To the people called United Methodist
By Bishop Robert Hayes Jr.
I bid you greetings, grace, and peace in the matchless name of our risen Lord and Savior!
It is truly amazing to me that already I have served almost six years as the bishop of the Oklahoma Annual Conference and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference (OIMC). I am grateful to God for sending us here and for allowing us to be in servant ministry alongside you.
Already there are people speculating about what will happen two years from now, when my current four-year assignment concludes as your episcopal leader. Let me be as clear as I can about my future and this annual conference. When the Jurisdictional Conference convenes in 2012—in Oklahoma City—the assignment of bishops is considered for the next four years. I declare this to you: If I have the endorsement of the Episcopacy Committee for both this Conference and the OIMC, I will ask to stay in Oklahoma through 2016, to culminate my ministry career in two conferences I love dearly.
I will make that request based upon the work that still must be accomplished here. We planted seeds of possibility and hope through the adoption of our Strategic Plan for this conference two years ago. We initiated a strategy to examine and enhance how we build healthy congregations; to plant new faith communities; to identify, recruit, equip, and send forth spiritual leaders. We agreed to hold ourselves accountable as we reach out to more people, more diverse people, and younger people.
I believe if we remain faithful and "follow the plan," as our 2010 Annual Conference theme suggests, the results truly will transform every place.
It has been a productive, fruitful year. I want to highlight some of it for you.
—drilling 20 new water wells, at a cost of $200 each;
—$10,000 to supplement salaries of those pastors who only earn $5 a month; and
—the major portion of the funds will be used to build a elementary school.
These are just a few of the positive signs that lead me to believe we are bearing fruit for Christ.
One issue consumes me at this time. It goes to the very heart of who we are and what we will be in the coming years.
For more than a year, you have heard me speak on the issue of how much it costs for a seminary education and how much debt our pastors are bearing when they finish their required studies. Our denomination’s research shows it is common for pastors to owe tens of thousands of dollars in seminary debt as they graduate and enter service at lower-salaried churches.
If we are going to recruit, equip, and send out the best pastors to fill our pulpits, then we must change the system of how we go about educating them!
The Methodist movement has always placed special emphasis on training and educating its clergy. We were literally birthed on a university campus—Oxford—and, as early as 1789, the first church publishing house in America was established by the Methodist Church to supply preachers and Sunday schools with Christian literature. (Page 13, Book of Discipline)
I announced last year that, with the help of the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation, we would establish an endowment fund to address this issue of seminary debt. We have done that. The Leadership Investment Fund (through) Education—LIFE, as we call it—is the best investment we can make for the future of ministry in the Oklahoma Conference.
A national study by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership revealed that 48 percent of all United Methodist clergy elders are older than 55. The percentage is alarmingly small among young adult candidates for ordination as elders. At this time, only about 5 percent of provisional and ordained elders are younger than age 35.
What these statistics point out is this: Gifted and qualified young women and men desiring to go into ministry can’t afford it!
The church is poorer because we cannot attract talented individuals into a system that demands an education, but does little or nothing to help pay for it.
I intend to devote a great amount of time to building up the resources of the LIFE fund, and I ask you to share this appeal in each of your churches—and with anyone who may unite with us in this concern.
At our Bishop’s Retreats for all clergy in September, applications will be given to every clergy member seeking assistance to repay what they owe for their seminary training. We will compile those applications, assess the scope of need and, hopefully by the middle of next year, begin paying off those debts—freeing our pastors FROM these financial burdens and FOR the wonderful ministry to which God calls them.
I have seen firsthand how Oklahomans stand together to face all kinds of challenges. I recall us reaching out this year after tornadoes and hailstorms swept our state. A May letter from UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, stated that the people of the Oklahoma Conference had given more than $613,500 for relief and recovery in response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti.
When there is need, Oklahoma United Methodists respond. The matter of seminary indebtedness is a financial crisis that cannot go unaddressed.
We have the capacity to change the system and, with our success here in Oklahoma, the entire Church will stand up and take notice. Power is in our hands and in our pocketbooks. We will act because, as Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s letter, "God doesn’t want us to be shy with God’s gifts, but bold and loving and sensible" (II Timothy 1:7).
I unflinchingly proclaim to you that God has given all we need to face the challenges of doing ministry and missions in a world trying to find its way. God has called us to make a difference and equipped us to claim victory in the name of Jesus Christ.
We must answer God’s call boldly. If not now, when? If not us, who?
May God’s blessings be with us as we bravely continue marching to Zion!
(View the full speech by Bishop Hayes online. Go to www.okumc.org and click "OKVideo.")
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