Two leaders receive Bishop's Awards at 100th annual convention
Bob Wernet and Jim Abbot received a Bishop's Award from Bishop José McLoughlin at the 100th Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina.
Bob Wernet recently retired after 24 years as the CEO of the Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community. At 16 years of age, Bob was a nursing home orderly and came to believe that working with older adults was what he was meant to do. After earning a Bachelor of Science from Texas A&M University and a Master of Gerontology from North Texas State University, he served in multiple leadership positions in the world of retirement communities. The Deerfield Community, in Asheville, NC, was a small “home for the aged” and in 1998 they were struggling financially and organizationally. The board of directors knew that to continue serving seniors they would need to change and grow. They needed an energetic Executive Director with experience and courage and Bob fit the bill.
Under his leadership, Deerfield acquired additional land and underwent multiple expansions, consistently repositioning for the benefit of current and future residents. It earned an incredible reputation for its high level of service, its financial security, and its generous spirit. The culture of kindness and warmth, the dignified care provided to all residents, the easy familiarity that sets Deerfield apart…all of those characteristics are part of Bob’s DNA. His penchant for new initiatives and his heart for expanded outreach led to an employee scholarship program, a robust residents’ assistance fund, the establishment of a Rotary Club on campus, the provision of office space for the local Council on Aging, and the recently established Deerfield Charitable Foundation. He has served on multiple non-profit boards and has built working relationships with many local agencies and businesses. He advocated for an Aging in Place program with Asheville’s local Habitat for Humanity and so far, Deerfield has sponsored 12 homes outfitted for senior adults to age in place.
Bob, his wife, Helen, and their family, became members at Trinity Episcopal Church where Bob has served as an usher for several years.
With all of the above objectively impressive accomplishments, those who have worked closely with Bob consistently list the following character traits when speaking of him:
Humble servant leadership: “Bob never asks us to do anything he’s not willing to do himself.” He consistently points to his team, sharing the credit for success: “It’s never ‘I’ – always ‘We’…never ‘Me’ – always ‘Us.’”
Never too busy: “Bob always makes time for a sit-down conversation and actively engages regardless of the many distractions coming his way.”
Compassionate: “Bob spends time with residents in Skilled Care, visiting them at their bedsides. He says it’s where he goes when he is looking for joy. He truly loves the residents.”
Visionary: “Bob sees the potential in individuals, in the community, and organizations at large and calls for involvement and action.
Sense of humor: “Bob is quick to laugh, able to offer humor even during times of personal pain.”
The only way to gather the personality traits and impact of this person was to listen to those within his community.
People who know and love him describe this man as caring, warm, humble, a friend, pastor, accomplice, ally, mentor, and model for living a Christian life. He is a man of integrity—one who ensures that his words and actions align, and when they do not, he is steadfast to listen, to learn, and to course correct.
His commitment to the Gospel is evident in his passion and relentless pursuit of justice, healing, and reconciliation. His commitment to dismantling racism and racial healing has kept our diocese moving forward as we seek to build Beloved Community.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1941 Jim Abbott grew up mostly in Virginia and North Carolina where he was raised by his parents Sefton and Jean Abbott. In 1963, the same year that the March on Washington was organized and attended by civil rights leaders such as Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr., Jim graduated from Duke University and made the transition to earn his Master of Divinity from Virginia Theological School where he would graduate just a few years later in 1966. Jim and Diane married in 1964 and have shared in life and ministry together for over 58 years.
Jim Abbott was ordained to the transitional deaconate in 1966 and to the priesthood in 1967 amid the civil rights movement of the 1960s. For any of us that know him and have worked alongside Jim, wrestled with him, disagreed with him, or tried to keep up with him---it is no surprise that his vocational calling to the priesthood was interconnected with the civil rights movement.
“Father Jim” as many call him has served in leadership of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Thomasville North Carolina; St. Francis Church in Greensboro; at the Diocese of North Carolina; St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Reidsville; St. Martins in the Field in Columbia South Carolina; and most recently before retirement as Priest-in-Charge of St. Matthias Episcopal Church here in Asheville North Carolina.
And, to this day, Jim continues to allow his commitment to the Gospel and to dismantling racism to be evident in all that he does to challenge, to inspire, to educate, and to accompany each and every one of us looking to commit our lives and our faith to building Beloved Community.
He was one of the founders of Christians for a United Community, a coalition of black, white, and Latino churches who have come together to work for racial justice, healing, and reconciliation. Jim authored “Unfinished Journey: A Brief Racial History of the Diocese of Western North Carolina”. He currently serves on our diocesan Beloved Community Commission, and has taken the lead in putting forth a resolution that will strengthen relationship with our Indigenous siblings that we will hear about tomorrow. Certainly not least of all, because of Jim’s work and character, he has built solidarity through countless friendships and partnerships across racial lines and with people and organizations passionate about working for racial justice.
Jim, you have impacted the lives of so many. Your life is one that has embodied and exemplified what it means to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbors as yourself and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.
Your commitment to racial justice is to be commended, to be learned from, and to be honored.