At the core of my favorite movies, there usually are men who have forged a bond through shared struggle. Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae in “Lonesome Dove.” Jim Braddock and Joe Gould in “Cinderella Man.” Major Winters and Easy Company in “Band of Brothers.” I am drawn to these stories of partnership and friendship. In real life, God has given me a band of several brothers (and sisters) with whom I have been able to grow with, learn under, and serve alongside. One of those people in my life is Bruce Alfred Hess.
For nearly 37 years Bruce has faithfully served as the Senior Pastor of Wildwood Community Church. I have been blessed to have been a part of this church for nearly a quarter of a century. I was encouraged by Bruce’s leadership and teaching for nearly a decade before I ever joined the staff here. Many of you know that I attended Dallas Theological Seminary for graduate school. I chose that school for one reason: Bruce Hess. Bruce never told me to go to DTS. In fact, we never talked about it. But, when I was a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, and a back row attender listening to his sermons, I knew that I wanted to learn to teach like he could teach. I had entered college with a sense of calling into pastoral ministry and had planned on attending seminary after OU graduation. When I found out Bruce went to DTS, I applied to only one school. Bruce knew his Bible, and I knew I needed to learn it as well.
Most of my college years, Bruce was preaching through the Gospel of Mark. It was the first time I had been exposed to extended expositional teaching of God’s Word. I learned so much from each message and was inspired to read the Bible on my own and personally apply what I was seeing.
While I was in my first year of seminary, Kimberly and I came back to Norman for a weekend and attended Wildwood to worship with friends. After church was over, I remember walking back to our car and saying to Kimberly, “Wouldn’t it be great to one day be on staff at a church like Wildwood?” Four years later, this dream came true when I was asked to join the team at Wildwood working with College Students and Small Groups. Bruce (together with Wildwood’s Staff and Elder teams) helped to create a steady influence for Christ in our community. Not many things about Norman are the same as they were in 1992 when I started at OU . . . but Wildwood still feels the same to me, and I am blessed by that steady influence. Bruce has not run a sprint in Norman, but a marathon, and a generation of people like me have been impacted as a result.
After joining staff, I was initially quite nervous to be around Bruce. We had never really interacted socially, and all I really knew him for was his razor sharp sermon outlines, perfectly gelled hair, and “life response” points. I will never forget at some point during my first couple of weeks on the job, Bruce came into my office (a converted copy room at the time) and slowly closed the door behind him. I began to sweat, wondering what was coming next. He pulled up a chair and asked me what I thought about OU’s new recruiting class for football. I was both relieved and delighted. Not only did we have a love of football in common, but I was not being fired! Bruce was a real guy, and it was that day that I began to know Bruce as a friend, not just a pastor.
About a month after I started at Wildwood my grandmother passed away. My family asked me if I would officiate the funeral. I was honored and terrified. I had never officiated a funeral before, and somehow had missed “How to do funerals” day at seminary. After saying “yes” to my family, I phoned a friend – B.A. Hess – and quickly went to school on his experience leading families through grief. He shared many things with me that day . . . insight that has shaped how I have led funeral services ever since. Bruce was just that way. Always generous with what he knew. Always willing to explain it when asked.
I have had the privilege of having a front row seat watching Bruce deal with trials inside the church and inside his own life. Whatever the circumstances, Bruce’s God is always bigger than the problems he is facing, and that inspires hope and faith in all of us. From battling cancer to confronting congregational challenges, he always keeps trusting God.
For all the ways God has used Bruce at Wildwood, He has used him even more around the world. Hundreds have trusted Christ at Family Life events he and Janet have spoken at over the years. Thousands hear his teaching weekly on Latvian Christian Radio. Many more have been ministered to through seminars he has led in Mexico. God has truly used Bruce all over the world.
Over time, I have seen my role shift from College and Small Groups Pastor to Executive Pastor and now to Senior Pastor (a job I just began January 1, 2016). At each phase of the game, I have been blessed to have Bruce support and cheer for me. It takes a secure leader with his eyes focused on Christ to allow another to lead beside him the way Bruce has welcomed me. Bruce always made sure there was room for me at the table and opportunities for me from the pulpit. It is a generosity most never know but that Bruce has given to me.
Bruce is not retiring. There are many years of ministry ahead of him. He also is not leaving Wildwood. We are excited that Bruce will continue as a full time member of our staff team and be a regular part of our teaching team (in the worship services about a third of the Sundays, as well as teaching in a variety of other contexts around the church and around the world). However, after 36.5 years of faithful service as Wildwood’s Senior Pastor, he is transitioning roles and handing me the baton of Senior Pastor. It is a job that simultaneously makes me giddy with excitement and scares me to death . . . twenty years of Pastoral ministry experience will do that to a person. As I take that baton, however, I want to say two things:
- I hope I can run with perseverance the race laid out for me, following the example set before me.
- Thanks Bruce. I speak for many when I say how blessed we all are for what God has done in our lives through you. I am looking forward to many more years trusting Christ together for bigger things. I am thankful for the story of partnership and friendship God has given us together. It is easy to be in your company.