‘It’s been my privilege to serve four bishops’

‘It’s been my privilege to serve four bishops’

January 10, 2018

On New Year’s Day, Rev. J. Robert Burkhart began as interim Assistant to the Bishop for Administration, a position that he will hold until September 1st, when Rev. Harlan Gillespie steps in. The role is nothing new to Rev. Burkhart—in fact this is his third “go around” in it. “The role has really changed over the years and probably grown a lot,” he says. “But it’s been my privilege to serve with four bishops.”

Not only has the job title experienced slight variations over the years, but the reverend has also seen its nature and responsibilities evolve. “In reality there was hardly any definition to the job in 1993,” he remembers. “I discovered there wasn’t a typewriter or a computer in the office. And with Bishop Jordan coming—he was the first bishop with whom I served—he began to put some definition to it. I began to deal with correspondence and put together, in those years, the process for handling complaints that were filed against clergy. [The position] just began to grow and grow, as each new bishop came.”
Click here to listen to the conversation with Rev. Burkhart

Rev. Burkhart cites “good attention to detail” as an important quality in an Assistant to the Bishop. The idea is for the bishop “to be freed up to do the things that he or she feels like are important, as they try to help the conference fulfill their mission.” That means that the assistant might be handling any number of small but important tasks, like making sure the robe is where it’s supposed to be and that the order of service is clear when the bishop is out visiting a local church.

Thinking about his previous years in the role, Rev. Burkhart says, “I would often drive because it would give them a chance to rest. I’d also have their captive in the car and I could talk to them about things we’d need to discuss. But, also, I could be the ears and the eyes in congregations where the bishop might go to preach,” he explains, noting that “a lot of people wanted to talk to the bishop, but there are other things you needed to observe on behalf of the bishop, or be able to sort of size up, that would help the bishop better relate.”

While Rev. Burkhart’s years of experience as Assistant to the Bishop are obviously an asset to his new interim position, he also brings the benefit of extensive conference experience and of having served as a district superintendent. “If I were a bishop coming new to an annual conference, I would really want somebody who knows the annual conference,” he says. “Not only knowing the clergy, but also knowing the lay leadership, knowing something about the different areas of the state and so on.”

He also believes a grounding in the local church is helpful, as he views a lot of similarities between the gifts needed to be Assistant to the Bishop and those needed to serve in the local church. “You have to have that pastoral understanding. And also, sometimes, you have to preach. You have to understand administration, and you have to understand dynamics that go on in the life of congregations that are often similar to the dynamics that go on in the annual conference.”

He’s had a lot of highlights during his years of being right-hand man to several bishops. “I’ve had the rare privilege of serving with three African-American bishops, and being introduced to the African-American community, which is a privilege, it’s a real privilege,” he states. “The other thing is, when you’re Assistant to the Bishop, you get invited into the private spaces of the Episcopal leadership, their homes, their families—and that’s an honor. There’s also a responsibility with that. You certainly keep that to yourself and confidential. But to have people trust you that much to allow you to do that, it’s been a privilege.”

Although Rev. Burkhart had been enjoying a sort of semi-retirement, which included getting to share his love of urban gardening by helping establish a community garden at Bidwell Riverside, he’s pleased to be serving the church again. “It’s a people thing for me,” he says. “I just come alive when I’m in a crowd of laity and clergy.”