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Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton

Garrett Theological Seminary 1971 and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary 1979

Bishop, Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, The United Methodist Church

Throughout his ministry, Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton encourages unity and strives to continue strengthening the Black church in the twenty-first century. No matter what his role is—or the role of anyone else in ministry—it is essential to engage in ministry as a servant leader in the tradition of Jesus Christ. Grounded in the Gospel of John, Keaton sees the unity of the church as a continual journey for all Christians. He believes the church should always try to function—whether individually or cooperatively—in ways that show we are all God’s children, are all set apart for ministry, and are all called to Christian unity. His own experience serves as an example of this quest. While he intended to serve African-American churches and communities, as an itinerant Elder, he was appointed to an African-American congregation only once. His appointments, assignments, and ministry ventures grew and expanded, calling him to serve and be in ministry with a wide variety of God’s people.

His faithfulness in ministry grows out of his understanding of Matthew 28—the Great Commission. Bishop Keaton considers faithfulness as being attentive to his neighbor and to helping those in need. As bishop, this faithfulness is demonstrated in his desire to shape his Annual Conferences and churches with a strong sensitivity to and orientation toward mission. While the church appears on a downward swing in terms of numbers, he is not discouraged and continues to teach, lead, and encourage his churches to follow the mission of The United Methodist Church in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

He draws his inspiration for ministry from his mother and grandmother, who, even before he knew what a church was or had ever read a Bible, took him to church. They were present at church virtually every time the doors were open. When he was about five or six years old, his grandmother introduced him to the congregation and announced that he was going to be a preacher. His mother had expectations around education as well, and even though they had little money, these women and other members of the African-American church they attended supported and encouraged him as he wrestled with his vocation.

When he began seminary in Fall, 1968, at the urging of acquaintances who had suggested Garrett Theological Seminary (GTS), not only did he absorb the education offered by the classes, curriculum, and professors, he was shaped by the challenge of many African-American students who left the school in Spring, 1968. A year or so after he arrived at the seminary, he and three other students removed themselves from the Garrett Student Association and began to address the demands of the class of 1968. This radical work also shaped his education at GTS and his ministry from there on out.

Even though his ministry took him many different places, his desire to serve and strengthen the Black church—inspired by his childhood congregation and his time at GTS and Garrett-Evangelical—continues to be a passion. The year the Jurisdictional Conference elected Bishop Keaton to the episcopacy, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church adopted the program “Strengthening the Black Church in the 21st Century (SBC21).” Bishop Keaton led this initiative for 12 years and served on the SBC21 committee for 16 years, believing strongly that strengthening the Black church is one of the keys to Christian unity. Bishop Keaton continues to live into the vocation of servant-leader in his quest to strengthen the Black church and promote Christian unity throughout his Annual Conference and beyond.

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