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McConnell’s legacy one of ‘joyful ministry’ (UM News)

December 1, 2023

Bishop Calvin D. McConnell spent 16 years in the active episcopacy, leading two areas of the Western Jurisdiction and serving as president of general church agencies.

He was comfortable in high places but never forgot that he was, first and foremost, a pastor.

“He was very caring, very compassionate. He felt that being a pastor was the most important part of being an episcopal leader,” said the Rev. Carol Davies, a close friend.

McConnell, a strong voice for LGBTQ inclusion in The United Methodist Church, died on Nov. 28 at Willamette View Retirement Community in Portland, Oregon. He was 94.

The Western Jurisdiction bishops issued a statement after McConnell’s passing. It says, in part:

“The legacy our friend and colleague leaves is one of joyful ministry with others, a deep and abiding love for the way children reflect back to us the face of Christ, a pastoral presence in every role he served and a whole-hearted belief that God’s love is made for everyone.”

McConnell was born Dec. 3, 1928, in the southern Colorado town of Monte Vista, the youngest of the five children of Roy and Leota McConnell.

One sibling, the Rev. Taylor McConnell, survives him at age 102 and had a long career in Methodist education ministry, including teaching at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

“Much to everybody’s amazement, (Calvin) followed me right into the ministry,” Taylor McConnell said by phone. “He stayed with pastoral ministry and the denomination honored that.”

Calvin and Taylor McConnell’s father was a leading potato farmer of the San Luis Valley, as well as a state legislator. The family also had sheep and cattle on their sizeable acreage.

Though Calvin McConnell would eventually become a devoted flower gardener, as a youth he “couldn’t get off the farm fast enough,” according to his Council of Bishops biography.

McConnell earned degrees from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology, and later from Andover Theological School.

A July 10, 1951, photo from the Honolulu Advertiser shows him and three other Methodist young adults smiling and sporting leis, having arrived to spend eight weeks working with youth in Oahu churches.

Another of those pictured was Mary Bamberg. She and McConnell married on Sept. 2, 1952, at Epworth Methodist Church in Berkeley, California.

She earned a degree from Stanford University and later a doctorate from the University of Colorado and had a long career in education. The McConnells would have two children: sons David and Mark.

Calvin McConnell was ordained a deacon and elder in the Rocky Mountain Conference. Early on, he transferred to the California-Nevada Conference, where he was minister to youth at First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto, California, and director of the Wesley Foundation at Stanford.

He moved to the Oregon-Idaho Conference, where he was university chaplain and assistant professor of religion at Willamette University. Then came a homecoming to the Rocky Mountain Conference, where he served churches in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs. He was a General Conference delegate in 1976 and 1980.

Western Jurisdictional Conference delegates elected McConnell bishop in 1980, and he was assigned to the Portland Area. After eight years, he assumed leadership of the Seattle Area.

Bishops often help lead church agencies, and McConnell served as president of The Upper Room, the General Commission on Religion and Race and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Davies said that McConnell, as bishop, consistently stressed the need for quiet time spent in prayer, meditation and Bible study.

“Spiritual formation was the foundation of his faith,” Davies said. “He was totally committed to the spiritual disciplines, and to teaching them to others — especially new clergy.”

David and Mark McConnell said by phone that their father was skilled at planning and organizing, and enjoyed working with pastors of different size churches, helping them to solve the problems they faced.

He particularly loved traveling to Alaska, where he helped plant United Methodist churches, the brothers said.  

McConnell had a heart for social justice, which for him included full acceptance of LGBTQ persons in The United Methodist Church.

“Social justice as a whole, and gay rights within that, were really important to him,” Mark McConnell said.

Bishop McConnell was one of 15 episcopal leaders who, during the 1996 General Conference in Denver, issued a statement saying that they opposed the denomination’s ban on ordination of “self-professed, practicing homosexuals.”

McConnell gave an interview to the Seattle Times about signing the statement.

“I stand more toward the position that we need to be more open and accepting of persons of homosexual orientation, which is not to say I agree with the way some act it out and practice their sexuality, but I think we as a church have the responsibility of being open and accepting to all people, in the spirit of Jesus Christ,” he said.

Mountain Sky Area Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay episcopal leader of The United Methodist, this week paid tribute to McConnell for being part of the “Denver 15.”

“He was a bright light, sharing the love of God with much joy and enthusiasm,” she said.

Six years into his tenure as bishop, McConnell’s wife died of cancer. David McConnell said his father felt lost in the aftermath, and decided he should remarry.

“He very consciously set out to find the right person,” David said.

In 1988, Bishop McConnell married Velma Duell, a widow who with her husband had been friends of the McConnells from their Willamette days. Calvin and Velma McConnell traveled together often when he was bishop, including to Africa, where he strongly supported Africa University.

Velma McConnell survives him, as do the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren from their marriages.

In retirement, McConnell lived in the Portland area, and he joined the handbell choir at Lake Oswego United Methodist Church.

He kept finding ways to serve and his sons recalled that he bought a pickup truck so he could more efficiently move donated bread from the grocery store to the food bank.

McConnell also filled his garden with big, showy flowers: peonies, zinnias, roses.

“The gardening and his love of flowers: It all comes from the same place, that joyfulness he sought,” Mark McConnell said.

Bishop McConnell also sang tenor in the retirement community choir. In later years, when dementia made conversing a challenge for him, he could still sing.

“There are people who would come to see him, and they would sing, and that’s how they would communicate,” David McConnell said.

Retired Bishop Mary Ann Swenson recalled visiting Bishop McConnell in June. She said he joined her in singing the doxology — a hymn of praise.

A memorial service for McConnell is scheduled for Jan. 20 at First United Methodist Church in Portland, beginning at 11 a.m. U.S. Pacific Time. The service can streamed live and later viewed online at this link.