(From the editor: Excerpted, 2012 Episcopal Address by Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr., May 28, Oklahoma Annual Conference, at Tulsa-Boston Avenue UMC)
By Bishop Robert E. Hayes Jr.
Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 1:3).
Reflect with me on a moment that, for me, will be forever suspended in time. It occurred in Corpus Christi, Texas, on a hot, steamy evening in July 2004. The Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, the people who are responsible for the placement of bishops, had just completed making assignments for four newly elected bishops, myself among them.
The committee spokesperson stood before the South Central Jurisdictional Conference delegates and announced where each bishop would be sent. I heard: "Robert Hayes, the Oklahoma Area."
I realized suddenly that those five words would forever change the course of my life and my ministry. It is a night I will never forget.
8 years of faithfulness
Fast-forward to this moment now, as I stand before you with a tremendous sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, near the end my second term as bishop and episcopal leader of the Oklahoma Area of the United Methodist Church. In eight years, so much has happened.
We have been through deep valleys of economic uncertainty and natural disasters, and we’ve said farewell to pioneers of our faith. Yet we’ve also found ourselves standing on mountaintops! We’ve laughed together, cried together, and accomplished some wonderful things together.
In the midst of all, we have stood firm and been the faithful people of God. Using hymn lyrics written by Charles Wesley, I can truly say that as a people we are blessed to "see each other’s face" as we usher in this 169th session of the Oklahoma Annual Conference.
We are one family
I have watched this Conference grow into a unique fellowship—a family, I believe—made stronger by the challenges and opportunities that we have shared as we have sought to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I have experienced firsthand your love and support for me and Dee, and I pray that you’ve felt our love in return. These two four-year terms have exceeded everything I could have imagined.
Desire to return to Oklahoma
Now before anyone comes to the conclusion that these words may in some way seem a parting commentary, let me reassure you. This is not a "swan song," not a farewell speech!
Just like pastors, presiding bishops are a part of our Church’s itinerant system; at the end of four years, bishops are either reassigned or moved to another conference. Along with our conference representatives on the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, I am requesting reassignment to Oklahoma.
Please, hear me clearly; we’ve done everything possible to remain here for a third term, through 2016. It is with confidence and optimism that we pray God will do the rest.
This is how I see it. In "The Book of Bible Lists," H.L. Willmington writes that the number eight is "the new beginning number." Genesis 7:13 records that eight people were saved from the Flood. The Jewish rite of inclusion into the religious community is always performed on the eighth day. In John 20:26, we read that the apostle Thomas saw Jesus eight days after the resurrection.
If eight represents a new beginning, I interpret that as a sign that the end of my eighth year is simply a new beginning!
General Conference disappoints
And so, let us begin! When General Conference convened in Florida, in late April, I had high hopes that crucial gathering would result in clear directives about how the Church is structured and how we address vital issues confronting our denomination. Much valuable time went into preparation and planning, sparked by the Call to Action in 2010, a rally cry for change.
But, without belaboring the point, major change did not happen at the General Conference, and delegates and leaders left Tampa looking for answers to the question, "Where do we go from here?"
I am disappointed, but not dismayed. I believe the Council of Bishops and other general church entities in the coming months will speak to many of the issues that went unaddressed.
However, as your bishop, I will not delay longer. I choose to press forward and speak to Oklahoma’s own issues of great concern. Whatever term of service I have with you here in Oklahoma is too valuable for me to wait on the General Church to speak to our specific needs.
Rally call for Oklahoma
With confidence and boldness, we must step out in faith to address our challenges—and then wait for the denomination to catch up with us!
We adopted our Strategic Plan in 2008; it was two years later that the Call to Action was introduced to the denomination. The Call to Action actually affirmed work well under way in Oklahoma, because we already were engaging in conversations about church vitality, starting new churches, ministering to young adults, and training and equipping a new generation of spiritual leaders—both clergy and lay.
In case you haven’t noticed, Oklahoma has always been several steps ahead of the General Church, and this is not the time to cease doing so!
What the Call to Action attempted to do was alert us to the fact that the General Church is on an unsustainable path both economically and administratively, and if serious changes are not implemented, we will find ourselves out of touch with the future needs of the denomination.
What I gleaned from the Call to Action was the undeniable need for the Oklahoma Conference to make a serious and detailed attempt to speak to pressing issues that prevent us from achieving our desired destiny.
I truly believe that the future of our denomination lies in the local church, and since an overwhelming number of our churches have now adopted a strategic plan, the logical next step is for us to align the resources of our Conference to complement what has already happened over the last four years. In simple terms, we must put our money where we are most productive.
Questions about money and ministries
What this means, my brothers and sisters, is we must take care of our own house and not wait for the General Church to do it for us.
Our Strategic Plan is a marvelous tool that addresses church vitality, the need for new churches, and preparing spiritual leaders, but there must be another component that works hand in hand with it, and that component is fiscal responsibility and reform within the Conference itself.
Let us have clarity about this point: The Oklahoma Conference has a lot of sacred cows that need to be put out to pasture. We need to take a fresh look at how we do ministry, from how we budget and spend our money, to how we apportion our churches.
What are those ministries and programs that do the most for God’s glory?
What ministries and programs have the least impact, need to be run independently, perhaps be eliminated altogether?
Is it time again to look at the structure of our Oklahoma Conference? Are 12 districts enough, too many, or too few?
What programs do we need to overhaul in order to strengthen our churches, whatever their size, so every congregation understands and lives out its vital purpose in the community and the world?
Are our Conference resources aligned in such a way to ensure the continuation of planting new churches that reach underserved populations, especially ethnic communities, which seem more challenging?
Are we properly synchronized to work with the different Ministry Teams and the Board of Ordained Ministry to produce effective programs and prepare clergy and lay leadership for transforming service in the next five, 10, or 20 years?
Specific steps to take
Yes, there are more questions than answers, but I believe we must start seeking the answers now in order to be in the places where God wants us to be within the next few years. We must and we will be more fiscally responsible and accountable, and what that means is a lot of things will be examined and evaluated, and many changes will be recommended.
To that end, I will conduct a series of meetings with several groups within the Conference, and, by the beginning of September, I will name a task force to orchestrate plans in a way similar to how we developed our Strategic Plan.
We may or may not want to hire a consultant or specialist to assist us. We may want to hold a series of town-hall meetings in every district, gathering ideas and suggestions.
Two books recommended
As we prepare to begin this process, there are two books I suggest as resources for us to read. One is Lovett Weem’s book titled "Focus," and the other is Bishop Schnase’s book, "Remember the Future."
Whatever our process, we must undertake this work with integrity and honesty, and void of self-interest and hidden agendas.
I pray that at our 2013 Annual Conference, in Oklahoma City, we can secure consensus on a few basic, fundamental changes, and that each year after that we move onto more difficult challenges that confront us.
By 2016, I hope our Conference will be a model of efficiency and effectiveness, a golden standard for all other annual conferences.
This may frighten some and disturb others, but for eight years I have worked hard to earn your trust and confidence. Now it is time for me to use whatever measure of faith you have in me to produce the greatest good for our conference. My promise to you is that, at the end of this process, everything accomplished will be to the glory of God and for the building of God’s Kingdom here in Oklahoma.
There is much to do, but with your support and prayers, and the assurance that God is with us, there is nothing we cannot do!
So, let us begin!
"In faith we'll gather round the table to taste and share what love can do. This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new." ("This Is a Day of New Beginnings," page 383, UM Hymnal)