X’s and O’s of ministry


Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.’s game plan has included time as teacher, coach, businessman.

Before he got the call into ordained ministry, the Rev. Ruben Saenz Jr. was a high school teacher and assistant football coach.

And even though he’s been away from the gridiron and the classroom for more than 28 years, the new bishop of the Great Plains Annual Conference still keeps some of those same philosophies from his coaching days as a pastor and church leader.

“One of the crossovers of that is development,” he said, in the echo of his new Wichita office. “Everybody can be developed to increase their performance and strength and capacity. The same works for discipleship – how can we develop discipleship?

“Looking at taking an athlete from Point A to Point B and the process it takes to get them there, and then providing the structure and the encouragement and the guidance — that fits into discipleship in the very same way,” Bishop Saenz added. “Where are you now? Are you where you need to be? How can we help you get there?”

Those who have worked with the new bishop in the Rio Texas Conference — joyful for his new position but saddened at losing their friend and leader — say that teacher/coach philosophy has remained strong with him.

Among those is Diana Phillips, a former mental health counselor whom Bishop Saenz encouraged to enter the ordained ministry.

“When I had all these things bubbling in my head but I couldn’t quite paint a picture ... I would call Ruben up and say, ‘Hey, I need a whiteboard session.’ And it was like he had all the time in the world. I would just start talking about something I was doing in ministry or a committee — just things I dreamed about.

“I’d just start talking about it, and he would take out his whiteboard and his markers and create a map, make a picture of what was in my head,” she recalled. “It was so helpful, because I could move forward on it then. Whenever you’re serving with him, he’s able to take what is happening in the room and paints a picture of it. It’s very visual, very powerful, and it’s like a roadmap of where you’re headed.”

Bishop Saenz says he delights in mapping out the X’s and O’s for anyone with which he speaks.

“I’m a visual person, and I like to see things,” he said. “The whiteboard is very helpful to get a picture. That’s what vision is all about. What is the picture you’re trying to obtain?”

As an assistant coach, he was in charge of strength and conditioning, making sure players were at their peak performance levels.

He says there are parallels to clergy, laity and churches.

“If we do this well, we’re going to have fewer injuries, we’re going to perform better,” Bishop Saenz said. “At the end of the season, it’s who’s got the healthiest players.

“If you have all kinds of injuries during the season, and you have a shadow of the team that you started out with, you’re probably going to succumb to a stronger team because you’re dilapidated,” he added. “Clergy develop healthy churches. How can we develop the capacities and missional mindset of churches so they can be better?”

Caring, insightful

Interviews with friends and colleagues of Bishop Saenz from the Rio Texas Conference all agree on a picture of him as a caring, thoughtful leader who weighs all of the pros and cons before making a decision.

“Ruben is very caring, and I think he’s a listener,” said Abel Vega Jr., director of outreach vitality for the Mission Vitality Center of the Conference, of which the bishop was a key leader prior to his episcopal assignment.

“But he’s also very discerning … and has the ability to bring people together and have a sense of strategy and direction,” Vega added. “We’re just proud to see his journey and where it’s ended up.”

The Rev. Laura Merrill, a district superintendent in the Rio Texas Conference who is becoming Bishop Saenz’s successor there, said she became a fan when he first spoke to a group that led to the unification of two conferences.

“He was very calm, had a calm way about him. He was listening. He was not anxious,” Merrill recalled. “And it was an anxious group. We had only begun to know each other.

“On that day, I remember thinking, ‘He looks episcopal to me.’ That was the very first time I met him, and that’s what I thought,” she added. “He’s innovative. He’s a big-picture, creative thinker. He’s always kind of a step ahead thinking of what might be.”

The senior pastor of the Bulverde United Methodist Church in San Antonio, the Rev. Ralph Mann, began his position in 2011 at the same time that Bishop Saenz started his position with the Rio Texas Conference.

“I have encountered him in interesting situations and situations where tough decision have to be made. He is a deep thinker. He puts a lot of thought into it,” Mann said. “And he’s extremely fair.”

Mann said he’s seen the bishop’s visual thinking come into play — but with sticky notes rather than a whiteboard.

“In his first office … he’d have a big window that had mini-blinds in front of it. He would pull that up and put up sticky notes — that’s a part of his thought process. Looking at it from the outside, you see all these yellow things on the window, and you wondered what that was,” Mann said. “He’d use sticky notes for structure, to think, to process. And when someone walked in his door, he’d just put the blinds down.”

Mann’s church recently welcomed back Bishop Saenz’s son, Ruben III, as associate pastor for youth and young adults.

“The whole family is just wonderful,” Mann said. “They’re a delight, very much in love with the Lord, wanting to give everything to the Kingdom.”

Through Saenz’s encouragement, Norma Pollard went from being a church secretary to the associate pastor of a United Methodist Church in Edinburg, Texas, for the past 10 years.

“He’s an original,” Pollard said of her mentor. “He’s what I call a Type-A personality to the third power. He is very focused, very driven. He is a visionary. When he goes on quote-unquote ‘vacation,’ it’s always like, ‘Dear Lord, let’s see what he comes back with.’

“He definitely is led by God. It may not be what people see that as the road that should be taken, but it’s because he’s seeking after what God is calling him to do. And it works out — it goes, it happens, and doors open,” she continued. “He’s a tremendous person. He can be a very intimidating person, because he’s listening to every word you’re saying and taking it in. He listens before he speaks.”

Texas, educational roots

Ruben Saenz Jr. was born 55 years ago — his consecration service July 16 fell on his birthday — and grew up in Rio Grande City, Texas, the first of two sons of Ruben, a 52-year veteran educator, and Olga, a longtime special education teacher.

Rio Grande City, just north of the Mexican border with a population of nearly 14,000, was far more integrated than its neighboring towns.

“In my world, the Coopers and the Smiths and the Andersons were just like us,” Bishop Saenz said. “There was no difference.”

That perspective changed when Ruben Jr. and his family moved to Austin, Texas, so his father — who went on to become a high school principal, district superintendent and a community college dean — went on to doctorate studies at the University of Texas and brought his family.

“I didn’t know that I was Hispanic until I was 12 years old,” he said.

Bishop Saenz tells of being shunned on the classroom and the playground, with classmates not wanting to touch the kickball after “a Mexican touched it.”
But he is not Mexican. He’s a seventh-generation American.

“My ancestors have been living north of the Rio Grande since the early 1700s,” he said. “They were a part of Texas before Texas was Texas.”

He saw the prejudice continue in college at Stephen F. Austin University where, as a freshman who rose quickly to become the starting offensive tackle for the Lumberjack football team, teammates wouldn’t grip his hands as a show of unity in the huddle.

“We don’t hold hands with people like you,” he was told.

“In my mind, although I was perceived differently, I never saw myself as ‘different’ or ‘less than,’” Bishop Saenz said.

Contact David Burke, communications coordinator, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.

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