“Within 90 days we had sold our business, our home, moved to Dallas, and I was sitting in Billy Abraham’s ‘The Philosophy of Theology’ class wondering, ‘How in the world did I get here?’” recalls Bishop Ruben Saenz of the Great Plains Annual Conference. He started his career as a high school teacher, football coach, and business owner, but God had other plans. When he finally accepted the call to ordained ministry, his life quickly changed.
In this podcast episode we talk with Bishop Saenz about growing up in the church, the joys of being a bishop in Kansas and Nebraska, and how he keeps his spirit in shape.
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.
- The bishop's bio
- Great Plains Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
- Learn more about our United Methodist bishops.
Devotionals mentioned in this episode
- The Song of the Seed: The Monastic Way of Tending the Soul by Macrina Wiederkehr
- The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life by Kevin O'Brien
- The Divine Hours Prayers for Summertime: A Manual for Prayer by Phyllis Tickle
- Bishop Saenz also mentions the works of Bishop Rueben P. Job.
More about our bishops
- Listen to more bishops' personal faith stories.
- Find out about our Council of Bishops.
- Feeling called to ministry? We have resources to help you explore your call.
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More Get Your Spirit in Shape episodes
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This podcast episode was first posted on October 13, 2017.
In the studio
Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
In this episode, we get to meet Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. of the Great Plains Annual Conference serving United Methodist churches in Kansas and Nebraska. In our conversation, Bishop Saenz talks about the early days of his life in the church…
Bishop Saenz: Growing up as an Hispanic and Protestant was a unique experience and so community and spiritual formation became important.
Joe: …about his surpising call to ministry…
Bishop Saenz: To make a long story short, within 90 days we had sold our business, our home, moved to Dallas. And I was sitting in Billy Abraham’s The Philosophy of Theology class and wondering how in the world did I get here?
Joe: …and how his daily exercise routine influences how he thinks about his devotional life.
Bishop Saenz: As soon as I find that I’m getting stagnant I say, Okay, What…what do I need to do now to shock…to shock my spiritual system into…to make it stay alive and vibrant?
Joe: I think you’ll enjoy meeting Bishop Saenz.
On the phone
Joe: Bishop Saenz, thank you so much for being with us today.
Bishop Saenz: It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Joe: I want to begin by asking you about your early life of faith. Where did you grow up?
Bishop Saenz: I grew up in Rio Grande City, Texas. It’s a border community in deep south Texas by the tip of Texas, right across the border from Mexico actually.
Joe: Was church part of your family’s Sunday routine or did you start attending later in life?
Bishop Saenz: It was part of our Sunday routine. Dad and Mom, when they got married, looked for a church. They visited a Methodist Church because my mom was third generation Methodist. When they went to church, the pastor paid them a visit and they decided that First United Methodist Church was going to be their home church. The week after that Dad started teaching a Sunday school that he still continues to teach to this day. So he’s been at it for 60 years. So, we’ve been life-long members of First United Methodist Church of Rio Grande City.
Joe: What are some of your early memories of growing up in that congregation?
Bishop Saenz: Definitely sitting with my folks in the pews on Sunday and going through the whole worship service. Sunday School, definitely. I remember highly committed Sunday School teachers that were passionate about teaching the Bible stories, Vacation Bible School, Christmas dramas that we participated in... the community life of the church. There was always a sense of fellowship that strengthened us.
Growing up as a Hispanic and protestant was a unique experience because 95% of my classmates in the community had a Roman Catholic affiliation. So community and spiritual formation became important to give a sense of identity, and to help us connect with a broader community.
Joe: Is there a specific Sunday school teacher, youth leader, or somebody that was especially influential for you?
Bishop Saenz: Well, actually, my mom. She had the task of being my Sunday school teacher several years. I also remember Adalita Gutierrez and Epita Lopez. These women…I think they carried a Bible that was half the size of their bodies. They loved the Word. It was underlined and scribbled on the margins. And they just loved to teach the Bible to children. I remember them, and of course Dona Wagner and so many others who poured into our lives.
I think most of the time they thought we weren’t paying attention, but some of it stuff stuck, I guess.
Joe: I noticed in your biography online that you were a high school teacher out of college. What did you teach?
Bishop Saenz: I taught high school. I started teaching history and mathematics and then I moved into the Special Education departments. I would work with mostly disturbed high school students, students who came out of disadvantaged families and neighborhoods. I did that for 6 years.
I also coached sports, especially football and strength training.
Joe: Were you a football player in high school?
Bishop Saenz: In high school and college.
Joe: Oh, wow. Where did you go to college?
Bishop Saenz: Stephen F. Austin. It’s a school 150 miles north of Houston. I went on a football scholarship and I played there for four years.
Joe: I also read that after teaching you and your wife had a small business.
Bishop Saenz: We were looking for some additional income and one thing led to another. We started with a small inventory out of a briefcase that grew and we opened our first store. Soon I needed to pay more attention to the business rather than doing it part-time. So eventually, I stopped coaching to get to the business after school. Then a couple of years later, I stopped teaching so I could attend to the business fulltime as it grew and our customer base grew as well.
Joe: And then at some point you were called into ministry.
Bishop Saenz: The call to ministry happened 5 or 6 years probably before I responded to it. When I finally did respond to it, my and wife and I had a full-fledged business. It was just an encounter that I had one evening. To make a long story short, within 90 days we had sold our business, our home, moved to Dallas, and I was sitting in Billy Abraham’s The Philosophy of Theology class and wondering, How in the world did I get here from there? Yeah, it was quite the event. Things happened in that short span of time that I’m still having a hard time explaining.
Joe: That must have been a powerful experience to have your life altered so drastically in 90 days.
Bishop Saenz: Yeah. Powerful is an understatement.
Joe: What was it like?
Bishop Saenz: I don’t know how much time we have in the podcast. But just there’s just so many things that happened. Do you want me to talk about anything in particular?
Joe: How did you know God was calling you to ministry? It sounds like maybe there was an event or, something specific that happened? Or was it a long chain of events?
Bishop Saenz: It was a long chain of things. One time we had a preacher at our church. Sometimes preachers say things and they move on with their life, but what they say lingers in your soul, and the Spirit starts working in you. This particular preacher said, We’re all proud as parents when we say that our children are professionals or they’re in some kind of vocational work that is high level—basically, white collar—and he mentioned several of them. But how many parents are proud when their children become pastors?
I was in my middle 20s and in your early 20s, you’ve got so many dreams of aspiring for success, however you define that. That knocked me off balance.
Then at annual conference, there was another moment about 3 years before I answered the call. One of our beloved pastors passed away, and there was a pall of sorrow over the whole conference. Another pastor said, The fields are ripe for the harvest, but the laborers are few. I was a lay delegate to annual conference, and I actually was pulled to answer the call to ministry then. Three years later when I was involved in my work, I had another encounter. I said, that’s it.
It was a long, very continuous series of events from people confirming it, to our selling our house without a real estate agent in 2 weeks, which is a large house. Selling our business and…. Yeah…. That’s a whole chapter.
Joe: Wow. Sometimes we tell those stories and it sounds instantaneous, but it seems there’s usually a lot of groundwork.
Bishop Saenz: And it all started with Sunday school. I remember those stories from Adalita Gutierrez and Epita Lopez and my mom and the Christmas dramas. It all starts then. The grace of God is continually working on us in ways that we understand and don’t understand.
Joe: Yeah, and long before we know it.
Bishop Saenz: Long, long before we know it.
Joe: Shifting gears a little bit, what kind of things do you do to relax? What do you do just for the fun of it?
Bishop Saenz: I don’t know if you call it relaxing or not, but I have a habit of exercising every day. That’s kind of stressful, but it helps me relax the rest of the day. Normally my day starts around 4 to 5 o’clock in the morning. I get up and get myself awake by drinking a little bit of coffee and doing my devotional, and then exercising. That gets my day started on the right track.
Of course, I enjoy spending time with my wife Maye. We’ve been married now for 36 years, and we enjoy going out to the movies if there’s a good movie on and/or going out to eat.
We spend a lot of time on the road now driving all over the place. I enjoy that.
And of course, spending time with my children and now my new grandchildren. I have a new season or chapter in my life, and I’m enjoying that as well.
Joe: How old are your grandchildren?
Bishop Saenz: Well, our oldest son just adopted a group of siblings, and they are 12, and 8 and 5. That’s our latest addition, and we’re super excited. They’re wonderful children. We’re happy for them and we’re happy for our new grandchildren.
We have another grandchild who was born last November. He’s, I guess, 10 months now. And we have one that we’re expecting in December and another one in May. So within a course of 2 years we’ve had 7 grandchildren.
Joe: Yeah, that new season has rushed in on you.
Bishop Saenz: Yeah, I’m learning what all that means. I thought that I had finally surfaced on the priority list for my wife, but now with all the grandchildren I’m back down to the bottom of the pile again. But it’s okay.
Joe: Well, I was talking to your assistant one day and she said that you do not have many decorations in your office. Is there a reason for that?
Bishop Saenz: Well, you know, I don’t have much. I’m artistic and I create and stuff like that, but I’m just not into decorating. I think it makes them more nervous than me. I do have like 6 books on my bookshelf and a white board, but I have most of my books at home. I do my best work early in the morning, from 5 in the morning until 11 or 12, and it’s uninterrupted.
So much of this work is a lot of think-work and a lot of planning and discerning, and understanding information. So when I get to the office it’s more about conversations and meetings and things like that. My office is not the best place to study or to work on sermons or things like that. So all my resources are at home, and it’s pretty stark.
Well, right now actually I’ve got around 50 flood buckets. I think the conference decided that they could make use of my office. We’ve picked up over 5,000 flood buckets for the victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, and now for Puerto Rico. Our conference offices were wall-to-wall flood buckets, and we ran out of room. So they decided to use my office since I wasn’t using it for anything else. So I’m looking at flood buckets now.
Joe: That’s a great use of the space.
Bishop Saenz: It’s a great use of the space. It’s a missional space.
Joe: I know being a bishop is a very busy and difficult job, but is there something fun or good about it that maybe we wouldn’t think of right away?
Bishop Saenz: You get to see the church at its best in many ways. You see lay people and clergy that are passionate about Jesus Christ, passionate about the United Methodist Church and passionate about their local churches, doing some amazing work. I tell folks that the quality and the caliber of people that we have in our congregations and in our pews are second to none. I mean, these persons, run corporations, school systems, healthcare systems, military branches. They’re involved in the judicial systems and government, city politics. These folks are high capacity, high caliber. They know so many people. They have so many connections.
I don’t think there’s anything that the church cannot do if they wanted to, simply by harnessing all the gifts and graces of our lay people. I’ve seen some of our churches—both from the smallest churches that we have in towns with 5 or 6 homes, all the way to Church of the Resurrection that’s got 20 or 30 thousand members—they’re doing amazing things. It’s good work. When I see that, I get to see it from the 30,000-foot view. It’s inspiring. I just try to encourage that and help provide the space and ecology for it to flourish more and more and more.
Joe: Oh, I love that. I asked you earlier what you did for fun. What do you do to feed your soul? What do you do for your spiritual life, to stay in touch with the Spirit?
Bishop Saenz: I like to follow structured pathways. I use Macrina Wiederkehr’s Song of the Seed. That was a resource that a good friend of mine gave to me about 20 years ago. It’s got 3 ten-day retreats. It’s about listening, using lectio divina, and then reflecting internally on what this means.
I’ve also used The Ignatian Adventure, which is Ignatian spirituality. In my research, I understand that Wesley drew heavily from Ignatian’s spirituality, when it came to Wesley’s understanding of social holiness and the role of the Christian in society. Of course Ignatius is founder of the Order of the Jesuits.
I read those devotionals that go through the whole doctrinal trajectory from God to Jesus and the work of the Spirit, but especially as it focuses on the way of the cross. I’ve kind of been a devotee of the Way of the Cross since seminary, when I found out about it, and I’ve been practicing that, not only during Lent but throughout the rest of the year.
The cross, you know, was central to Paul’s theology. I don’t claim to know all that there is about the cross and the implications for it. It’s a mystery. At the same time, it’s a profound subject. I’m probably now just at the very outskirts of its depths. But that takes me to different places personally and also understanding what my role as a disciple of Jesus Christ is in the world.
Joe: Can you tell me again what the name of that devo…
Bishop Saenz: It’s called The Ignatian Adventure, and the other one is Macrina Wiederkehr’s Song of the Seed.
But, I also use Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours for Springtime and for the fall, which gives me a very structured way of approaching the day. I like to use those for Advent also.
I don’t like routines because I get stuck in ruts. So when I start getting bored or my devotional resource is not giving me what I’m needing, then I’ll move to something else. I’ve also used Bishop Job’s material and others. I’m kind of an eclectic when it comes to spirituality. It’s just like a workout routine. If you do the same workout every day, 7 days a week, eventually you’re gonna get stagnant. So you have to change the routine and shock the body again. I take that same principle to my spirituality. As soon as I find that I’m getting stagnant, I’ll say, Okay, what do I need to do now to shock my spiritual system and to make it stay alive and vibrant?
Joe: Oh, I like that image a lot because so often we want to keep doing the same thing. We think, Oh, have to do it another day. But to find that newness and “shock the system”? I like that image a lot.
Bishop Saenz: Of course, worship in a corporate setting and being with Christ’s body.
Of course, it’s different now because I don’t per se have a congregation that I attend every Sunday. I’m preaching many Sundays and traveling around, but to be with God’s people… Like this past Sunday I was at a place and the choir was singing and they had a trumpet ensemble and bell choir. Sometimes you go and you listen to excellent music and it sounds more like a performance. But I told the choir, All that you’re singing, it sounds like you really believe it. There’s a difference. The congregation was transcended to a different realm. It was really, really worshipping, and it was extremely, extremely well done.
So, just to be with God’s people in that place and allow the Spirit to have its way with us, that’s another way that I keep myself connected not only to God, but also to God’s people.
Joe: I have so enjoyed meeting you today. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
Bishop Saenz: Thank you, Joe, for that you do. God bless everyone that’s listening. You are the church and we are more with you. Thank you for using your gifts and graces and for helping others to love God, to proclaim Christ, to serve others, especially the poor, and do justice for the most vulnerable in our communities. God bless you all.
Joe: Thank you, Bishop.
Bishop Saenz: Yes sir. Thank you, Joe.
In the studio
Joe: That was Bishop Saenz of the Great Plains Annual Conference, made up of United Methodist churches in Kansas and Nebraska.
Meet more of our bishops, download other Get Your Spirit in Shape episodes, and find other United Methodist podcasts by going to UMC.org/podcasts. We’ve put links for some of the books Bishop Saenz recommended on the page for this episode.
Also, I would appreciate if you would take a moment to review Get Your Spirit in Shape on iTunes or wherever you download our podcast. More reviews help more people find us.
Thanks again for listening. We’ll be back soon with another conversation to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.