When someone shares a story about their call to ministry, there is sometimes a line of divine providence verses self-determined choices that gets a little gray.
Bishop Robert Farr acknowledged that split in his first address in the Missouri Conference to an audience larger than a local church or private meeting when sharing his call story at Converge.
“I’ve always been better at seeing God when I look backwards rather than forward,” Bishop Farr said.
“It’s a gift from God to be able to self-direct our actions. God has a purpose, but we’re allowed the freedom to make choices. We may miss the mark – but there is a mark.” Bishop Farr cited one of his favorite scriptures, Romans Chapter 8.
“With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us — who was raised to life for us! — is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way!” – Romans 8: 31 -37, from The Message
Bishop Farr grew up in Creighton. His home church was the United Methodist Church there. It had been his family’s church, on his mother’s side, and her mother’s side, and her mother’s side, for generations.
“Women were the religious leaders in my family,” Bishop Farr said. “When I was a little kid, I didn’t know that men went to church.”
Farr’s Sunday school teacher was Margie Briggs, a lay speaker who has been a fruitful pastor of Calhoun and Drake’s Chapel for the last decade. When he was a teenager, most of his youth group activities happened at the District level under the direction of (now) retired pastor Jan Bond.
Bishop Farr has been going to Annual Conference session in Missouri since he was 14. But before he went any further in sharing his story, he made it clear that although church was always an important part of his life, he wasn’t always a straight-as-an-arrow model church boy. During his teen years, he had his church life and his fun life, and the two didn’t cross paths.
He described his grandfather as a “rascal” who owned six liquor stores, a entrepreneur that made his rounds in a ’69 Chevy pickup with two German Shepherds in the back, a successful business person if it were not for drinking away his profits.
“Being part of a church kept me from that path,” Bishop Farr said.
Academics was not a priority for Bishop Farr during his high school years. He went to Missouri Western in St. Joseph for college his first year.
“I went there because they would take anybody,” he said.
That year he got a call from District Superintendent Ross Fulton (Sr.), who Bishop Farr described as a giant of a man in a Volkswagen Rabbit. Fulton asked Farr to go to Garden Hill to preach that weekend, mentioning that he could just use the CCYM speech he made at Annual Conference session for his sermon. Farr hesitated, but when Fulton mentioned it would pay $25, he agreed.
Even though the church was only 20 minutes from his home, he had never heard of it and had to get directions. He arrived at the church to find five people on one side and seven on the other.
“No one sat in the middle,” Bishop Farr recalled. “Something had happened, and they were mad at each other.”
The next Friday, Fulton called back and asked Farr to preach another sermon.
“I said, ‘That was my sermon’,” Farr said. Fulton advised him to get with Rev. Ron White, and White could shepherd him through sermon writing. So, the two got together every Saturday.
“We sat there and made up sermons – that’s what we were doing – making them up,” Bishop Farr said.
After six weeks of Friday phone calls, Fulton asked Farr to just continue to fill in until Annual Conference. Then after Annual Conference, he asked Farr to take on the appointment. The salary was $3,400 a year.
Farr went to local pastor school, run by Rev. Allen Pruitt, for three days in Warrensburg in June. At age 18, he was the youngest student by a long shot.
The congregation being split to opposite sides of the church worked itself out during this time: Five of the 12 got up and walked out, leaving the seven.
“I had to meet Ms. Powell every Monday to explain what I had meant in my sermon. She knew the Bible and would quote it. She would have 20 verses to my one,” Bishop Farr said. “She died with a Bible on her lap waiting for me to come to her; I found her. We didn’t often agree, but she loved Jesus, and I loved Jesus. That was enough.”
By the time Farr left the church, they had an attendance of 68 on Sundays.
After college he went to Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
“It was hard, very academic, and had seemingly little to do with the church I was serving, but it taught me how to be reflective, gave me a new perspective and shaped my theology,” Bishop Farr said. “I have a niece that is a lawyer, and she said law school didn’t train her on how to be a lawyer; it taught her the law. Seminaries do what they do, but you learn to be a pastor from other clergy and by serving as a pastor in small churches.”
While attending seminary, Farr received a call from his grandmother telling him that his father, a fire fighter, had died fighting a house fire. His father was 45. Farr was 22.
Bishop Farr often considers how his father was never part of the church and how his life could have been transformed if people in the churches nearby had been more proactive about reaching out to him.
“I’m going to work until the United Methodist Church becomes more outwardly focused to reach people like my Dad until I fall over. I care that we reach people that we no longer see,” he said. “It takes a lot of mistakes to find people like my Dad. How long has it been since you found someone like my Dad and brought him to church? I think a community of faith forms people. If we struggle as a church, our country will struggle. We need to gather people into communities of faith, so they come out as someone different.”