William McElvaney, social justice advocate, dies at 86

The Rev. William McElvaney, a retired United Methodist pastor and seminary president known for social justice advocacy, died Sunday Aug. 24, at his Dallas home. He was 86.

McElvaney had recently informed members of Northaven United Methodist Church, where he was pastor emeritus, that his liver cancer had spread and he was entering hospice care.

He died about 6:45 a.m. CT Sunday, said Shannon Mason, his daughter.

“We were all here,” Mason said. “Mom (Fran McElvaney) was with him most closely in the same room. She had stayed up all night with him, and she had just fallen asleep. Once she kind of rested, he did too.”

McElvaney served as president of United Methodist-related Saint Paul School of Theology for 12 years, and also was a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. He was pastor of Northaven, among other Dallas area United Methodist churches.

On March 1, McElvaney made news by defying church law to officiate at a same-sex wedding for two longtime Northaven members — Jack Evans and George Harris, partners for 53 years.

The action drew an official complaint, but Fran McElvaney said North Texas Annual (regional) Conference Bishop Michael McKee had relayed in a visit to her husband last week that the matter had been resolved.   

McKee attended Sunday morning worship at Northaven United Methodist Church as members were coping with news of McElvaney’s death and that of longtime member Bill Warrick.

“We were grateful to have him here,” said the Rev. Eric Folkerth, pastor of Northaven.

On Sunday afternoon, McKee released the following statement:

"Early this morning I learned of the death of Rev. William K. McElvaney. Bill was loved by many in the North Texas Conference who knew him as pastor, mentor, and friend. During his courageous battle with cancer that would end his life, Bill and I had achieved a just resolution in the matter of a complaint against him. With the news of Bill’s entering into hospice care, the most important and compassionate path was for the people of The United Methodist Church in North Texas to pray for Bill, his wife, Fran, and their family members. I know that United Methodists in North Texas join me in prayer for Bill, for his family, and for the Church he served."

The bishop offered no further details.

McElvaney grew up in Dallas, in a prosperous family whose name graces a building at SMU. He earned three degrees from the school, and credited Perkins with changing his life and turning him in the direction of social justice.

He was a leader of the Dallas Peace Center and advocated on various social justice issues, including helping organize United Methodist opposition to having a public policy center as part of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU.

His writings included the book “Becoming a Justice Seeking Congregation.”

McElvaney said his only regret about performing a same-sex wedding was that he hadn’t done so earlier.

“When institutional covenants supersede radical grace, the church is protecting its own prejudice and inoculates the church against love in favor of law,” he wrote in an essay titled “Reflections on The United Methodist Church’s Struggle to Become Inclusive.”

“Bill McElvaney was a tireless prophet and preacher for more than 50 years, and time and time again took bold stands to lift up those who were often most marginalized in our society,” Folkerth said.

The Rev. William Lawrence, dean of Perkins, said: "Bill was the best kind of fundamentalist—not the kind that read the Bible literally but the kind who take the Bible seriously. He actually believed that followers of Jesus were to be held accountable for the Christ’s message about feeding the hungry. He really believed that the Beatitudes in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount were serious promises made to the peacemakers and to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness."

Lawrence noted that he and McElvaney were on opposite sides of the Bush library debate. Their friendship survived.

"He would never withhold his affection from a colleague or neighbor, even one with whom he disagreed intensely," Lawrence said. "He helped lead a demonstration on the day the library was dedicated. But the next day he greeted me with a smile, an embrace, and a word of encouragement.

Perkins named McElvaney a distinguished alumnus in 2013. On his retirement from Perkins, a decade earlier, friends of his established the William K. McElvaney Peace and Justice Award at SMU. A professorship in preaching and worship at Saint Paul School of Theology carries his name.

McElvaney’s survivors include his wife and daughter; a son, John McElvaney; two grandchildren, Jace Mason and Sara Willoughby; and son-in-law Darren Mason.

McElvaney willed his body to The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. A memorial service will be held at Northaven, at a date to be determined, his wife said.

In writing Northaven members about the spread of his cancer, McElvaney said: “I believe I am in God’s hands as experienced throughout 86 years of amazing grace surrounding my life in countless ways, not the least through Fran’s superb loving care.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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