“Thank you, young man. You don’t need to come back.”
For some, that kind of comment after their first Sunday as a pastor would be discouraging. But Max Colaw, OKWU’s 2023 Alumnus of the Year, took it in stride.
“I don’t know if you’ll be here next week or not,” he said, “but I will be.”
Colaw was 19 at the time, a sophomore at what was then Central Pilgrim College. The church he had been asked to pastor in Newkirk, Oklahoma, had been closed before his first Sunday there. On Colaw’s first Sunday in 1964, one family attended, and they didn’t give a ringing endorsement.
But, true to his word, Colaw returned the following Sunday and many Sundays after. Colaw invested in the community, knocking on doors and inviting people to attend church on Sunday, and eventually, their average attendance reached the 30s.
“It was an interesting but very good experience for me,” Colaw said. “I was able to learn a lot in that time that I could apply to ministry. It made real what we were learning in class.”
Colaw was at the church for about a year before transferring to a college in Oklahoma City. At the time, Central Pilgrim was not fully accredited, so he finished his degree program elsewhere.
The Call to Ministry
Shortly into his first semester at his new school, Colaw received another call from the district superintendent, who happened to be his father, Rev. C.B. Colaw. Another church was without a pastor – this time in Enid, Oklahoma. Colaw accepted the position, and for the next two and a half years, he pastored that church while attending school in Oklahoma City. It was a round trip of 180 miles, and on his first Sunday there, Colaw had to pick the lock to get in because there was no one there to meet him when he arrived.
These early experiences are examples of the kind of servant that Colaw was and continues to be for his church. He was always willing to say “yes” to the Lord’s leading and the district’s leadership. It wasn’t always an easy thing for him, however. He learned an important lesson from Dr. Oscar Reed, his counselor at Bethany, where Colaw finished his degree.
“One of his favorite phrases, which has stuck with me for a long time, was ‘Max, remember to be patient. Time is on your side.’ As a young person, you can rush too often. I have found that advice very helpful along the way.”
Eventually, the Pilgrim Holiness Church in Enid merged with the Wesleyan Methodist Church following the denominational merger of the two churches. Colaw began working on his Master’s in Oklahoma City and took a job as the youth pastor at May Avenue Wesleyan Church.
In February of 1970, Colaw received a phone call from the Wesleyan church in Enid, which had been searching for a pastor for several months. They offered the pastoral position to Colaw, who accepted it after prayerful consideration. At the end of March, Colaw, his wife Ruth Ann, and their newborn son moved to Enid. Little did he know that he would remain there for 21 years.
The church in Enid grew during this time, and Colaw oversaw a new building and church relocation. Colaw and his family dug deep roots in Enid. He was elected to the local school board and served as the Western Area Director for the Department of Youth for the Wesleyan Church for a term and served on the District Board of Administration in various capacities.
“The Lord blessed our work and ministry along the way,” Colaw said. “We had some good growth during that time.”
In God’s Timing
In 1990, while serving on the district board, Colaw was nominated for the district superintendent position that was opening up. The timing was not ideal, at least in Colaw’s eyes.
“We had just expanded our parking, the church was growing, and I didn’t feel that was my gift.”
But over the next several days, Colaw felt the Lord speaking to him through his devotional time. Eventually, he accepted the nomination and was elected as the district superintendent. Colaw and his family moved to Bartlesville in 1990. He would serve the district for 29 years before retiring in 2019.
In a way, the return to Bartlesville was a poetic completion of a circle that had begun years ago when Colaw was a student, first at Central Pilgrim High School and then at Central Pilgrim College for two years. Colaw had served as the alumni president and on the OKWU Board of Trustees beginning in 1988, a position he continues to hold. Colaw was with his father when they first visited what would become the campus of Central Pilgrim College, so his roots in the university are deep. He met his wife at the college, and their four children and their spouses all graduated from OKWU. After moving back to Bartlesville, Ruth Ann also completed her degree at OKWU.
“We have a great respect for the university,” he said. “I believe that not only do you get a good education here, but the relationships you build with other students that become lifelong relationships are very valuable.”
For a Lifetime
Colaw recalls with fondness the time he spent as a student. He sang in the CPC Singers, a choir that toured churches in the western part of the United States.
“To be in the choir was an honor,” he said. “We had the opportunity to visit many churches and see so much of the US that we had never seen.”
He is proud to continue his involvement at OKWU as a member of the board of trustees.
“It’s exciting to hear from the president, the administration, the stories of the students and their lives being changed and the impact they are making as they go out into the world.”
Being named the Alumnus of the Year was a surprise to Colaw, who has never sought recognition throughout his career.
“It’s interesting that, as the doors opened along the way, I never pursued any of them. I never put out a resume.” Still, the opportunities kept coming.
“I wanted to be obedient to the Lord.”
His obedience has borne fruit throughout the Wesleyan church and continues to as he serves in advisory roles for the district still.
“We have so many great graduates from the university here,” he said, “and I am honored to be selected. I certainly want to do it justice.”
The Alumnus of the Year is an award recognizing an alumnus who advances the Kingdom of God through noteworthy, long-term accomplishments in professional endeavors, significant service to the church, and a positive impact on the lives of others. Colaw and the other Alumni Award winners will be honored at Homecoming 2023.