2014 Archives

Bill McElvaney, Methodist minister who pushed for social justice, dies at 86


The following is from the August 25, 2014, edition of The Dallas Morning News. The Reverend Dr. William K. McElvaney was the Le Van Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Worship at SMU's Perkins School of Theology. He earned the M.Div. (M.Th.) from Perkins in 1957, after earning an M.B.A. (1951) and B.B.A. (1950) from SMU. He served for 12 years as president of the United Methodist-related Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, where the William K. McElvaney Chair in Preaching was established in his honor in 1988. He received the SMU Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1980, and the William K. McElvaney Fund for the Advancement of Peace and Justice was established at SMU in 1993. He received Perkins Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2013.

William K. McElvaney
William K. McElvaney

William McElvaney,
social justice advocate

From United Methodist News:

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.  

Read the full story.

August 25, 2014

The Rev. Bill McElvaney, 86, whose fervent voice for progressive causes defined a ministry that spanned six decades, died early Sunday at his home in Dallas.

Through the years, McElvaney, a minister of the United Methodist Church, marched for civil rights, stood in opposition to wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and — enfeebled by cancer in the last months of his life — sat as he presided over a same-sex wedding.

His outspoken views in conservative North Texas attracted fierce criticism, sometimes in the form of distressing phone calls to his home. His role in officiating at the same-sex wedding brought him a suspension from Methodist officials.

The opposition never bothered him, said his wife, Fran. He never liked political labels, she said, preferring to think of his stands as an extension of his deepest religious beliefs.

“He took very seriously the Old Testament prophet Micah, who said our task is to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” she said.

William King McElvaney was born June 3, 1928, to a prominent Dallas family. His father, Eugene, was a vice president of First National Bank and served as chairman of the board of Southern Methodist University.

The younger McElvaney graduated from SMU with a business degree in 1951. He went to work for a bank and then an oil company.

He married Frances Owen in 1960. They have two children, Shannon Mason and John McElvaney, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“He decided while he was at the oil company that he had a call for the ministry,” Fran McElvaney said. “I think that was the life-changing moment for him.”

He graduated from Perkins School of Theology in 1957 and spent another year at Union Theological Seminary in New York before being appointed to a Methodist church in Justin.

In June 1959, he was assigned the task of starting a congregation in Mesquite that became St. Stephen United Methodist Church.

He was later appointed to Northaven United Methodist Church in North Dallas, where he served six years before he was named president of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. In 1985, he returned to Dallas, where he served on the faculty of the Perkins School of Theology until his retirement in 1993.

His career as an activist began not long after his ordination as a minister.

While at St. Stephen, he was distressed at the plight of black students in the segregated Mesquite school system.

“They had a three-room schoolhouse out in the country, no playground equipment, no American flag,” he recalled in an interview shortly before his death. “When I threatened them with a lawsuit, I got their attention … and so the Mesquite school system became integrated. It was quite a learning experience.”

In the decades that followed, there were few national controversies that did not bring a public stand from Bill McElvaney.

In the 1960s, he participated in a march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to protest the Vietnam War, and he was one of the few white ministers to march when Ralph Abernathy’s Poor People’s Campaign came through Dallas.

He campaigned for fair housing laws and changes in immigration policies. More recently, he co-wrote an article in SMU’s The Daily Campus, protesting plans to associate the university with the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Along with the criticism came accolades.

He received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from SMU in 1980 and from Perkins School of Theology in 2013.

William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins school, said McElvaney wasn’t shy about his “lovers quarrels” with SMU and the United Methodist Church.

“When a matter was decided, Bill McElvaney never bore any grudges,” Lawrence said. “He was as affectionate with people on the other side of the debate as he was with the people on the same side of the debate.”

A William K. McElvaney Chair in Preaching was established by the St. Paul School of Theology in 1988.

He and his wife were named Peacemakers of the Year by the Dallas Peace Center in 1997. Two years later, the Texas Conference of Churches presented him with the Fitzpatrick Award for Ecumenical Leadership.

In 2001, he was given the Heroes of Hope Award by the Cathedral of Hope for lifetime leadership for social justice.

Last March, he officiated at the wedding of two of his longtime friends, Jack Evans and George Harris — fellow octogenarians and members of Northaven Church — a ceremony that attracted national attention.

To avoid an official rebuke of Northaven and its pastor, the ceremony was conducted at a nearby church of another denomination. Six days after the ceremony, McElvaney was briefly suspended by the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Fran McElvaney said her husband subsequently met with Bishop Michael McKee, who heads the conference. She said the meeting was amicable.

Bishop Michael McKee said in a written statement Sunday that, with that conversation, he considered the issue resolved.

“Bill was loved by many in the North Texas Conference who knew him as pastor, mentor and friend,” McKee said. “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.”

In between working for controversial causes, McElvaney loved to spend time with his friends and family. He was a fan of golf, music, good food, wine and mystery books.

A few years ago, when asked in advance of the Perkins alumnus award to describe his hobbies, he sent a long and quirky list.

A sample included: “movies which challenge me to think; the Eucharist with its pastoral and prophetic implications, certain sculptures of wood, bronze and marble, [and] underdog victories of almost any description.”

Plans are pending for services at Northaven United Methodist Church, 11211 Preston Road, Dallas.

Donations may be made to the Northaven UMC Human Development Fund, the SMU Perkins School of Theology and North Dallas Shared Ministries.