By Riley Manning
OXFORD – In his tenure at Oxford University United Methodist Church, the Rev. Warren Black has become more than just a pastor. He has become synonymous with the church itself.
But finally, after 18 years, Black is saying goodbye to the pulpit, though hopefully not to pastoring.
“It’s a mixture of peace and grief, but I feel an inner peace knowing that it’s time,” he said. “I’m retiring from being a rancher, but not from being a shepherd.”
Black described his journey to the ministry as a Jonah story. A product of three generations of pastors, he said preaching was the last thing he wanted to do with his life. After graduating Emory University School of Law in 1974, and passing the bar, he could no longer deny his heart’s tugging toward ministry.
“I grew up moving from place to place as a pastor’s son. I knew how vulnerable that life is, and I didn’t want it for my family,” he said. “But it took me doing something else to come to ministry for the right reason.”
So he attended seminary straight away at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where he earned his Master of Divinity, and was ordained as an Elder in 1979.
He served several appointments before arriving at OUUMC. Especially for a minister in a denomination that routinely rotates pastors in and out of parsonages, almost two decades is an exceptionally long time to hold an assignment.
“I’d like to say it’s because of my fine preaching, but since Oxford keeps growing, there’s a constant influx of new people,” he said. “If the church is growing, is in good shape financially, and is a good fit for the pastor, the bishop will pretty much leave you alone. But all Methodists know to take it a year at a time.”
Indeed, church membership has doubled since Black came to the pulpit, numbering now over 2,000. The amount of giving has quadrupled. In his farewell letter to his congregation, he notes that 2014 began with 47 new families in the congregation, and a $79,000 surplus in the budget.
But Black’s progress at OUUMC extends far beyond the numbers and the walls of the church. The town of Oxford, he said, is still healing from its own past, and suffering from the poverty of the 21st century.
“Many consider Oxford a wealthy town, but you don’t have to look far to find poverty,” Black said. “One of the main issues is that many people who work in Oxford can’t afford housing there.”
As for the city’s racially conflicted past, Black said the University of Mississippi and the community itself had made great strides forward. The danger now, he said, is a more subtle brand of prejudice.
“You don’t grow up as a fifth generation Mississippian without an understanding of race,” Black said. “Prejudice and racism now are still out there, but go largely unspoken. Now, it’s directed more toward class and income inequality.”
In overcoming these obstacles, Black has found the best place to start is by building not just person-to-person relationships, but church-to-church ones as well. OUUMC, along with Burns UMC, Second Baptist Church, and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church make up Oxford’s Inter-Church Committee for Racial Harmony, whose purpose is to promote fellowship and remind churches they are all members of the body of Christ through community events, Black said.
“My focus has been on integrating the people, places, and issues of my formative years into the present,” he said. “Celebrating and making peace with the past, and reconciling our journey into the future.”
In addition, Black said, there are many people in Oxford who are simply on the rocks in their life. One of the most important things for a pastor to remember is who he’s preaching to: the broken heart on every pew.
“Lots of people move to Oxford thinking it’s a utopia, and it doesn’t work out. These people with their shattered dreams are looking to be welcomed, wanted and accepted,” Black said. “No one cuts the church any slack these days. If you’re not speaking to the needs of the people and being relevant to the suffering in the world, you undermine the church’s credibility.”
Black said he has no plans on abandoning the congregation that has become his family. He and his family plan to remain in Oxford and remain involved in the community.
“What would make my heart sing the most is to leave the world a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate place for all of God’s children, beginning in the faith community I serve,” he said.
OUUMC’s associate pastor for the past 10 years, the Rev. Claire Dobbs, will also be leaving the church, having been assigned a head pastor position on the coast.