“Are you going to run away?” began Rev. Brian Oliver during his message at his September 10 installation service, which marks the beginning of his ministry serving as the Golden Valley District Superintendent. “I was asked that question by the first United Methodist pastor I ever knew, Reverend Bob Culbertson, who, at that time, was chaplain at the Door of Faith Mission in Des Moines.”
Washington United Methodist Church hosted Oliver’s installation celebration last Sunday, which included a welcome by Pastor Anthony DeVaughn, a covenant service led by Bishop Kennetha J. Bigham-Tsai, a presentation of the symbols of superintendency by Golden Valley Circuit Leaders, and a reception after.
“You see, I’d been homeless since I was 17 after my mom died and my dad abandoned me. And out of all the bad habits that I could have picked up during that time, I guess I am lucky that the one I did pick up was the habit of running away,” said Oliver. “I ran away when things became difficult. I ran away when things became uncomfortable. I ran away when I just got bored. I ran to the next town, to the next job, to the next adventure. Which is a fine way to live when you’re 17, but the fun doesn’t last long.”
Oliver, then 22, was on the cusp of getting his life together when he hit a snag and became frustrated.
“Are you going to run away?” Culbertson asked Oliver.
He did not.
“In fact, that summer, I went to work on summer staff at Wesley Woods, where the Reverend Dave Schar, the second United Methodist pastor I ever met, who would drag, and I mean drag, a call to ministry out of me. And Bob and his wife Julie would become adoptive parents to me,” said Oliver.
Oliver acknowledged the difficulty of being a United Methodist during this time of disaffiliation, comparing it to being a shepherd and sheep with plenty of reasons to run away from the harm and the pain.
“We want to avoid pain, emotional pain, spiritual pain. We want to avoid discomfort. We want to avoid difficulty. We want to avoid the headache of complexity and the heartache of conflict. But see, that’s the problem,” said Oliver. “If we are going to be a truly active, connected, and diverse church, then complexity and conflict are just going to be part of the deal. You might as well get used to it. We need to be willing to stay in our posts and do the hard work of leading the United Methodist Church into ever broader and ever deeper expressions of the Christian faith.”
Oliver admitted feeling tempted to run away to something simpler or something less complex, which he feels will mean less diversity.
“I would have been one of those. But I was kept at the table and was loved back into the fold by many of you here in this room today,” said Oliver.
Oliver laid out three things he wants to focus on as the Superintendent in the Golden Valley District. He wants to encourage and empower lay ministry, predominantly lay servant ministry, and have a lay servant at every local church. He wants to expand candidacy and mentoring with every Elder, Deacon, Associate Member, and Local Pastor who has finished the course of study to be trained as a mentor in the Golden Valley District. And he wants to work on rewiring the district circuits in places where they have become disconnected.
“I hope you will join me in embracing diversity and the complexity that comes with it. And facing the hard work of the adaptive challenges before us of expanding and strengthening ministries in the Iowa Annual Conference and the Golden Valley District as we seek to become broader and deeper at the same time,” said Oliver.
In conclusion, Oliver said he wanted to lead the audience back to where he started with that same question.
“In the face of the difficulties before us, in the face of conflicts of complexity, and conflict in the face of adaptive challenge, I asked you, are you going to run away? Are you going to run away?” said Oliver.
“No!” the audience replied.
“I’m not running away, either. Glory be to God,” said Oliver.
Oliver has been a pastor in the Iowa Annual Conference since 2002. He has served at Tingley-Ellsotn-Wishard Chapel, Delmar-Elwood, Christ, Toledo-Living Faith Tama/Montour, and Wesley, Muscatine.
He graduated from Grand View University and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and holds an MBA from Eastern New Mexico University.
He and his wife, Heather, have been married for over 20 years. They have two adult daughters, Samantha and Hannah.