Monday, November 20, 2006


On Nov. 15, Highlands United Methodist Church’s ministry with homeless people on Birmingham’s Southside made the front page of The Birmingham News. The article noted that this ministry has drawn some fierce criticism from some quarters. I love it when the United Methodist Church makes front-page news not for losing members or fighting over some social issue, but for being the Church and doing what Jesus commanded us to do when he said “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25: 35-36).

Way to go, Highlands!

This week, most of us our preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving with our families. All over Alabama, feasts are being prepared. Highlands, in the name of Jesus, has a considerably expanded notion of “family” this Thanksgiving. Highlands feeds the hungry and the homeless not just on Thanksgiving, but almost every day of the week. That’s what Jesus does to a church.

Whether it is feeding hungry people, building homes for those who have lost their homes in natural disasters, visiting those who are in prison, or providing a safe place for families struggling with the pressures of life to find hope, Jesus calls us to serve and not to be popular. The Gospels are full of stories where Jesus was criticized and hated for the ministry he did. Something’s wrong with our discipleship if we’re never criticized on the front page of The Birmingham News.

I thank God for Highlands United Methodist on their faithful ministry to homeless people. Their ministry is more than a quick hand out. Staff and members are building relationships and learning the names and stories of those people on the Southside that others hurriedly pass by. This church is not just giving out food and services but is also inviting those people who are served to join Highlands in worship.

Earlier this month I was part of a Conference called “The Heart of the Gospel: A Call to Follow Jesus,” a joint effort between Highlands United Methodist Church Committee on Church and Society and Urban Ministry, Inc. During the Conference, we did a very Methodist Christian thing - we focused on what Jesus makes us do in response to what our society does to the poor. I commend David Carboni, Reggie Holder, Emily Penfield and other staff and members of Highlands UMC for being in discussion with their merchant neighbors who take issue with their homeless ministry. I am encouraged by this discussion and hope the merchants and neighbors will join the church to begin to work on issues that can be solved in this situation.

The problem is not that Highlands United Methodist Church offers food to homeless people. The problem is that we live in a state where over 15% of our neighbors are living below the poverty line. The problem is that 23% of Alabama’s children live in poverty. When you sit down to dinner this Thanksgiving, please join Patsy and me in specifically praying for the poor children of Alabama.

Christian ministry is messy. Jesus never promised that the newspapers would approve of us. I thank God that Highlands United Methodist Church is more interested in pleasing Jesus than the newspaper. Thanks to Highlands, the rest of us are reminded that Jesus gives all of us a considerably expanded notion of “family,” a wide area of responsibility, and a means to do unto others as God has done unto us. That’s something for which to give thanks!

Will Willimon

Monday, November 13, 2006

Pastors as Visionary Leaders

Lovett Weems lists the phases of thriving and declining organizations: original vision, growth and building the organization, maintenance, decline, recognized decline, crises or death. I feel that in the United Methodist Church we are in the period of at last recognizing our decline. I hope this leads to a crisis that provokes change and growth.
Vision is not created, but it is discovered, or more truthfully discerned.
“The genius of visionary leadership is in recognizing those clues, putting them together with other clues, and then testing those clues with others to make sure that one is seeing and hearing correctly or that one is putting the different clues together in a manner that makes sense” (p. 84).
The leader listens to everything in order to get clues and information, fact, opinion, and gossip are all helpful. The leader is willing to listen to negative clues, as well as positive clues. One must build a future on more than negative clues. One must foster enough stability within the congregation, stability that is beyond stagnation and rigid status quo, so that one can have a base from which to move creatively and experimentally (p. 90).
Every church must have a mission--that is what God calls the church to do, the overall purpose of the church, its reason for being.
And derived from that must be a vision, that to which God has called the congregation to do in the near future to advance that mission. Vision is “What is God calling this church to do next?” We take identity, assessments of our internal context, as well as our external context, to move mission towards vision.
We must identify three to five key values that are essential part of the visionary work of the congregation. These must be defined in writing, with some definition of what these values mean to the life of the congregation. And then they are to be prioritized, because they have degrees of importance.
In order to take the next step, we must understand change.
“If the goal is to write a new chapter in the congregation’s story, that it is essential that the story be thoroughly understood and respected, and that the new chapter pick up and advance the plot” (David Clewell p. 112).
Weems gives “seven unchangeable rules of change.” People do what they perceive to be in their best interest. The change must have positive meaning for them. People thrive with creative challenge, but wilt under negative stress. People are different, there is not one single key to all change. People believe what they see and previous deceptions can lead to present suspicions. The way to make effective long-term change is first to visualize where you want to go, and then go ahead and inhabit that vision till it comes true. Change is always an act of imagination (p. 114).
All change is easier when people think it is their idea. Too much change within a short period of time can lead to explosion. Change is disturbing when it is done to us, but it is exhilarating when it is something done by us.
Great leaders are good storytellers. Most of what leaders do is to communicate--to preach, to tell stories, to keep reminding people of the best of their history, and not to worry about repeating themselves or being redundant. Good leaders must talk a vision, before their vision can be lived. Finally, good leaders must persevere. It takes time for a vision to become reality, and one of the most difficult times is the mid-point, right before the vision blossoms. Good leaders are those who persevere.

-- Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).

Monday, November 06, 2006

New Churches, New Future

Penny Marler and Kirk Hadaway, veteran church observers, have documented that denominations grow, not primarily for ideological reasons (there was a time when we thought that “conservative,” “evangelical,” churches were growing churches, whereas “liberal,” churches declined), nor for primarily sociological reasons (some church growth observers contended that sociological similarities led to growing churches) but rather because growing denominations tend to start new congregations.
Old denominations are renewed as the percentage of new churches in their total number of churches increases. Hadaway and Marler conclude in their study of new church development that new churches are a cause of growth in mainline denominations. This research concludes that mainline denominations, like the United Methodist, have shown that little growth has come from new churches in recent years, because these denominations simply started so few. However, growth has been enhanced in those eras in which they have started many - even when controlling for period effects. So for the mainline, new churches are more a cause of growth than they are a symptom of growth. When these denominations make the effort to start new churches, they tend to grow (or at least moderate their declines.) When they do not make the effort, they tend to decline. Period.
Kirk Hadaway suggests that as young churches mature, they tend to “bottom out” and stop growing after about two decades of growth. In other words, even new congregations have a “window of opportunity” for significant growth that may last for 10 or 15 years. Why do new churches tend to grow more rapidly than older churches? It could be, Hadaway notes, that new churches are more flexible and open to change; growth-producing ideas can be put more quickly into practice; innovative leaders are allowed to lead; rapid adjustments can still be made to changing circumstances; and friendship networks have not yet solidified, allowing for easy acceptance of new members. Research conducted by Hadaway on Southern Baptist churches shows clearly how the age of a church affects its growth pattern. Only one in four Southern Baptist churches in his study organized prior to 1927 had growth in excess of 10 percent from 1981 to 1986, whereas nearly 68 percent of churches founded between 1972 and 1981 experienced this kind of growth.
The good news in these insights is that we can stop blaming one another for our decline saying things like, “We need to work harder,” or “We need to be more conservative in our theology,” and instead to say simply, “We need to start more new congregations.”
(Reported in Rekindling the Mainline by Stephen C. Compton, The Alban Institute, 2003, pp. 73-74)

William H. Willimon

The wealth of evidence that reveals American Protestant churchgoers born after 1960 can be found in disproportionately large numbers in congregations founded after 1960.
-- The Ice Cube is Melting: What is Really at Risk in United Methodism?, Lyle E. Schaller, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004, pg. 38.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

On Preaching

"...I now believe that the church is not here to speak to the world. We preachers do not have as our task to provide the world with some reason for living or some meaning for its worldliness -- we do not believe that the world, on its own, can have a reason or a menaing for its life. The church is about a more imperialistic enterprise than a deferential speaking to the world. We are to let God destroy and create a world through our preaching."
Conversations With Barth On Preaching (Abingdon, 2006)

Too often, Preachers think that they have to make the Gospel more interesting to the world instead of allowing an already interesting and powerful Gospel go about remaking the world. Can preaching once again be revived to its proper end?