Youth Minister to Congressman
U.S. Senator for Oklahoma, James Lankford, lives out his calling
U.S. Sen. for Oklahoma, James Lankford, served at the Oklahoma Baptist Convention as youth minister. Photo by Ryan West
Sitting around the dinner table with their mom, Linda, the two brothers browsed through the daily newspaper. Not once, not twice, but too many times to count. Skimming the daily news during dinner and picking a story to read was the norm. After reading an article, the two brothers would pick sides of a story and debate over solutions for a given issue. Also, at the dinner table was a decorative loaf of bread that contained Bible verses. Every day, the brothers would read a different passage of Scripture when they sat at the table.
“My mom was teaching us how to think critically, respect each other’s opinion and find solutions, all with a Christian-values foundation,” James Lankford said.
Linda was an elementary school librarian. Her dedication to education was evident in the home; it was no surprise that one of her sons developed the same passion.
“Growing up in a home with an educator, I learned to love the field of education early on,” Lankford said.
Linda did not know then but the traditions she was forming with her boys, such as reading newspaper articles to nurture their critical thinking skills, would be a foundation for leadership roles. Today, as United States Senator for Oklahoma, Lankford’s philosophy is to honor God, serve Oklahoma families and communities, and find suitable solutions for federal issues.
The First Call: Youth Ministry
Lankford was born in Dallas, Texas. His parents, James Wesley and Linda Joyce, divorced when he was four. His mom remarried when he was 12. The family later moved to Garland, Texas, where Lankford attended Lakeview Centennial High School. It was in high school that he developed a friendship with Cindy who later became his beloved wife when the couple married in 1992. Lankford attended the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a degree in secondary education with specializations in speech and history. While in college, he became the youth pastor at First Baptist Church in Pflugerville, Texas, and realized a passion for working with students. He pursued a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, where he studied biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek. While in seminary, Lankford joined the Baptist General Convention of Texas and began helping churches with youth ministry needs.
“I realized then how much I love helping people and being around students,” he said.
After praying with his wife, Cindy, the couple approached the Oklahoma Baptist Convention about Lankford moving to a similar position in Oklahoma. On April 19, 1995, Lankford recalls packing up his apartment in Fort Worth to move to Oklahoma as he watched the news of the devastating bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In 1995, the couple’s first daughter, Hannah, was born; their second daughter, Jordan, was born in 2000.
From 1996 to 2009, Lankford worked for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma as a youth minister. During that time he also became director of youth programming at Falls Creek, one of the largest youth camps in the U.S., with more than 50,000 young people attending each summer. Lankford served on a few occasions as interim youth pastor and helped train youth pastors for ministry.
“I served for 22 years in ministry, and I absolutely loved it. My greatest joy is to help people,” he said. “There was no connection to politics and no political work at all during this time.”
When Lankford heard the call to serve in public office, he was dumbfounded. He calls his transition to public office ‘life’s greatest interruption.’
The Second Call: United States Congress
The year was 2008 when Lankford first heard the call to run for Congress. The words were “get ready.” While he couldn’t specifically figure out the ‘get ready,’ he continued reading scripture and spending time in prayer. By the end of 2008, the words ‘get ready’ were louder.
“I thought I would be in ministry my whole life. I couldn’t understand why I was being called to Congress,” Lankford said. “I kept thinking to myself ‘Will I be old one day and have to tell my grandchildren about not following God’s will? I have to do this.’ I needed to trust in God’s leadership.”
In September 2009, Lankford resigned from this post as director of Falls Creek to pursue a political campaign. He began holding meetings and securing volunteers to help him in his new pursuit. He was humbled by the number of volunteers who were willing to help. While he had no experience running for office, Lankford modeled his campaign after the campaign of former Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon. In 2010, he won the election for the U.S. House of Representatives by 65%. He served in this role from January 2011 to January 2015 representing Oklahoma’s 5th congressional district. In a November 2014 special election, Lankford was elected to fill the unexpired portion of a term left vacant by the resignation of Sen. Tom Coburn. Lankford was reelected in 2016 for the term ending January 3, 2023.
Lankford learned early on to give his best to any task or endeavor he tackled, no matter the circumstances or the occupation.
“My Christian-based belief is that you give your best to serve God and your neighbors in whatever profession you have. I was serving in youth ministry, and I continue to serve now in Congress,” Lankford said. “The heart of ministry didn’t leave me. My goal is to be the best possible representative that I can for Oklahoma.”
His greatest challenge as a legislator is to push for the implementation of solutions rather than to just talk about problems.
“The main challenge is to get everyone talking about the same issue and agree that right now is the time to solve it,” Lankford said. “Many want to talk about problems, but not solve it. Many issues don’t have a deadline for solving them, but we need to push through to find and implement solutions.”
Lankford has been a supporter of Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives in their mission to deliver safe, reliable and affordable electricity. He believes electric generation, transmission and distribution should be managed locally.
“The use of fuel sources to generate electricity should be decided locally in a manner that is efficient,” Lankford said.
“Thanks to electric cooperatives, sparsely populated areas in our country are all electrified, enabling rural America to take advantage of technology and connect us to the rest of the world.”
The senator is also a strong supporter of the international electrification cause. He endorses Oklahoma’s electric cooperatives’-sponsored projects to bring first-time access to electricity to areas in developing nations that still lack this essential service.
“We appreciate Sen. Lankford’s support of electric cooperatives in Oklahoma and his encouragement to volunteer linemen who are leaving their homes for an extended period of time to empower communities in other nations,” Chris Meyers, general manager at the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, said.
At the end of the day, what matters to Lankford is that people are being helped. He says the path from youth pastor to U.S. senator is not the normal route for Congress, but it was the route God set for him. He is grateful he answered the call.