Celebrating the life of Bishop Joseph Yeakel
Bishop Joseph (Joe) Yeakel died July 4, 2021, at the age of 93. He served as Resident Bishop of the New York West Area, which at the time included three Conferences (Western New York Conference, Northern New York Conference, and Central New York Conference) from 1972-1984. The Upper New York Conference, as well as Methodists across the Connection, mourn his death.
Bishop Yeakel’s Memorial Service was held Friday May 20, 2022, at University United Methodist Church in Syracuse.
Upper New York Area Resident Bishop, Mark J. Webb, began with a call to celebration and opening prayer.
Bishops Sandra Steiner Ball and Sudarshana Devadhar, members of the Northeastern Jurisdictional College of Bishops, each spoke as witnesses to a life well lived.
Bishop Steiner Ballexplained how influential Bishop Yeakel was in her life and ministries. She shared how he ordained her when she was 7 months pregnant with her first child.
Bishop Steiner Ball said, “During the rehearsal when it got to the part where the ordinands were to all kneel together on the same kneeler, I was wondering how we were going to do this quite honestly. He looked at me and said, ‘I think we are going change something here.’
And there was laughter; a tradition was changed. We did it in a different way because he cared and paid attention; it wasn’t just about going through the processes; it was working with the people…Yes, Bishop Yeakel was strict about following the Discipline, but he liked to laugh, and he liked to educate; he was also incredibly pastoral. That moment at ordination is just a glimpse at the amount of attention he paid to the people around him.”
Bishop Devadhar communicated that Bishop Yeakel knew the Book of Discipline “inside out.” He shared how he still references messages that Bishop Yeakel delivered in the 1990s.
Bishop Devadhar said, “Bishop Yeakel gave great attention to details with a visionary mind and a passionate love for the Church, not the building, but all the people of God.”
Bishop Devadhar explained how Bishop Yeakel knew clergy and laity by their first names and he knew the names of clergy families. He said, “In pre-cellphone days, he sent handwritten notes to clergy and laity in times of joy and concern. When I got my first hand-written note from Joe, it was like getting a million-dollar check from my Bishop.”
Bishop Devadar continually emphasized how loving Bishop Yeakel was, never scolding clergy when they made mistakes and always using them as teaching moments. He said, “What a great teacher, with a pastoral heart.”
Upper New York District Superintendent of the Crossroads and Finger Lakes District, the Rev. Nola Anderson read 1 Corinthians 13, which describes unconditional love, a characteristic witnesses of Bishop Yeakel’s life believed he portrayed.
Bishop Yeakel’s daughter, Johanna (called Josie by her family) Drushal shared that all six of her siblings have “Jo as part of their name. Josie explained how “J” words have been integral through her life. She shared four “J” words that remind her of her dad: journey, justice, joy, and Jesus. She shared the journey of her dad’s career and how they moved throughout the country. She remembered that justice for all people was a central tenant of what her parents lived by. Josie explained what brought her dad joy, especially running, which he continued to do into his 90s. She ended her talk by emphasizing how her dad’s commitment to Jesus Christ and the work of the church was front and central.
Former Bishop of the Upper New York Area, Bishop Marcus Matthews, delivered the message for Bishop Yeakel’s celebration service. He began his message with a meditation on the verses from Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8. Bishop Matthews said, “The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that some seasons of our life may bring us sorrow and other seasons bring us joy. Yet as believers in Christ, we have come to understand that it is the Lord who walks with us through all the changing seasons of our life…it is important that we always give ourselves permission to grieve because grieving helps clear space for God’s healing, and the healing gives us capacity to rejoice again.”
Bishop Matthews said, “I am confident that a moment like this, while sorrowful, becomes somewhat of a refresher course in God’s grace and mercy.”
Bishop Matthews explained that in our journey of life, “each person we meet serves a purpose. No one we meet is every by coincidence.” Speaking of Bishop Yeakel, Bishop Matthews said, “I come to this moment grateful for having journeyed some part of my life with Joe. I have many, many good memories of the 10 years, Barbara and I spent as members of Joe’s extended Cabinet family.”
Bishop Matthews described how Bishop Yeakel expected the members of his Cabinet to work together as a team. He explained how Bishop Yeakel wanted his Cabinet to illustrate the importance of inclusiveness—Bishop Yeakel appointed the first African American female District Superintendent in the United Methodist denomination in the United States.
Bishop Matthews explained how Bishop Yeakel asked him to give the message at his wife Lois’s Council of Bishops memorial service. He said, “Little did I know then that he would also request that I do likewise for his service. I will always be thankful to Joe for the trust we were able to place in each other.
Like each of us, Joe you have presented to God a life full of complexity, a life uniquely committed to serving God and God’s people well, through all of the many changing seasons of life, through ups and downs, certainties and doubts, failures and successes, and now you are able to hear at last…’Well done they good and faithful servant.’”
On behalf of the Council of Bishops and the Northeastern Jurisdictional College of Bishops, Bishop Webb thanked Bishop Yeakel’s family for “sharing your dad and your mom with all of us. They were and continue to be a gift and a treasure to us.”
Bishop Matthews’ benediction was to “go forth from this place and be the light that Joe was to so many persons whose lives he touched at some point…go forth from this place in peace and may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.”