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Bishop Stockton remembered for joyful spirit (UM News)

October 24, 2023

Bishop Thomas B. Stockton’s favorite Bible verse was John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”

“He had an enthusiasm and joyfulness that was really contagious,” said the Rev. James Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Stockton’s son-in-law. “People around him, they’d feel better. They’d feel more cheerful; they’d feel more hope just from being in his presence.”

Stockton, 93, died Oct. 18 at Arbor Acres, a United Methodist retirement community in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Stockton served as pastor at several United Methodist churches in the state before being elected to the episcopacy in 1988. He was assigned as a bishop to the Virginia Conference, where he served until his retirement in 1996. After that, he served as bishop in residence at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina, where he also taught.

Stockton’s license plate said “Live Alive,” and he usually wrote that phrase before signing his name, said Bishop Tom Berlin of the Florida Conference, who was ordained by Stockton and served under him for eight years.

“I think it was his encouragement toward joy, toward vitality and living out his faith in Jesus Christ,” Berlin said.

Howell said Stockton’s favorite of his own sermons was titled “On the Tip-Toe of Expectation.” The lesson was about “what good thing might God be about to do, and are you ready to notice it, find it, live into it and so on?”

Bishop Stockton’s sermon begins at 28:11.

Stockton was born in Winston-Salem, 15 minutes after his twin brother, Richard Stockton. He graduated from Davidson College and Duke Divinity School and also studied at Cambridge University.

Richard Stockton pursued a career in the clothing industry, and the brothers liked to tell people they were both “men of the cloth,” Howell said.

Bishop Stockton was married to Jean Stevens in 1953. She passed away in 2017.

“You could watch the man and realize how much he loved his wife,” Berlin said. “The two of them modeled marriage in such a delightful way. … She did liturgical dance and he spoke about her as a respected Bible study leader.”

Bishop Stockton was deeply committed to helping the underprivileged, Berlin said.

“He had expectations that we the churches cared for the vulnerable and the poor, and that we would actively pursue that mission,” Berlin said.

The Rev. Keary Kincannon founded Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church in Alexandria, Virginia, while Stockton was bishop there. The church operates a food pantry, soup kitchen, clothing closet, hypothermia shelter, recovery programs, and job search and emergency resources.

“Bishop Stockton was very important in getting a congregation like Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church started,” said Kincannon, now retired. “He had the compassion to see the need for a congregation that primarily served very low-income and homeless individuals and families, and he was willing to take the risk of starting a congregation whose members would never be able to financially support the operation of the church.” 

Bishop Stockton also helped found Habitat for Humanity in Charlotte, North Carolina, Howell said.

“He was one of seven pastors that got together and really created Habitat here in Charlotte, which now is a massive organization” he said. “So housing was big for him. Food was big for him.”

Stockton was a major supporter of the Council of Bishops initiative on children and poverty, which began in 1996, said retired Bishop Kenneth Carder.

“He was very positive,” Carder said. “I think that positivity was rooted deeply in his personality, but also it was his vision of the Gospel and his deep sense of conviction that God wins, that grace prevails and that the resurrection is real.

“So the future is never lost because there’s more at work among us than our own efforts.”

Stockton’s people skills made him a skillful mediator, according to Carder.

“His focus was on relationships,” Carder said, “and he was a master at cultivating warm, trusting relationships.”

Bishop Stockton was able to “disagree without being disagreeable or antagonistic,” he added. “He might simply ask a probing question with a mischievous smile on his face, prodding you to think more deeply or to challenge your assumptions.

“That would result in rethinking or reframing the issue before us.”

Berlin said that Stockton’s legacy “will be found in his consistent call to live a joyful Christian life, to share the Gospel with others and to bless people in the world — people that the world often overlooks.”

Stockton served on the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry and as a trustee of Duke University, High Point University and Virginia Methodist College.

The funeral is set for 2 p.m. on Oct. 28 (EDT), at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem. Memorial contributions may be made to the Resident Assistance Fund at Arbor Acres, 1240 Arbor Road, Winston-Salem, NC, 27104, or to Lake Junaluska, Annual Fund, P.O. Box 67, Lake Junaluska, NC, 28745.

Survivors include daughters Lisa Stockton Howell and Shannon Stockton Miller; son Tom Stockton Jr.; three children and nine grandchildren. Richard Stockton, who lives at Arbor Acres, also survives his brother.

The Rev. Howell, Stockton’s son-in-law, noted that the bishop was universally loved at the retirement community.

“We needed to tell the housekeeping staff and the women that work in the dining hall, because he was just close to all of them,” Howell said. “They all hugged us and cried and then every one of them has some story, like he would pull my hair or he had a joke name for me.

“They weren’t dining hall people. They were people who he had fun with and loved and cared for and they loved him. That’s pretty indicative of what he was about.”