Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church

See, I am making all things new! (Revelation 21:5)


2014 Episcopal Address to the Oklahoma Annual Conference

By Bishop Robert Hayes Jr.

I have here a letter dated Feb. 15, 1888. When I traveled recently to our church in Guymon, in Oklahoma’s Panhandle, where the people were celebrating the church’s 125th anniversary, I learned about this letter.

It was written by one of the first Methodist families to make a home in that area, in what then was called "No Man’s Land."

The author of the letter was Mary Westmoreland Hitch. Along with her sisters, she petitioned the Methodist Mission Board in Kansas territory to send a preacher to Coldwater Creek in No Man’s Land.

Listen to their request:

"To Rev. A.P. George, brother in Christ — Will you and your good bishop listen to the plea of a mother who lives with her family 140 miles from the nearest railroad? Reared in a Christian community in Missouri, I am trying to rear my children with Christian teachings. Having a little Sunday school in Coldwater, we would like very much to have a minister. We keenly feel the need of a spiritual shepherd and counselor. Of course we can give little by way of a salary, but our home will be his home and we will do our best. The minister closest to us, at Fargo Springs, Kan., occasionally comes to Lafayette, 50 miles from here. Could your mission board help us have a pastor out here in No Man’s Land? Awaiting an early reply and praying God’s blessing on your work. — Your sister in Christ, Mary Westmoreland Hitch"

Photo by Holly McCray

Bob and Dee Hayes pause on stage during Annual Conference at OCU. The desk chair in which Bishop Hayes sits was formerly used by Bishop Angie Smith; it is from the United Methodist archives housed in OCU’s Library.

That letter was read aloud at an Annual Conference, and Rev. E.F. Reser volunteered to go. In early summer 1889, he laid out his preaching circuit. He began to hold services regularly and organized a Methodist Episcopal class in the Hitch home at Coldwater Creek.

And that was the beginning for the church in Guymon. The first baptisms also took place in 1889, and the candidates were Della Josephine and Henry and George Hitch.

God was making all things new in that place and time.

Rev. Reser served this field for three years. In 1900, he returned and pastored another year.

Hear me: this is who we are! This is how it all began for us, whether in Guymon, Tishomingo, or First Methodist in Oklahoma City!

Yes, you and I here today hold in common with that long-ago letter-writer, with that circuit-riding preacher, love for God and devotion to our Wesleyan Methodist heritage!

Their legacy has a claim on us whether we know it or not. This is our birthright! We are Methodists, United Methodists, adding new chapters to a splendid, enduring faith story that is as much a part of us as the air we breathe.

God continuously chooses believers to carry on God’s purpose of making all things new! And knowing that God has chosen us "for such a time as this" is truly awe-inspiring.

Today I stand before this Annual Conference for the 10th time — a distinction shared by only two other bishops since Native Americans brought Methodism to Oklahoma in the early 1800s. The two bishops who also could claim that honor were Angie Smith and Paul Milhouse.

Serving as Oklahoma’s bishop for a full decade gives me a unique perspective on who we are and what we are capable of as an annual conference.

It’s a point of view that’s nothing like what a bishop grasps in one term of four years or even in an eight-year span. As one author wrote, "I’m able to get the balcony view" today, to see clearly the landscape of our challenges, our setbacks, our achievements, as well as the expanse ahead of us.

This is a crucial perspective on our shared work, because I am able to draw on the depth of 10 years of experiences to identify and address our weaknesses and to more deeply engage our strengths to reach new people who will love God as you and I do.

Let me share with you some of what I’ve seen from the gallery of my experiences these 10 years.

I would describe my first four years as your bishop as a period spent building relationships with people. Before I arrived on Sept. 1, 2004, I confess the only knowledge I had about this land north of the Red River came from two fellow Texans who migrated here from the same conference as me: Mouzon Biggs and Bob Long.

I told myself, "They didn’t send Mouzon Biggs or Bob long back to Texas, so I like my chances!"

And early on, Dee and I discovered the genuine spirit of hospitality that exists everywhere in the Oklahoma Area. Initial hope to get acquainted has become the greatest joy of my ministry as bishop: visiting the churches.

I relish the opportunities to go to our churches and preach the Gospel, sit down for a meal and, most importantly, hear the stories of triumph, struggle, and perseverance that make the faithful United Methodists of Oklahoma resilient and strong.

Through your stories I am reminded how God is keeping that promise of making all things new.

Those first four years, trust was built that continues to bind us together today.

My second four-year term, from 2008 to 2012, can be summed up as a time of visioning and living into God’s prime purpose for us in Oklahoma. We launched our Strategic Plan, calling every church to be intentional about reaching new people, bringing up new leaders, and undertaking ministries and programs that foster growth — holding all of us accountable to the great mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

During that period, we formed a new partnership with Oklahoma City University and Saint Paul School of Theology that established a United Methodist seminary right here. Several new faith communities were birthed, and new Conference leadership supported our Strategic Plan without adding dollars to the Apportionments.

The third term as your bishop already includes more new leadership guiding us in new ways as we further our efforts to fulfill the Church’s mission through our Strategic Plan.

The Office of Mission is one group developing innovations to connect younger people to life in the Church and to partner us in ministry with more people of diverse ethnicity. We are being more intentional about recruiting and equipping clergy. Outstanding laypeople are teaching us to engage in effective, adaptive leadership.

Do you hear in this report how God has been making all things new during those 10 years?

Thus we come to this year. What now will come into view because of my balcony perspective? Mindful of our past, let us look out on Oklahoma’s United Methodist landscape going forward.

This week, we bring three important proposals for discussion and action. They have the potential to reshape the way we do ministry here in Oklahoma. On Wednesday afternoon, we will sit together at St. Luke’s in roundtable conversation about those proposals, which then will be voted on Thursday morning.

One proposal addresses an issue that literally has paralyzed some other annual conferences: the rising cost of health care.

We will also discuss the missional realignment of our districts, asking this annual conference to decrease the number of districts from 12 to eight. If our request is approved, we will spend one year in transition and implement the change to eight districts on June 1, 2015.

• The third proposal relates to the Conference budget, as we seek to reprioritize where our dollars go and how they are being used to make disciples. Part of that is an initiative called New People, New Places.

Beginning in 1980, the Oklahoma Conference has closed 105 churches. We must find ways to reverse this trend.

Doing nothing is not an option. We must act, understanding that the changing dynamics of ministry in this day and time demand that we be proactive, flexible, and wise in our decision-making.

We must go and make new disciples. Hungry, hurting people need to know God’s love, need to see by our witness that God is making all things new.

These three proposals won’t surmount all our challenges. But I believe in their value for our churches, for our people, and for the new people waiting for us to introduce them to Jesus and to journey with them in discipleship that will transform the whole world.

So today I ask you these questions:

Will you walk with me as we discover new paths God has chosen for us in making all things new?

Will you be faithful by your prayers, your presence, gifts, service, and witness — as you promised when you were received into the household of faith?

I certainly hope that your answer is yes, because God is counting on us to be the measurable difference in a world that needs us desperately. (Edited for space)


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