A custom-built house in New Mexico has been awaiting its owners for four years.
In 2008, Bishop William Hutchinson was on the verge of mandatory retirement from his role as bishop for the United Methodist Church in Louisiana when the church changed its retirement guidelines, giving him the option to continue his service.
His first eight years of service in Louisiana had been difficult as the church dealt with Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent disaster and displacement, but Hutchinson and his wife, Kay, chose to remain and see the hurricane relief through to its end.
“We have never regretted that at all,” Hutchinson, 70, said while seated in his office with boxes crowding his feet. “It’s been a wonderful decision. It’s been a wonderful four years.”
He finally retires at the end of August and will be replaced by Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, who begins her four-year term on Sept. 1.
In the days immediately after Katrina hit New Orleans, Hutchinson was on the ground in New Orleans, doing the work he says he felt called to: handing out ice to residents.
“It was beastly hot. It was horrible,” he said.
Instead of managing the disaster recovery from his Louisiana Annual Conference office in Baton Rouge, he wanted to lead by example.
“It was directly my call from Jesus to be there to physically help and physically be in contact with the people,” he said. “We’ve got to have lots of help, and if I’m not willing to do it, then I can’t ask you to do it.”
Staying at his desk has always been a problem for Hutchinson, who in his retirement has no plans for hobbies or rocking chairs.
“My hobby has always been people,” he said. “Whatever I can do to help people, that will satisfy my hobby. I don’t make things. I don’t hunt, I don’t fish. I’m sort of useless, except at the point of helping people.”
Connecting with people has always been Hutchinson’s strong suit, said Jane Wood, executive director for the Foundation for Evangelism, a group for which Hutchinson serves.
“He’s a fabulous mentor,” Wood said. “He’s a wonderful role model in both his personal and Christian living. Beyond everything else he is a friend. Every time you talk with him you can see how much you mean to him.”
Born in Hobbs, N.M., Hutchinson grew up near there in the tiny oil town of Monument. He took piano lessons as a child from a woman active in the Assembly of God church there, and he became familiar with the charismatic style of worship that he said differed from the staid, conservative nature of the Methodist church at the time.
When a new Methodist congregation was planted in Monument, Hutchinson, although a teenager, was one of the only members with keyboard skills. He played piano for the congregation from his junior high school days until he left for college at the University of Oklahoma.
At the time, Hutchinson intended to become a lawyer. He first heard what may have been a “calling” to the ministry at a high school youth event, but he talked himself out of it.
“I remember reasoning in my mind, ‘If this is what God wants me to do, this is not what I want to do,” he said. “I want to be an attorney. I don’t want to be a pastor.”
Initially an accounting major at the University of Oklahoma, he fought the feeling he should become a minister until his sophomore year, then changed his major to philosophy in preparation for seminary.
He entered seminary at Duke University in 1963, and after his first year he married his wife, whom he met through a glee club at Oklahoma. Upon graduation from Duke, the Hutchinsons moved to Hobbs, N.M., where William Hutchinson was named pastor of a new church in his home region.
He rose through the pulpits of United Methodist congregations in the New Mexico-West Texas Area, eventually becoming a district superintendent and then senior pastor of a church in Albuquerque, N.M. In 2000, while he served as the executive director of the New Mexico Conference Foundation, he was elected to serve as a bishop and was sent to Louisiana.
The move presented two major changes. Hutchinson had to adapt to south Louisiana’s culture — a much more free and open culture when compared to the stoic, staid West, he said — and he no longer had a congregation to which he would minister.
“I do love the preaching event. I love that piece of what I’ve always done,” he said. “It becomes harder to preach to people you’re not with all the time. You get to know people. You get to know what they’re struggling with and what their heartaches are, and you can preach to them and share with them.”
As a bishop, Hutchinson’s congregation became the Louisiana Area Conference, which meets yearly to map the church’s course in the state. So much of his relations during his 12 years as bishop involved rebuilding the church in south Louisiana after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
“The church has been amazingly resilient,” Hutchinson said. “There was this hopeful optimism we’d be back up in a year. When people finally realized that wasn’t going to be the case, we realized we would have a long haul on our hands. We’re not through yet.”
The United Methodist Church’s disaster recovery operations officially shut down this spring after seven years of bringing volunteers to the New Orleans area and hiring professionals to rebuild both church facilities and damaged homes. Volunteers and full-time staff remain to deal with long-term effects of the storm and its flooding. Project Noah brings youth work teams to stay in a United Methodist Church dormitory in Slidell and fan out across the area for projects.
For the future, Hutchinson said he hopes to see the United Methodist Church tackle the poverty and disease in Louisiana. “We need to find the root causes of poverty, eliminate the root causes of poverty and find a way to help people get out of that,” he said.
Hutchinson also wants to see the church continue to help in the community and train leaders to change the world.
“Sometimes we get accused of trying to raise up clergy and that’s as far as we go,” he said. “We can’t stop there. We’ve got to raise up clergy for the church, but we’ve got to raise up leaders who are writing the stories, teaching at schools and being those attorneys like I wanted to be, who are making a difference in life.”
For a man who identifies his hobby as people, Hutchinson’s retirement sounds a lot like traditional Christian service. He wants to work in thrift shops, soup kitchens and community clinics.
In Las Cruces, N.M. — where he and his wife will move in August and where Hutchinson was a pastor for seven years — he insists he is not known as Bishop Hutchinson. He is just Bill.
“I’ve been doing the work of a bishop, but I’m still just Bill. Those prophets who are without honor in their own country may be true,” he said, quoting the words of Jesus. “I may have to come back to Louisiana just to get a little respect.”
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved