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Profile of C.M.E. Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr., NCC President 2004-05
Actively Combating Poverty in His District, Hoyt Aims to Add ‘Feet’ to the NCC’s Poverty Mobilization

October 31, 2003, NEW YORK CITY -- The National Council of Churches’ incoming president, Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr., of Shreveport, La., is a leader in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church-one of the Council’s seven historically Black member communions. He also is a New Testament scholar, a preacher, writer, teacher, administrator and pastor.

According to those who know him best, however, you haven’t adequately described Bishop Hoyt until you also lift up his generous spirit. “He has a heart for the people,” as put by his longtime friend and colleague, Bishop Ronald Cunningham, also a Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) bishop, and a member of the NCC Executive Board.

In his current role as presiding bishop of the CME’s Fourth Episcopal District, Hoyt is looking out for the needs of 240 pastors and 320 congregations in an area that covers all of Mississippi and Louisiana. “Many of these pastors are tentmakers,” he says. Like the Apostle Paul in the early days of Christianity, whose “day job” was making tents, they have part-time or full-time jobs in addition to their pastoral duties. In the case of the Delta Region pastors, whose annual salaries range from $35,000 to a low of $1,000, tentmaking is a financial necessity. “It’s hard to get pastors to meetings, when you don’t have the financial resources to back them up,” says Hoyt, measuring the impact of financial challenges on the everyday work of the church.

“My greatest wish is to have supplementary salary for these preachers, adequate housing, scholarships for their children,” he says, but “our Mississippi and Louisiana economic doldrums and scarce jobs” make it difficult for average churchgoers to contribute more than they are already giving. As one step toward a solution, Hoyt has organized special fundraising dinners, each one aiming to bring to the table 500 people who are in a position to contribute $100 each.

Raised under the banner “Empowering Us to Help Us,” the funds go for scholarships, seed money for entrepreneurship, help for rural churches to get computers, and also for social outreach efforts such as after-school tutorial services and a “Family Matters” program. “When government comes along and talks about faith-based initiatives, we’ve got it,” Hoyt says.

“I’m also challenged to get education for my preachers,” says Hoyt, who himself began preaching in Evansville, Ind., when he was only 17 years old-following in the footsteps of his father, an ordained CME minister. But unlike most of the pastors in his episcopal area, Hoyt had the opportunity to pursue many academic degrees. He earned the Bachelor of Arts degree from CME-related Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. (1962); Master of Divinity degree from Phillips School of Theology, a part of Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center (1965); Master of Systematic Theology degree from New York City’s Union Theological Seminary (1967); and a Ph.D. degree in religion from Duke University, Durham, N.C. (1975).

Hoyt is helping many Black pastors close the education gap, using as a model a program he had a key role in establishing more than 20 years ago at Hartford Seminary. The Black Ministries Certificate Program provides an introductory theological education designed to meet the needs of leaders of Black congregations regardless of whether or not they have the usual prerequisite of a bachelor’s degree. The course work, which can be completed in two years, ranges from Scripture and theology to the nuts and bolts of running a church and its programs. At Hartford, the program has trained over 1,000 lay and clergy persons.

Hoyt’s Life Takes an Ecumenical Turn

Bishop Hoyt welcomes the opportunity to reach out even more broadly for justice and reconciliation through the work of the National Council of Churches, whose 36 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox member communions comprise some 140,000 congregations and 50 million congregants. He notes, however, “It never was my goal to be NCC president.” Rather it was the biblical principle of reconciliation that first drew him, as a student, to the ecumenical movement, and served as polestar for a life that increasingly took an ecumenical direction.

“I started out in the Black community,” says Hoyt, who grew up in the CME Church and remains firmly rooted in it. But a teacher at Lane College who sent him to an interreligious, interracial meeting in Ohio in the 1960s opened up new avenues to the young Hoyt-a way to act on the convictions of his religious upbringing in a wider arena and to share the gifts he brought as a CME member. His ecumenical career took off in 1974, when another mentor placed him on the theology commission of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU). Now known as Churches Uniting in Christ, the organization’s nine member communions have developed a new relationship, based on an agreement to start living more fully into their unity in Christ.

Becoming ever more engaged in the ecumenical movement, Bishop Hoyt was one of only two men to participate in COCU’s commission on women in ministry; he served on the committee that in the 1980s produced the Inclusive Language Lectionary under the auspices of the NCC’s former Division of Education and Ministry; he has represented his denomination in various capacities at the World Council of Churches; and he served as vice-president of the NCC’s Faith and Order Commission from 1995-1996. Most recently he served a 1999-2000 term as president of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference.

“Some of my colleagues in the Black community said, ‘You’re wasting your time,’ ” Bishop Hoyt recalls, acknowledging that the ecumenical movement continually strives to live up to its own high standards of racial inclusivity but occasionally falls short. “Sometimes I did feel that,” he says, quickly adding, “but then I look around and see our mandate is to bring unity to the people of God-not only for the churches but for humanity. That’s the challenge for me … that’s the emphasis I bring to the ecumenical network … bringing people together around their humanity, not around their skin color, gender, class or disability.”

As part of his service with the NCC Faith and Order Commission, Hoyt participated in a 1989 delegation that visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican-and which provided a quintessentially Hoyt moment. It was a human moment. It occurred when he offered the Pope a blessing and asked for his signature on the flyleaf of a Catholic Bible. It soon became evident that offering a blessing, instead of waiting for one, broke a formal rule of Vatican etiquette, as did the request for an autograph. But Hoyt’s sincere spirit of Christian love brought a warm response from the Pope, who also willingly placed his signature in the Bible, much to the surprise of others at the gathering. Hoyt later reflected that his actions may have inadvertently upset “the order of things,” but in that moment, “the Spirit was moving.”

Installation Site Evokes Former and Current Anti-Poverty Efforts

Bishop Hoyt will begin a two-year term of office as the NCC’s 22nd president on Jan. 1, 2004, but his installation will be celebrated earlier-at the close of the Nov. 4-6, 2003 annual meeting of the General Assembly, the NCC’s 280-member governing body. A special service of installation will be held the evening of November 6 at Anderson United Methodist Church in Jackson, Miss.-a city that holds a special place in the Council’s history.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, “the NCC had a strong presence in the Delta Region,” says Hoyt. One of the major hubs of the Council’s Delta Ministry was located only a few miles from Jackson on the campus of Mt. Beulah College, a school affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). For a decade, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the Delta Ministry operated a cutting-edge community development program. Working with people living in the deepest poverty, the program sought out local direction and leadership, leaving a lasting legacy of empowerment in the area.

So, too, in the present day, “the NCC has to put itself on the cutting edge,” says Hoyt. “When I hear people talk about poverty … it has to be coupled with the fight against racism and gender inequality. And it has to be accompanied with concrete action.” For inspiration, he points to the Social Creed of his own CME Church that clearly states that “for the church to be silent in the face of need, injustice and exploitation is to deny the Lord”-a principle shared throughout the ecumenical community.

Bishop Hoyt takes up his responsibility as president at a time when the NCC is engaged in a multi-year Poverty Mobilization, and has said he will encourage the churches to put “feet” under this effort. As one of the many components of the Mobilization, the NCC has challenged federal priorities in which military spending far outstrips spending for constructive social purposes. A leading opponent of the Iraq War, the Council has warned that the war would be hardest on people already in poverty, whose limited access to quality health care, education and other necessities of life would drop to even lower levels. The Mobilization lifts up best practices in the struggle against poverty, works to change common wisdom about the inevitability of poverty, and includes partnerships with many anti-poverty organizations for collaboration in education, advocacy and service.

Hoyt also supports the Council’s high-profile environmental efforts, which take seriously the responsibility that lies with people of faith to be stewards of God’s creation. And he lifts up the value of the Council’s program for better interfaith relations, particularly its work toward better Christian-Muslim understanding. “The stereotypes that too many Americans hold about Muslims have become even more troublesome after September 11,” he says, and need to be countered with education and dialogue.

Promoting good relationships among Christians, Jews and Muslims is high on his agenda. He currently serves as a vice-chair on the National Board of Directors of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), an organization formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which works for understanding and respect among all races, religions and cultures.

A Sought-After Lecturer and Preacher

A former teacher, Bishop Hoyt’s new role at the NCC places him in a sort of “national classroom” that debates issues of peace, justice and unity, and to which he brings many qualifications. Before being ordained as a bishop in 1994, Hoyt had established a reputation as a distinguished scholar in theological education. He is a former Professor of New Testament at Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Ct. (1980-1994); Howard University School of Religion, Washington, D.C. (1978-1980); and Interdenominational Theological Center (1972-78). Earlier he pastored CME churches in North Carolina and New York. He also served as pastor in United Methodist and Presbyterian congregations.

Renowned as a preacher, lecturer and leader of Bible studies, he has been asked to speak at innumerable events across the country, including the prestigious Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School in 1993. He is the author of three books on New Testament themes, co-author of three other books, and contributor to many more. He was one of two senior editors for the American Bible Society’s 1999 Jubilee Bible, and he worked on The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version, sponsored by Oxford Press. He also has written more than 40 articles for academic and church publications.

Bishop Hoyt served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minn., from 1977-2001, when he was elected an Honorary Life Member.  At the Institute, he chaired the project that led to the publication of Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (Fortress Press, 1991).  The Institute offers the Bishop Thomas Hoyt, Jr., Fellowship for a North American person of color writing a doctoral dissertation. 

Hoyt has received many awards and accolades throughout his career. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from Memphis Theological Seminary, Memphis, Tenn.; Lane College, Jackson, Tenn.; Rust College, Holly Springs, Miss.; Trinity College, Hartford, Ct.; and the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, Ga. Among recent honors, he was elected in 2001 to a five-year term as president of the World Methodist Council, North American Region. The Council links the family of Methodist churches and related churches in the “Wesleyan tradition” in 135 countries.

Bishop Hoyt is married to Ocie Harriett Hoyt. They have two children and one grandchild.

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