Close Attention to the Big Picture

William Oden’s time as a student at Harvard Divinity School took place amid one of the most tumultuous and dynamic periods in American history.

In the late 1950s, as the United States battled with the growing pains of loosening moral structures, increased social awareness, and a burgeoning global community, Oden embarked on a journey of spiritual and intellectual discovery, benefiting from the changes in American society and important shifts in theological education.

“That was the beginning of a new day for theological education, the ending of an era of quiet reflection in theology,” Oden says, “We moved from a settled down period of the 1950s to the 1960s, where a lot of things that we thought were settled down became unglued—it was the beginning of freedom rides, drug experimentation, Vietnam, and civil rights.”

The combination of that cultural dynamism with the eye-opening and challenging curriculum at HDS provided Oden with a foundation to lead churches and religious organizations for more than 40 years, throughout Middle America.

For the first two decades of his career, he served as a pastor in a series of churches in Oklahoma, helping to build and shape communities in Oklahoma City and in small towns throughout the state.

Although he focused on serving his community, Oden retained a broader outlook for the church from the beginning.

“My interest has always been in the ecumenical, and during those 25 years as a pastor, the most significant thing that I saw happen within the church was a growing global awareness of a mission for the church,” he says. “We moved from the four cozy walls of the church building into an involvement in the global issues that confronted us.”

In 1988 Oden’s career took a turn when he was appointed a bishop of the United Methodist Church (UMC), first overseeing Louisiana, then the Dallas area. He brought his global and ecumenical perspective to bear on his administrative duties, advancing interdenominational and interfaith initiatives, and facing the issues of women in ministry, sexuality, and clergy ethics.

Robin Lovin, BD ’71, calls Oden a voice of informed and realistic faithfulness in the UMC. “He has provided quiet, consistent intellectual guidance at the highest levels of the denomination,” Lovin says, “leading the church in articulating its understanding of ministry and its ecumenical commitments, and especially in orienting the denomination’s witness toward the problems of children and the poor around the world.”

Among the many highlights of Oden’s career as a bishop was an initiative that raised $1 million to support seminary interns in Texas, and continuous encouragement of establishing new churches in inner-city neighborhoods in Dallas.

Having garnered the esteem of his peers, Oden was elected to a one-year term as president of the Council of Bishops of the UMC in 2000. He utilized that role as a springboard to organizing a delegation of church leaders that met with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to discuss Middle East violence. The delegation—made up of Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Orthodox, and Methodist leaders—and the topic both embodied the ideals that Oden has advanced throughout his career: ecumenism and a global perspective.

In fall 2003, after four decades of service, Oden stepped down from being a bishop in the UMC, but not before returning to HDS—bringing his professional, intellectual, and spiritual life full circle. He returned to Cambridge as a Merrill Fellow, and was impressed with the changes that had occurred both at Harvard Divinity School and within himself.

“I came to HDS in the 1950s as a rather naïve and narrow denominationalist,” he recalls, “but I left realizing that theology was the window to the whole world. In 2003, I came back to a different school in a different era, and I was impressed by the honesty and integrity of the religious search. I felt that students were more open to dealing with their doubts—they were more eager to question.

“I sensed a passion that I had been missing in gatherings of clergy. I was also impressed with the depth of interreligious dialogue—with Islam and Buddhism especially.

I think one of the contributions that HDS will make in the future is the deepening of that dialogue, which is now a necessity, not just a luxury.”

Although he is retired, Oden today retains the role of chief ecumenical officer for the Methodist Church. In that position, he continues to meet regularly with other denominational heads, recently initiating a movement toward full communion with the Episcopal and Lutheran churches. He is also actively involved in Christian Churches Together (CCT), a new ecumenical organization composed of leaders from more than 30 denominations and religions. The CCT will hold its inaugural meeting in September in Washington, D.C.

Paul Escamilla, pastor of Spring Valley United Methodist Church in Dallas, summarized Oden’s career as that of a Renaissance man.

“What was once written of John Adams could be said of Bill Oden as well, that he possesses an uncommon gift for ‘seeing things largely,’ ” Escamilla writes, “that is, for apprehending the great matters of our time—both in their promise and their challenge—and regarding them precisely thus, as great, and worthy of our highest and best, our noblest and most earnest attentions.

“Whether the large things be genuine piety in the churches, the work of seeking justice in society, unity among communions, guardianship of the church’s tradition, or the careful and painstaking exploration of its theological frontiers, Bill Oden has devoted his life to the heartfelt cultivation of these very things.”