Bishop Hearn, force for missions, dies at 89

Bishop J. Woodrow “Woody” Hearn led two U.S. annual conferences and traveled the world as president of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, helping to revive Methodism in what was then the Soviet Union.

Hearn was a force for United Methodist missions, but also cherished and nurtured ecumenical relationships.

“His true love was the body of Christ, without any other tags on it,” said son Bruce Hearn, chaplain at Wesley Prep school in Dallas.

Hearn died in the early morning of Aug. 31, at home in Galveston Texas, after a recent diagnosis of melanoma. He was 89.

Among those recalling him with affection and gratitude is Albuquerque Area Bishop Earl Bledsoe.

As Texas Conference bishop in 1993, Hearn appointed Bledsoe, an African American, as pastor of predominately white Cypress United Methodist Church. It was an early major “open itinerancy” appointment for the conference.

Bledsoe said: “I still remember his words to me: ʽIf you get into trouble preaching the Gospel, I will be there with you. If you get into trouble for anything else, you’re on our own.’ He was there at every turn in our seven years of ministry at CUMC.”

Bishop Hearn was born on March 7, 1931, in McIntyre, Louisiana. His father, the Rev. John Elton Hearn, was a banker-turned-Methodist pastor who would become Louisiana Conference treasurer.

The future bishop got his undergraduate degree from Louisiana Tech University. On Aug. 24, 1952, he and Anne Connaughton began what would be a 68-year marriage. She survives him.

The young couple moved north so Hearn could study at Boston University School of Theology, where he earned a master of sacred theology degree. He also studied New Testament at Harvard Divinity School.

The bishop’s early career as an ordained elder was in the Louisiana Conference, where he was a pastor in Lafayette, Shreveport, New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

The Hearns returned to Boston in the early 1960s so he could complete his doctoral course work. Mrs. Hearn typed her husband’s dissertation in social ethics on an Underwood manual typewriter, using carbon paper for a copy, son Bruce recalled.

The family was back in Louisiana, with Woody Hearn serving Elysian Fields Methodist Church in New Orleans, when Hurricane Betsy clobbered the city on Sept. 9, 1965. The Hearns and various church members rode out the storm in the sanctuary, the eye passing over them, Bruce Hearn said.

In the aftermath, the Methodist pastor would form a partnership and long friendship with Catholic Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans as they collaborated on relief efforts.

Hearn was a district superintendent in the Louisiana Conference and in the late 1960s served as executive director of the Fort Worth (Texas) Council of Churches, another opportunity for ecumenical relationships. A feature story from that era notes that the Hearns built a home in Fort Worth, and let their children contribute ideas for the design.

In 1984, Hearn was elected bishop by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference and assigned to the Nebraska Conference (now part of the Great Plains Conference), which he led for eight years.

“In Nebraska, he was highly respected for his ecumenical work,” said retired Bishop Joel Martinez, who succeeded him in overseeing that conference.

Hearn was bishop of the Houston-based Texas Conference from 1992 until his retirement in 2000. The Rev. William C. “Bill” Jones was among his district superintendents.

“(Hearn) was easy to talk to and all, but when the came time to make decisions, he did not hesitate, and he made good decisions,” Jones said.

The Rev. Carol Clifford Turner was one of Hearn’s last district superintendent appointments.

She recalled meeting him at a restaurant for a long interview, and finally telling him that he might not want to choose her, given that she had a visual impairment.

“He said to me, ʽCarol, the church I serve would never hold that against someone.’ … I appreciated so much his inclusion of people who weren’t the standard issue and his desire to have an inclusive cabinet.”

During his tenure as bishop, Hearn was on the board of Global Ministries, serving as president from 1988 to 1992. A newspaper article from that period describes him as visiting some 60 countries.

“Where the Methodist church had a presence, he tried to get there,” Bruce Hearn said.

In 1991, Bishop Hearn and the Rev. Randolph Nugent, then top executive of Global Ministries, went to the Soviet Union and met with Russian Orthodox Church leaders. The initiative helped create the circumstances for a revival of Methodism in the country, as well as shipments of food and medical supplies to areas in desperate need.

“People would stand in queues for over an hour to buy a loaf of bread or a carton of milk,” said the Rev. Sergei Nikolaev, president of the Moscow Theological Seminary of the United Methodist Church. “I was one of those people, at that time a university student studying physics in Moscow. … Bishop Hearn negotiated a way for The United Methodist Church to help the Russian people in need.”

Nugent said by phone that Hearn played a key role in improving medical care in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, enlisting help from Houston Methodist Hospital.

“That would not have been possible without Bishop Hearn,” Nugent said.

Nugent said it’s little known that Hearn also made several trips to Africa, working with top U.S. foundations to promote justice and peace.

Where his title as bishop was helpful, Hearn would use it, according to Nugent. But the bishop could relate to people from all walks of life.

“He didn’t need to be in the spotlight at all,” Nugent said. “His task was to make sure he was uplifting as a leader — lifting the people with whom he was in mission.”

In retirement, Hearn was a consultant to the Permanent Endowment Fund of Moody Memorial First United Methodist Church in Galveston. Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones said Hearn made sure grants went to global mission work as well as local ministries.

The Rev. Burt Bagley, executive director of the endowment fund, confirmed that over the years Hearn helped steer grants to about two dozen countries, with a focus on Africa.

“He was the guiding force because he was such a mission-minded bishop and person,” Bagley said. He added that the endowment fund recently established a professorship in Hearn’s honor at the Moscow Theological Seminary of the United Methodist Church.

Bruce Hearn recalled his father as a voracious reader who had wide-ranging curiosity and a keen interest in boats. Bishop Hearn and his wife often spent part of the summer in Friendship, Maine, and he loved to observe the harbor there.

Asked about his father in the parental role, Bruce Hearn said, “He held up responsible, but we never doubted the love — truly unconditional love.”

The Rev. Stan Copeland, pastor of Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas, posted a long tribute to the bishop, with multiple references to Anne Hearn.

“Anne was his constant partner,” Copeland said. “She still stands as one wholeheartedly committed to social justice and civil liberties for all.”

Besides his wife and son Bruce, Bishop Hearn is survived by son Mark Hearn, daughter Diana Hearn and five grandchildren. Sons Paul Hearn and Christopher Hearn died before their father.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put on hold plans for a memorial service for Bishop Hearn.

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him 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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