Methodist Bishop Emerson Stephen Colaw had a knack for taking a familiar Bible story and reframing it in a way that challenged and inspired listeners.
In one sermon titled “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat,” Colaw recounted the story of the apostle Peter walking on water toward Jesus and said that, like Peter, Christians must take risks to live out their faith.
Colaw, who served as bishop for the United Methodist Church in Minnesota from 1980 to 1988, died Oct. 11 in Cincinnati of complications from pneumonia. He was 94.
“He could be what I call spellbinding. When you were listening to him, he had such a command of the language,” said the Rev. Bruce Ough, Methodist bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota. “He understood the importance of presenting the word of God in a way that was accessible to people.”
People responded to his preaching, said the Rev. Patricia Toschak, a superintendent in Ough’s cabinet who also worked under Colaw. “He always rounded in stories about real-life situations,” she said.
Known for his impeccable dress and formality, Colaw was warm and welcoming when he stepped away from the pulpit, Ough said.
“Whenever you were in his presence, you had the feeling you were the only thing that mattered to him at that time,” Ough said. “He was not distracted. He took great interest in you as an individual and your family and what was happening in your life and your soul.”
Colaw, who was born in Chanute, Kan., began his ministry serving three congregations in New York and northern Illinois. In 1961, he was appointed to Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church in Cincinnati, where he remained until he was appointed bishop in 1980.
During his tenure in Minnesota, Colaw appointed Toschak to serve as the first female district superintendent in the bishop’s cabinet. The bishop showed her the same respect he gave her male peers, she said.
“He was very willing to learn from my experiences as a woman clergyperson,” Toschak said. “A new day was dawning for women in the church, and he opened his heart to it.”
Many pastors recall Colaw taking the time to call or visit when their families experienced an important milestone, such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one. And he readily accepted invitations to preach at local churches. “He loved to be out among the people and finding out what was going on in their churches and their lives,” Toschak said. “He really wanted to learn.”
The Rev. Richard Harper, who also served as a district superintendent in the bishop’s cabinet, said Colaw was a talented speaker. “He had a lot of very good ideas. He was well organized and well prepared, Harper said.
After retiring as bishop in 1988, Colaw taught homiletics and Christian ministry at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and continued in that role until 1999. He was the seminary’s acting president in 1995-96.
During that time, Ough, who was then a bishop in western Ohio, developed a bond with Colaw. Colaw would offer Ough words of encouragement and praise. “It was meaningful, in large part, because he had walked in those shoes,” Ough said.
Colaw wintered in Florida and served as bishop-in-residence at North Naples United Methodist Church. He returned to Hyde Park church in Cincinnati, where he was an active member until his death.
Colaw was preceded in death by his wife, Jane, and his grandson, Robert. He is survived by his daughters, Deb Colaw Peterson and Marcie Vilardo, both of Cincinnati, and Prudy Klinger of Waterloo, Iowa; a son, David, of Cincinnati; and eight grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and one great-great granddaughter.