NOTE: United Methodist Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel (retired), who was born, raised and attended college in Eastern Pennsylvania, passed away on Sunday, July 4. NEWSpirit will share more about him and his passing when UM News reports on it this week.

A personal tribute by Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

One could not know Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel without experiencing his commitment to the “Covenant.” He was in a covenant relationship with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and he promised to serve the Lord’s church throughout his whole life. 

While honoring that covenant, he pastored a number of churches and led general church agencies, and then he became a most faithful episcopal leader of The United Methodist Church for 24 years.

He was Bishop of the New York West Episcopal Area from 1972-1984 and the Washington Episcopal Area from 1984-1996. The Washington Area consisted of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the Peninsula-Delaware Conference until 1990, when Peninsula-Delaware was yoked with the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. The Baltimore-Washington Conference remained as the only conference in the Washington Area.

Rumored (tongue-in-cheek) to have the United Methodist Book of Discipline memorized, Bishop Yeakel was the “go-to” person for many questions about our denomination’s covenantal tome. He was also the ultimate parliamentarian and masterfully presided at sessions of Annual, Jurisdictional and General conferences with skill, grace and a touch of humor.

He kept covenant with pastors and lay people alike

As my bishop in the Baltimore-Washington Conference from 1984 to 1996, he kept covenant with pastors and lay people alike. He would faithfully visit our churches and engage in missions and ministries with us.

I remember when he visited the Christ UMC of the Deaf, where I served as pastor, on the day we dedicated our new worship space. During the service things went terribly wrong in the kitchen, when the over-baked chicken caused smoke to fill the room, setting off the flashing-light fire alarm. When we got it under control and it was time to eat lunch, the cook in the kitchen, not knowing who the bishop was, insisted that he pay for his meal.

During that chaotic luncheon, the church’s children were pounding on the fellowship hall stage and screaming, as they often did because their Deaf parents couldn’t hear them. I was mortified. But Bishop Yeakel and his wife Lois were as sweet and kind as they could be during it all. 

Another time the Deaf Church suffered a terrible loss of a member who was brutally murdered in a domestic violence incident. Bishop Yeakel called me to offer personal condolences to the church family, and he prayed for me during this ordeal.

He later attended my mother’s memorial service and drove a great distance to do so. In a thousand ways, he was a pastor to pastors, and he kept covenant with his church, casting a vision and caring for its administration and order.

Bishop Yeakel also had a faith-filled covenant with his wife Lois, whom he married in 1948. They were the proud parents of five children and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They also cared for five foster children during those child-rearing years.

It was obvious that family ties were an important part of his strength. In his later years, Bishop Yeakel fulfilled his marriage covenant with Lois to the end, as he helped care for her until her passing in 2014.

An encouraging mentor to new bishops

When I was elected to the episcopacy in 2008, Bishop Yeakel came forward with Bishop Schol to present me to the Northeastern Jurisdiction, and he presided at the Communion table with me at my service of consecration.

He kept covenant with the Council of Bishops and our jurisdictional College of Bishops, as he served in key leadership roles but also as a gracious mentor for new bishops. I called him so many times that first year asking for his advice about many challenging issues. He always offered wise counsel, and he would end each conversation by saying, “I am in your balcony cheering you on.”

And he was. Encouraging and kind, he always had time to talk business but also to engage in good-natured conversation about life and family.

One wonders how this covenant-keeper will continue his ministry with the Lord in Glory. At his retirement celebration in 1996, he said he wished that he and Lois could go back and start all over again. He loved the church so much. 

Now that I am nearing retirement myself, I understand how he felt on that day long ago. But with the Lord there is no end to ministry opportunities.

On July 4, 2021, Bishop Yeakel went from “strength to strength” in service of that heavenly kingdom, which is not made with hands, but eternal in the heavens. The Lord of the Covenant, our God, no doubt has work for Bishop Yeakel and Lois to be doing in the realms of Light. 

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of people, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9). We will join him on the other side of the veil some day. And together we will continue to keep the covenant.

Thank you, Bishop Yeakel for your ministry and leadership among us.