United Methodists remember Bishop R. Kern Eutsler — who died Jan. 2 at age 100 — as both a master of the pulpit and administration, who was nevertheless down to earth.
“He was able to move between local church and extension appointments with remarkable ease,” said the Rev. Douglas Forrester, lead pastor of Reveille United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia.
“He was aware of his great gifts, comfortable in his own skin, but never haughty, always engaging with his sweet, self-deprecating sense of humor.”
Among multiple appointments in his native Virginia, Eutsler served as pastor of Reveille and returned as a fellow worshipper in his retirement. The Richmond church will host his memorial service on Jan. 8.
Bishop Sharma D. Lewis, who now leads the Virginia Conference, said “his gentle spirit will be missed by the Virginia Annual Conference.”
Eutsler served as bishop of the neighboring Holston Conference from 1984 until his mandatory retirement in 1988. The conference encompasses churches in eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and northern Georgia.
“It is a mistake to assume that ‘bishop’ is simply ‘pastor’ writ large. It isn’t,” Forrester said. “At their best, bishops are people who embody the dual gifts of organization and inspiration while never forgetting that, in the end, they are God’s appointed shepherds of a flock.”
Forrester, who considered Eutsler a mentor, said the bishop represented that ideal.
While still in seminary in the 1940s, Eutsler got a crash course in Christian leadership.
After the senior pastor died, Eutsler helped take over preaching and pastoral duties at a tall-steeple New York City church — all while completing his studies at nearby Union Theological Seminary. In 1943, he earned his Master of Divinity with honors.
“It was a heavy load of work for one completing senior year requirements, but my father made lasting friendships in that church and gained valuable experience,” said his daughter Ann Eutsler Coulter.
He wrote his senior thesis under the direction of noted American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He also took classes from other Protestant luminaries including the philosopher Paul Tillich and Harry Emerson Fosdick, founding pastor of Riverside Church in New York.
Those experiences served the church leader in good stead as he went on to serve at multiple levels of The United Methodist Church, including as bishop.
Coulter said her father always planned to return to Virginia, where he had grown up the son of a Methodist pastor.
Eutsler was born Aug. 2, 1919, in Bridgewater, the youngest of nine children. The family moved frequently as their father, the Rev. Robert L. Eutsler, took on new appointments.
“I am sure that my father’s call to the ministry was influenced by the example of his father, whom he loved deeply and admired,” Coulter said. “As a young boy, he often went with his father to services at different churches when my grandfather had two or three churches on a circuit.”
The future bishop was ordained an elder in the Virginia Conference in 1944. The following year, he married Eva Rebecca Vines. She died on May 25, 2014, after almost 69 years of marriage.
He was a delegate to every General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, between 1964 and 1984. That includes serving as a delegate to the 1968 Uniting Conference that brought together Methodists and the Evangelical United Brethren to form today’s United Methodist Church.
“He loved people, and I think that came through very naturally,” said Coulter, who added that she still remembers some of his sermons.
“We were so proud of him. He lived his faith every day, and never let the heavy demands of the pastorate interfere with his role as a loving and supportive father and husband.”
The Southeastern Jurisdiction elected Eutsler bishop late in his career, but United Methodists in the Holston Conference say he hit the ground running.
The Rev. Al Bowles, who was a district superintendent on Eutsler’s cabinet, particularly praised the bishop’s ability to appoint clergy to the ministries where they could best serve. Appointing pastors is often the biggest task before bishops.
“He knew his churches in a short time,” Bowles said. “He would put the personnel that we had into the situations with the most need.”
During Eutsler’s tenure, the Rev. Brenda Carroll chaired a committee on the board of ordained ministry that works with clergy candidates as well as ordained clergy. She said he had a “living-room presence.”
“He would call to talk about issues we were dealing with, and it was like you were in a living room with him rather than talking to the highest authority,” she said.
Retired Bishop Kenneth L. Carder was a pastor in the Holston Conference when Eutsler came to the conference, and the two became good friends. Carder will deliver the eulogy at Eutsler’s memorial service.
“He was comfortable with who he was as a child of God,” Carder said. “He had an enormous sense of humor, but it was never at anyone’s expense. … He would laugh about himself.”
Carder remembered once complimenting the late bishop on his impeccable dress that included yellow slacks, a green sports coat, a pink shirt and a tie that brought the whole getup together.
“I said, ‘Wow, bishop, you sure look sharp,’” Carder recalled. “His comment immediately: ‘When the flesh fails, adorn it.’”
Eutsler never exaggerated his importance, Carder said, and sometimes did profound work while staying out of the spotlight.
Eutsler was an active member of the Council of Bishops when the group put together the 1986 public statement “In Defense of Creation: The Nuclear Crisis and a Just Peace.”
The Holston Conference encompasses Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the U.S. Department of Energy works on nuclear technology, including for a time, nuclear weapons.
Eutsler arranged with Carder, then pastor of First United Methodist Church in Oak Ridge, to seek input from people in the nuclear industry on the bishops’ statement. Carder said three of the scientists had worked on the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear bombs.
That initial meeting led to Eutsler and Carder organizing a subsequent public dialogue between the scientists and 16 bishops about “In Defense of Creation.”
“Bishop Eutsler was in the background that entire conference,” Carder said. “That was his leadership. He wasn’t concerned if he got credit.”
Bob Mayhew, one of the late bishop's friends at Reveille United Methodist Church, said Eutsler gave excellent advice. "He was a true scholar, and many times at our men’s prayer breakfast when a theological question arose, we would turn to Kern for an excellent response and answer," Mayhew said. The men’s prayer breakfast would meet at the assisted living center where Eutsler lived.
The Rev. Stephen Coleman, associate pastor at Reveille, knew the late bishop for 18 years. He said Eutsler shared wisdom until the end of his days. "He had the authority of a bishop but a great humility,” Coleman said.
Forrester, Coleman’s colleague at Reveille, agreed.
“Kern Eutsler was a near-perfect embodiment of why the symbol for the episcopacy is a shepherd’s crook,” Forrester said. "He was strong yet compassionate, gifted yet gracious, a giant amongst his peers yet always making time for pastors like me."
In addition to daughter Ann Eutsler Coulter and her husband, William, his survivors include daughter Mary Margaret Abramson and her husband, Raymond; four grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a number of nieces and nephews and great-nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the memorial fund of Reveille United Methodist Church, 4200 Cary Street Road, Richmond, VA 23221-2526, or to his alma mater Berea College, CPO 2216, Berea, KY 40404.
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.