Are we there yet?
By BISHOP ROBERT HAYES JR.
Entering a new year and my final eight months as bishop of the Oklahoma Area, I conclude the five-part series in which I’ve been focusing on several aspects of our shared ministry: the expectations of all our churches, the laity, and those called to lead as pastors.
Today I offer what I call the balcony view for our annual conference. Throughout 11 years as bishop, I’ve often asked a question posed by people on long journeys: Are we there yet?
Let me share here with you where we are.
I must begin with the very first event at which I spoke as the new episcopal leader in Oklahoma. It took place in the large meeting room at Canyon Camp in September 2004. Various Annual Conference Council representatives, laity and clergy, had gathered to assess their work. What I remember most was the uncertainty and pessimism that I observed in these faithful leaders. There was a glass-half-empty discussion about church work, supplemented by projections of shortfalls and disappointing numbers.
At the meeting’s conclusion, someone noted my attendance, and I was asked to say a few words as the new bishop. I went to the podium.
I talked about a rancher who had decided to sell his farm. He had grown weary of trying to make ends meet, and finally he called a real estate agent to survey his property so it could be posted for sale. The agent came and took extensive notes. After a few days, he called the rancher to report what he planned to put in the newspaper ad.
The agent read to the rancher: "For sale! Beautiful 380-acre ranch with several sturdy buildings, including a huge barn to store the hay and plentiful crops; a stunning, rustic five-bedroom farmhouse that overlooks flowing wheat fields and several babbling brooks stocked with fish; radiant sunrises and sunsets that can be seen from the front and back porches; gentle rolling hills that offer the perfect complement to the substantial herds of farm animals such as cattle, sheep, chickens, and even geese. Ideal location. All offers considered!"
The rancher asked the Realtor to read the advertisement again to him. After the second reading, the agent heard a very long sigh. Then the rancher said, "You know, that sounds so good I think I’ll keep it. I never realized I had all of those things!"
Before my arrival, I had studied the facts and statistics about this annual conference I had resolved to work to hold on to the vibrant Church life here and use it to grow an even greater annual conference in God’s service.
As a newcomer, my first order of business was to make United Methodists in Oklahoma aware of how fortunate and blessed they were. Despite others’ talking that day about what Oklahoma didn’t have, I concluded my first speech by declaring my excitement and pride in being the newly appointed bishop of this Area.
Those sentiments hold true to this day.
The Oklahoma Conference is one of the strongest in the denomination, consistently ranking in the top 10 of all U.S. annual conferences. Our Methodist roots in this state date back to the early 1800s — almost a century before statehood!
We are in a good place, Oklahomans! But we can reach even greater heights for God if we hold on to what we have and work hard on building upon this foundation.
First, we must hold on to two dynamic features of the people called United Methodists in Oklahoma.
We need to persist in what I call the
unifying spirit that binds this diverse group of believers in the single-minded mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ. In Oklahoma I have experienced that characteristic in a way that surpasses everything I have seen in other places.
For me, the spirit of a place is much more important than the numbers. If the personality of our people embodies a can-do attitude, then anything is possible.
I have seen this outlook present in the mission teams I’ve joined and on the faces of people I’ve met all across this annual conference. I have experienced this disposition in our campers, on college campuses, and in organizational meetings with lay and clergy. Working together, we believe, we can change the world.
We also need to hold on to that powerful spirit that makes us the unique body of Christ called the Church. To bring about change in the world, we need to be strong in the God-given knowledge that the Church has something valuable to share with the world through us.
We cannot yet claim to have moved from good to great. There are areas of concern I must share.
We must redouble our desire and efforts to reach out to the next generation of believers. This means we must become more creative, more willing to take calculated risks, more welcoming, and more open to change.
Many congregations are becoming smaller. They must rediscover their purpose for ministry, and some must realize they can do more for the Kingdom by serving with other congregations than by themselves.
In the next 10 years the face of this annual conference will change. We must pursue more ways NOW to make new disciples, or we will find ourselves in a very difficult place. (Make note: small groups, Bible study classes, Sunday School, and other settings that offer education and information are as important today as ever.)
Are we there yet? No, we haven’t arrived, but we’re getting pretty close to where God wants us to be.
Hold on — keep the faith — and keep advancing.