev. Rob Fuquay, senior pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. “He derived his authority from the importance he gave to others.”
In retirement, Coyner worshipped at St. Luke’s, and his wife, Marsha, directed the church’s Joyful Rhythms handbell choir. Before that, he led in multiple ways.
Coyner was bishop of the Dakotas Conference from his election in 1996 to 2004, when he returned to his native Indiana. There, he served three four-year terms and oversaw the merger of the North and South Indiana conferences in 2010 into a single regional body. In 2012-16, he also was board president of the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency.
Coyner’s longtime friend, retired Bishop Lindsey Davis, called Coyner “one of the best leaders in the church” he will ever know.
“Mike had a tremendous amount of common sense, especially when it came to the administration of the church,” said Davis, who was Coyner’s immediate predecessor as president of the GCFA board. “He was able to work very well with a diverse group of people. The GCFA role, I think, was almost tailor-made for him.”
His tenure as bishop and with GCFA covered times of strain, including dealing with the financial fallout of the recent recession and the denomination’s intensifying debate over LGBTQ inclusion.
Throughout these challenges, friends say, Coyner sought to strengthen local churches. He also frequently sought to keep everyone at the table.
“He has always been a non-anxious presence. And he has always consistently lifted up the Lordship of Jesus Christ,” said Bishop Frank Beard, who served as a district superintendent under Coyner before becoming bishop of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
“One of his favorite phrases when people asked where he stood theologically was he would say that he is centered in Jesus Christ,” Beard said. “And I found that to be true.”
Fuquay said Coyner, at heart, “was a unifier.”
“Unfortunately, people would sometimes see his desire to bring people together as a lack of taking a stand on their side,” Fuquay said. “He just wanted to see people come together and see the Methodist Church as a big tent.”
“Bishop Mike,” as people called him, was originally from Anderson, Indiana. He received his Bachelor of Arts from Purdue University, where he was part of the honors society Phi Beta Kappa. He received his Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School and his Doctor of Ministry from Drew Theological School.
He served churches of various sizes and took on the roles of district superintendent and assistant to the bishop before his own election to the episcopacy.
The Rev. Howard Grinager was a new district superintendent in the Dakotas Conference at the same time Coyner was a new bishop.
“He had a strong interest in doing things that would help the local church grow,” said Grinager, who is now semi-retired and serves as interim pastor of First United Methodist Church in Brookings, South Dakota. Grinager said the bishop organized training sessions for churches to receive tools for evangelism and interact with other churches dealing with similar challenges.
“For me, that was one of the high points — his concern for letting local churches do the ministry that we felt God called us to be about,” Grinager said.
The Rev. Daniel R. Gangler, who served with Coyner for 10 years as Indiana’s director of communications, called the merger of the Indiana conferences Coyner’s greatest accomplishment.
“He also was active in being a pastor to our pastors and to the lay leadership of the Indiana Conference,” said Gangler, who is now retired. “His accomplishments and style of leadership made the conference a more inclusive conference.”
Retired Bishop John Hopkins was in the same ordination class as Coyner in North Indiana. The two were elected bishop on the same ballot in 1996, and they both retired to Indiana and participated in the same clergy covenant group.
“Most people would say he was nice to the people who disagreed with him, which in this day and age is a compliment,” Hopkins said. “Even with people who disagreed with him, he had a way of engaging them.”
The Rev. Kim Reisman, executive director of World Methodist Evangelism and a member of the Indiana Conference, acknowledged that she was among those who didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Coyner. But she found him always fair in his dealings.
She also credits his appointment of her as conference evangelist as preparing her for her current role.
“He always strove to embody our Wesleyan theological understanding of what it means to be a bishop,” she said. “He mentored me spiritually, respected my understandings, even when they did not align with his own, and challenged me to live into my role as a leader with wisdom and grace.”
Coyner also was a prolific writer who often wrote reflections for United Methodist publications, including United Methodist News. His weekly e-mail devotional article entitled “An E-pistle from Bishop Mike” was sent to hundreds of pastors and laity.
He also wrote three books for Abingdon Press: “Making a Good Move: Opening the Door to an Effective New Pastorate (1999),” “Prairie Wisdom: Reflections on Life in the Dakotas (2000),” and “The Race to Reach Out: Connecting Newcomers to Christ in a New Century.”
“He was a spiritual giant for us,” said the Rev. Russ Abel, a district superintendent in the Indiana Conference. Abel added that Coyner also had a story for almost every occasion.
As news of Coyner’s passing spread, United Methodists across the connection took to social media to honor his memory.
Bishop Kenneth Carter, president of the Council of Bishops and leader of the Florida Conference, was among those who posted to Facebook to praise Coyner.
His colleague “had a passion for people and the local church, and he thought and wrote about our church in creative and constructive ways,” Carter wrote. “I will miss his joyful spirit.”
Coyner also used social media to reflect on spiritual matters. In his final Facebook post on Jan. 3, he discussed his prayers following his diagnosis.
He wrote: “I find my own prayers go through 3 stages (not necessarily linear): 1. ‘Why me?’ Which leads toward a pity-party. 2. ‘Why not me?’ Which leads to the realization that being a Christian is not a guarantee of a life without problems but a promise that God is with us in the midst of problems. 3. ‘It’s not about me,’ which leads to the greatest prayer of Jesus ‘Thy will be done.’ The more I can live in 3 the more peace I can find.”
A memorial service for Bishop Coyner will be at 11 a.m. Eastern Time Saturday, Jan. 18, at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, 100 W. 86th St., Indianapolis. He is survived by his wife, Marsha England Coyner, his daughter Laura Coyner Peace (Adrian), his son Steve and his five grandchildren: Ashlee Rodriguez, Brianna Peace, Austin Peace, Leah Coyner and Alec Peace.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.