We had the great privilege of a conversation with Bishop Ken Carter, Duke Divinity alumnus, Bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, President of the UMC Council of Bishops, and current Bishop-in-Residence at Duke Divinity School. Bishop Carter offers wisdom about discerning your call, seeking the humanity in others in the midst of conflict, and the time he spotted Coach K doing his laundry. You can follow Bishop Carter on Twitter @bishopkencarter
This interview was recorded separately due to the physical distancing required during the fall of 2020.
Download the episode transcript or click below to read it.
Divcast Series 2 Episode Bishop Ken Carter Transcript
Rev. Todd Maberry: Welcome to the Divcast, the podcast that gives you an inside look into the Duke Divinity School community. I am Todd Maberry, your host for this episode as well as a 2006 MDiv grad and current senior director of admissions, recruitment, and student finance.
Our guest is Bishop Ken Carter, who is the new Bishop-in-Residence at Duke Divinity School. Since 2012, Bishop Carter has been the resident bishop of the Florida conference of the United Methodist Church, where he gives leadership to almost 800 congregations, fresh expressions of church, campus ministries, and outreach initiatives. He's also the president of the United Methodist council of Bishops, which includes 12 million members in Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the United States.
He is the author of many books and journal articles on topics related to the practice of ministry including stewardship, intercessory prayer, spiritual gifts, baptism, and the means of grace. Coming next is my conversation with Bishop Carter.
Well, Bishop Carter, I appreciate you taking some time to have a conversation with me on this podcast. We've had a few interactions based on my role in admissions and your role of being a Duke alumni and on our board of visitors and your role as a bishop of Florida, but I really haven't had a chance to talk to you about your background and get to know you a little better, so I've been looking forward to this.
Bishop Ken Carter: Yeah. Well, thank you, Todd. It's wonderful to be with you.
TM: Well, you spent many years as a United Methodist pastor, and then were a district superintendent, and since 2012 have been the resident bishop of the Florida Conference, nobody gets to where they are in life without having people to support them, to encourage them, to mentor them. I'm curious, who are some of the people or who's the person most responsible for you helping you to be where you are?
KC: You know, as I think about the journey, I begin with I think some faculty when I was in the divinity school, people like Tom Langford, who was just a real kind of mentor. He had been the Dean of the Divinity School. He was a member of the Western North Carolina conference. He was later provost of the university. He was a theologian, Wesleyan theologian, and he knew the annual conference. He was a person who really, I think, formed me intellectually to love the Wesleyan tradition.
Then I think of a couple of people I encountered early on. One was a field ed supervisor. His name was Jim Faggart. He served in the Lewisville, North Carolina area, was just a great supervisor and friend. Then an early minister, James Bellamy, whom I was an associate minister with. Then I would say a bishop like Charlene Kammerer and later Lawrence McCleskey.
There were just a number of people along the way. There were some laypeople. There was a guy named Bobby Matthews. I served a four point charge in a very rural area of Yadkin County. He owned a builder supply, and I say he was like the evangelism class I never had. He was just ... He knew everyone. He knew how to connect with everyone. I can really see all those sorts of people.
I would say I got to spend a year studying with Ed Friedman, the family systems theorist who wrote Generation to Generation, Failure of Nerve. I've had some real gifts along the way like that as well.
TM: That's great. As a bishop and a pastor, when we lead in those ways, we're dependent on the work of God in our communities. I'm curious, have there been moments along the way where you've experienced the presence of God in your ministry?
KC: Yeah, absolutely. I would say in that four point charge, we had a small group of laity who met once a week at 6:00 in the morning to read scripture, to be accountable to each other. We talked about how we were praying. We talked about how we were tithing. I definitely experienced the presence of God in that group, and they helped me to grow.
I would say movements like the Cursillo Walk to Emmaus movements, I experienced the presence of God. I did a lot of interfaith work in Greensboro with the Jewish community, experienced the presence of God there. I think just in relationships as well. Then there have been crises journeying through the deaths of persons I knew and loved and was very close to as a pastor. Yeah, I can think of a number of ways where I sensed that God was present. Yeah.
TM: Well, building off what you just said, were there any moments in your ministry where you wanted to quit, and how did you get through that particular moment?
KC: That's a great question. You know, I think I always sensed an underlying call to ministry. For me, the discernment has often been, am I in the right place? I think I loved being a pastor. I was a pastor for 28 years. The last church I served for many years was in the middle of the city of Charlotte Providence, and I loved that church. We went through the banking, economic meltdown. We went through the Haiti earthquake. My wife was in the earthquake in Haiti with some persons who died.
KC: The missionaries who died, Sam Dixon. They also had $8 million worth of debt when I arrived at that church on some building they have done, which was an amazing facility. There was a homeless shelter in the church.
We went through all that together, but then people would say to me, "Have you thought about being a bishop? Would you pray about this?" It was a call I was open to over a period of time. There was one place along the way where I felt like this was not the right time to be open to this, and then there was another place where I thought, "Well, I will see if the Church wants to call me to this, and I will trust their judgment, yes or no." I don't know that I've ever had the sense that this was not the right calling in my life. I have often had discernment processes about, is this the right place? Is this not the right place?
TM: Well, and speaking of the right place, an institution that catapulted your ministry was Duke Divinity School. My understanding is you came in the early 80s to do the MDiv.
TM: What's the story of how you ended up at Duke? Why did you decide to be a student at Duke Divinity School?
KC: You know, my wife and I were students at Duke Divinity School in the early 80s. It was just we had some relationships with people who were graduates. It was the reputation of the school. There was an extraordinary field education director named Maurice Richie who kind of connected us to that process.
As a person, I didn't grow up in a family with a tremendous amount of money. From the outside, I wondered, could I afford to go there? They were very good about talking about the Duke Endowment and how field education could help fund school. We both did field ed. We both worked during the year, and we lived pretty modestly.
Once I kind of got over that hurdle, sort of like then would they accept me? Would have I be accepted at this school? Then, but once we were, I worked really hard and I felt like this was just an incredible intellectual opportunity for me, and it really was.
I think certainly there is a way to be in ministry without a seminary education, and persons do it, some do it well, but for in my own life right now, the complexities of COVID and the necessary work of anti-racism ... I live in Florida, which is a battleground state politically. People are very polarized. The struggles of the Church to be vital, to be sustainable, to be innovative, to reach next generations and to understand underneath all of that, the scripture and the church history. We've been through plagues before. We've been through wrestling with slavery faithfully and unfaithfully before. I just really think what I learned there was just, for me, has been a very essential kind of foundation for what I do.
TM: What you just articulated is what I continue to hear in the present day. For people who are considering theological education, they're wondering, can I afford it? In some cases, is Duke a right fit? Like, will they let me in? It's interesting to hear that that was the same way back in the early 80s.
KC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
TM: Well, you were one of three moderators for the UMC's Commission on a Way Forward. For those who are not United Methodists listening to this, there's been a lot of conflict within the Church, a lot of questions, primarily around human sexuality. You've been at the leading edge of how do we move forward as a church together. What would you say is a story that, that captures or communicates the hope that you have for the United Methodist Church moving forward?
KC: You know, I think it's a story of a person for me. Like there's a person, a friend, Alice Williams. I met Alice. She is a lay member of Saint Luke's United Methodist in Orlando, Florida, which is one of the strongest churches in the denomination. It's close to Disney in proximity. Alice was an executive with Disney, kind of early retired human resources, and a member of the LGBTQ community, a very pious person, very much in her words a bridge builder. For her, it's first it's about Jesus, and that's just the way she frames it.
I asked if she would be willing to serve on the Commission on a Way Forward, which was a global group of 32 people. She did. She was a lay member of that body. That group was people from four continents, Africa, Europe, Philippines, US, and to work on our polity.
For me, I think a great deal about Alice, because here's a person who was born a Methodist, United Methodist. She's from West Virginia actually. She grew up in the church, confirmed in the church, in youth group in the church, an adult in the church, member of Sunday school class, a contributor to the church and to capital campaigns, and very invested in the life of the United Methodist Church. I always wondered, and I mean, we have talked a lot, and I always wondered at the end of the day, does a person like Alice wonder, was this ever really my church?
Again, I was a pastor for 28 years and I had the privilege of serving large churches. In large churches, you have a great diversity of people. For me, I came at this, I have come at this pastorally. How can the church include in its life and ministry all of the people, God is sending to us?
I've seen the Church change its practice and polity around divorce. When I was a kid growing up in the Deep South, it would have been unthinkable for a person to be divorced and to be a pastor or to be a leader in the church, and I saw that change, and I'm seeing that change right now.
For me, what I got at Duke Divinity School was an exposure and immersion into what I call the generously orthodox theological tradition of the grace of God and our journey toward holiness, which is love of God and neighbor being made perfect in love in this life. To me, that has led me to see that the grace of God really is for all people. Really, Alice is a person whom it's a story.
I would also say I'm very close to many traditional leaders in our denomination. It's extraordinary how many of them have a member of the LGBTQ community in their families, a child, a brother, a sister, and so they also live with this. It's sort of like how we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I love the way you framed that as story, because it really is about the stories of our lives and how we integrate those stories.
TM: Yeah. Thank you for naming Alice, and I'll share. I'm also UMC ordained clergy, and my own views on this have been strongly shaped by the people that I've encountered while being a pastor.
KC: Yeah, right.
TM: Bishop, building off of this conversation, I was spending some time looking at your Twitter feed. You're pretty active on Twitter. I'll go ahead and give it a shout out. It's @BishopKenCarter, all one handle.
KC: Thank you, thank you.
TM: It's really interesting. You share a lot of good resources and have a lot of fun on there too it seems. One thing that I saw that you said on your Twitter feed is, "My spiritual life has become more integrated with my civic life."
TM: It seems like there's been this evolution for you over time where you've married together your civic life and your spiritual life. Was there a moment when that kind of galvanized, when you fully recognize that your spiritual life and your civic life could not be separated?
KC: There have been a couple at least. One was a conversation with an African-American bishop where he kind of looked me in the eye and said, "Can the black church never had the luxury of separating our faith and our political involvements?"
KC: He said, "Because for us, it was life and death in our communities." I remember Zan Holmes, who is a great preacher of the United Methodist Church, a host of Disciple Bible Study, which was a few years ago. He preached at the church I served in Charlotte once. He was as a state Senator in Texas and served Saint Luke's Community Church in Dallas, one of our largest churches, and taught preaching at Perkins. He talked to me about his journey to being a member of the state Senate and how it was some lay members of his church who said, "You have to do this for our community."
For me, that's a part of it. I think a part of it is, and I'm just being very honest, it's visiting civil rights museums all across the South. Over the years, I've been in Memphis, in Birmingham, in Montgomery, Atlanta, and there's a recurring theme of voter suppression, especially in the South. If you know the story of slavery to lynching to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, it parallels the story of how do we suppress the vote.
I never tell a person how of vote. I think there are fundamental policies that to me are related to human dignity, and human freedom, and equality. But I do, I have come to believe that I'm really called to speak out about why participation in a democracy is important.
I had a conversation with Bishop Willimon about this over the summer and I asked him, "What do you think would be a theological rationale for democracy, for voting?" and we discussed that. For me, it's that the image of God is in every person, which is again very Wesleyan. I have seen those sort of two spheres come together. It doesn't mean I need to parrot every platform of one political party, but it does say to me as an Anglo Christian, there's a lot of privilege in my separating those things.
When I was a pastor, if I look back on it, especially the ministry in Charlotte, but to some extent Winston-Salem as well, I mean I did preach ... The sermon I preached that got the most, I would say, pushback was the weekend we voted on the Affordable Care Act, and I preached a sermon on the good Samaritan and on healthcare as something that was sacred and was a human right. I just remember, I didn't see it coming, but I guess people were listening to political radio and I just got a lot of pushback about that. But we looked at it from scripture, tradition, reason, experience. We had people reflect on it.
I wouldn't describe myself particularly as a political animal and a person. I didn't go into politics. I've had close relationships with politicians and people in Congress, people in North Carolina leadership. In the Charlotte church, there were a couple of members who were elected to statewide office. But I think for a follower of Jesus, it's this is a part of the journey toward justice. Yeah.
TM: Yeah. well, thank you for those reflections. And part of the reason why we're having this conversation is you're the new Bishop-in-Residence at Duke Divinity School, which is a role that has a long, long tradition. You're going to be teaching in the classroom, but also just being able to be a resource and a support for our students. I'm curious as you're coming into this role, what hopes do you have for the people who are being prepared for ministry at Duke Divinity School?
KC: Yeah, yeah. Well, I would begin by saying for the last few years, I've been heavily involved in the denomination, especially through the Commission on a Way Forward and being president of the Council of Bishops. When those tenures ended, I really had a sense of I wanted to really detach from all of that and to step back and see where I wanted to kind of invest my time.
I'd had a close relationship with Dean Heath and then have had a long relationship and friendship with Dean Jones. The conversation continued around serving as ... They graciously invited me to be Bishop-in-Residence and to be a part of the consulting faculty. It's a five year relationship that we start with. I just simply see it as a way to use my time beyond serving as the bishop of an annual conference, which I'll continue to do, to use my time just to simply try to encourage, support, mentor students in the divinity school.
I really affirm a great number of theological schools, and I constantly say that in Florida, Duke has a strong footprint. So does Emory, so does Asbury, and extraordinary people from each of those. As I look across the denomination, I really see the influence of Duke Divinity School, and I see it over and over again.
For me, it was to strengthen the relationship between the school and our Church, the Church and the school. It was to help troubleshoot for students who maybe get stuck in processes, or it was to dispel myths about things they hear about annual conferences or the ministry.
I find that many bishops are very innovative and very much wanting to walk with and work with students in their callings and to be flexible around that. I did see it as a way I would be present in the school four or five times during the semester kind of at strategic times, have space for students where I could listen, where I could learn. One of the things I believe about mentoring is reverse mentoring, that students also have something to teach me.
I've been fortunate this semester to teach in a couple of classes, to meet with the Methodist house students, to write notes to incoming students, to be connected to a family that was going through a crisis, a student, to meet with alums at an event, all virtually because that's mainly what we're doing.
KC: But once, God willing and hopefully, once things open up, I could see it's a very short plane flight, just a little over an hour from Tampa to Raleigh-Durham. I could see being present several times in a semester and just making space.
Really beyond serving as the Bishop of Florida, I kind of cleared everything else out and asked the Council of Bishops and the Southeastern bishops not to nominate me to any other board or committee. I really wanted to create the space to do this, and so far it's been very fulfilling.
TM: Wonderful. Well, I'm really glad you took that role. I'd like to end by doing something a little different. I want to ask a series of rapid fire questions where I can get to know your tastes and preferences a little better, and just get to know you, get to know kind of what you like. I'm just looking for a couple of word answers on these.
TM: I'll start with the one that, do you consider yourself an early bird or a night owl?
KC: I've become over time more of an early bird. I love the early morning. I love good coffee. I grind the beans. Love good coffee, yeah.
TM: Nice. What's a book that you've read recently?
KC: What's a book? What have I been reading lately? I've been reading ... Actually, I would say How to be an Antiracist I have found to be an extraordinary book by Ibram X. Kendi. I've read it for a number of reasons, so I would mention that. Yeah.
TM: I know you like North Carolina barbecue. Do you have a favorite North Carolina barbecue joint?
KC: There's a place in Lexington I really like, but I would say Haywood Smokehouse in Waynesville, North Carolina would be my favorite.
TM: Yeah, that's a great one.
TM: What's the last movie that you saw?
KC: What's the last movie? You know, I watch a lot of Netflix, so currently I'm watching Peaky Blinders.
TM: Okay. Haven't heard of that one.
KC: You have not? Yeah.
KC: It's based in kind of Birmingham, England. In terms of movies, I tend to love to watch series. Ozark was a series I watched this summer. It's hard for me to know, and it's just hard for me to remember when I was in a movie theater to watch a movie. Just really these days, it's really about kind of Netflix and Amazon Prime and all of that.
TM: Yeah. I think a lot of people resonate with that. What's a bigger priority, Duke basketball or Atlanta Braves baseball?
KC: You know, I'm a big Duke basketball fan. Interestingly, people will love this. When I was at Duke, it was Coach K's first year. I can remember doing my laundry in a laundromat and six feet away was Coach K doing his laundry. I doubt he's doing that anymore.
Also, they lost a lot in my first year or two, and there were letters to the school newspaper saying, "He's just not working out." Anyone in something new, you think it's not working out, stay with it.
I would say Duke basketball. I do love Braves baseball. I love spring training baseball in Florida as well. I just love going to different places in the winter in Florida and watching that. Of course last year, all of this came to a halt. But I love those kinds of sports. Yeah.
TM: What's some recent music that you've heard?
KC: You know, I listen to a group called Balsam Range, which is a bluegrass group in western North Carolina, and they're great. I love the Steep Canyon Rangers. They're also a bluegrass group out of western North Carolina. Then I'm listening to a lot of jazz. I'd say Miles Davis, John Coltrane. John Coltrane, My Favorite Things. Miles Davis, Flamenco Sketches. And Bill Evans, who's a pianist, A Waltz for Debby. Kind of bluegrass and jazz. Bluegrass kind of peps me up, and jazz usually is more kind of down to earth. That's the music, yeah.
TM: Yeah. Last one here. What's a simple pleasure that you love?
KC: I would say it is, if I'm honest, it is when I get to see ... when my wife and I get to see our daughters. We have a daughter on the West coast finishing her Ph.D. at UCLA in Chinese. When we get to see her, when we get to see our daughter Abby, who's a Div School graduate who works in admissions in a small college in Tennessee, and especially our granddaughter, who's three years old. That's really those are very joyful things.
TM: Wonderful. Well, Bishop Carter, I appreciate you taking time to have this conversation.
KC: Thank you. Thank you, Todd, and thank you all for listening as well. Thank you.
TM: Thanks for spending time listening to the Divcast. Be sure to subscribe to our feed available anywhere you find podcasts. You can send us feedback and questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our executive producer is Morgan Hendrix. Sound design is by Brandon Holmes. Editing support provided by Kinsley Whitworth. Research help for this episode came from Brooklynn Reardon, M.Div. 2022. Our music is from Christian DaPonte, M.Div. 2021.
We will always end with a ‘Div did you know’, which is a fact or interesting aspect about Duke Divinity that you may or may not know. Did you know that at the time of Duke Divinity School's founding in 1926 higher education for Methodist pastors was lacking? At that time, 53% of Methodist pastors had a high school education or less, and only 4% had degrees from both an undergraduate institution and a theological seminary. This need for educating pastors was a key factor in the founding of Duke Divinity School. Please join us again for the Divcast.