Obedience, sacrifice, service and a determined willingness to stand up for the gospel characterize Latter-day Saints living in the city wards and rural branches of the Tulsa Oklahoma Stake.
Located in the northeastern part of the state and extending up into Kansas, the stake covers about 7,000 square miles. It has nearly 3,000 members in five wards - located in Tulsa, Bartlesville and Sapulpa - and six branches in outlying communities, including three in southern Kansas."We are a stake with a lot of faithful, strong members of the Church," said Pres. Michael Lynn Southward. "One of the blessings of this calling is to be able to see the wonderful, dedicated Saints in the different areas of the stake. Many of them travel many miles to attend Church and fulfill their callings, and we're grateful for their willingness to sacrifice."
Pres. Southward is no stranger to sacrifice and travel himself, logging about 30,000 miles a year, meeting his Church responsibilities. "We try and go to the members as much as possible," he noted. "We conduct temple recommend interviews at the wards and branches so people don't have to travel as far."
The stake also conducts its meetings and major activities - including separate sessions of stake conference - in both Tulsa and Bartlesville, its two population centers, located 50 miles apart.
To help encourage temple attendance among its members, the stake also conducts temple excursions to the Dallas Texas Temple every other month, chartering a bus for the six-hour trip.
"This has helped those who haven't had the opportunity to go or who can't drive themselves," Pres. Southward said. "One of the great blessings to the stake has been the Dallas temple. We originally were in the Salt Lake Temple District, then the Jordan River Temple. Having a temple as close as Dallas has been a great blessing."
He explained that though missionary work has been slow but steady, the overall population of the stake has remained constant due to people leaving the area because of economic challenges facing the oil industry.
Besides oil-based industries, the region's economy is supported primarily by ranching, government, small businesses and a strong state university system.
"We have the headquarters of Phillips Petroleum located in Bartlesville in our stake, which has been a blessing due to jobs provided and also a challenge due to downsizing and restructuring during the last few years."
Pres. Southward noted at the Bristow Branch conference earlier this year that at the 1994 branch conference there wasn't a choir. "We asked that everyone who had ever sang in a quartet or ever heard a choir to stand," he said. "We got everyone standing, then asked them to support a choir and to have one ready for the next branch conference. They organized a choir and did a great job. The members are very obedient to the things they are asked to do."
According to Clyde Jensen, a member of the stake high council, most people who live in the rural branches are there to stay. "They are there because they love the area and its quiet lifestyle," he said following the branch conference in Bristow. "I couldn't help but think as I watched those young people stand up with the choir to sing that many of them are in that branch because their parents wanted a good, wholesome place to raise them. They have made a conscious decision to live in the rural areas to provide a more wholesome environment for their children."
He noted, however, that sometimes in the smaller communities there is more controversy surrounding the Church than in the urban areas. Leaders of other denominations occasionally feel threatened by the missionary effort of the Church, he explained. Those misunderstandings are often resolved through patient, sincere and exemplary efforts of the members, strengthening themselves and their communities in the process, according to priesthood leaders.
Pres. Clifford N. Siegrist of the Bristow Branch and Pres. Lloyd Hammock of the Cleveland Branch are two examples of dedicated leaders who are relatively recent converts with a great love for their people.
Pres. Siegrist was baptized Nov. 3, 1988, and was called as branch president in 1989. He has served in that position since that time. The manager of a local boiler manufacturing plant, he lives five miles north of town and like many others travels extensively to fill his assignment.
Membership of the Bristow Branch is just over 100, with about 35 to 40 attending on average in the rented building in which they meet.
"We are a very close-knit unit, and there's a lot of love and fellowship here," he said. "We do have property for a building and look forward to having one here someday.
"We have some very strong youth in this branch. They stick together, and most of them are the only Church members in their schools. As small as we are, we are still going to send out missionaries in the near future."
Pres. Hammock joined the Church in January 1986 and lives about 30 minutes from the meetinghouse in Cleveland. The Cleveland Branch is larger than Bristow, with a membership of 235 and average sacrament meeting attendance of 85.
"We cover a lot of area," he said. "Our home teaching assignments are kind of spread out, and we are lacking in priesthood in certain areas, but we have a great spirit in this branch. There always has been. That's one of the things that brought me into the Church.
"We have a lot of challenges being in a branch. We don't have quite enough personnel to fill all of the callings. I had four callings just prior to becoming branch president, and others have multiple callings. You have one group that is willing to do everything, who you can always rely on. We have plenty of work for everybody."
Pres. Hammock added that he is especially proud of the branch's youth, who perform much valuable service. "Our youth take care of the music, playing the piano and leading the singing in sacrament meeting. We try and involve our youth in everything we can during our meetings. They do a wonderful job, and you can always count on them. They also get involved in many service projects and different worthwhile activities. We've got some great young leaders coming up."
Be it in Bristow, Cleveland or the other four branches of the stake - in Pawhuska; and in Coffeyville, Independence and Sedan, Kansas - there is always plenty to do.
Brother Jensen summarized: "You stay pretty busy in a branch."