It's all about growth
"But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.-2 Peter 3:18 (NRSV)
(This continues a three-part series of Hayes' reflections, assessment, and hopes for the Oklahoma Conference as he enters his fourth year as bishop.)
By Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr.
Three years and one month ago, I drove north across the Red River, on Interstate 35, to begin my duties as the Oklahoma Area episcopal leader. Previously, my life had been spent in a "Longhorn" culture; the language I spoke was Texan. I half-expected to see a sign proclaiming "No Texan Spoken Here" as I crossed that fabled river.
Even before unpacking, I knew what I must do.
First, I had to lose the Texas accent and discard everything in my closet that was burnt orange. I quickly developed use of the phrase "I wasn't born here, but I got here as quickly as I could!" That seemed to hold at bay certain football fans.
Secondly, I knew a new vision of doing ministry would empower this Conference to grow and "make disciples of Jesus Christ."
As I reflect today on those two goals, I sense success with the first one. However, the second goal is a work in progress.
My aspirations were very high, like those of other people beginning new jobs. Surely, I thought, I could set much into motion within a year or two.
How naive I was about the scope of the episcopal office! The total of churches is more than 600 in Oklahoma Indian Missionary and Oklahoma Conferences. Together, they form the Oklahoma Area in which I serve as bishop. Combined membership totals nearly 265,000 people.
I spent that first year trying to find the end of the huge ball of string that is the annual conference.
Our United Methodist Book of Discipline defines a local church as "the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs." With that understanding, I set off to meet the congregations within the Conference. I met laity and clergy, shared in worship, and heard tremendous stories of faith journeys.
In those settings, I ascertained two priorities. First, we must not abandon the smaller churches, despite the tremendous challenges many face. We must revitalize them. Secondly, we must find new ways to begin new churches to reach people who have no relationship with Jesus Christ.
Statistics show approximately 65 percent of all new members are gained in new church starts. Some parts of Oklahoma do not have a United Methodist presence. In newer subdivisions, as cities sprawl, and in transitional population settings, we have failed to keep pace with the dramatic changes in our state.
One point I emphasize -as did Zan Holmes in his book "Encountering Jesus-there is a difference between growth and swelling.
I do not merely seek bigger numbers. I am looking for disciples!
My definition of a disciple: someone who is constantly growing and evolving as a follower of Jesus, is committed to a finer and purer way of life, and is devoted to helping others and changing the world in which he/she lives.
You must have a plan
For more than a year, I have been part of a group-laity and clergy, Conference staff and leaders who volunteer -meeting to develop a strategic plan for our Conference.
In these sessions, we are asking:
What can we do better?
How can we maximize our effectiveness in making disciples while maintaining strong fiscal policies and a solid administrative structure?
Do we have the best programs in place, or do we need to create new ministries that reach men, women, children, youth, young adults, and seniors?
Are we ready to employ new technologies to connect people within the Oklahoma Conference and to the global community of The United Methodist Church?
This strategic plan will not answer all our questions; it will move us toward the vision of growing in discipleship. The progress of the group's work will be reported at the 2008 Annual Conference, set for Tulsa in late May.
Disciples need tools
I have deemed one Oklahoma Conference ministry as our most urgent priority.
The Camp and Retreat Ministries needs additional buildings to accomplish its mission at our three campgrounds, but fund-raising thus far has not matched expectations. The vital programs throughout the year at these sites nurture new and renewed disciples of all ages, whether childhood, teen years, or adulthood. We must complete this capital campaign drive. I invite you to join me in prayer about this matter, for I know God can make a way.
Related to the strategic plan is the active participation of our Conference in establishing the Saint Paul School of Theology at Oklahoma City University.
This United Methodist institution opening in the heart of our state will drive dramatic changes in how people called into ministry are recruited, educated, and deployed. The seminary will provide continuing education for clergy and laity, and it will prepare individuals for ministry in many settings. This addition is one of the most significant actions this annual conference has taken in 50 years.
Also, the district superintendents and I are developing relevant tools of assessment for churches and pastors that will help all achieve a standard for ministerial excellence. A pilot project will be conducted with 54 churches. It will launch later this year. It will enhance the profiles of local churches and determine the demands on leadership in the future. The target date is 2009 for implementing this valuable tool.
Additionally, a new group has been established to revitalize the clergy Orders and Fellowship of Local Pastors. I have always been concerned how those of us who are clergy care for one other and hold each other accountable in formal ministry. This sacred calling also can be stress-filled and demanding. This newly formed group will help clergy care for one another in Christian love.
Another priority for me is for the churches of Oklahoma Conference to fully contribute 100 percent of the General Church apportionments by 2009. The Conference Council on Finance and Administration (CF&A) is leading us toward that goal. For several years, Oklahoma Conference has consistently given more than 95 percent of the apportionments, so vital to the work of our denomination. Reaching 100 percent will send a clear message throughout our connectional system of Oklahoma's commitment to do its part to build the body of Christ.