Bishop Spain, tireless counselor, dies at 96

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Key points:

  • United Methodist Bishop Robert H. Spain led conferences in Kentucky from 1988 to 1992, when he was already in his 60s. But that was just the beginning.
  • He also served as bishop again from 1995 to 1996 in South Carolina after the untimely death of Bishop Joseph B. Bethea.
  • In retirement, Spain took on a new role as full-time chaplain for the United Methodist Publishing House and faithful worshipper at Brentwood United Methodist Church. 

At an age when many would step back into retirement, Bishop Robert Hitchcock Spain stepped up to provide pastoral care to more than a thousand people as the United Methodist Publishing House’s full-time chaplain.

He led regular worship, visited the sick, comforted the grieving, celebrated graduations and guided countless people in their Christian walk well into his 90s.

“He did all of that AFTER what mere mortals call a robust span of inspirational and sacrificial ministry as pastor, teacher, healer, builder of churches and people, and bishop,” wrote the Rev. Brian Milford, the Publishing House’s president and publisher. 

Spain, who went by Bob, died Sept. 9 at age 96. 

Funeral arrangements

A visitation will be held from 3 to 6 p.m. U.S. Central time Sept. 15 at Brentwood United Methodist Church, 309 Franklin Road in Brentwood, Tennessee.

A service will be at 1 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Brentwood church, with the Rev. Davis Chappell and Bishop Joe Pennel officiating.

Bishop Spain is survived by his wife, Syble, of 74 years; daughter Mollie Johnston (Philip); five grandchildren: Meg Stutts, Andy Johnston (Anne), Robert Spain II (Laura), David Johnston (Tayler), Julie Barnhill (Corey); and eight great grandchildren. 

He is preceded in death by his son, John Philip Spain; his parents and two brothers.

Read Council of Bishops press release.

Friends and fellow United Methodist clergy remember him as someone who kept ministry going and going — like the Energizer Bunny of bishops. 

“Bishop Bob Spain was one of the most Christ-like men I’ve ever known. He was a pastor par excellence,” said the Rev. Davis Chappell, senior pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, Tennessee. 

“At age 96, he was still guiding, studying, praying and encouraging us in our faith. Even in his last days, he was writing letters assuring others of his prayers and love.”

Chappell and retired Bishop Joe E. Pennel Jr. will co-officiate at Spain’s memorial service Sept. 16 at Brentwood United Methodist Church. Both Pennel and Spain made the Brentwood congregation their church home.  

“Bob Spain was a servant of the servants of God,” said Pennel, who also teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. “He had a pastor’s heart that guided him to many people in need.”

Spain was senior pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church, a megachurch with some 3,200 members, when the Southeastern Jurisdiction elected him to the episcopacy. 

After decades of serving as a pastor and district superintendent in and around Nashville, he was consecrated bishop at age 62. 

He led the Louisville Area, comprising what was then the Kentucky, Louisville and Red Bird Missionary conferences, from 1988 to 1992 — the year he reached a bishop’s mandatory retirement age.

Upon this first retirement, Spain joined the staff of the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville to lead a series of seminars called “Focus on Ministry” for laity and clergy across the United States.

When Bishop Joseph B. Bethea died in 1995 after a sudden illness, fellow Southeastern Jurisdiction bishops called on Spain to serve as the South Carolina Conference’s interim bishop until new elections in 1996. 

Spain still wasn’t ready to hang up the clerical collar. He returned to work with the Publishing House.

Neil Alexander, then the agency’s president and publisher, said he saw a need for a trusted elder who could devote to serving as the agency’s chaplain full time, and naturally turned to the bishop. 

Spain enthusiastically took on his new role in 1997 at The United Methodist Church’s oldest and, at the time, largest agency with more than 1,000 people working for the Publishing House and at Cokesbury bookstores across the U.S.

“Bob was beloved by the staff, who often sought him out for conversation about personal challenges and for spiritual counsel,” said Alexander, now emeritus president and publisher. 

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The bishop was the “main attraction” at the agency’s twice yearly meetings in Nashville for Cokesbury store managers. 

“His humor, humanity and abiding hope helped us see our work as a holy calling to assist pastors, scholars and lay leaders embrace the challenge of making disciples of Jesus Christ,” Alexander said.  

He added: “Bob’s impact was universal. No one could escape the fallout from his incessant hopefulness.”

Spain was born to public educators in Loretto, Tennessee, a small town in south central Tennessee that grew out of a stagecoach station.

At age 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and went on to serve in the Navy’s Medical Corps in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he began his studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville with plans to become a physician. He soon discerned a call to become a doctor of the soul rather than the body. 

Upon changing his life’s direction, he attended the University of North Alabama, Vanderbilt Divinity School and Scarritt College in Nashville. He eventually received an honorary doctorate from Lambuth College, now part of the University of Memphis. 

While attending seminary at Vanderbilt, he also served as pastor of what is now Spring Hill United Methodist Church. After completing his Master of Divinity, he served appointments at First Livingston; First Lebanon; Belle Meade in Nashville and as district superintendent before coming to Brentwood United Methodist Church.

He also was the rare person to serve all three branches of The United Methodist Church’s government — executive, legislative and judicial.

Before leading the denomination’s executive branch as bishop, he was elected five consecutive times as a delegate to General Conference — the denomination’s top lawmaking body. He also was a reserve member of the Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court. 

But throughout his ministry, he kept his focus on being a pastor in whatever way was needed.

The Rev. Ryan Bennett said that when he first was appointed as lead pastor of Lebanon’s First United Methodist Church in 2017, Spain asked him to lunch. The bishop wanted to help make sure the new pastor got off to a good start at a church Spain had once served and deeply loved.

“His advice that day has served me well,” Bennett said.  

The pastor added that First Lebanon loved Spain as well. Adjacent to the church is a house named in Spain’s honor, where the church offers classes and outreach ministries. 

Bishop William T. McAlilly, who leads what is now the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference where Spain made his home, has a similar admiration of Spain’s faith and dedication.

“If every pastor modeled Bob Spain’s ministry, the church would grow deeper and wider in its witness to the world,” McAlilly said. “Bob Spain modeled what Jesus taught: ‘to love God with all of one’s being, and love those God loves.’” 

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