United Methodist Bishop D. Frederick Wertz, who led the West Virginia, Washington and Harrisburg (Pa.) episcopal areas, died Oct. 16 in Carlisle, Pa. His passing came less than two weeks after his 97th birthday.
Wertz was the longest-serving surviving bishop in the United States. Elected to the episcopacy in 1968 — the same year as the merger that formed The United Methodist Church — he played a crucial role in uniting former Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren members.
"He was a godly man, a strong leader, a good pastor," said the Rev. Tom Maurer, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Hummelstown, Pa., about 30 miles east of Carlisle.
Maurer was pastor of Allison United Methodist Church in Carlisle when he got to know Wertz, who was then a retired bishop as well as the congregation's pastor emeritus.
"He was in the first class of United Methodist bishops elected &ellipsis; and he helped a great deal in forging that union between Methodists and EUBs."
Bringing members of the two denominations together in shared ministry could be a challenge in those early years, recalled the Rev. Bill Wilson. He was ordained an elder by Wertz in the West Virginia Annual (regional) Conference.
Wertz's first appointment as bishop was to West Virginia, where the former Evangelical United Brethren Conference had been one of the few "no" votes to the merger. In 1968, Wilson said, many Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren congregations in West Virginia were across the alley from each other.
Wertz ended up serving the newly formed West Virginia Conference for 12 years, four years longer than most U.S. bishops serve in one episcopal area. During his tenure, he led a substantial fundraising campaign that helped to solidify the conference's clergy pensions, support United Methodist-related West Virginia Wesleyan College and improve the conference's camp and educational center.
"His episcopal leadership was about moving with a purpose together all these entities that could have been divided," said Wilson, now retired as West Virginia's director of connectional ministries and assistant to the bishop.
Wilson quoted the report of the West Virginia episcopacy committee when Wertz left in 1980 to lead the Washington Area that encompasses what is now the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference. The committee, which advised the bishop, credited Wertz with leading a merger "without suffering losses of identity and purpose."
From academia to the episcopacy
David Frederick Wertz was born in Lewistown, Pa, on Oct. 5, 1916.
He served pastoral appointments while a student at now United Methodist-related Dickinson College in Carlisle and later while earning graduate degrees at United Methodist Boston University School of Theology.
He was ordained an elder in 1942 in the Central Pennsylvania Conference - now the Susquehanna Conference. He served these pastoral appointments: Doylesburg (1940-43); Stewartstown (1943-46); Camp Curtin Memorial (1946-49) and Allison Memorial Methodist (1949-53). He then was a district superintendent for two years before becoming president in 1955 of United Methodist-related Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa.
From there, the Northeastern Jurisdiction elected him bishop. After his service in West Virginia, he led the Washington Area until retirement in 1984. In 1990, he came briefly out of retirement to serve one year as bishop of the Harrisburg Area.
During his time as bishop, he also was the president of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race from 1972 to '76 and president of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries from 1976 to '80.
"The impact he had on so many lives will not be forgotten," said Zedna Haverstock, who got to know Wertz when she was treasurer and comptroller of the Central Pennsylvania Annual (regional) Conference. She is now the Susquehanna Annual (regional) Conference benefits officer. "He was well-respected by not just clergy but also laity."
Influence on other bishops
Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton, who now leads the Pittsburgh Area, said in a Facebook post that Wertz had a profound effect on his sense of calling.
Bickerton recounted that he was a teenager with plans to become an optometrist when he was summoned to the then West Virginia bishop's office. Bickerton, then president of the Conference Council on Youth Ministry, expected Wertz to discuss the conference's youth work. Instead, Wertz told Bickerton that God was calling the teen to ordained ministry.
Bickerton, initially, disagreed. But two years into college, Bickerton changed his major and made plans for seminary. Shortly after being elected bishop, he visited Wertz who was now living in a retirement home. It was then, Bickerton said, Wertz looked him in the eye and said, "I told you so."
"I thank God for the life of D. Frederick Wertz," Bickerton said. "He was a bishop of the church who shaped the direction of a young boy who could not see what he saw. I thank God that I finally did."
Bishop Marcus Matthews, who today leads the Washington Area, recalls that as a young pastor in Washington, he invited Wertz to visit his small church.
"Not only did he come to the church, but he stopped by the house afterwards, along with his wife," Matthews recalled. "They stayed for dinner and played with the kids. I will always remember that."
He added that Wertz "was a good, good spirit. He was gentle but firm when needed."
Bishop Jeremiah J. Park, who now leads the Harrisburg Area, first met Wertz when the then 91-year-old bishop visited the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference in 2008. "I remember the whole conference enjoyed what he had to share with us," Park said. "I remember it as very exciting moment — one of the highlights of the jurisdictional conference."
Wertz married Betty Jean Rowe on Aug. 25, 1938. She preceded him in death in 1999. The couple had four children: Robert Gary, Joanne Rowe, Donna Jean and Elizabeth Barratt. The family has tentative plans for his memorial service to be at the Carlisle (Pa.) United Methodist Church on Saturday, Nov. 2. Other memorial plans still are being planned.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. The Rev. Erik Alsgaard, managing editor in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, contributed to this report.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].