On the short list
Over two years ago I promised this conference that I would step away from any non-essential duties as bishop to more fully invest in our work together here. I knew transition to new episcopal leadership was on the horizon.
Today, as we prepare to receive a new bishop on Sept. 1, we are in a better place to carry on our life-transforming work. Yet you and I know we must not linger here.
Jesus did not call us to be comfortable. We must always go on toward perfection; we press on in the race in the name of the Christ.
In the short term, I have three crucial matters that I believe we must take up.
• First: how can we best deploy our resources to assure the success of new-church starts?
Multiple, dynamic approaches are emerging for creating new faith communities. That landscape is changing rapidly, and we find ourselves moving into areas we have never been. Our new-church starts have not always achieved a level of success, and to address this challenge I am announcing a full-time appointment: Rev. Chris Tiger as director of New Faith Communities.
His major responsibility will be to oversee the work of starting new churches, while giving significant attention to the revitalization of existing ones. We need someone like Chris Tiger to apply his creative gifts and talents.
• Another challenge we face is the retirement of many of our pastors within the next few years. The Pew Research Center recently reported that Millennials now outnumber Baby Boomers in America. That one statistic foreshadows dramatic shifts in leadership for the church at large; we must focus especially here in Oklahoma.
The Bi-Vocational Pastors Academy is doing an outstanding job preparing second-career and indigenous persons to fill some of Oklahoma’s pulpits. This training is particularly for people working full-time who also feel called to a part-time pastorate.
However, we must do more to prepare new, quality pastors to replace ones soon entering retirement.
Every church must do its part in recruiting and developing new clergy. In The United Methodist Church, a pastor must be sent out from a local congregation. If churches do not lift up, nurture, and send pastors to us, then we will not have enough pastors to send out into the fields, into your local churches.
In nearly every church there are people who possess the gifts and graces for ministry, but they won’t know that if no one encourages them to recognize their potential.
That’s where you come in. You must all be recruiters for new church leadership, inviting gifted individuals to explore ministry as a career.
• One more significant challenge for us right now is the state of Oklahoma’s economy.
Our state government finds itself engaged in a tremendous struggle with financial deficits. I want you to know this crisis does not escape the attention of the people charged with managing the finances of our conference. Our Council on Finance and Administration, chaired by Tom Junk of Tulsa, has been exemplary in helping us be proactive as we navigate the waters of church vitality and relevancy amid a depressed economy.
Like you at your home, the Conference and churches must live within the limits of what we receive, doing all we can to fit our budgets to today’s reality. I urge finance committees and other people responsible for stewardship in the local churches to sit down and develop strategies that will keep our churches economically sound.
The Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation is an excellent resource to call upon to help with issues of finance and giving. A wonderful program called "Rise" is led by Mike Wiley at the Foundation.
To all of our churches in this challenging economy, I want you to know for certain that what you do for God’s Kingdom is deeply appreciated — not overlooked, not taken for granted. Last year, 375 churches paid their Apportionments in full, and we are extremely grateful for that support.
You probably could name other challenges confronting us as the Church, but I want to focus your attention right now on the three I have just described: the struggles of new faith communities, a shortage of pastors, and financial instability in the state.
You see, I believe the Oklahoma Conference is poised to conquer them. Oklahoma has all the ingredients for continued growth, sustainability, and vibrancy. I want you to feel as strongly about the future of this conference as I do.
(Excerpted from the Episcopal Address, Annual Conference, May 31)