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50 years in one pulpit

The secret to Robert Oglesby's longevity.

Growing up in North Texas, Robert Oglesby knew what he wanted to be: a preacher or a psychologist.
He decided he could “get every bit of psychology” he wanted as a preacher.
However, he worried about the tendency of churches to send preachers packing every few years.
“I had not seen a particularly rosy picture of being a local preacher,” said Oglesby, 80. “In those days, it was two years and a cloud of dust.”
But after World War II, a young minister named Robert Bankes came to Oglesby’s home congregation in Sherman, Texas, and proved that a preacher could stay a while.
It’s a lesson Oglesby took with him to the fledgling Waterview Church of Christ in Richardson, Texas, in 1963 — and one he has carried through 50 years as the congregation’s first and only preacher.
The secret to Oglesby’s longevity?
“He’s stubborn,” joked Robert Oglesby Jr., director of Abilene Christian University’s Center for Youth and Family Ministry.
Turning more serious, the minister’s son added, “He’s always said something that stuck with me: ‘The church where you are seems to have all these problems. The church trying to get you tries to hide their problems. … So why not try to work out the problems where you are?’”
Robert Oglesby Sr.’s passion for preaching manifested itself early.
At age 17 in 1950, he began his senior year of high school. He preached every Sunday, alternating between two little churches.
His future bride, Willora, attended one of those churches — in the unincorporated community of Shannon, Texas.
“So I got to hear lots of tryout sermons before I married him,” joked Willora, Robert’s wife of 57 years.
Before Robert and Willora were even born, their families knew each other. As Willora explained, “My daddy and his mother used to either date or double-date when they were teenagers.”
Robert and Willora did not date until both attended Abilene Christian.
Robert earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible in 1955, then completed a master’s degree in Bible while Willora — a year behind him — finished her undergraduate studies in home economics.
They married on Feb. 3, 1956.
Oglesby didn’t preach his freshman year. But his sophomore year, he began driving to Blackwell, Texas, where he preached for four years.
The Breckenridge Church of Christ in West Texas gave Oglesby his first full-time preaching position, hiring him in 1956. But after six and a half years in Breckenridge, he said, he decided he’d “peaked out” and needed a “little more challenge.”
“I got a tsunami of a challenge,” he quipped.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech, Beatlemania struck the United Kingdom, and President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.
In The Christian Chronicle, Abilene Christian’s integration, the inaugural Pan-American Lectureship and the Exodus Movement — an effort by Christians in the South to evangelize cities in the Northeast — made headlines.
That same year, Robert and Willora Oglesby began their new ministry at the Waterview church, north of Dallas. Son Robert Jr. was 4 years old.
The Abrams Road Church of Christ in Richardson — later renamed the Richardson East Church of Christ — had “birthed” the new congregation, sending off a group to reach the growing west side of town.
Oglesby preached his first sermon in Waterview’s small auditorium on Feb. 3, 1963 — his seventh wedding anniversary. Attendance that first Sunday totaled 140. Young engineers who worked at nearby Texas Instruments made up a sizable portion of the congregation.
At Waterview, the Oglesbys found themselves at a brand-new church with no elders and most members their age.
“We had been used to having a lot of older people in the congregation who babied us and took care of us,” Willora said. “And you get to this new place, and here are these 30-year-olds just like we were. They didn’t have time to bake us pies.”
Robert didn’t even have an office.
But growth came quickly.
In 1967, Waterview built a larger auditorium. That same year, the Oglesbys adopted a newborn daughter, Cheryl.
Oglesby’s influence spread beyond his home congregation as he began studying small-group processes and innovated a group discussion method of Bible classes. He has conducted more than 450 workshops about the group discussion method across the nation.
Oglesby also developed a method of training members to share their faith called Personal Evangelism Training, or PET.
“It was a different kind of course,” he said. “I’d really worked on it, and I’d done everything but jump out of a plane with a parachute to get their attention. Finally, I broke through their resistance, and they said, ‘Well, maybe I should do something like this.’”
At one point in 1967, the Waterview church baptized 26 people in 26 weeks.
“It wasn’t me,” Oglesby said. “Other people were out teaching because I’d trained them to teach.”
Robert Taylor’s family came to Waterview in 1968.
He was 12 years old.
Membership had topped 700. It eventually would hit 1,300 before Waterview sent about 300 members to start the McDermott Road Church of Christ in nearby Plano in the late 1990s.
“Throughout my childhood, I had watched lazy preachers preach bad sermons from sermon outline books,” said Taylor, now 57 and Waterview’s minister of administration, evangelism and education. “Robert Oglesby was the first preacher I ever heard who made sense. He had something to say, and he said it in a way that was compelling.”
Oglesby inspired Taylor to become a minister himself.
Even after a half-century, Oglesby maintains a high energy and a strong work ethic, said Taylor, who spent two decades in pulpit ministry elsewhere before joining Waterview’s staff in 2000.
“He’s not one of those preachers who spends all his time in his study preparing,” Taylor said. “He visits hospitals all the time. He visits shut-ins. He does his share of funerals. He’s among the people, so he hears their joys and their hurts and their needs.”
Oglesby translates those joys, hurts and needs into sermons that match exactly what the 1,000-member church needs at any given time, Taylor said.
Willora said she and Robert have made it a practice never to “cozy up to any one group in the church.”
“The first intern I ever had said, ‘For the life of me, I can’t figure out who your best friends are,’” Robert said. “I said, ‘That’s right, and you won’t.’
“But that’s not really a subterfuge,” he added. “We just enjoy everybody.”
Like Taylor, Jacob Hawk, 25, cites Oglesby’s influence on his ministry path.
“Is he God?” Hawk remembers asking his parents when as a young boy he heard the preacher’s “deep, powerful bass voice.”
“It felt so comforting to listen to him,” said Hawk, minister for the Riverside Church of Christ in Kerrville, Texas.
In 1976, Jacob’s father, Danny Hawk, now a Waterview elder, served as a preaching intern under Oglesby. In 2007, while studying preaching at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., Jacob Hawk did the same.
“His fingerprints can be seen all over pulpits across the brotherhood,” Jacob Hawk said of Oglesby, who has taught “ministry survival” skills to dozens of young preachers.
In 1993, the Waterview church started the Oglesby Foundation as a gift to Robert and Willora on their 30th anniversary with the congregation.
The foundation provides scholarships for preaching students. Waterview members have given most of the $600,000 in the foundation’s endowment.
Two years ago, the Oglesby Preaching Studio made its debut at Harding.
The Waterview church committed to donate $200,000 to build the state-of-the-art preaching studio.
The studio allows preaching students to watch and learn from their own presentations and film sermons that can be sent to churches when they begin the interview process, Danny Hawk said.
Oglesby said he has a passion for helping young preachers survive their first few years of ministry.
“We’re losing good guys that just don’t have any pragmatic understanding of what to do at first,” he said. “If they can survive for five years, they’ll probably make it.  
“But they blow up. They’re young, and they’re impetuous, and they say, ‘I’m not going to put up with this,’” he added. “And some of the best ones, most capable ones, are the ones that quit.”
Certain key traits have contributed to Oglesby’s staying power, his wife believes.
Among them: His speaking ability. His versatility. His willingness to keep up with the times. His commitment to Bible study.
“But to me, another thing that’s equally important is be able to handle troublesome-type situations, to know how to put out five-alarm fires, and even better still, how to keep a five-alarm fire from even needing to happen,” she said.
Besides focusing on effective conflict management, Oglesby maintains a daily log of his activities — from number of hospital visits made to hours spent preparing his sermon.
That way, Waterview’s elders don’t need to ask how he’s spending his time. They know.
He also encourages young preachers to have a written job description.
“That way, when the leaders say, ‘Why were you doing that?’ you say, ‘Well, because that is what you told me to do,’” Oglesby said. “And the conversation is over. That doesn’t solve every problem, but it really helps.”
Take it from someone who endeavored a long time ago to avoid “two years and a cloud of dust.”
“My joy and satisfaction have been tied up, obviously, in the Waterview church itself,” Oglesby said. “I’ve loved that church.”
For now, the grandfather of five and great-grandfather of one intends to keep preaching, just as he has since he was a teen.
“Obviously, I will need to retire sometime,” he said, “but my elders say, “Not just yet.’”

  • Feedback
    Thank you for focusing on Robert and Willora Oglesby and their years of service to the Lord. They are dear friends of my parents, Dr. John and Evelyn Willis. My brother, Dr. Timothy Willis, did an internship under Robert in the early eighties, as well. Although Robert may be the face people know, I’m sure he would say that he would not have been able to stay in the same place for 50 years without Willora at his side. They are a team. Their success comes from keeping God at the center and as the focus of their ministry. We would do well to emulate the lives of this Christian couple.
    David Willis
    Lupelele Church of Christ
    Iliili, American Samoa
    American Samoa
    April, 3 2013

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