ENID, Okla. — Wade Burleson is ready for another calling when he retires from the pulpit at Emmanuel Enid on Feb. 2, 2022, marking the end of a 30-year tenure at Enid’s largest church.
Burleson, 59, will be staying in Enid, where he will be launching Istoria Ministries — Istoria meaning “inquiring” in Greek — at 801 S. Van Buren.
He said his calling is shifting from the ministry to advocacy, where he is not restricted by ministerial duties. His new office is “311 steps from his front door.”
“In 2022, it will be Wade unchained,” Burleson said. “People think I’m already unchained now because I’m pretty vocal, but I’m restrained because I represent both sides of the spectrum. When I retire, I will be articulating what I believe is needed for our city, state and community.”
‘15 of my best years’
Burleson’s immediate goal is to write 40 books, which he says he has already lined up to do. He will be inquiring into history, culture and the Bible. He will produce video podcasts. It will be a non-profit funded by private fundraising.
“I’m not writing books to earn a living,” he said. “I’m writing for a principle.”
His wife, Rachelle, calls that goal “crazy,” but Burleson points out he’s written 10 books already working full time as a pastor.
“I think it can be done,” he said. “I’ve got 15 of my best years left for work, I just don’t have the responsibilities that go with pastoring.”
He is motivated.
“Somebody said man’s legacy is left through his writing,” Burleson said. “I want my great-grandchildren one day to read what I wrote. I say you don’t make a living writing, but you create a legacy. That’s my goal.”
When asked about his legacy now, Burleson leaves it up to others.
“You have to ask other people beside me,” he said. “I really haven’t thought about that. I know that at times I can be a polarizing figure, but if you know me you know that I love everybody. I do. I love everybody, particularly those who disagree with me. But I live by principle. I don’t change my mind because people want me to change it. I change my mind through science, intellectually, and general persuasion.”
‘The most extraordinary year’
Burleson was involved in opposing a mask ordinance and supported the recall of Enid City Commissioner Ben Ezzell. He said he wasn’t against masks but was supportive of the matter of choice.
“What I was opposed to was the mandating of masks,” he said. “People didn’t understand me on that. That’s OK.”
Emmanuel Enid did not have a mask ordinance and, despite the pandemic, the church had “its largest giving year we have ever had,” Burleson said, as well as a growth of new members.
“This has been the most extraordinary year to be a pastor in the 30 years that I have been here,” he said. “It’s been the best year in terms of enjoyment.”
He pointed to the church’s work with homeless, establishing ministries to major ethnic groups, free medical clinics and English and citizenship lessons.
“The church understands that to make a city better, you have to go out and be involved in the city, and we have,” Burleson said. “It’s been a fun ride. People are scared in 2021. They are afraid. They want to hear a message of hope, confidence and faith in the word.”
Fruits of a ministry
Burleson’s greatest accomplishment at Emmanuel, he said, was to establish a ministry for 5,000 Pacific Islanders living in Enid, headed by Yohanes Arwakon and his wife, Jenni, who came to Enid in 2020.
“We’re only (now) seeing the fruits of that ministry,” he said pointing to classes at Autry Tech that help train the Marshall Islanders to be nursing assistants.
“We’re trying to acclimate them into the American culture,” Burleson said. “We’re doing everything we can to empower this wonderful community to better themselves financially, medically and educationally across the board. I think we will start seeing those kids play soccer and football ... we’re trying to help that.”
Enid is one of the three biggest centers of Marshall Islander population, Burleson said, along with Portland, Ore., and Springdale, Ark. Burleson said Portland receives $100 million from the federal government for programs and Springdale $75 million, but Enid doesn’t receive any. He said that work is best served by non-profits such as churches rather than the government.
Politics out of the pulpit
Emmanuel’s conservatism has attracted people, Burleson said. Burleson, though, said he doesn’t like labels.
“Before COVID, I was considered a liberal by most Southern Baptists,” he said, “because I believe in the equality of women. I was at the forefront at exposing sexual abuse at the (Southern Baptist) convention. I believe a church should be multi-ethnic and care for the poor. We should spend our dollars taking care of people. I don’t believe the government should be doing that. I believe churches should be doing that. I was called a liberal, but when I speak out what the government is doing, then I’m called a conservative. You know what I’m saying, so go ahead and make up your mind.
“I believe in people being free to debate the truth, but I don’t like the demands for conformity that I’m seeing from our government towards citizens. I don’t like that. I speak out against it. I can now write as a citizen, and it can’t be discounted by saying he is just a pastor.”
He has said he has tried to keep politics out of the pulpit. Starting next year he will be “writing for myself and doing what I’m doing for myself.”
Good times and sad times
One of his toughest moments was when former Plainsman football star Austin Box — then a senior at the University of Oklahoma — died of a prescription narcotic overdose. Burleson had gone to an Oklahoma City hospital direct from a charity golf tournament he was playing in. Burleson officiated at Box’s service at Emmanuel. Box was friends with Burleson’s children.
“It broke my heart,” Burleson said. “I love that family ... it was one of those things you think why would God take Austin Box? But if you look at the work (Austin’s parents) Gail and Craig are doing and the number of lives they have saved with their vocal and persistent advocacy of helping families avoid narcotic abuse, they are doing an amazing job. It’s a perspective that I have for being a pastor as long as I have.”
He has witnessed the joy of birth and the pain of death.
“A lot of those babies now are married,” Burleson said. “It’s a perspective that most pastors don’t have.”
Burleson said he’s never been burned out, and the 30-year anniversary of his ministry at Emmanuel “just seemed right to me” to retire.
His ministerial roots run deep. His father was a minister, and his grandfather was an evangelist.
“I’ve been around churches all of my life, and Emmanuel Enid is composed of some of the finest men and women that I have had the privilege of knowing,” he said. “This has not been a job for me. It’s been a calling. Thirty years is an extremely long time to stay at one church. That I have stayed so long is a credit to the people. They are kind, gracious and generous. They are just good Christian people.”
Heartland of America
Burleson said he is better suited today to be a pastor than when he started at Emmanuel. He had pastored churches at Holdenville and Tulsa before coming to Emmanuel.
“When you’re young, you do what you do out of self-protection,” Burleson said. “I got a family to take care of. I got kids. The best pastors are those who do what they say, and they live how they live because it’s a calling. I’m not looking to please anybody.
“I lost my desire to please anyone 10 years ago,” he said with a chuckle, “and I do what I do because it’s best for everyone in my opinion. You can disagree with me. That’s OK. I do what I do best. I believe it’s the best.”
Rachelle will remain chief nursing officer at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, another reason for the Burlesons to stay in Enid. They have four children, Charis, Kade, Boe and Logan, who have families and return to Enid for holidays and special occasions. Burleson proudly says all four graduated from Emmanuel Christian School.
The couple met at Baylor University. Rachelle would later earn academic honors at the University of Oklahoma and Vanderbilt.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” Burleson said. “People know me through my writing and podcasts. I have friends all over the world. All the time people are telling me they are moving to Enid because they want to get out of Los Angeles, New York or the Coast. They want to come to the Heartland of America.”
‘Who I am in Jesus’
Burleson will remain a member at Emmanuel and said he will be “the biggest supporter” of his successor. He will offer advice, if asked.
“It’s not for me to tell him what to do,” he said. “My identity is not in what I do, it’s who I am in Jesus Christ. It won’t be strange for me at all. I will be the biggest cheerleader for the next pastor. I will be the biggest advocate for Emmanuel Enid in years to come.”
Burleson’s emotions are stirred a little when people tell him they are sorry to see him retire. For many, he was the only pastor they have ever known. He takes pride in being voted by Enid News & Eagle readers as both the best pastor and the best public servant.
“That’s more than just a church,” Burleson said. “That’s a community. I do wish to serve this community anyway I can.”
He said he doesn’t know how much he will miss the ministry. Retirement won’t change a routine that has seen him up at 4:30 a.m. and working until sundown.
“I will be working harder than I have ever worked before,” Burleson said. “I’ll be working sunup to sundown.”