The Rev. C. Wallis Ohl was elected Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Northwest Texas on Saturday, February 1, 1997 at a Special Convention of the Diocese held at St. Christopher's Church in Lubbock. Fr. Ohl was elected on the seventh ballot.
His Consecration was June 28 at the Civic Center in
Lubbock. Bishop Ohl was installed as IV Bishop of our Diocese on October 24 during the
Opening Eucharist of the 39th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Northwest Texas, held in
Midland. We ask your prayers for Bishop Ohl and his family as he begins his ministry among
An nwt.org Exclusive
An Interview with our Bishop-Elect
Less than one week after the election, the man chosen to become the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Northwest Texas retrieved me at the Colorado Springs airport. Explaining that he wore a collar on his day off "only so you would recognize me," the 53-year-old rector of St. Michael the Archangel Church maneuvered his canary yellow Jeep ("It's paid for!") across town for a lunch date with Sheila Ohl. We talked through lunch, the ride to the rectory, and concluded just before dusk in the quiet beauty of St. Michael's nave with its vaulted ceiling and stunning view of Pike's Peak through a glass wall behind the altar. ("It's not paid for!")
Here are the highlights of an afternoon with two gifted conversationalists: The Rev. Wallis and Sheila Ohl:
On the Role of a Bishop
Adventure: Well, how do you feel about Wallis being a bishop?
Sheila: I think he will be absolutely magnificent! Because I think he's that type of a person - a fantastic leader and a fantastic healer. I think he's a healer.
Wallis: I've been accused of having an idealized and romantic view of the episcopate.
The Adventure: In what sense?
Wallis: Because I think a bishop ought not to be sitting at a desk in an office acting as a C.E.O. - he ought to be out in the field with the troops. You know, part of the problem with the Episcopal Church today is that the dioceses are too big, and bishops can't possibly be pastors to 140 priests. You can't do it! How do you know every priest's wife or husband's name, much less their children? How do you know 120 congregations? You can't!
Sheila: You can't even get there each year.
Wallis: It's impossible. The thing that is absolutely alluring to me about Northwest Texas - and I grant you that the geographical area is immense - but 37 congregations means that a bishop can do a substantial visitation (I'm talking two or three days) in every congregation every year. He can know not only the priest and maybe the senior warden, but probably all the leaders of the parish. And maybe know "Mary Jones", who is 89-years -old and has been an Episcopalian all her life. And maybe even visit her when she's in the nursing home. You can really be a pastor ... I may have an idealized and romantic view, but that's what I think a bishop ought to be doing. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but I don't think so!
On Ecumenical Matters
The Adventure: You mentioned in your biographical information that you had been active in ecumenical groups throughout your career?
Wallis: In Oklahoma more so than here in Colorado.
The Adventure: What are the gifts that Episcopalians can bring to the ecumenical Christian community?
Wallis: The first gift I think we bring is a gift of history - historicity. (Particularly from the Protestant perspective.) The history of Protestant churches often begins with the last pastor's entry into the congregation. That's an unfair generalization, but it's often true. Roman Catholics have that same sense of history we do, but we bring another gift.
I think the second gift we bring is a theology of incarnation - that the Word is made flesh in interpersonal relationships. Most Southern Baptist pastors don't have much of a pastoral relationship with the congregation. They are Preachers - they are preaching - and that's about all they do. (Now again, that's a generalization that in many cases is absolutely false!) But we bring a theology of incarnation that needs to be heard by Protestants and Roman Catholics, because Roman Catholic priests, generally, are one to 800 families - 800 families! - I mean, when we get to 400 people in the Episcopal Church we think we have to have two or three priests, and we do! Why? Because our theology and our experience is so incarnational - that is to say, "in the relationship" - we discover the risen Christ right here.
A Roman Catholic priest from Santa Fe gave me a term I dearly love. He said, "Most Roman Catholic priests do Triage Ministry." Isn't that a great term?
Sheila: Because he has 1400 families ....
Wallis: 1400 families! He is the lone priest in a brand-new mission that started with 1400 families!
The Adventure: Does he do anything but baptize and bury people?
Wallis; That's what I'm saying - Triage Ministry: Marry, bury, baptize, hear confessions, and an occasional hospital visit. It's overwhelming ... That's one of the gifts we bring to this whole ecumenical conversation.
The Adventure: Anything else?
Wallis: ...We bring a sacramental sense - a sense of the holy space that most of Protestantism does not have. What do they call a place where worship takes place? An Auditorium. Of course, that also says, "a place where you hear." Now we don't call our worship spaces "auditoriums" - instead, we may use the term sanctuary, which is "a holy space". Not a place where you come in and talk, talk, talk until he service begins, but a space where there is quiet, and prayer, and focus - and I think that is another of the gifts that we bring to that conversation.
But we have a lot to learn! We have a great deal to learn about Biblical lore and literature. Growing up in the Episcopal church it can be: 'Yeah, we've got a Bible around here somewhere, now -
The Adventure: (laughing)
Wallis: "A Prayer Book? I've got my Prayer Book!"
I am finally, in midlife, learning not only to quote but to cite the passage I'm quoting from the Bible - I really get excited!
So I think some of our brothers and sisters can teach us that. And I think we have a lot to learn in terms of shared ministry - we are growing in that, but -
The Adventure: "Shared Ministry?" - Define your terms, Sir!
Wallis: Yes, well ... Martin Luther's phrase "the priesthood of all believers" is a concept I did not grow up with. The Minister was The Rector, and He was the Only One (and I say "he" because that is what I grew up with) ...
I'll give you an example: Yes, my mother was the president of what we now call ECW, yes, she was on the altar guild, yes, my father was a lay reader and often in charge of the congregation between priests. Traditionally our parish would have a priest for 18 months - two years at the most - and then be gone and we'd have a year interim before we could get another seminary graduate to throw to the lions. My father was the lay Vicar to that place off-and-on for years!
Sheila: But did he call himself that?
Wallis: No. Was he a minister? Oh, no, because "he was not ordained."
Now we are growing in that - the hot term now is Total Ministry - but there are other congregations - other traditions that have a much more deeply imbedded sense of that: a sense of Evangelism, a sense of Pastoral Care. I think we have a lot to learn there.
The whole ecumenical experience to me means not that we have to become the Baptist church or the Roman Catholic church or the Lutheran church - but it means we get to ask: "How does your Family do this? What can we learn from your Family? How can we share from our Family's experience?"
I meet weekly with a group of Lutheran pastors, and that has become my support group here - because five years ago I couldn't get Episcopalians to do anything like that! When I have heart needs that I have to unload, that's where I go. I do Bible Study for preaching with that group. We meet every Tuesday and talk about the Lessons, and sometimes that gives me a whole new insight.
Lutherans take biblical scholarship seriously - much more so than our seminaries.
Family, Congregation and Community
Adventure: Well, why don't you tell about your kids - get that bragging out of the way!
Sheila: Trey is the oldest (C. Wallis Ohl III). He is 28 years old. He is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma and an architect. Our daughter-in-law (very talented!) is a music education teacher in the public schools here in Colorado Springs. She also directs the Youth Choirs in our church. Trey began working here for an architectural firm, but is now architectural consultant for a home builder. He does custom homes and stuff like that. He's decided he likes that better.
Our second child is Gregory - he is 25 years old and is toying with going back to school. He's working in construction now. He loves the outdoors and just can't see himself sitting in an office all day pushing papers -
Adventure: Who can see themselves that way at 25!
Sheila: He is living here with us right now - between apartments - again!. (laughter) He's very level-headed - a very "even" person. He will do o.k.!
Our daughter Courtney says she's going to start school in the Fall. She is attracted to social work, but I think she would make a great, great kindergarten teacher. She is 23 years old and has a two-and-a-half year-old daughter named Taylor. They live here with us.
Taylor, of course, is the brightest little thing that ever walked the face of the earth. We have really enjoyed having her live with us. Really. It is amazing how much more fun it is being a grandparent!
Adventure: Will Courtney and Taylor come to Lubbock with you?
Sheila: No. At least not at first. Who knows? (laughing)
Wallis: We came here expecting to leave three children in Norman. Trey had just graduated ...
Sheila: But we told them where we were moving ...
Wallis: Within six months they were all here!
Adventure: Don't leave an address this time.
Sheila: (laughing) No, family is very important to us.
Adventure: It is a kind of affirmation of your family life when your kids follow you around.
Wallis: We went back to Oklahoma soon after I got out of the Marines and stayed there because we wanted our kids to grow up near their grandparents.
Sheila: I come from a really large family. The extended family - knowing aunts, uncles, cousins - that is very important to me.
Wallis grew up with his grandparents not living near - they were in Ohio, and his other grandmother lived in Philadelphia, so he saw them maybe once a year.
Wallis: Or every five years.
Sheila: I was always within a couple of hours of my grandmothers. Aunts and uncles were always close by. I grew up that way, and I wanted my kids to grow up that way. But a lot of people don't have that opportunity. Jobs take people here and there.
Wallis: In Navajo. the worst thing you can say to somebody is "You act like you have no family." The crisis can begin when there are not family members around - or others to act like family.
That is where the church comes in. For me, the church was my extended family growing up, and in a very real sense, it is here in Colorado also. We have grandparents-to-grandchildren in this parish. There are a number of people here who are the same age as my parents, and they sort of "parent" me in that wonderful way in midlife that I did not have the opportunity to have from my birth parents. There are "aunts and uncles" here for my kids - and for all the kids. This is such a transient parish, it is extremely important to consciously - to conscientiously - build those relationships.
Sheila: I think it's important that parishioners have that kind of relationship with one another. I have always sung in the choir, and so when my kids were little, I always had someone in the congregation sit with my children. They became very close through that simple act.
Wallis: But so many children don't have that ...
Adventure: Start with the Marines and catch me up on your early years.
Wallis: I spent my entire Marine assignment in Quantico, Virginia.
Sheila: The Episcopal chaplain was looking for someone to work in his office. He was going through the rosters and noticed that Wallis had graduated from Sewanee.
Wallis: Chaplain Peter MacLean was looking for an Episcopalian - there were seven in our battalion and four of them were officers. I was a P.F.C. He interviewed me, then asked, "How would you like to be my clerk?" I had learned by then to ask: "What's in it for me?" So that's how I ended up in the Chaplain's office instead of being an infantry man in Vietnam.
I worked for him for a while, then for a Russian Orthodox priest for a while, then for a Methodist minister ...that was part of my agnostic period.
Adventure: That would be enough to drive you to Agnosticism.
Wallis: No, I was already there - in fact, each of them in their own way helped to bring me back to the faith. ...When I got out of the Marine Corps I worked for General Dynamics in Ft. Worth - for $5 an hour! There were several years between the Marine Corps and going to seminary.
Sheila: I was expecting our first child when we got out of the Marine Corps. We moved to Ft. Worth for six months, when - well, for one thing Wallis knew he didn't want to do that anymore. [General Dynamics] We decided to move back to Oklahoma and I started back to school and finished my degree.
Wallis: Both before and after military service and Ft. Worth, I worked for a loan company in Oklahoma - that's where the stories that I was a Loan Shark come from! I learned a lot about human nature. I learned a lot about business. What do you learn about business as an English major? I didn't even take an Economics course! So I had a great education in that business - honed my management skills - then after 4 1/2 years total with them, I went to seminary.
Adventure: Did he let you finish school before he decided to go to seminary?
Sheila: Oh yeah! I worked for a year-and -a-half.
Wallis: We both were working, and making good money, and we went from good money -
Sheila: To no money!
Wallis: V.A. benefits!
Sheila: For the first time in our married life one of us wasn't in school, we were both working, we didn't owe anybody -
Adventure: So he came home one Friday night and said: "I think .." ?
Wallis: No, it was a decision I had been wrestling with a long time. I had gone through a period of questioning and Agnosticism, and finally came back to the faith through Trey's Baptism. Then I had to wrestle with the whole question of vocation - trying to decide between seminary and law school -
Sheila: Needless to say, I pushed for law school! (laughing) All the way through the gates of the seminary I kept saying: "Wallis, it's really not too late to go to change your mind." I was 8 months pregnant with Greg!
Wallis: She worked and had our third child while we were at Nashotah. You know, that was a difficult time! But the Lord provided. We got through those three years.
Sheila: I don't think I realized at the time how stressful it was.
Wallis: We developed some very close friendships that we still maintain. That was our community - that was our family.
The Ohl Family Heritage
Adventure: But you were raised as an Episcopalian?
Wallis: Our roots in the Episcopal church on my father's side, in Pennsylvania, go back to the Anglican church around 1700. One branch of my mother's family might have been Anglican since there was an Anglican church. I have six grandfathers or great Uncles who were Episcopal priests.
Sheila: Wallis's grandfather was a circuit rider priest here in the Diocese of Colorado. He was the first priest at Salida.
Wallis: He had 17 congregations and preaching stations. He was the Archdeacon of the Western Missionary District of Colorado in the 1880's. Bishop Cassidy, who was the first bishop of the Diocese of Oklahoma, was my grandfather's curate.
Wallis: I'll tell you how small a world this is: I got a note two days ago from Bishop Hart, the retired bishop of Arizona, who said he was ordained by Bishop Cassidy in Oklahoma in the 1930's, I think. But when he was Bishop of Dallas, years later, he ordained Sam Hulsey to the priesthood! The circle just goes around!
Sheila: So everybody knew Wallis was going to be a priest except me!
Adventure: That begins to explain why you ran from it for as long as you could.
Wallis: Yeah. For four generations we have alternated Doctor/Priest/Doctor/Priest. But it was not something that was beaten into me growing up. I didn't learn a lot of this until after my father died. God didn't let go of me in all that time - He kept wrestling back ... I understand Israel, "the One who wrestles with God" ...
Sheila: When we were at seminary, we got a letter from the priest in Salida, who had received the newspaper from Sewanee, where it had been announced that Wallis had entered seminary, and so he wrote and asked: "Are you by any chance related to John Wallis Ohl, who was the first priest here in Salida?"
When we left seminary and went to the Cathedral in Oklahoma City,. we took the youth group camping in Colorado, and Wallis went to Salida and preached in his grandfather's church. It made the hair on the back of your neck stand up!
Wallis: Sometimes when people ask why I became a priest, I answer: "It was my turn!"
Sheila: I've got to go back to work ....
Adventure: Are you looking for a job in Lubbock?
Sheila: (laughing) What did you have in mind?
Adventure: If we put it in the interview I bet you'll have an offer before you get there!
Sheila: I have a job waiting for me in Lubbock - as a bishop's wife! I've been getting calls this week. I have dates on my calendar for 1998! There is an isolation that clergy spouses sometimes feel - a particular loneliness that women have helped me through in the past. So I look forward to that opportunity.
But I've taught school for 19 years altogether: 16 years in deaf education, and three years as Communications specialist for the School for the Deaf here. I enjoy teaching So I don't know ... maybe I'll do that. Maybe I'll substitute teach if it turns out that I don't have as busy a schedule as I think I'll have. Because I'm not one to sit at home - I turn into a real Puddinghead! (laughter)
Adventure: It was said at convention: "This man knows how to keep and grow small churches. He has done it in Oklahoma and we need him here."
Wallis: I grew up in a small congregation. That is where my heart lies. I always thought I would be in small towns - small congregations. That's where, I think, that the church can really be the community of faith. It's much easier in a small church because everyone knows that they are needed.
In a church of 800 people, somebody can really be anonymous. Not know whether they are needed or not, and perhaps be misunderstood. But in a congregation of 50 or 60, it takes every living, breathing soul to make that place go! If everybody has got a spirit of: "Not only do we need us, but we need others. It's not a small club, but a missionary society." - then those places grow.
Adventure: What is evangelism?
Wallis: It is, to use a well-worn phrase, "one hungry person telling another hungry person where dinner is being served." But true evangelism, I'm convinced, is simply saying, and acting: "Here is the focus of my life - Jesus Christ - and here is the way I'm being fed and nourished. Would you like some?" 95% of the congregation I left in Norman was not born Episcopalian.
The Ordination of Women
Adventure: Another thing said of you at convention was that you had taken a strong stand for the ordination of women when there was controversy at Nashotah House ...
Wallis: I went to Nashotah, I was on the Board of Trustees - before it got quite so vehemently anti-women ... I have been a strong supporter of women's ordination for many years. I have sent two women to seminary, who are now priests ... and four women deacons. I quit supporting Nashotah House financially for awhile, because they simply said: "Women don't belong here!"
I asked: "What? ... What?"
And to this day women cannot celebrate at the altar there - but then, nobody can except faculty and bishops who are invited. And no woman bishop has been invited yet and probably won't for a while!
On Mentoring and
Adventure: I don't know the number, but it seems to me that we have a lot of young priests in Northwest Texas.
Wallis: Yeah, I noticed that.
Adventure: What is your role ... what is that called in the clergy? In management, we call it mentoring.
Adventure: That's what it is, isn't it?
Wallis: Yep. And I have had some really fabulous experiences. I have only had two curates, but I've also worked with some other young priests: I was Chairman of the Commission on Ministry in Oklahoma for six years, and I helped to set up some mentoring, and I did some, particularly with small congregations. Seeing priests who are out there on their own for the first time. (Ooooh! that's scary!)
I think everybody needs some mentor work. I intend to seek that as a new bishop - because I know I need that. But I think I have some experience as to how that can work - how it can happen - how to make it happen
I remember visiting with a priest almost 20 years ago. He was complaining because he lived in a little town and there was nothing to do. (I'll use a fictitious name) I said:
"Jerry, how often do you go to the jail?"
"Well I don't - unless somebody calls me."
"Why not? There are some guys there who could use the visit, and after all, there's the Biblical injunction in Matthew 25: 'When did we not visit you in prison? Do you belong to the Kiwanis Club, or the Lion's Club, or the Jaycees?"
"Oh, I don't do things like that."
"In a small town, you do! You have to! When as the last time you just walked up and down Main Street - stopping and visiting with people?" I said.
"Oh, I wait until they come to see me," he said.
"No! Get out of your office. How many people visit you in a day?"
"Oh, one or two," he said.
"So what do you do with the rest of your time?"
"Oh, that's my problem - I don't know!"
"Get out. Go call on your people. Stop in the bank! Visit with the tellers - get to know the person who schedules things there - there is lots of stuff you can do," I said. "And pretty soon - you are known. Go to the hospital. Go to the nursing station on the medical floor - not the surgical floor - the medical floor, and ask the charge nurse: ' Who needs to be seen today?' "
There's one friend of mine who is priest in a small town in Oklahoma. He was visiting someone in the hospital and the patient said: "We're not members of your congregation." And he said: "Look - I don't care what chapel you go to, you live in my parish!" (laughter)
He built that congregation from about 30 people to 60 in two years, because he was out. Because people were saying: "Here's somebody who cares about us!" It's that Incarnational Theology I was speaking about earlier. It's not just being preached at. It's being lived out - it's being incarnate!
That, to me, is what we are about. That is what we ought to be doing. And the priest who's just sitting in his office eight hours a day ... I'm gonna blast out!
Adventure: (laughing) I'll leave that in!
Wallis: You may!
Current: Rector of St. Michael the Archangel, Colorado Springs, Colorado, since 1991. Commission on Ministry. Presiding Judge, Ecclesiastical Court. Instructor and Dean, Bishop's School of Theology. Evangelism and Renewal Commission.
Previous: Vicar and then Rector, St. Michael's, Norman, Oklahoma, 1977-91. Assistant to the Dean, St. Paul's Cathedral, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1974-77. Management Team, Aetna Finance Company, Chickasha and Shawnee, Oklahoma, 1965-71. Corporal (E-4), United States Marine Corps, 1966-68. Commission on Ministry, Standing Committee, Deputy to General Convention, Dean of Oklahoma City Region, St. Crispin's Camp and Conference Center Board, Diocese of Oklahoma. Cursillo. Happening. Marriage Encounter. Order of St. Luke. Camp Dean. Boy Scouts of America. Youth Soccer. Member, Ecumenical Clergy Groups in both Oklahoma and Colorado.
Education: B.A., English Literature, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee. M.Div., Nashotah House, Wisconsin, 1974.
Personal: Age 53; born October 21, 1943 in Bay City, Texas. Married Sheila Kay Byrd in 1964; she is an educator (deaf education) currently working as the Education Coordinator for a department store. Three children, Trey, 28; Greg, 25; and Courtney, 23; one grandchild, Taylor, 2 ½.
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