“I am most eager to see how God will lead the church into new ventures and new opportunities.
The sovereign God of all eternity is at work in all times and all places.
For that I am most thankful to God.” Rev. Dr. David Oyler
In 2003, the world was a different place. That was the year Rev. Dr. David Oyler became General Presbyter for the Presbytery of Lake Erie. After 17 years in this leadership role, Dr. Oyler is stepping back, yet looking forward, as he officially retires this July.
As we approach the halfway point of 2020, we are living in unprecedented times and facing unique challenges on several fronts including the Coronavirus pandemic. Our world is quite different today than even four months ago.
The following is an interview with Dr. Oyler in Q & A format, so you can see the questions and answers about his 40 plus years in ministry. He offers his reflections. He shares his insights on ministry during challenging times, the challenges he has faced, and his hopes for the future.
Written by Marsha MacKinnon
Describe your background and when you heard God’s call to ministry.
“The call to ministry comes in so many different forms. It involves – as best we can – a close listening to the Holy Spirit. I was wonderfully blessed to grow up in a family that loved God. In fact, both my father and grandfather had served as Presbyterian pastors, though there was no pressure from my family to pursue pastoral training. Rather, my sense of call came from a growing awareness of the power of Christ to transform lives. Such transformation was evident in the congregation that nurtured me, but also in the interaction with other Christians in high school and college and in the world around us. While there were a couple of pivotal events where I sensed God being powerfully at work, there were many moments of growing awareness that all was not right with the world and that there is a better way. For me, increasingly, that ‘better way’ was acknowledging the profound ability for God to transform lives by being God-centered rather than self-focused.”
Describe your experiences from your seminary days until you were selected to be General Presbyter for the Presbytery of Lake Erie. What have you enjoyed most about being a minister of The Word of God?
“Prior to my calling as General Presbyter, I was privileged to serve for 24 years as a pastor. For six years I served the Hartstown and North Shenango Churches in Crawford County. For 18 years I served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of North East in Erie County. Those were treasured years where I valued the longer term relationships that were formed, the forming of weekly sermons, leading Bible studies and regular visitation with the people who participated in those congregations. Presbyterian author Eugene Peterson speaks of ‘having a long obedience in the same direction.’ I valued that long obedience in the daily patterns established in those faith communities – worship and fellowship, education and service, mission trips and discovering what God is up to next all around us. Pastoral ministry in a congregation is a kaleidoscope of ever changing dialogue, of problem solving even as some routines need to be nurtured. And other routines need to be re-examined and renewed, guided by the Holy Spirit. God is always weaving a tapestry, even where we cannot see the beauty of it.”
As General Presbyter explain what challenges you faced, the priorities you had to make, and how those challenges changed over your 17 years with the Presbytery of Lake Erie?
“The last 17 years have been filled with dramatic change within the Christian church in North America. Many have come to recognize afresh that the church is a dynamic organization. The practices and patterns of Christendom are being re-examined, re-formed and re-shaped. One foundational assumption of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which appears early in the Book of Order, is that ‘The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit.’ That has certainly been true in these 17 years. The Christian Church, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), has addressed an understanding of human sexuality. That discussion has led to significant theological divides. Many churches in Lake Erie Presbytery have also found it necessary to acknowledge the decline in member participation which has impacted their mission and ministry. Most recently, in the midst of COVID-19, congregations have found themselves determining the best ways to be the church when scattered in our homes. In it all, I have seen several consistent priorities:
- Encouraging churches to think missionally. What is God up to next in our faith communities. Standing on the rich traditions of the church, God is continually re-shaping and forming the church into an outward focused group of believers.
- Encouraging churches to think creatively. If the faith community changes then it may well involve creativity to adapt the Gospel message to our changed circumstances.
- Encouraging churches to think structurally. Good administration makes for a more effective witness in the community. The gift of administration may not seem to be very exciting, yet it is crucial. I have sought to model that at the presbytery level for the 58 congregations that compose Lake Erie Presbytery.
- Encouraging churches to think connectionally. That is evident in the faithful connection of many churches in missional thought, Unglued Church conversations, participation in regional training events, partnering with others on mission trips, and in accessing grants and scholarships the Presbytery of Lake Erie offers, and in a host of other ways.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought forth unprecedented changes overnight and unexpected challenges. What are your insights on mission and ministry during these challenging times?
“It has been a privilege for 17 years to worship with different congregations each Sunday morning. In a time of unprecedented change, it has been a unique opportunity to be at home but participate in 4 or 5 services each Sunday morning. And in participating in worship I have seen wonderful resilience and outward focus. The prayers offered often speak of those who are the ‘least, lost and loneliest’. And there is a consistent theme of being attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some ministries are limited in these days, but I am also observing increased passion and compassion. The church of Jesus Christ moves forward! Mission and ministry are happening! People are being fed! Phone calls and cards are being sent! The church prevails!”
What do you see as being your greatest joy throughout all the changes and challenges that you have faced over the years?
“I am thankful to God to serve in the church of Jesus Christ. My grandfather was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1909. For the next 19 years he served as Presbyterian missionary in The Sudan, just a few miles from the Nile River. And my father was then also ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1938. I was ordained in 1979. Across three generations, across more than a century, my family has been privileged to serve in this grand movement called the Christian Church. The church is different than it was in 1909, yet the message is remarkably the same and remarkably relevant. Across the grand sweep of history, I observe that the church is able to embrace adaptive change. It is difficult work. Some institutions flex and change. Some disappear. And new ones appear. As I retire after 41 years of ministry within the bounds of Lake Erie Presbytery, I am most eager to see how God will lead the church into new ventures and new opportunities. The sovereign God of all eternity is at work in all times and all places. For that I am most thankful to God.”
What are your future plans?
“My plans in retirement are ‘to take a deep breath and see what God is up to next.’ I can imagine new opportunities in this journey called ‘life.’ In recent years – and particularly in recent months – my work with the church has become all consuming. The shelves of my study are lined with books that I am eager to open and read, though there has not been enough time to do that recently. And, of course, my wife and I hope to spend more time in travel as well as with grandchildren. The travel may be deferred for a while but will happen, by the grace of God, eventually. And I am most eager to observe, from a distance, how God is at work in the churches of the Presbytery of Lake Erie.”
What is your favorite scripture passage and why?
“There are so many passages that enrich my life and form my faith. One that is so very familiar, yet still so faith formative ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ – John 3:16. And the call to be engaged in the world is so profoundly woven into the words of Micah 6:8 ‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’ Those verses – along with so many others – summarize the call of a personal faith commitment in Christ and call to be disciples in the world around us.”
Thank you Dr. Oyler for your years of service and ministry
to the people of the Presbytery of Lake Erie.
Enjoy & God Bless!