James Lankford: Defining a call


Oklahoma Baptist Sen. James Lankford has served in Washington, DC since 2015. His current term expires in 2023. JOE WESTBURY/Index

This is the second of a two-part story on Senator James Lankford whose roots are deep in Southern Baptist life. For 15 years he served as director of youth ministry for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and director of Falls Creek Baptist Assembly. He was elected to Congress in 2015. In this installment his shares his faith walk with members of the Baptist Communicators Association during their April meeting in the nation’s capital.

WASHINGTON, DC — Life is full of surprises and detours that rearrange the best-laid plans.

Perhaps no one is better prepared to understand that adage than Oklahoma Senator James Lankford and Cindy, his wife of 26 years. For 15 years before his Washington sojourn he enjoyed what he describes as his dream job.

“What youth pastor would not want to serve as director of youth ministries for a state convention and for the nation’s largest youth conference center,” he told the group. But, as he outlined his and Cindy’s detour, God had other plans … and  what they have come to refer to as “Life’s greatest interruption.”

The couple’s story begins in 2008 with what Lankford said was an uneasy feeling for him and Cindy regarding their future.

James Lankford is the junior senator from Oklahoma. He was first elected to Congress in 2015. JOE WESTBURY/Index

“I really can’t explain it other than saying we were sensing that God was telling us to get ready. There are seasons like that when, every time you are in church or in your quiet time, the Holy Spirit is saying the same thing on both occasions.

“For six months we lived in a state of ‘get ready.’ It was exciting for the first month and then for the next five months it was very unsettling,’ he said with a light chuckle.

Lankford noted that he and Cindy had shared the sense of leading on several occasions, which he described as “this sense of get ready, get ready, get ready.” But he said they did not have any sense of what they were getting ready for.

Then something happened late one September night while driving home through the dark Oklahoma landscape. He had spent the morning working at a See You at The Pole rally in Okmulgee and spent the rest of the day working with youth pastors. After a long day of work he slipped into his car and, with the radio off, began his two-hour “gripe session with God.”

As the miles slipped by, with nothing but the sound of the tires on the road and the wind passing over the vehicle, he detailed his frustration and the lack of response to his and Cindy’s obedience.

“I told Him, ‘I’ve been faithful to you for 20 years and I have been listening to your voice for these past several months but I cannot figure out what You are trying to say,” he continues.

When he arrived home he turned on the computer in his study and began to review the day’s news stories before going to bed. For no reason a story caught his eye about his and Cindy’s congresswoman, Mary Fallin, who was considering running for governor two years hence.

“That was September 2008 and she was running for immediate reelection in three months in November. The story was just speculation but that’s when the Spirit of God poked me in the chest and said, ‘That’s what I want you to do.’

It was so crystal clear, he explains … not audible but loud.

“I remember leaning back in my chair and thinking ‘God, that’s insane. It’s not even possible.’ I got up and went to bed and didn’t say much to Cindy, which was very unusual.”

Three days later he returned to his study and decided, just out curiosity, to explore the district’s boundaries. That’s when Cindy walked in, looked over his shoulder, and asked what he was looking at.

“I said, ‘county statistics.’ And I thought to myself that I had no idea how to answer the next question. She stood there a long time looking over my shoulder and said, ‘We’re about ready to run for Congress, aren’t we?’ And I said, ‘What makes you say that?’

Cindy replied, “I don’t know; I just have a feeling.”

Lankford said that his listeners would have to know his wife in that setting because she, like him, “was completely apolitical.” He added that he had never been involved in politics; the most he and Cindy had ever done was attend a Town Hall meeting seven years earlier. In high school he was involved in speech and debate and was an avid reader of newspapers to stay current, but he never so much as ran for student council.

“I told her what God had said to me and we committed for a month to pray about it. I honestly thought this was going to be an Abraham and Isaac moment where God was going to test us and see if we were faithful and then get to Mount Moriah and say He was just kidding.

“But after a month He said, “Follow Me.’ And that month for us became seven months and by the end of seven months it was now at the end of March 2009 and Mary had announced her bid for governor. Three other people had already announced they were running for her seat and we were still praying about it,” he said.

Then another event occurred that he remembers very well.

“I remember leaving church one day and telling Cindy that I’m going to be an old man some day and I don’t want to tell my grandchildren about the time that I did not follow God.

Prior to his election Lankford served for 15 years as the Oklahoma student ministries and evangelism specialist and director of Falls Creek Baptist Assembly. JOE WESTBURY/Index

"I had lunch with Anthony Jordan, executive director for the Oklahoma Convention, and told him about our decision and resigned that fall from the convention and Falls Creek and began the race."

In the 2010 race he finished first in a seven-way Republican primary and defeated State Representative Kevin Calvey in the run-off. Then, in a surprise upset, he routed Democrat Billy Coyle in the general election, winning with 62.53 percent of the popular vote. Two years later he defeated Democrat Tom Guild with 59 percent of the votes.

In November 2014 he won a seat in the U.S. Senate in a special election to fill the unexpired portion of the term vacated by the resignation of Tom Coburn. Lankford was reelected in 2016 for the term ending January 3, 2023.

Today he serves on four committees: Intelligence Committee, Appropriations Committee, Homeland Security Committee, and the Indian Affairs Committee due to the 39 tribes which, he noted, “are very active in Oklahoma.” In addition to those responsibilities he still finds time to be stretched spiritually with fellow elected officials.

He enjoys a six-member, Tuesday morning bipartisan Bible study. He says the group recently spent 18  months going through the Sermon on the Mount and two years going through the book of Philippians. On Wednesday mornings he can be found in a 30-minute bipartisan group of about 20 senators who meet for a prayer meeting, an event that began in the Eisenhower Administration.

‘It’s for senators only and is where we come and discuss our spiritual journeys and how we deal with faith issues,” he explains.

Today he and Cindy live in Edmond with their two daughters – one who is in high school and the other in college. The Southwestern Seminary graduate enjoys his new calling but admits it was hard to leave his position with Oklahoma Baptists … especially his youth work at Falls Creek.

“It was the dream job for anyone in youth ministry – the opportunity to be able to direct the nation’s largest youth camp. Each summer the camp hosts 51,000 guests. To put that in perspective, the International Mission Board reports that Falls Creek is the number one place where missionaries say they made their profession of faith or received their call to ministry.

“That’s why I say that where I find myself today is so unbelievable because we were already in our dream job,” he states.

At the end of the meeting with the Baptist Communicators Lankford answered a few questions. Among those were:

Balancing family and work

It’s an ongoing challenge to balance family and work. There is really no difference between what I am doing and if I was a fulltime evangelist. I’m on the road all the time; I get on a plane every Monday and return home every Thursday night. Cindy and I and our girls try to balance out the week by using FaceTime to stay in touch.

Balancing faith with the demands of secular life

I try to remind people that your faith is the faith that you carry with you all the time. There are some back home who tell me that I’m not a minister anymore, that I am in a secular position so I  can take it off. I respond by saying that Constitutionally I am not required to do that (separate my faith from my government position) because in America we have free exercise of religion.

We also have Article 6 which specifically allows elected officials to live out their faith.

Your faith is your faith and it affects your whole life. If faith is only something that you do on weekends, that’s not called faith, it’s called a hobby. Hobbies are what you do on weekends. Faith permeates everything, so for me to be able to bring it to Washington is just being normal.

I still feel I have a responsibility for evangelism and ministry because this is the spot where God has placed Cindy and me. But you can’t be effective in that area if you’re not good at your day job. If all I do is preach all the time, no one is going to listen to me. So, I better be the best legislator on the Hill so I can earn the right to be heard in spiritual matters.

Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, Falls Creek Baptist Assembly, James Lankford