Bishop Skeete, ‘pastor to people,’ dies at 90

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United Methodists remember Bishop F. Herbert Skeete as a leader who stepped up to serve in whatever way the church needed. The retired bishop died Feb. 11 at age 90.

In his 16 years as an active bishop, Skeete carried out a long-sought conference merger, supported global missions and played a key role in making the vision for Africa University a reality.

“He was one of the original founders,” said James H. Salley, Africa University associate vice chancellor for Institutional Advancement.

As president of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Skeete shepherded the proposal for a pan-African United Methodist university in Zimbabwe through the denomination’s decision-making. Skeete later served on Africa University’s founding board and became a major donor, Salley said.

In retirement, the bishop — who went by Herb — continued to serve, acting as mentor and taking on interim roles whenever called.

“When you were in his presence, you felt at home,” retired Bishop Ernest Lyght said. 

As bishop of the New York Conference, Lyght turned to Skeete to serve for nine months as interim pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Harlem. Lyght said he and his cabinet sought someone who could be both pastoral and prophetic.

Skeete — then about a year into retirement — answered yes.

“As a bishop, he was always pastor to the people,” Lyght said. “I experienced him as colleague and as friend — one who was willing to give you advice if that is what you asked for, but he did it in a calm and friendly manner.”

Salley cherishes advice Skeete once gave him.

“He said, ‘When you are working for God, God will always take care of you,” Salley said. “That is definitely the truth.”

Skeete was bishop of the Philadelphia Episcopal Area, encompassing the Eastern Pennsylvania conference, from his election in 1980 to 1988 and then bishop of the Boston Area until his retirement in 1996.

He returned to active bishop status in 2002 when he served as interim bishop of the Zimbabwe Area for a year.

While in the Boston Area, he helped establish the United Methodist Foundation of New England.

He also oversaw the union of three conferences into what is now the New England Conference. Bishops and other church leaders had long thought the merger necessary, but many New Englanders also were leery of losing their small conferences’ distinctive family-like qualities. Northeastern Jurisdictional delegates approved the merger just as Skeete came aboard.

“It was a tense time for a while,” said the Rev. Richard L. Evans, who was assistant to the bishop under Skeete, “but it happened. And I think gradually, Herb was able to convince some of the leadership that it would make for a much stronger conference.”

Evans paid tribute to Skeete’s leadership style during the bishop’s 80th birthday.

“Somewhat like a circus juggler, he would throw a few new projects into the air and then leave his staff to keep them going while he moved on to other things —more new ideas and more balls or rings in the air,” Evans wrote. “And sometimes it really felt like a three-ring circus in New England with almost more going on than we were able to manage. But it worked!”

While bishop, Skeete served the global church not only as a member of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and advocate for Africa University, but also as a member of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, serving as the mission agency’s president from 1992 until 1996.

“Bishop F. Herbert Skeete was a constant and creative leader in world Methodism and especially for the global mission of The United Methodist Church,” said Roland Fernandes, top executive of Global Ministries.

The executive was a new staff member at the agency when Skeete was its president. Fernandes said he was impressed and a little overwhelmed by the bishop’s vision and energy.

“He was tireless in his witness to Jesus Christ as the hope of the world.”

Even as Skeete dealt with conference and global concerns, he remained committed to ministry at the local level — sometimes very local.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson, who now leads the Philadelphia Area, said that Skeete often sent greeting cards to his pastors on the birth of new babies.

“He was a ‘people person’ who brought a calm, steady presence wherever he went,” said Johnson, who is also president of the Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops.

Skeete was born in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, but he spent most of his childhood in the Caribbean island country of Barbados. He would continue to maintain connections to the country throughout his ministry.

After four years in the U.S. Air Force, he studied at Brooklyn College, where he earned his B.A. He then served South Ozone Park Church of the New York Conference as he completed seminary at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. Later, he earned a Master of Sacred Theology from New York Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Drew.

He married Shirley Clarissa Hunte on Oct. 4, 1952, and took on various church appointments.

Early in his ministry, he also was involved in the U.S. civil rights movement. He spent a week in a Mississippi jail during the Freedom Rides, a 1961 effort to desegregate interstate travel that drew violent resistance and landed most riders behind bars.

He spoke about that experience to United Methodist News in 1999, when he was part of a delegation of United Methodist bishops who stood in solidarity with people protesting U.S. military exercises on their home of Vieques, an island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico.

“The challenge then is the same as we have here,” he said at the time. “It is more than the military. It is a matter of justice.”

For eight years, he was pastor of Union United Methodist Church in Queens. He then was pastor for 12 years at the historic Salem United Methodist Church “in the heart of Harlem” before being elected bishop.

In retirement, he was Salem’s pastor emeritus.

“He gave me so much help and he just took me under his wing,” said the Rev. Marvin Anthony Moss, the church’s pastor since 2014. “He supported the church’s new direction and gave me valuable feedback, and he would call and check on me. He was a giant, and he loved his church.”

Like Moss, bishops across the United Methodist connection called Skeete a mentor for their ministry.

“Herb was the conference preacher at the West Virginia Conference the year that I was ordained,” said Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, who today leads the New York Conference. Bickerton added that he cherished that Skeete assisted in his ordination.

“He was a consistent presence among us on the Council of Bishops,” Bickerton said. “You could always count on Herb to be forthright and honest, and yet very pastoral and understanding.”

Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, Council of Bishops president and leader of the Louisiana Conference, said Skeete’s death leaves a void in bishops’ hearts.

“Even in retirement, Bishop Skeete brought his passion for justice to the COB, a passion that had guided his entire ministry,” said Harvey in a statement.

“His strong voice and steady leadership were gifts to The United Methodist Church. He leaves a great legacy of love for neighbor.”

Bishop Skeete is survived by his wife of 68 years, Shirley Clarissa; two sons, Mark and wife Terri, and Michael and wife Linda; and three grandchildren, Matthew, Ajani and Andrew. He is also survived by a sister, Pearl Cumberbatch, in addition to a host of nieces and nephews.

Funeral arrangements are still pending.

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. 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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