Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. was pushing 30 and running his own flourishing jewelry business in Rio Grande City, Texas, when he felt a call to United Methodist ministry.
He didn’t want to hear it.
Saenz recalls thinking, “No, no, no” after his heart was stirred by a Rio Grande Conference pastor pleading for more clergy by quoting Jesus that the fields are ripe for harvest, but “the laborers are few.”
Along with his business, Saenz had a wife, three young children and a custom-built home. But he eventually answered the ministry call, selling the home and business and crowding his family into a Dallas apartment so he could attend Perkins School of Theology.
He’s been in full-time ministry since his 1997 seminary graduation, leading two south Texas churches, serving as a top conference staff member and becoming a sought-after speaker on church growth and Hispanic ministry.
This summer, he was the first of three bishops elected by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference. He drew the vast Great Plains Conference as his assignment, and his consecration service occurred July 16 — his 55th birthday.
He’s full of plans, including visiting all 17 Great Plains districts in his first four months.
But Saenz (pronounced “signs”) admits he’s felt some wariness about becoming a bishop, as he did about entering ministry.
“My episcopacy is a failed prayer,” he said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Lord, take this cup away. I don’t want it, man!’ ”
Pastor friends verify that, for years, Saenz brushed off their talk of his being a natural for bishop, and he remained ambivalent even after he agreed to be a candidate.
“That’s one of the reasons I think he’ll make a good bishop,” said the Rev. Bob Clark, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in San Antonio. “He went at this reluctantly. He really believed God was calling him to do it.”
Saenz is a Texan and, more particularly, a native of the impoverished but culturally rich Rio Grande Valley along the Mexico border. His family — descended on his paternal side, he says, from Sephardi Jews in Spain — has been just north of the Rio Grande River since the 1700s.
His parents were educators in Rio Grande City, and made sure their children joined them in worship and Sunday school at First United Methodist Church there. Saenz grew up speaking English and Spanish, and remains fluent in both.
“I think and write in English and translate into Spanish,” he said.
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.
Birthdate and place: July 16, 1961, McAllen, Texas. Brought up in Rio Grande City, Texas.
Spouse: Maria “Maye” Antonieta Saenz
Children: Aaron (Iris), Christina (Matthew), Ruben III (Christina), Isaac
Education: Bachelor in secondary education, Stephen F. Austin State University; master of divinity and doctorate of ministry, Perkins School of Theology
Ministry: Associate pastor, Oak Cliff United Methodist Church, Dallas, 1995-97; pastor, La Trinidad/El Divino Redentor Iglesia Metodista Unida, El Paso, Texas, 1997-2001; pastor, El Buen Pastor United Methodist Church, Edinburg, Texas, 2001-11; director, new church development and transformation, Southwest Texas Conference, 2011-14; director of connectional ministries and executive director of Mission Vitality Center, Rio Texas Conference, 2015-16
Influences: Saenz admires the leadership and writings of Pope Francis and the books of Adam Kahane, including “Power and Love” and “Transformative Scenario Planning”
Notable fact: Saenz does the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola and finds parallels between Ignatius and John Wesley
Touchstone Bible verse: John 10:10
Saenz went to Stephen F. Austin State University, in east Texas, on a football scholarship. Standing 6-feet-4-inches and weighing 265 pounds, he started at offensive tackle his freshman year.
But, as the lone Hispanic on the squad, he didn’t find anyone willing to room with him for the first six weeks.
“They were trying to run me off the team,” he said.
Later in college, Saenz married his high school sweetheart, Maria “Maye” Antonieta, and they had their first child. To pay for diapers and formula, Saenz cut lawns before and after school.
The young family would return to the Valley, where Saenz taught special education and coached for six years. He was active, too, as a United Methodist layman and with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
A chance meeting with an FCA member led him into selling engraved rings on the side, and eventually to leaving teaching to open the only jewelry store in Rio Grande City. With Maye’s help, the business grew, and included the community’s first one-hour photo developing store.
Then came the unwanted call to ministry.
Saenz doesn’t see as coincidental the many things that made possible his enrollment at seminary, including a quick sale of their home and business. At Perkins, checks from the Rio Grande Conference would sometimes show up just as he needed rent money. A Dallas area doctor, son of a United Methodist pastor, delivered Saenz and his wife’s fourth child for free.
“I could tell you story after story,” Saenz said.
Casting a vision
From Perkins, Saenz went to El Paso, Texas, to merge two small Hispanic churches for the Rio Grande Conference.
The church doubled in size and budget under his leadership. He also started a computer literacy program for single mothers put out of work when two big factories moved across the border.
After four years in El Paso, he was appointed back to the Valley to lead El Buen Pastor United Methodist Church in Edinburg, Texas.
Saenz would be there a decade, leading the church to significant growth, renovation of facilities and ministry to people in poor areas known as colonias.
“He had the ability to cast a vision for the body of Christ,” said Mari Gomez, church treasurer in Saenz’s time.
Since 2011, Saenz has served as director of new church development for the Southwest Texas Conference and director of connectional ministries and executive director of the Mission Vitality Center for the Rio Texas Conference.
Rio Texas is the result of a merger of the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande conferences, something Saenz helped make happen.
“He’s really the one who implemented that,” said the Rev. Robert Lopez, a district superintendent in Rio Texas. “When most people would say, ‘This is not going to work,’ that’s where Brother Saenz is at his optimum.”
Identifying with Nehemiah
Saenz has joined the small ranks of Hispanic United Methodist bishops, and he acknowledges that his election owed in part to concern that the denomination must do more to reach the growing Hispanic demographic.
But he’s used to being marginalized by what he calls the “little hyphen” of Hispanic-American status. He doesn’t want that as bishop.
“We’re called to be episcopal leaders for all people, not just the Hispanic community,” he said.
In Great Plains, Saenz plans to generate missional momentum by stressing strategies that are already working and looking for new, likely-to-succeed initiatives.
Longer term, he thinks the denomination must reevaluate fundamental assumptions about the clergy model and re-double efforts to empower lay leadership.
Part of Saenz’s wariness about becoming a bishop owes to the threat of schism in The United Methodist Church over homosexuality. The Council of Bishops is convening a special commission to try to work through the conflict.
“There are faithful people on both sides who are going to be part of the conversation and part of the solution, whatever it is,” Saenz said. “As an episcopal leader, I will do all I can to hold the church together.”
Another reason for his reluctance is that he and his wife, in moving to Wichita, Kansas, will be far from their family in Texas. There will soon be one more to miss, a first grandchild, expected this fall and already named “Ruben.”
During an interview in Arlington, Texas, where they were helping son Isaac settle in at the University of Texas at Arlington, Saenz and his wife insisted they are committed to the new assignment.
“We’ll be out of our comfort zone, but it’ll be wonderful,” Maye Saenz said.
The new bishop added that he’s been thinking of Nehemiah, the re-builder of Jerusalem’s walls who responded to enemies by saying, “I’m doing a great work. I cannot come down.”
“This is ‘a great work,’” Saenz said of ministry. “If it weren’t, I’d be making a lot more selling jewelry.”
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]