|The bishop’s speech at the 2009 Annual Conference on May 25 is excerpted here.
By Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr.
It is impossible to speak to you today about the state of our Oklahoma Conference without including an honest assessment of how continuing economic turmoil is affecting our ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ.
A recent news story reported on a father in California who had lost his job, which had provided a six-figure income. Shortly after the father of four lost his job, he also lost his home. He made what must have been a difficult decision to live in a tent city; he refused to ask for public assistance. He resorted to begging on the streets. His story is even more tragic: two of his children lived in comfortable homes, within walking distance of the street corner where their father panhandled—but he was too ashamed to ask them for help!
Stories such as this have become all too frequent. The damage to our economy, our future, and our sense of security has been catastrophic. Is it any surprise that the Church, too, is caught in the middle of this great calamity? Even the Church is experiencing great difficulties steering its way through the churning waters.
I hear the recurring refrains of scarcity and loss. When your back is against the wall, when you become paralyzed with fear, I invite you, as people of faith, to ask one question: "Is there any word from the Lord?"
Is there any word from the Lord?
In the sixth century before the Christian era, people faced extreme challenges similar to this current crisis. There was nothing in the news of that long-ago time to give encouragement to God’s people. The Jews were captives in Babylon. Their Holy City was destroyed, and their future was bleak and uncertain. They could find nothing but bad news—until they encountered the prophet Isaiah.
Listen to what this spokesman of God writes during that difficult time. From Isaiah 52:7: "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger bringing good news, breaking the news that all’s well; proclaiming good times, announcing salvation, telling Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’"
Isn’t that beautiful? That word from God, given through Isaiah, assured the people that no matter what the kings and princes of earth said or did, God would have the last word.
"Fear not," Isaiah wrote in the name of God, "for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand."
THAT is the word we need to hear. That word speaks to our faith and gives us courage for times such as we now face. Fear not! God IS leading this Conference!
We are completing our first full year of living out God’s plan through the framework of our Conference’s Strategic Plan. The Plan calls us to identify what we do well as a Conference, and to eliminate what is not effective.
It calls on us to be more intentional in our efforts to reach more people, younger people, and diverse people. It gives us a road map for productive ministry. It reorganizes us to carry out our mission—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world—through solid, quality ministry.
The Strategic Plan has proved timely and prophetic because its design prepared us to conduct the business of the Conference in innovative ways as the economic recession has deepened. The Plan had already pointed us to ways of doing more with less.
Programs and ministries have been consolidated when possible. The Treasurer’s Office and the Council on Finance and Administration have devised a more flexible budget. They have begun carefully monitoring the financial pulse of selected congregations, in an effort to understand how the turmoil in the world’s marketplaces is affecting our churches. Salaries have been frozen for district superintendents and other key officers of the Oklahoma Conference.
Money-saving measures also have been carried out at the General church level. Our United Methodist agencies, with major headquarters in New York, Washington, D.C., Nashville, and Chicago, have made reductions in staff and programming. The Council of Bishops voted to roll back salaries for all 52 bishops in the United States.
The leadership of the Oklahoma Conference seeks to be the best stewards of every dollar you contribute for God’s work, but we cannot do it alone. We need your help.
The crisis is a wake-up call for the Church!
We need to be honest with ourselves and name the fact that The United Methodist Church ranks near the bottom of all mainline denominations when it comes to giving. United Methodists give less than 2 percent of their incomes to charity.
In many congregations, the pastors and parishioners don’t like to talk about money or stewardship. I declare to you that giving is a sign of spiritual maturity!
Do the members of your church know about the ministries their money makes possible? Do they know that more than 80 cents of every dollar they give is used in God’s work right here in Oklahoma?
Pastors, laity, if you are uncomfortable talking about money and stewardship, we have people who are trained and available to come to your church and lead the discussion for you. We have to let people know that we can and must do better in the matter of giving. If each person gave just 3 percent more, we would not be having this conversation.
There is no excuse for us to continue avoiding this subject if we truly desire to live according to God’s plan.
Last year as I stood before you, I shared my dream of eliminating seminary indebtedness for graduates returning to our Conference. With the help of The Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation, the new LIFE (Leadership Investment through Funding for Education) program will commence with this annual meeting. The cost to earn a Master of Divinity degree ranges from $50,000 to $60,000.
If our Conference can be instrumental in eliminating that cost for our pastors, it will bring a new vitality to ministry here in Oklahoma.
In the next eight to 10 years, a significant leadership vacuum is predicted in our Conference. Baby boomers will retire and, unless we begin developing and training women and men to fill those vacancies, we will find ourselves with churches that have no pastors. I look forward to working with our Wesley Foundations and others to provide leadership in our Conference for the years to come.
Oklahoma, there is so much to do! It is not a time to fold our tents in fear and wait for the economic storm to pass. This is not a time for us to become complacent, satisfied with what we have already done.
This crisis is such a terrible thing to waste! This crisis has caused people to hunger for a way out of trouble. Hearts and minds are in search of truth; people are looking for life in all its fullness.
Did not our Lord say, "I am the way, the truth, and the life"? We have what the world is looking for, and it is up to us to offer them Christ!
A newspaper cartoon pictured a business executive talking to a highly paid consultant, brought in to analyze his firm. The consultant asked, "Now then, what sort of business analysis would you like? Do you prefer a cheerful finding, one of cautious optimism, or our dark and gloomy outlook?" The consultant’s point was this: the outcome depended largely on the way the businessman looked at things.
The same is true for us. We can look at our current condition from several perspectives.
We can be persuaded by the prophets of doom and buy into discouraging news, which always has a way of obscuring the possibilities and promises given to us by God. Or we can put our faith and trust in God—who will have the last word!
My choice is to go forward with the One who brought me here. Go forward with me. Fear not! Our God reigns!