Six years ago, in celebration of his 90th birthday, retired Bishop Wayne K. Clymer delivered a sermon at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis that was called “Why follow Christ?”
In it, Clymer referred to Christ serving the masses with loaves and fishes, noting that Christ saw the crowd in need and had compassion. He told the congregation: I don’t follow Christ because Christians don’t get sick. I don’t follow Christ because Christians live longer. I follow Christ because I’ve seen the face of God in Christ as he cares for people.
That theme from Clymer’s sermon was also a theme visible throughout the bishop’s whole life, said Harlyn Hagmann, a retired pastor in the Minnesota Annual Conference who was a district superintendent from 1975 to 1981. Clymer found the crowd in need and showed them compassion.
“Over the years, his primary concern was not so much organization or institution, but compassion for people,” said Hagmann, who was also one of Clymer’s longtime friends. “His objective was to instill in the church a sense of compassion for the people within the church and beyond the church. And if the church succeeded in that, everything else would follow.”
Clymer died Monday at age 96, just hours after speaking in the Twin Cities at the funeral of a longtime friend and fellow clergy member. He is remembered as a wise and deeply spiritual leader who modeled compassion and graciousness in his ministry and throughout his life.
Born Sept. 24, 1917, in Napoleon, Ohio, Clymer began his career as an ordained clergyperson in the Evangelical United Brethren Church, a predecessor body of the United Methodist Church. After a brief time as a local church pastor, he served in several capacities at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Illinois—where he was professor of pastoral care, then dean, and eventually president. In 1970, he was a member of the United States delegation to the United Nations Conference on Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. And he was elected a United Methodist bishop in 1972, just four years after our denomination was formed by merger.
His first episcopal assignment was the Minnesota Annual Conference, which he led until 1980. At that time, he was assigned to the Iowa Annual Conference, where he served until retiring in 1984. Between 1976 and 1984, he also served as president of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
Upon retiring, Clymer moved back to Minnesota, where he and his wife, Virginia Schoenbohm Clymer, still have a residence (although in recent years, they spent winters in Florida). The year he retired, Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church invited Clymer to be its “bishop in residence,” a role he maintained until his death.
Hennepin Avenue Pastor Teri Johnson said that Bishop Clymer was incredibly active at the church: He spent one day each week volunteering at the Dignity Center there, which supports people in poverty as they work toward self-sufficiency. He attended weekly staff meetings. He worked with confirmation students and confirmed the church’s latest group of confirmands just last month. He served on the church’s outreach committee. And he routinely visited those in need of pastoral care.
“He wanted to see the church thrive and was passionate about this congregation,” said Johnson. “He loved this church and they loved him.”
Before his weekly shift at the Dignity Center, he would walk around and individually check in with every staff person at the church, asking how they were doing and how their day was going, recounts Johnson. He wanted them to know he cared. What she appreciated most about Clymer was his “deep wisdom” and the way “he could gently enter into dialogue,” sharing his own perspective but also inviting and respectfully listening to the opinions of others.
In addition to staying involved at Hennepin Avenue, Clymer also remained active within the global church well beyond his retirement. Retired bishops retain membership in the United Methodist Council of Bishops, and upon his retirement in 1984, Clymer served as liaison for the Council of Bishops to the theological seminaries. Later, he worked on the education committee. This fall, Clymer became the oldest member of the Council of Bishops.
“In the tradition of the early church’s desert mothers and fathers, Bishop Clymer was a contemporary spiritual father of the Minnesota Conference and much of the United Methodist Church,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, who leads the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area. “Even in his advanced years, and certainly because of his accumulated wisdom, his cogent insights, thoughtful reflections on the state of the church, and grasp of current realities were sought out by younger episcopal colleagues, friends, and family. For many—lay and clergy alike—he came to epitomize and represent what a spiritual leader should be.
“Bishop Clymer loved the Minnesota Conference and its faithful people and was beloved by them in return,” said Ough. “We have lost an icon—a window to God, a true spiritual father, and an irreplaceable gift from God.”
Bishop Clymer married Helen Eloise Graves on Sept. 3, 1939. Helen died on July 7, 1999. Their two children are Kenton James Clymer, professor of diplomatic history and head of the history department at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, and Richard George Clymer, realtor and retired senior high school principal in Hastings, Minnesota. Bishop Clymer and Virginia Schoenbohm Clymer were married on Dec. 26, 2000.
Clymer is survived by his wife Virginia; his two sons and daughters-in-law; and his grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Those who knew Clymer well say that his legacy of compassion will live on in their hearts and in the world.
“People were not entities to him, people were people; they had feelings and lives and sometimes loves and sometimes disappointments,” said Hagmann. “As precious as he felt his role was in helping develop leadership for the church, he was above all a very gracious human being.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church