Monday, November 17, 2008

Church of the Second Chance: Empowering A New Generation of United Methodist Leaders

In Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe, nineteen-year-old Ian tells his parents, Doug and Bee Bedloe, of his decision to leave college and become an apprentice cabinetmaker. This will enable Ian to raise the young children of his deceased brother, Danny. Ian has arrived at this decision because of the influence in his life of Rev. Emmett and the Church of the Second Chance, a congregation that believes in actual atonement, that is, that you must do something “real” to be forgiven for your sins. Ian’s sin was that he led his drunken brother to believe that his wife was unfaithful, after which Danny committed suicide.

In the crucial scene in which Ian tells his parents of the change in the course of his life, church and faith enter the conversation. Ian explains that he will have help from his church in juggling his new job and the responsibility for the children. This alarms his parents.

"Ian, have you fallen into the hands of some sect?” his father
“No, I haven’t,” Ian said. “I have merely discovered a church
that makes sense to me, the same as Dober Street Presbyterian makes sense to you
and Mom.”
“Dober Street didn’t ask us to abandon our educations,” his mother
told him.
“Of course we have nothing against religion; we raised all of you
children to be Christians. But our church never asked us to abandon our
entire way of life.”
“Well, maybe it should have,” Ian said
His parents
looked at each other.

His mother said, “I don’t believe this. I do
not believe it. No matter how long I’ve been a mother, it seems my children
can still come up with something new and unexpected to do to me.”[1]

Ian’s is a story of two kinds of churches. Dober Street is a church that mainly confirms people’s lives as they are. The Church of the Second Chance disrupts lives in the name of Jesus so that people can change. In my experience, young adults are more attracted to the church that promises them change, new life, and disruption than in the church that offers little but stability, order, and accommodation. Alas, too many of our churches have contented themselves with meeting the spiritual needs of one generation with the resulting loss of at least two generations of Christians. If we are going to fulfill our Conference Priority and summon a new generation of young Christians, I expect that we’ll have to look more like the Church of the Second Chance.

William H. Willimon

[1] Anne Tyler, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), p. 127.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Strategic Dis-Harmonization

In their excellent book, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition, my friends Russ Richey and Tom Frank quote from a book that I wrote some years ago with Andy Langford. “In a church that is overmanaged and underled, we desperately need our bishops to become leaders in the decentralization and creation of a new connection.”

I believe that more than ever after four years as a bishop. Tom Bandy has a wonderful phrase, “strategic dis-harmonization.” That is what a declining institution needs from its leaders, in my opinion. Unfortunately, too many of our leaders continue to administer the church as their greatest challenge as leaders was to insure constant, undisturbed harmony in the church. They still act as if the church were growing by leaps and bounds, as if our greatest challenge were to keep things in order, slow down movement, and stifle change.

We have expended too much time tweaking structures and machinery when what we need is to abandon unproductive, laborious, slow moving structures. Sometimes I think that many of our traditional ways of working were designed to make sure that they take the maximum amount of time to produce the minimal amount of fruit! Simplify, simplify!

I therefore applaud the work of the leaders of the North Alabama Conference who, in just a few years - completely reorganized the work of Connectional Ministries, getting the staff out into the Districts; moved from twelve to eight districts thus greatly simplifying administration and saving nearly a million dollars a year on administrative costs, money than can now be put directly into ministry; and changed the format of Annual Conference to make our annual gathering less expensive, more accommodating of the laity, and more efficient.

A number of our elected members of this year’s General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference said that they did not know how much had been accomplished in North Alabama until they witnessed the laborious, poorly planned, time-consuming and ultimately unproductive work of these gatherings. (Hooray for the North Alabama Delegation that introduced a resolution at Jurisdictional Conference entreating the planners to be more respectful of delegates’ time and patience by planning a better Conference.) All the more reason for us in North Alabama to forge ahead and show the rest of our Connection the good that can come by holding the church more accountable for the use of our time, the actually results of our work, and the stewardship of our resources.

William H. Willimon

Monday, November 03, 2008

Weak Clergy, Watered Down Christianity

I’ve said it before, I say it again. Few writers are as tough on us clergy as Soren Kierkegaard, that melancholy Dane. However, few writers better remind me of the high calling to which we clergy have been summoned.

Kierkegaard, here in his Journals, notes that in his day clergy had moved from being powerful people in their societies to “being controlled” by the surrounding culture. The result was a desperate attempt on the part of the clergy to be useful, to get a hearing, to appear to be relevant to whatever it was that the culture wanted. Thus was Christianity “watered down,” according to Kierkegaard.

The good news is that the situation now calls for clergy who are as tough on ourselves as the gospel is tough on humanity. Lacking the former crutches and accolades of the culture, we now must get our courage strictly from the gospel itself. We clergy must begin by applying the gospel to ourselves, before we apply it to others.

“Even then,” says Kierkegaard, “things may go badly”:

As long as the clergy were exalted, sacrosanct in the eyes of men, Christianity
continued to be preached in all its severity. For even if the clergy did
not take it too strictly, people dared not argue with the clergy, and they could
quite well lay on the burden and dare to be severe.

But gradually, as the nimbus faded away, the clergy got into the position of themselves being controlled. So there was nothing to do but to water down
Christianity. And so they continued to water it down till in the end they
achieved perfect conformity with an ordinary worldly run of ideas – which were
proclaimed as Christianity. That is more or less Protestantism as it is now.

The good thing is that it is not longer possible to be severe to others
if one is not so towards oneself. Only someone who is really strict with
himself can dare nowadays to proclaim Christianity in its severity, and even
then things may go badly for him.
--Kierkegaard, Journals[1]

Still, all things being considered, being a pastor is a high vocation, a great way to expend a life. The way of Christ is narrow and demanding, but it is also a great gift, even “in its severity.”

These are my thoughts, thinking with Kierkegaard looking over my shoulder, as I begin this week of ministry.

Will Willimon

[1] The Journals of Kierkegaard, Ed. Alexander Dru, Harper Torchbooks, 1958, 205.