Editor's note: This is the second in a series about new religious leaders in the Oklahoma City metro area. For information about more new faces, see Page 2D.
What's an ordained Baptist minister from New York City doing in an Oklahoma City United Methodist Church?
Preaching and teaching.
The Rev. Semaj Vanzant, the new pastor of Christ United Methodist Church, 1006 NE 17, grins when asked what led him to leave his post at a large New York Baptist church for a tiny United Methodist congregation in the metro.
“I'm beyond denominations,” he said.
“My goal or aspiration is to be aligned with the Gospel of the Bible.”
Vanzant, 27, became pastor of Christ Church in December 2011, preaching his first sermon on Christmas Day. He and his wife, Carla, have a 1-year-old son.
He said he is an ordained Baptist preacher, but he actually grew up in the United Methodist Church in his native New Orleans.
Vanzant said he was first approached about the pastor's post at Christ Church by a close family friend who helps the United Methodist Church find dynamic clergy to lead Methodist congregations. Vanzant said he didn't know a lot about Oklahoma.
He said he visited the metro area in July 2011 and initially rejected the idea of leading the church not too far from the state Capitol and nearby hospital complex. Christ Church is neighbor to another congregation, Corpus Christi Catholic Church.
The Rev. Frankye A. Johnson, superintendent of the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference's South Oklahoma City District, said she was impressed with Vanzant from the start.
“He is a gift,” she said.
Change of heart
Vanzant said he said goodbye to Johnson and Oklahoma City after that first visit, thinking it was for good. He said he returned to his post as pastor-in-residence at Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, but spent a couple of sleepless nights that convinced him that he needed to rethink his decision. He said he and his wife returned to the Oklahoma City church in September and he preached a sermon to the small but committed group of people there for Sunday worship.
Vanzant said on his second look at the church and its members, he saw passionate people, loving families, a community in need of outreach and something else:
“One thing I saw when I came here was immense potential,” he said.
He said he and his wife decided that his first senior pastorate would be in Oklahoma City after all.
Vanzant isn't afraid of change, he said. His change of heart about Christ Church didn't come as a surprise to him, because the Lord has caused him to modify his plans before.
For instance, he said he left the United Methodist Church and became ordained as a minister with the American Baptist USA denomination because he was attracted to the interactive and expressive Baptist worship and preaching style.
He said he headed to Gannon University in Erie, Pa., where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science and thought he would go into politics, but “the Lord said ‘No.'”
“I ran and struggled with the Lord,” Vanzant said.
He said he eventually enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary. He said on his way to earning his master's of divinity at the New Jersey seminary, he attended Church of the Redeemer Baptist Church where he later served as associate minister of discipleship. He also served as preaching intern at Church Without Walls in Houston.
He is now in the process of transferring his ordination to the United Methodist Church.
Vanzant said Christ Church's new theme is “Restarting the Vision,” and it is based on the premise that the church must change in some ways to reach out to the surrounding community. He said church members have caught the vision and church attendance has doubled since he came, from 30 to 60 people on Sunday mornings.
The church served about 80 people during a community health fair in April. A cookout was held in May and a community block party was offered in June. July 14, the church opened its doors to the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club for sports physicals for young athletes heading back to school.
Vanzant said he sees more growth and more outreach opportunities in the church's future as it seeks to get to know the residents living in surrounding neighborhoods.
“The church has changed. The challenge was for them to do something totally different,” he said.
“We don't want to be a cookie-cutter ministry.”
Johnson said she was a member of Christ Church for many years and was attending the church when she was called to the ministry. She said Christ Church appears headed in the right direction under Vanzant's leadership and that of his associate, the Rev. Linda Truitt.
“When I thought about it, I don't think we had been as strategic as we could have been about who we put there and it became apparent that we needed strategic leadership,” Johnson said.
She said she has also been heartened by the number of people from the United Methodist community who are helping the urban church.
“I just see a total turnaround,” she said.