Great Plains Conference Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. will add coverage of the episcopal duties for the Central Texas Conference beginning Jan. 1.
Bishop Saenz was selected by the South Central Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops to cover the Central Texas Conference until new elections are conducted and bishop assignments are updated at the next jurisdictional conference. He will succeed Bishop Mike Lowry, who is retiring at the end of 2021. As part of the coverage assignments, Bishop James Nunn of the Oklahoma Conference and Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference will cover the Northwest Texas Conference, and Bishop Robert Schnase of the Rio Texas Conference will cover the New Mexico Conference.
“I see this as part of my role as a bishop of the United Methodist Church and as an elder,” said Bishop Saenz, who has led the Great Plains Conference since 2016. “This is what the church is asking from me at this time.”
A Texas native, Bishop Saenz succeeded Bishop Lowry as new church development director of the former Rio Grande Conference. In between their periods of service was Kim Cape, who was later named as general secretary to the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
“I always respected his work, his commitment to Christ, his singular focus on discipleship and making disciples of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Saenz said of Bishop Lowry.
The Central Texas Conference, based in Fort Worth, is one of five conferences in the state. It has five districts, 270 churches and 138,000 church members. Besides the western portion of the Dallas Metroplex, it includes Waco and Killeen, and stretches to the north suburbs of Austin.
“I think the Central Texas Conference will be delighted to receive Bishop Saenz,” Bishop Lowry said. “He’ll receive an extremely warm welcome. They’ll be delighted to welcome him back to Texas, they’ll do their very best to work with the Great Plains Conference in terms of sharing him in a way that is equitable and works for all involved.”
Bishop Saenz said he has always been the type of person to have several projects going on at once and that being the episcopal leader of two conferences is no different than him asking district superintendents to supervise more than one district, or pastors to take multiple-church charges.
“I’ve always had many things going on simultaneously in my life. Always,” he said. “I don’t see the coverage assignment as more work, only as the new work to do for Christ and the Church. I will have to work differently and work with and through both conference staffs to move the mission of the conferences forward.”
He said he is confident necessary adjustments will be made.
“A lot of the work of the episcopacy is done through the district superintendents, through the conference staff, and through the assistant to the episcopal office,” the bishop said. “I have an amazing cabinet and conference staff and also assistant to the episcopal office, and I’m sure the Central Texas Conference has the same.”
Bishop Saenz said both the conferences can benefit from his assignment to cover the Central Texas Conference.
“I would tell churches I pastored that the more exposure and experience I gained, the more it enriches my understanding and guides my perspective, which then comes to benefit both sides,” he said. “It’s not like one side is being deprived of my presence. It’s the learnings that I can bring back and mutually share across lines that enriches both sides.”
The past year-plus of the coronavirus pandemic has shown that work can be successfully conducted virtually, Bishop Saenz said.
“Physical presence is a paradigm that has shifted,” he said. “Whether I’m in Topeka speaking to someone in Fort Worth or in Fort Worth speaking to someone in Nebraska on Zoom, the work will get done.”
The bishop said he remains devoted to the churches, clergy and laity of the Great Plains Conference, and he has another tour of all 17 districts in the conference planned for this fall to meet with clergy and lay leaders.
“I will be present where I’m needed to be present at the most critical times in the life of each conference,” Bishop Saenz said.
Bishop Lowry is one of three bishops in the South Central Jurisdiction — along with Bishop Earl Bledsoe of the New Mexico and Northwest Texas conferences and Bishop Mike McKee of the North Texas Conference — to announce their retirements. All have delayed their departures until the end of 2021 after a Jurisdictional Conference for 2020 was postponed along with the General Conference because of the coronavirus pandemic. Bishop McKee will remain as bishop in North Texas until elections are conducted and assignments made late in 2022.
Should the delayed General Conference take place as currently planned — Aug. 29 to Sept. 6, 2022 — the Jurisdictional Conference likely would take place in early November 2022, with the newly elected bishops taking office on Jan. 1, 2023, Bishop Saenz said.
Bishop Lowry was one of four episcopal leaders asked to supervise the Rio Texas Conference from the time its bishop resigned in late 2015 until the Jurisdictional Conference in 2016.
“It is a challenge,” he said. “As a bishop you have to very carefully choose your priorities, and you have to have a very strong cabinet to delegate things to on both sides. You can’t survive without either.”
Bishops Saenz and Lowry have had a working relationship and friendship since before each was elected to the episcopacy.
Both were pastors in the former Rio Grande and Southwest Texas Conferences, and as new church development director, Bishop Lowry helped Bishop Saenz’s son, the Rev. Aaron Saenz Sr., establish Valley Praise UMC, which has grown to a three-campus church based in Harlingen, Texas. Neither Aaron Saenz nor the Rev. Ruben Saenz III, the bishop’s other pastor son, serve in the Central Texas Conference.
Both of the bishops praised the other’s work.
“I greatly admired his work as a pastor down here. He was stellar as a pastor here,” Bishop Lowry said. “I hold Bishop Saenz in high esteem. I believe he is truly one of our outstanding bishops.”
“He’s been a good friend and example of Christ-centered leadership,” Bishop Saenz said of Bishop Lowry. “I’ve always seen Bishop Lowry as not only a colleague but as a friend. I’m honored to be named to cover that area.”
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