The Bishop of Lagos West Diocese of the Anglican Communion and the supervisory Bishop of the Diocese of Lagos, Rt Rev James Odedeji, shares his pastoral experience with EMMANUEL OJO
You marked 10 years as a bishop of the Anglican Communion recently. What do you find remarkable about your experience in the last decade?
Well, it has been glorious years with so many challenges as usual. Nothing good comes easy. There have been some internal and external challenges here and there but in it all, God’s vision will not lack provision. God has been awesome and surrounded us with good people and I have always believed in God’s vision and talent that he has given unto us. As a leader, I have enjoyed the goodwill of God and men, and that is obvious in the past 10 years.
The past 10 years have been with a lot of progress and aggressive evangelism. We have planted many churches and we have also done a lot of pragmatic evangelism that is touching lives. We’ve provided many boreholes for the neighbourhood and have established primary and secondary schools. In fact, one of them is becoming so famous now in Lagos, that is Sam Adegbite Anglican College which is like a template of Babington Macaulay Seminary in Ikorodu, where holiness, righteousness and a lot of morals are being imparted to our children.
Apart from that, we have also given many scholarships to indigent students in higher institutions. The Anglican Students’ Fellowship has received so much assistance from us as a boost in ensuring that in all our higher institutions, we have our presence and our children have places of worship and can interact and develop themselves spiritually. A lot of youths have been empowered and we have sent a lot of them to vocational centres. We have also built our vocational centre, Caroline Adetola Adebiyi Memorial Centre, Ipaja, where people acquire skills. All of these things didn’t seem easy to come by but with persistence and God’s backing, we were able to achieve them and they are dedicated to God and the glory of his name.
When you came in as the bishop of the diocese, there were concerns that you were too young or inexperienced to handle that level of leadership. How were you able to sail through and how did you handle your critics?
Well, it is natural that when you are ordained as the bishop of this kind of diocese, people might think about or question your capacity. But your results will prove them wrong and all you need to do is to make sure your result is outstanding. Paul (in the Bible) was talking to Timothy when he became the Bishop of Ephesus that he shouldn’t allow anyone to despise the days of his youth. So, it’s natural. When one is young, they will say one is too young and when one is old, they will say that one is too old. People must talk, but I went to God, well, He didn’t even respond to me but he responded through the activities. Jesus said, “Let your light shine so that men will see it and glorify your Father in heaven.”
And talking of inexperience, it’s just funny because I didn’t just join the ministry. I became a bishop after 23 years of being a clergyman and I served under good leaders who had really impacted so much into us.
Where else did you serve?
I also served in various churches. I served in six churches and I also served in the biggest cathedral. I went through the ranks too. I was at different times a deacon, a priest, a canon and an archdeacon. So, it’s only natural that people will react that way. In fact, I used to think I was the youngest until I noticed that in age, there were people that I was older than but, it’s just one of those things. Even now, we are still inexperienced because we keep learning and I want to get better each day of my life as I move forward. In my administration, this year is good and I know that next year will be better than this. A lecturer told me that the room for improvement is the largest in the world, so I am open to learning. I have never claimed maturity and I believe that when there is life, there is hope.
You meet people daily owing to your position. How do you manage people, especially difficult people?
Well, there is this popular saying that you must be fair, friendly and firm; those three words are very important. You must learn to be fair to people. When people are reacting, you give them room to recover. When I became a bishop, I was not the oldest. I was not the most brilliant of them but I suddenly became God’s choice at that point and that’s not about how strong I am. So, I had to give room for recovery, for them to see that it happened that way. So, I wasn’t hard on anybody. I also became very friendly. I called them my brother and colleagues and I am always there during their difficult times. I don’t parade myself as their superior. I also see their wives as my sisters. Also, I made them know that we had to do what was right and that was why I was there and someone must lead. Three people can’t drive a car at once. So, this theory of being fair, friendly and firm was what I adopted.
Secondly, I interact very well with people. You cannot be intimidated by my presence. In those days when people saw a bishop coming, they ran helter-skelter. That is not my style. If I met an Igbo man, you would see me speaking the little Igbo I know. If it’s a Hausa man, you see me do the same. You see children coming to me and touching my dress and so on. I was able to mix so well with my people. I see everyone as brethren. So I didn’t have a problem. People ask me how I cope and you see my colleagues ask me that too and I always tell them that what I do is to wish everybody well. People don’t offend me because I forgive people in advance. The only thing is that a repeated mistake is a decision. If you press my leg every day, it’s up to me to decide to put my leg where you can’t reach it anymore. I will rather do that than take offence. So, this is the way I manage my office.
What do you do when you are annoyed?
I also don’t talk when I’m annoyed because I’m a human being. I just look at you and won’t talk because I wouldn’t want to say something that I would regret later on but that does not mean that I have accepted defeat. One advantage that I have had is that I have worked with wise people and the Bible says that whoever walks with the wise will be wise. Whoever walks with the foolish will be foolish. I also have a lot of people I hold in high esteem, who have helped my life in the aspect of human management. Little did I know that God was preparing us for this time.
How long have you been a cleric?
I joined the ministry in 1989 and since then I have been there. I am in my mid-50s now and I have done a lot to the glory of God. I told you that I have enjoyed God’s will. All I have ever touched have always been good, even when I was very young. I do things that make people surprised when they see the results. When I joined the ministry, I started with a church that was not growing well and in six months, people were wondering (about the growth). Those who were not aware of my antecedents were asking how I achieved it. If you have children, you discover that they are all not the same. I am a product of grace and I believe grace saw me through and what I do is cooperate with God and do due diligence. My father taught me that persistence, doggedness and commitment will bring results and that has happened. Even in family life, I have had the same but that’s a story for another time. If anybody will appreciate this God, I think it’s me because I don’t deserve all of these overwhelming results and achievements in life.
What will you ascribe as the most challenging moment for you in the last 10 years as a bishop?
The most challenging, if there is any that I can remember because nothing is challenging with God, is the issue of communication. A lot of people will come to me and say that they never knew that was what I was trying to do or say because they didn’t have access to me. Some people want to know the reason why you are doing what you are doing. Like when I started the bishop’s court secretariat, a lot of people were not in support because they felt it was going to drain them more and it was not a good time for such a gigantic project. So, initially, a lot of people rejected it but I knew that when God is involved, I don’t chicken out. Now that has eventually been done; we didn’t levy church and I didn’t do any fundraising but God just provided because He is involved and everybody is part of this place. That was part of the challenge I mentioned because people have been coming to say that they are sorry for some of the comments they made, that they didn’t understand.
God also revealed to them that He is with their leader because I could have given in to their excuses. I’m not a flamboyant man. I can live in a room and parlour but the image of the diocese is what I wanted to project. We have also assisted other dioceses and what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. You have to write your name in gold so that when we are long gone, we won’t be forgotten in a hurry. People will see what God did through us.
So, talking about the challenges, one of them is in that area of people not seeing the vision the way you see it and running with you. In one of my parishes that I pastored earlier, some people complained that the vicar was running too fast and was reckless. So, those were the challenges for me. We work with honesty and sincerity. I work with genuineness. I work and want people to see my genuineness and when people see that you are not selfish, they tend to support you.
What inspired the Bishop’s Court project which is regarded as one of your biggest projects?
This diocese had been in existence for about 14 years before I came. I noticed that we deserved a better place for the image of the diocese. I remember we were using what we could refer to as a temporary place. Where I was living then, there was a very big mosque close to my window. They woke me up at about 4am every day. At a time, my wife and children then could recite their Islamic chants and the street had become a business road. On two occasions, armed men jumped into our premises, not because they were coming for me but because they were looking for an escape. I knew even then that we were capable and more than that and I decided that we couldn’t fold our arms and watch, that was how we started.
As I work for God, He also works in my life. I joined the ministry with a diploma in Theology but by the grace of God, I have a degree today. My wife too, when I met her, was just a registered nurse but today, she has a PhD and has started studying for a post-doctorate. As I do for God, my life has also moved forward. It’s not about me. Jesus must increase and I must decrease.
How have you been able to manage your family and your job as a bishop?
I have the best wife in the world and she has been a pillar of support and a backbone in the ministry. We are like Priscilla and Aquila. If you call us Romeo and Juliet, you are correct. We are always together and we have never slept apart. I’m also proud of my children and they don’t give me any problems. Despite my busy schedule, my family has never suffered because I appreciate family life.
How do you handle mentor and mentee relationships, especially with the opposite sex to avoid scandals based on your position?
I ensure that I deal with people with caution. It has never been easy I must say but you have to run away from all appearances of evil and police yourself as much as possible because some people can go any height to get you to do what you don’t want to do. God has been helping us.
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