Creative Leadership

Oral Roberts and Me: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It

What can you say about Oral Roberts?  Kathleen and I actually graduated from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa in the mid-70’s.  At the time, Oral produced the most successful weekly religious program in the country – “Oral Roberts and You” – and the vast audience he reached has never been reached by a media ministry since.  He became known nationally when his crusade meetings were so popular, he had to build a custom designed tent to seat the growing crowds.  In the 1940’s few public buildings could hold an audience of that size.  He went on to found the university that bears his name.

I actually first met Oral in the rest room of a Tulsa movie theater. I had taken freshman Kathleen Paille (now Cooke) on a date to see Omar Sharif and Julie Andrews in “The Tamarind Seed” and ducked into the restroom before the movie started.  Looking over, Oral was at the urinal right next to me.  Horrified, I introduced myself and asked what he was doing at the movie.  “We love movies,” he told me.  “I prefer Westerns, but Evelyn likes romances.”  I always found it somehow ironic that our first meeting took place at a urinal.

Later, as a sophomore, I started working as a grip on Oral’s prime time specials that started broadcasting on NBC.  At that time, he featured major stars of the time, and was drawing enormous audiences.  I worked my way up and eventually began directing the programs, and traveled around the world producing & directing projects for the ministry.  Over those years, I spent a lot of time with him and learned a lot.  But here’s 10 things I remember about Oral that you won’t find in a newspaper tribute:

1.  Oral hated “yes men.”  No sucking up.  If you didn’t believe passionately in your position, he wasn’t interested in you.  I discovered he loved to debate ideas, so early on, I dug in and learned to stand up for myself.  We got into some pretty combative arguments, but he loved the exchanges, and it forced me to get my act together and know my stuff.  You never wanted to be embarrassed by Oral.

2.  He loved to learn.  He would read a couple of daily newspapers every day, weekly newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek, as well as the top bestselling books every month.  While he read everything, he was a great fan of cowboy novels, and loved Western writer Louis L’amour.  He was a brilliant thinker and could discuss politics, sports, theology, movies – anything.

3.  His favorite quote was “Make No Small Plans Here.”  He had it inscribed on a plaque on his desk.  Oral was a big thinker.  The university that bears his name is a great example.

4.  When it came to his presence onstage, he may have been the greatest preacher of his generation.  If you ever get the opportunity to hear his classic “The Fourth Man,” it’s a powerful experience.  He understood the power of words, and how to use his voice to hold an audience spellbound.  Today, in an age where the mantra for preachers is: “casual is cool,” it’s refreshing to go back and listen to a master of the craft.

5.  He had an incredible gift for understanding television.  Early on, he realized the power of the close up, and was brilliant at connecting with an audience.  He taught me the importance of audience shots and the role they play in telling the story of a sermon.  His ideas formed my TV directing style as much as any professional teacher I’ve ever had.

6.  He was perfectly at home on the stage, and yet often very uncomfortable around people.  I’ve rarely seen someone so relaxed in front of 15,000 people, and yet he would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid casually meeting people in a hallway.

7.  Like all of us, Oral was far from perfect.  Some of his grandiose dreams like the City of Faith Hospital were never fully realized, he could be harsh with his own family, and he never really understood the concept of public relations.  For all his mastery of media, he too often failed to realize the power of perception.  Many of the blunders that cost him a great deal of public support were created because he assumed that whatever he felt God was calling him to do, he could just blurt out on national television.  I could never make him realize that what seems perfectly normal in private, can sometimes look crazy on national TV.

8.  His legacy has too often been abused by uneducated, shallow, greedy pastors and ministry leaders.  His idea of “seed faith” revolutionized how people understood giving to God.  It opened the door to funding some of the great ministry projects of the last 70 years.  However, too many “teachers” saw it as a chance to get rich quick, and have taken it to the extreme.  As a result, Christian media is rife with aberrant prosperity teaching, “giving to get,” and what I call “Jesus Junk.”  Even Oral was pulled into some of that later in his ministry.  But his central tenet of seed faith – of viewing your gift as a seed that God will grow into something significant, is a powerful – and Biblical – idea.

9.  Oral’s greatest compliment to me came one day when he called me up to his house.  He said, “I need to tell you that you’re more creative than anyone I’ve ever worked with. When I’m at the ministry offices, everyone there is focused on what we CAN’T do.  They have a million reasons why my ideas won’t work.  But when I’m with you, it’s all about what we CAN do.  When we create TV programs together, I have more creative freedom than I have anywhere else in the organization.”  It wasn’t like Oral to say that.  It was out of the blue, and I was stunned.  His wife Evelyn chimed in and said, “Phil, you’d better pay attention.  He doesn’t talk like that very often.”  It was a humbling experience and I never forgot that conversation.

10.  Our biggest fight was in a farmer’s field in Kenya.  We had been filming a mission project in the searing heat near the equator.  In those days, even portable video cameras were big, and I was lugging  it around shooting segments with Oral in a village, and in the plowed field surrounding it.  Hour after hour we filmed, and finally Oral had enough.  He looked at me in the eye and said, “I can’t do it anymore.  I’m done.”  He was in his late 60’s then, and I could see the sweat through his shirt, and his mouth was so parched, he could hardly speak.  But I knew we had one more segment to film, so I stood my ground.  “Oral, we have to finish,” I barked back.  “Nope, it’s over,” he grumbled.  I blocked his way out of the field, and it started to get ugly.  His wife Evelyn stepped between us and said, “Boys, let’s not argue here.  We can work this out.”  We stared at each other.  I finally said, “Listen Oral, we only have one more segment.  I know you’re tired, but I’ve been carrying around this camera all day, and if I can do it, YOU can do it.

There was an awkward pause.  He saw that I was soaked in sweat and exhausted.  He took the challenge.  Finally, he said, “OK. If YOU can do it, I can do it.”

We finished the shoot and went home.  Earlier in the day, someone took a photo of Oral and I together in front of a village hut, and I had it framed.  Oral asked to sign it, and he wrote on the picture: “If YOU can do it, I can do it.
– Your friend, Oral Roberts 1988.”

It still hangs in my office today.

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  1. Great memories Phil! You were very blessed to spend so much time with him- and he was blessed to have your talents!  I’m glad you left though, cause then I got my turn. :))  Just a couple of years with him, but I do see so much of what you mentioned is absolutely accurate.

    #4 I so agree with that one.  This is what I remember him most for.  He really impressed on me the importance of using the RIGHT word.  I remember sitting with him backstage in Tacoma, WA where he had just finished preaching at a local church.  He was just sitting there, when the pastor walked in.  The first thing he said to the pastor was,  ‘did you hear that?  God’s hand is not DIMINISHED.” (from the scripture “God’s hand is not shortened”) Then he just grinned.  Like that one word was everything to him.  That really impressed me, ONE WORD- the ONE PERFECT WORD, makes all the difference in communication… and his insistance that communication is not just saying words, but when the hearer actually understands what you are saying.

    And #1, He did love a spirited, friendly debate. He liked being backed into corners then finding his way out.  When I was a student, he used to sit at my workstudy desk in Athletics and try to start a debate with me on theogy.  I was grossly grossly grossly (times infinity) overmatched, but he knew I was raised in Word of Faith and would dig around until he said something I’d argue about.  As busy as he was, there he’d sit trying to stir up a discussion just for entertainment.   If I made a point (very very rarely) he’d stand up and say, ‘well, write it up and i’ll take a closer look at it.’  Of course, he knew I’d never presume to do that- it was his way of teasing.

    I was on the end of #7 too many times. 🙂  But, about 3 months before Evelyn died, I visited him in his Newport home, and at the end of the visit Eveyln apologized for him while he stood there grinning.  She said, “Raven, Oral was really hard on you sometimes.  And he shouldn’t have been.  But, he loves you like one of his own.  He always told me how much he loved talking with you about the Bible.” (So, that was his version to Eveyln ‘talking about the Bible!”) That was really precious to me…  but he could be very unreasonable, very blunt, and even (gasp) overly self-focused, at times!

    Fortunately, I was on the end of #9 too.  My greatest compliment ever was from him.  I had written him a letter to which he replied- “Raven, you are a good writer.”  Of course, I am not a writer- I write things but I am certainly not a writer.  What he meant was that in that letter I used the right words and “communicated” with him in a way he really understood.  To me, it meant I had learned something from the master.

    THANK YOU FOR SHARING PHIL!  I love reading the personal stories…not so much about the urinal (ha)… but I love the pic!






  2. Phil – thanks for sharing these stories.  It’s good to hear this side of the life of Oral Roberts.  I am also grateful for the opportunity I had to work with this great man of faith.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you.  What an amazing tribute to an amazing man.  So many have taken part of who Oral was and perverted it to make him seem different from who he really was.  This puts it all in perspective.  You are blessed to have been able to see the “many sides” of him and help the rest of us know it too.  I was so blessed to be a student at ORU.  As a baby Christian I grew and developed there in a fertile environment.  It was his Holy Spirit in the Now class and his books, like the one on Seed Faith, that formed the foundation of my devotion to truth and following after His calling on my life.  I appreciate your sharing.

  4. Phil, I worked alongside you while I was a student at ORU, but I only knew Oral from a distance.  Thanks for sharing your heart and experiences.  Oral has always had a profound influence on my life and your post is a wonderful way for me to remember him.  Thank also to Roy for forwarding me this URL.

  5. Great post! I remember being in the back hallway of Christ’s Chapel at ORU and Oral came in from the garage by himself and it was just he and I in the hallway and I said, “Hello President Roberts” and his rather awkward reply was, “God bless you son”. Well, for what it’s worth – HE always has.

    Oral was one of the most forward thinking men of the last 50 years and his ability to communicate an idea is unmatched.

  6. Phil,

    This tribute was both beautiful and inspiring.  Thanks for sharing your personal history with Oral.  His legacy is great and my experiences with Oral and ORU are richer because of your tribute today.


  7. I worked at the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association during the early to mid 80’s and was Oral’s still photographer. One thing is for sure, he made me a better and more efficient photographer. He had zero patience for taking posed pictures although if he was preaching you could take as many as you wanted. 

    When I was first hired I was accustomed to shooting a lot of different shots when it came to the posed situations. You know, “Lift your chin, turn your head this way, look to the left, etc…” until we got something good. When I was just hired Oral put up with it for a few times until once he bellowed, “I’m not going to stand here and let you take my picture all day!” He then got up and walked off the set. 

    The next time I was nervous about what he was going to do and it seems he decided that a photographer should be able to get the job done in three shots. So then after the third shot he would smile and walk off set. I really sweated getting the film processed because you never knew if his eyes would be blinking or what in the pictures until you got them back. But I learned to always be prepared, and to pretend like it if you weren’t. He just wasn’t going to let anyone eat up his valuable time if they didn’t have their act together.

    I will never forget when I was hired and met with Oral in Baby Mabee and he looked me in the eyes and shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the fire!” 

  8. Thank you Phil.  Your experience with Oral gives a unique perspective to the man behind the ministry.  I have an audio recording of The Fourth Man my dad recorded in the 50s.  It is a classic!

  9. Phil,

    Thanks for that window.  I attended ORU but I never met Oral outside of a group of more than 50 people or so.  So, even though I attended the university, my knowledge of him was more of the images I saw through media and in large groups like chapel and those images were mixed although mostly positive.

    Since leaving ORU, I’ve gone through some pretty significant changes in view to where I describe myself now as more post-evangelical.  I saw many of the abuses that you speak of in the realm of seed-faith and I overall see the teaching in that light today, but you’re right, there is a spiritual principle there that is Biblical.

    I’m glad you put this up.  It puts some touchpoints to some elements that I never saw.


  10. Phil, what great post. So many similar memories of a great man and profound influence in my own life. One additional saying Oral always said to me when I was working there was, “remember, the ONLY constant thing around here is change!” And we did change – constantly. Thanks for your great story.

  11. I grew up in Bixby, a suburb of Tulsa where ORU is located.  I remember my Mother always said this about Oral Roberts:  “At least he has a university with his name it”  She was saying that of all the tele-evangelists raising money, he had something concrete to show that he invested in.  

    I had the privilege to work for his great-nephew after I graduated from college.  Mark’s dad Bill spent much of his life building the buildings at ORU.  The Roberts’ character traits run deep.  I too learned much from those and am a better person for the experience today.  

    Thanks for sharing your feelings and thoughts about Oral Roberts.  He was a good man with a good heart.

  12. Thanks for the post, Phil.  Oral Roberts lived what he preached. I had a wonderful conversation with him over three years ago in which he related how he refused to take a salary after retiring from the university. Instead, he lived by the principles of seed faith and God met his needs.

  13. Phil,

    Thanks for this insightful first-person account. Especially appreciate your including points 6 and 7 about the less than perfect side of the man. As these pioneers pass from the scene, I think it’s important that we neither demonize nor canonize them.


  14. Phil,

    Thanks for taking the time to share these insights, and the view into your relationship with Oral. I’m amazed at the scores of us that were so profoundly influenced by the opportunities afforded through Oral’s television ministry… and by one P. Cook.

  15. Well, I don’t have many memories of Oral Roberts, but I did have a slightly amusing, somewhat related anecdote, if you’ll forgive me.

    I met my 2 favorite college professors for the first time at a Stryper concert at the Kellog arena.  Quentin Schultze and William David Romanowski had a profound affect on my thinking and learning during my 4 years at Calvin College, and I still have contact with both of them to this day.

    I can relate, a very little, with Phil’s stories of Oral.

  16. Hi Phil,

    Thanks for sharing about your personal journey with Oral – I heard you speak at the CMA conference a couple of years ago at the Gold Coast, Australia.  I’m pleasantly surprised that your wife and yourself are ORU grads just like me. Keep up the good work! God is using you in incredible ways, just like Oral dreamed for us all.

    Sherina ’95

  17. He was an amazing man. How his seed faith teaching became so warped and confused over the years, I’ll never know. It was a wonderful, liberating thing in the beginning. Simply put, it was that by not being willing to give, you block God from blessing you. To get blessings from God, you must give to others, including the ministries from which you benefit. How could anything be clearer?

    Roberts teaching, particularly in the beginning, dwelled on the giving, not the getting. He always talked about the positive (Expect a Miracle, Educate the Whole Man) not the negative. And, I loved him for that.

    Somehow it has gotten warped to the point that there are those who teach that Christians have a right to riches. They actually encourage Christians to go into debt. You might have seen the December issue of The Atlantic magazine, released before his death, which in a cover story basically blames Oral and his teachings for the current economic downturn in the U.S. Rediculous!!

    What many people forget is that he was very conservative about debt. Like you, Phil, I worked for ORU for several years and I remember how he constantly stressed that everything should be done “debt free”. How many times did he stress that the City of Faith hospital would be built debt free. I worked as the sports publicist in the athletic department and I remember one time I was trying to figure out a way to get more money than was in the budget to do a special media guide for the women’s basketball team. I put together a proposal to get a vendor to publish the guide on the promise of future business from the department. I had no idea the proposal was going that high, but back it came with a note from Oral in the margin. “Sounds too much like a debt to me. Think of something else.” I did.

  18. Thank you for your warm tribute to Oral.  I first met him in 1967 when I was a freshman at ORU.  And I agree with you that his sermons were some of the most powerful I’ve ever heard.  His “Fourth Man” and “Christ Through the Bible” still resonate in my spirit.  He had a way of communicating the Gospel that I believe was only matched by the late Peter Marshall–they were both craftsmen of the spoken word.

    What I remember about him was his impatience with the wasting of his time.  When you flew with him, you made sure you were on the plane before he arrived, because as soon as he got on the plane it took off, and if you weren’t there you’d have to find your own way home.  Once in San Antonio, it was a close call who was flying out of the airport first, Oral or the President.  That’s one time Bob DeWeese didn’t follow orders, or we might have been shot down!

    Yes, his legacy is what he did with Seed Faith, television, and bringing the work of the Holy Spirit to the forefront.  But I feel his greatest legacy is the founding of the university, and his call to its graduates to “go into every man’s world”.  And that’s just what we’ve done!

  19. I just found this article after reading another one you had written. I went to ORU for my M. Div, and was there during some rather tumultuous times. I was ridiculed for being there, but stayed nonetheless, and a big part of my staying was Oral himself. I never met him personally, but admired him from afar. I did happen to see him at the track one day, he and Evelyn were walking together. His kindness toward all of us was overwhelming. He took time to great each one as they stopped him. He was a great man. Thank you for an insightful tribute to him. 

  20. Our world is a poorer place as the generation formed in the fire of the Great Depression followed by WWII depart our culture. Their wisdom, authenticity and mentorship will be greatly missed.

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