….Until we occupy a position we never really get to know what informs the actions of those who had been there
In the first quarter of 2013 when he was elected, consecrated, and enthroned Bishop of the burgeoning diocese of Lagos West of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, some people felt he was too young and inexperienced to saddle the ship of the diocese.
But The Rt. Rev Dr. Olusola James Odedeji has proved skeptics wrong. Since he assumed the leadership of the diocese, he has not only lived up to his billing as the bishop, he has exceeded the expectations of many people undertaking gigantic projects and finishing them in record time without taxing the churches in his purview.
Chief of the projects among many others is the magnificent Bishop’s Court in the heart of the Government Reserved Area in Ikeja, Lagos among many others across the diocese.
He has also invested heavily in the training of priests in the diocese and initiated programmes for the spiritual growth of parishioners. His impact from the spiritual standpoint is simply phenomenal. He is somewhat of a silent achiever, building without noise, and impacting lives without sounding a trumpet. In this interview with Gbenga Osinaike and Tunji Oguntuase Odedeji gives insight into his 10-year stewardship as the Bishop of the diocese. Excerpts:
What was your impression of the office of the Bishop before you were elected as the Bishop of the Diocese of Lagos West ten years ago?
The impression I had was in conformity to what we were taught in our secondary school days that the higher you go the cooler it becomes. But the first thing I discovered as soon as I resumed in the office of the bishop is that the higher the hotter. As Bishop, you are encumbered with so many challenges and issues of administration and management of people. You’re expected to function beyond your normal reach. So it requires more sleeplessness, prayers, and preparation.
Anytime I get to service now, the mentality of the people is that the Bishop has come and they would like to listen to the Bishop. In this regard, one will have to live up to the billing because to whom much is given, much is expected. Meeting up with all these expectations will come with a lot of stress. But God has been our strength and help. He has not allowed us to go down.
What were the shocks you faced as soon as you got to the office ten years ago?
I saw people in their true colours. My friends increased geometrically and my enemies also increased because you can’t satisfy everybody at the same time. There are a lot of people working with me in the diocese. They all want promotion and want to be favoured. But all of them can’t be lifted at the same time. It has to be gradual. As some are retiring, some are being pushed up.
You said your friends increased. How exactly do you mean?
The office of the Bishop attracts friends across denominations. It is a great platform whereby you meet a lot of people. And like the Yorubas will say, the bigger the head, the bigger the headache. Sometimes when you are busy, you don’t get to experience the enjoyment people talk about. But then, we thank God for the privilege. It has not been easy, but God has been in control. We give God all the glory.
How did you feel at your inauguration as Bishop? Was it a case of, I have arrived?
Well, I felt small, I felt inadequate. And that actually helped me because the appointment came to me as a shock. Though one might have been thinking of getting to the peak of one’s career, it did not cross my mind that I will be in Lagos West.
So for me to have been elected among so many other equally qualified priests and senior clergymen, was a shock to me. I did not take it for granted. I felt inadequate. I felt like a nobody so to say, looking back to where I was coming from. I was asking myself, what do I have upstairs to cope with the gigantic office?
I was thinking that way because I worked closely with my predecessor in the office, The Rt Rev Awelewa Adebiyi who has now gone to glory. I was his chaplain. I was Canon, Archdeacon, and Dean under him. He was such a nice man. He actually did carry me along in all his decisions.
But when I became bishop of the diocese, I did not feel I could weather the storm. What was sure for me was my reliance on God. And I believed that since Jesus never failed, I will not fail. I had that confidence in me in the midst of the serious phobia. I did not come out to lay claim to the position as it were. That was not there at all. God gave us the wisdom to live through the initial stage. It was quite tough I must confess.
Well, it is normal. When a few of my classmates were elected bishop before me, I also tried to move backward. There is this idea that whether the knife is sharp or not, whether it can cut you or not, you don’t start playing with it. But I can still tell you that some of them are careful. And some still maintained their friendship with us. I know a particular Bishop that still called me by the name he used to call me when we were at Immanuel College. He would still say, Bro Sola. But I could not call him his name, I would say Mi Lord. I tried to move away. But he tried to bring me closer.
So, when I became bishop the same thing happened. But I never allowed the privilege of office to affect my relationship with people. Till tomorrow, I still relate with many of my friends so perfectly well. After all, the opportunity did not come based on a particular exam I did that they have not done. If we are to give credit, perhaps a lot of my mates would have been there as Bishops before me. That mindset assisted me.
Some people believe the office of the Bishop is lonely. Is that your experience?
it is a lonely office because nobody tells you to watch when you are about to enter a dungeon. That, I can tell you. It is lonely because those who are supposed to tell you the truth don’t know how to tell you. The question they will ask is: How will I tell him, how will he react? Even if you have a lot of people around you and they have counseled you on some issues, you still have to ponder on those counsels because, at the end of the day, the bulk stops on your table.
Some counsels are with mixed feelings and different motives. People have their interests. Even when you have listened to others, you still need to go back to God and ask Him for his purpose and will. This is important because if you go by what people tell you to do, you will enter into trouble if that thing fails because they will still turn around to blame you. The Bible says those who desire the office of a Bishop desire a good thing but the person must not be a novice. He must not be a recent convert.
Were there skills you had to acquire to help you perform in the office?
Yes. I had to learn many new things. When I was preferred a Canon, I went to those who had been canon before me. I asked them to tell me the expectations of that office from God, the Bishop, and the congregation. This is important because as a canon, one has just been given an added responsibility. So I went to interview those who had done well so I could perform well in that office.
When I became Archdeacon, I went to about three to four Archdeacons who were administrators They were the people who could be regarded as successful administrators. Whenever I went to them, I took copious notes of what was expected of me. I asked all manner of questions that could help.
When I became bishop too, having been in priesthood for some time, I went to successful bishops and I asked questions. There is no particular training you go to serve effectively in that office. But when you get there the responsibility is on you to apply godly wisdom.
When I came on board, Baba Adebiyi and I had to go on a kind of retreat where he exposed me to some things about the office. He briefed me about every priest in the diocese. He told me about parishes and individuals and how to relate with them.
In what practical way have those things you learnt been useful?
I remember when we had the first ordination service of about 16 people in the cathedral. After the service, some people came to me and asked if I had been doing a practice of it in my room before that day. Many believed it was a flawless service. Some even asked if I had been doing the service in my dream. I had to tell them to give all glory to God. But then I recalled that I was a chaplain for three and half years and always understudying the then Bishop.
But before my ordination as bishop, I took time out to study what is expected of me at such service. That helped me to do it seamlessly. But what is more important in all these is the power and presence of the holy spirit in our programmes. I can say, God has been faithful when it comes to that.
What would you have to say about those working with you and the clergy?
They have been fantastic. They have known me for some time. I started my priesthood in Lagos when we had only one diocese. When Lagos West was created in 1999, my station fell under Lagos West. So I have been here for some time and I have been to a couple of churches to serve. A lot of people knew me before my election. When I came on board, it was like, well, this is one of us. I have enjoyed impressive and unalloyed cooperation which we quite appreciate. We are still brothers and sisters.
Were there things you learned from your predecessor that you could not apply when you got to the office due to the changing times?
Yes. Life is dynamic. There were things Baba Adebiyi was doing at that time that I felt I would have done differently. That is the problem of subordinates or those who work with you. To an average curate, there is always a better way the vicar could do certain things. Spectators are the best players until they get to the field and see that it is not easy to play.
Baba told me a few things while we were talking about the administration of the diocese. He said there may be some things I had been watching and felt I could have been able to do differently. He said, now that I am there as the bishop, I would appreciate why he did many things the way he did them. Truly I came to that realisation.
Now I am doing many of the things he did, the way he did them even when I did not agree with him when he was doing them. Until we occupy a position we never really get to know what informs the actions of those who had been in that position before us. It’s the one who wears the shoes that knows where it pinches.
Can you cast your mind back to your first anniversary as Bishop?
The first year of everything is always stormy because usually, you are trying to get your feet. There are people who probably would think you won’t be able to live up to expectations. It is this understanding that kind of buoyed us and made us resolute to depend on God and disappoint naysayers. We trusted God for the grace to put in a lot of effort in the first year. The first year is almost the most difficult because you are trying to live up to your billing and to tell those who are of the opinion you won’t be able to do it; that with God all things are possible.
When we are confused we notice that God is always there to intervene. My wife and I knew that some faithful brethren were praying for us. After the first year, things began to normalise. We began to build on the efforts of the previous year. Every year now became better. We were able to establish trust in Church matters. People now know that their money is spent where they want it spent.
How do you mean sir?
The Bishop’s court for instance is a faith project. When I resumed as Bishop the diocese did not have the kind of money to buy land where the court is built today. But we bought it all the same. A bank financed it and we were able to pay it back in record time. When we were about to start building, there was no funds’ raising ceremony for the project. There was no breakfast fellowship, lunch, or whatever to raise money. God in His mercy made the money available in miraculous ways. People were bringing money for the project on their own.
There were things you had to change when you came in as Bishop. How did you approach those things?
People don’t like change. It is normal. But we carried out most of the changes in love after we have prayed. God who owns the heart of men has a way of making them buy into new decisions. Before we take any drastic step we pray for direction and how it will be implemented. When you acknowledge your emptiness, God has the capacity to load you with what you need to excel. It is when you are arrogant and carry on as if you can do it on your own, that you fail.
The Bible says as a son looks up to his father, we look up to God each time. I had that experience when I was growing up in the ministry. When we are faced with a need, we just go and pray. And somebody from nowhere will come to help. In fact, help usually comes from where we least expect it. Even our personal needs are met that way.
I recall when we had our baby and the baby needed something urgent. We prayed about it and God used somebody to provide that help even when we did not tell the person. It is our belief not to ask for personal help. And God has been helping us. In all the churches that we have pastored, they will tell you God has been faithful.
Your style seems different. We know how some pastors put pressure on members to get support. How did you arrive at your stance on this issue of seeking support?
I understand what you are saying. But I have since found out that those who are looking for money don’t get money. In Matt 6v32, 33, God encourages us to seek God first. What I have learned is to let God be true and all men liars. That is why we are never disappointed. We don’t expect anything from anybody. But what we do is that we do our part of being faithful.
When God is aware of your faithfulness in service, submission to Him, and your inadequacies, he makes himself mighty on your behalf. We thank God we have been able to instill this in our children. Everybody has his own ministry. I deal with men of God gently because I was not there when God called them. And they were not there when God called me. Everybody should be able to relate to God according to the brief He gave them when He called them.
On the Bishop’s court, some people will probably feel, why the court, that there are more urgent needs in the diocese than putting up a Bishop’s court.
Those close to me will tell you that I can survive in a room and parlour. I am not a flamboyant person. Even when I had the opportunity of being flamboyant I tried to caution myself and ensure that I don’t flaunt God’s blessings in the face of people so that those who are not as privileged as myself will not be accusing God of being unfair. I knew we needed a Bishop’s court. It was so clear in my spirit that God had a hand in it when I said we needed to build one.
When I resumed at the first bishop’s court, I discovered that every morning by 4 o’clock the mosque behind us would always wake us up. Within three to four months of our resumption to that court, we could recite the Moslem prayers because that was what we hear every morning. And on Friday, you can’t enter the Bishop’s court as you like. You can be in the front of the court for about 2 hours trying to access the place because of traffic.
I noticed that for the image of the diocese, we needed something more befitting. We had assisted many dioceses to get their bishop’s court. So if we are blessed to be here, we think a good bishop’s court should be constructed.
When I explained to those close to me, they felt this is not the right time knowing what had happened before I came in. I kept my vision alive and I was explaining to those who cared to listen. I remember one of our legal luminaries came to explain to me that an architect can reconstruct the former court and create more rooms for us.
But I explained that it is not about more rooms. It is about having a Bishop’s court that is good for the image of the diocese. People came with all kinds of suggestions. But I kept insisting that the vision I have is a Bishop’s court that is outside the former Bishop’s court. And I told them that if it is God who has spoken to me, he will make the money available.
Having met a lot of bottlenecks with those I expected would buy into the vision, I stopped bothering them again. But at a point, I explained in one of our meetings why we needed the Bishop’s court and that much is expected of us as a leading diocese of the Church of Nigeria. I told them that God is in this matter and that God would build this house. I waited to hear from them. Nobody said a word. I said I wanted approval. One of them asked where we will get the money I said we should leave that to God for now because If I told them we were going to borrow, they will say I have come to put them into debt.
If we say we are going to levy our members they will also complain. If we tell them we are going to have various funds’ raising activities people will grumble. So we kept the money aspect out of the deal. But we got the approval. About two weeks before the time of approval, we had about four banks willing to support us in the project.
We accepted Zenith Bank’s proposal because they gave us the opportunity of paying for five or seven years. But as God would have it, we were able to pay up the loan in two years. That was the beginning of success. Even when that was done, we discovered we needed to have four buildings in the court. Secretariat, Bishop’s residence, chaplains residence, and a chapel because we did not have a chapel where we were before.
So my people wanted us to start building the bishop’s residence. And I said no, that we should start with the chapel because that is the most important of all the buildings. But then I pressed it on them that we should do the foundations for the structures. But for the delay in government approval the new Bishop’s court would have been ready five years earlier. That is the summary of what God has done. I call this place a Faith Project.
Great. It is a marvel that nobody was taxed to build the Court. But I can imagine what you would have gone through in the process of building it.
The grace of God has been our sustenance. One thing I have noticed is that God has a way of making us big through his own instrumentality. I can’t claim any achievement in life. When I was elected, somebody sent a text to me and said my appointment was a well-deserved honour.
But I replied to the text that I never deserve anything. Incidentally, that was the only text message I replied to because the messages were just too many. And the reason is that I did not want to take any credit for anything. I needed to quickly make that statement.
It has been the grace of God all through. I remember at a time I was going to parishes and told them to do certain projects. I also encouraged them with some support. There was a parish that had just about 14 parishioners. They were trapped in a small location. I said to them they were leaving the premises the day I went there. I was at the parish praying along with them for three hours asking God for mercy.
A year later I returned to the same church, they were more than 700 members. What I noticed is that when you push people positively they develop confidence in Jesus. There were places I go and literally had to wake them up and sometimes give personal money to support them. Today we are all proud of what we are experiencing in this diocese. Many of our parishes have one thing or the other to celebrate.
What is the relationship of your diocese with other dioceses in the Anglican Communion?
The DLW has been a benefactor to many dioceses. We don’t have a choice in the matter because to whom much is given much is expected. We are indeed blessed with human resources and funds so we can’t be stingy. All that we have are from God. Many times we can’t do as much as they expect because of the demands from various quarters. We have been our brothers’ keeper over the years
I was told you place so much premium on education in the diocese. To what extent have you gone in that regard in the diocese?
We have been supportive of the education of our members. We have had to increase our commitment to scholarship programmes. The women have had to increase the number of beneficiaries of education support to 250. Our archdeaconries have built schools. We have a school at Idimu that is doing very well. We had to even turn down the admission of some students in that school because we had enough. We encourage our priests to update themselves by going back to school to acquire more degrees if possible.
What do you have to say about the people working with you?
I am surrounded by good people and great elders who are quite supportive of the work we are doing. They have been quite supportive on their knees and even with their resources. All our administrators have been doing great. The legal team has been fantastic. My wife has always been there, ever supportive. She has been helping me to succeed. I appreciate the wives of the administrators. They have made a lot of sacrifices to make this 10th anniversary a reality. I thank all the priests for their support. I appreciate the media and all the staff of the diocese, all church workers. The congregation of all the churches in this diocese. They have been supportive in prayers. I have only been privileged to be at the supervising end of the diocese. I appreciate the children, the youth and guild of stewards, my chaplains, and all the people who are connected one way or the other to the diocese of Lagos West.
How many parishes are in the diocese now?
We have close to 400 parishes now. What is clear to me is that God is the one doing his work. We are not the ones. We are only there to fill in the gap. He works through us. It will be foolhardy for anybody to want to take credit for what God is doing. He does it seamlessly. What I do is submit to Him. I want to be seen to be doing my best. We are only just watching God do His work.
Going by the enormous work that God has used you to accomplish in the last ten years, what personal sacrifices have you made to get to this point?
I think it is simply God’s grace at work not about personal sacrifice. I was once in a meeting of about 10 bishops. One of the bishops who had about 50 priests under him said the work has not been easy. Another who had about 70 said the same thing. In that meeting, the Bishop who had the highest number of priests had 120 priests under him. But they were all complaining.
But they said I had about 300 priests under me, and wondered how I was coping. I told them the secret is I try to seek the good of all those working with me as God gives me grace. I show up in their time of joy. I also show up in their time of sorrow or difficulty. I give myself to them. So if any of them don’t want me to succeed I leave them to God. And God is the best man that can help everybody.
The personal sacrifice I have had to make is to support all those working with me. I go out of my way to seek their welfare. There was a time one of our priests and his wife had a terrible motor accident. And the hospital said they would need about N4.5 million to offset his medical bills. That day we were collecting virtually everybody’s ATM to raise that money. To God be the glory we were able to raise the money and they were both taken care of and discharged from the hospital.
Today the priest and his wife are doing well. There was another case of a priest that was sick and needed a drug that costs as much as N1 million. We could not get the drug in Ikeja. I had to drive to Lekki area at night in the rain from Ikeja even though I don’t like driving at night.
I am saying this to the glory of God and to also thank the diocese for the great support because that night we bought about four of the drugs which cost N1 million each. We have also tried as God helps us to make the welfare of our priests a priority. I have always maintained that it is better to have a befitting life than a befitting burial. Our treasurer Dr. Toyin Okeowo has been doing a fantastic job in that regard. I must commend him for that.
I had chaplains who were going to school. When they go to school, I had to manage myself because I was the one who asked them to go to school. In Lagos West even if you want to go to school the same year you were ordained, we give permission. I show love to my people not by pampering them but to see to their welfare. These are sacrifices that we have had to make. I try to show love as the Lord gives me grace.
What will you consider the greatest criticism of your person?
People want to know things about me but I am not keen on telling people what I do. I think a lot of people hold this against me. For instance, if I want to travel out of the country, I don’t tell people because I don’t want them to misconstrue my intention. Some may translate telling them to mean I want them to do me a favour. So when they accuse me I would tell them they should not be annoyed. But I won’t promise I won’t do it again.
I like to keep my journey to my chest. I don’t invite people to some of my personal events. When my son got married I did not tell people. I am still apologising for that to date. When we had Thanksgiving for our 10th anniversary only a handful of people were aware.
With all that God is doing for humanity, people still complain. If there is rain some people will complain while some will rejoice. Jesus had 12 disciples and still had Judas. There are many of our members who will ensure that I am part of the picking of the date for their events so that I can be at the event. But some people will give me two weeks’ notice for their event and they will expect me to be there. In that case, it may be difficult because I am already booked. I do not claim perfection. But the truth is that we can’t satisfy everybody.
Talking about temptation, how do you handle temptations that come with the office?
I tell my people that anybody can fall. The floor is always slippery. When you are walking you watch. You can’t get to a point where you will not be tempted. What I have done is to ensure that I don’t put myself in tempting positions. I discovered that the higher you go the more temptations you face. Most temptations at this stage of our career are to bring us down because a lot of people look up to us. For example as a man, it is only if you are in a wheelchair that you will not be tempted by women. But I try to be as practical as possible. For instance, if you are not a man, I won’t allow the door locked when you enter my office. Sometimes I call somebody to come and sit down with me when I am listening to the opposite sex to guide me against anything untoward.
But how do you find time to rest in the midst of the heavy work schedule?
I use the opportunity of events outside Lagos to rest. When I travel for events, I go like a day before the event so I can take time to rest and come a day after the event. I do that a lot. There are times I switch off my phone. But my wife’s phone is always on so that we don’t miss out on emergencies. God has also blessed me with the gift of good sleep. I listen to the news. I also take time to watch dramas that are educative.
What lessons have you learnt in the last ten years as Bishop?
The lessons are many. First, I have learnt it is good to depend on God. Many people felt we could not survive one year in the office, but depending on God has helped us to survive. I also learnt that the rich also cry and that Life is not all about money. I have learnt to be good to people and that there is no impossibility with God. I have also come to understand that there will be disappointment from people. But God has given us the spirit of discernment to know some of these things and also trust in Him.