Thursday, February 26, 2009

Beyond the Boundaries

Sometime ago I meditated on the plight of our congregations, particularly our small churches, particularly those who limited their mission and ministry to care of those in that congregation. In every case decline is the result.

Let me tell you another story. Johnson Chapel is a small congregation. In October of 2002 Tom Salter, a retired pastor, was appointed there, sure that he would be the last pastor. For a couple of years, Johnson Chapel continued to decline (attendance under 20) then in 2005, in Tom’s words, “the stone was rolled away . . . and a near-death revival began.” Attendance doubled, offerings increased 80%, 28 new members were received in the next two years.

Because dozens of our congregations currently suffer the same plight as the old Johnson Chapel, I asked Tom to cite the major things he has learned about small churches:

“Our priorities (of focus and of financial support) are #1, outreach ministries and missions: #2, congregational ministries; #3, facilities and properties; #4, pastor’s compensation.

Factors contributing to our amazing growth are:

First: A giving spirit. A dying organism tends to preserve itself by conserving its resources. If you want to live – give!

Second: A seeker-friendly atmosphere. I have not made a single ‘cold-call’; the people reach out first. We use monthly ‘Friendship Suppers’ to attract community people. We now have an early worship service, and an inter-service ‘coffee time’ for mingling.

Third: Strong care ministries, both lay and pastoral. We now have an effective card ministry for sick, confined, and needy persons in the community. A ‘Compassionate Hand’ ministry is a community benevolence fund for the needy. We are asked by the school to ‘adopt’ 4 needy children. Instead, we adopted 11. Many of our new congregants came to Johnson Chapel as a result of our pastoral care outreach.

Fourth: Stable pastoral leadership. I have stayed there. The growth spurt did not begin until my third year.”

Our small congregations can grow! Thanks to this able “retired” pastor for his leadership. We are all learning what God can do when we join Jesus “beyond the boundaries.”

William H. Willimon

Monday, February 16, 2009

Clergy Appointments in North Alabama

We have recently added to our conference website the following video on how the North Alabama Conference is making clergy appointments: Click Here. I offer this as an invitation for every congregation to be clear about its mission and what it is doing in ministry so that clergy with the right gifts and graces may be sent to serve.

Leading Change and Transition

I hear that a number of our thriving churches are taking a critical look at their “contemporary worship” services – the services that we began over a decade ago that feature electronic, “contemporary” music and images. We appear to be moving to more eclectic, “ancient-future,” blended sorts of services.

I’ve sure had my questions about some of our contemporary worship – the music seems dated, highly personal, lean on biblical content, too much performance rather than participatory, etc.

However, looking back on the move of some churches to have a contemporary service, I think that perhaps the greatest, most lasting gift to the church will be that for most of our churches, their contemporary worship service gave them experience in change for the sake of faithfulness to the gospel. In about a decade, our worship changed more than it had changed in two hundred years. The risk, pain, and disruption caused by the move to these services required our clergy and churches to do work that many of us were ill equipped to do – lead the church to change.

For generations we clergy specialized in preserving the past, treasuring what was given to us by the saints, passing that on to a new generation, insuring continuity. Now we are required to be leaders of an institution that needs change.

In learning more about how to lead change I have been greatly helped by a great little book on change in organizations, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges.

Bridges begins by distinguishing between “change” and “transition.” Change is situational and external– new job, different goals, new rules. Transition is internal, what happens and is happening. Transition is what needs to happen in you as the result of the change that’s going on around you, in order for the change to be owned by you.

As one moves into change, it is helpful to note the predictable states that people in transition find themselves. In my past four years I have seen members of our Annual Conference in all of these three phases of transition. And, in Scripture, I have seen all of these phases evident in the people who worked with Jesus.

Three Phases of how people transition through change:

Endings – letting go, some grief, sometimes some relief. Any change begins with an ending. Major issue in this phase is loss of attachment, influence, power, security, meaning and relationships. People suffer from the loss of illusion. Ending requires letting go. In this phase it is important to honor the past and acknowledge what has been done up to this point, yet all with the understanding that the past will not continue to hold us captive.

Leaders must see the problem first, before attempting to sell the solution. Expect and plan for a variety of reactions and emotions, and acknowledge all of them as valid. Give people instructions and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. In the ending, people can be expected to have a variety of emotions: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, and sadness. Expect to hear lots of “Why questions.” Why us? Why now? What did we do wrong? Why weren’t we told sooner? Is there a hidden agenda? Is there any way to avoid the pain that comes with change? Etc.

Neutral zone – this is the in between area of change. Limbo. People feel disoriented, “in between.” They are beginning to realize that some accustomed things are ending, but they are not ready, nor do they clearly see what comes next. Expect a lack of clarity and anxiety over the future. What’s going to happen? People are often less productive and less motivated during this phase. Rumors abound. People search for facts, hanker for answers but are distressed when the answers they get from their leaders seem vague and unsatisfying to them. Much energy is expended in what Bridges calls “Recreational complaining.”

And yet this can also be a very fruitful period. This time has much innovation potential. In this period, leaders must resist the temptation to get through the crisis and come up with easy solutions. This ought to be a time of experimentation and breakthrough possibilities. The new world and new roles have not clearly emerged so this can be a time to try out a variety of options, a time for resourcefulness, trying out different possibilities.

Leaders need to listen while an organization is in the Neutral Zone, says Bridges. They need to explain what the Neutral Zone is and to validate people’s feelings as normal. Leaders also need to strengthen intragroup support and communication, giving people opportunity to voice their fears and hopes. Be patient, while keeping up a certain amount of pressure.

New Beginnings -- at last we have reached new rules, new roles, and a new place. Now at last there is a higher degree of comfort, increasing acceptance and commitment to new vision. People step up and express a more positive mood, saying things like, “We knew we needed to change; we just couldn’t figure out how.” There is a new focus on the tasks at hand. The organization reaps the benefits of improved productivity and increased clarity but there is lingering concern about being successful in new environment or in a new role. People continue to ask, “How do I fit in and how can I contribute?”

How do leaders help in times of New Beginnings? Bridges says we must do four things: Give people new sense of Purpose – help people understand the purpose behind the changes. Picture – help people imagine the future and how it will feel. Plan: outline steps and schedule when people will receive information, evaluation, support and training. Give people a part to play: help people understand their new role and relationship to the new world.

And then we start all over again! Change tends to come in waves and in any healthy institution, change is constant. There is always something else to be fixed, some new task to be assumed. The leader doesn’t have to manage it all, but is there to interpret, reassure, and encourage. If our church is to keep up with the movements of the risen Christ, we are going to all have to gain more skills in constant change and transition.

The good news is, We are!
Will Willimon

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Discussion Guide - Wesley Study Bible

For all of those interested in a Downloadable Discussion Guide for the new Wesley Study Bible, please Click Here.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Wesley Study Bible

Last week I introduced the Wesley Study Bible, a new Bible with commentary edited by Joel B. Green and myself. The Wesley Study Bible represents not only an historic event in United Methodist publishing – utilizing writers from over a dozen different churches in the Wesleyan tradition – but also a wonderful resource for our church.

Every United Methodist Pastor and every member of our congregations are sure to find the Wesley Study Bible to be a great resource for study of the scriptures. Your congregation could have an entire course in Wesleyan Theology just by reading through the Wesleyan Core Terms sidebars. I’ve noted that our liveliest growing congregations have classes for new and prospective members. New Member Classes could be assigned a list of Wesleyan Core Terms to study over a period of weeks to give them a great introduction to United Methodist believing. The Wesley Study Bible , with its constant emphasis on Christianity put into practice, is the perfect companion for Disciple Bible Studies. Adult Sunday School classes could work through the entire Bible in the course of a year, reading selected Wesleyan Core Terms and Life Applications found within the text of each biblical book. Pastors could devise a sermon series that each Sunday takes a different Wesleyan Core Term and explicates it, pairing the term with nearby Life Application Topics – doctrine related to life. High School students who were introduced to this Bible said that they found that the introductory comments to each biblical book give just enough background in order to understand the biblical book. As one of the students put it, “I liked the way that this Bible is not just theoretical but also practical. It’s great to see that scripture isn’t just ancient stuff to be understood in chur ch but also truth to be practiced in my high school.” I see Father John smile.

I have written a free Downloadable Discussion Guide that takes the Four Emphases from the last General Conference and utilizes the Wesley Study Bible for study by an individual or group. Teachers of youth and children could adapt this study guide for use in leading even very young Christians.

This Bible is a perfect resource for your Confirmation Class. Give the Wesley Study Bible to each confirmand at the beginning of the Confirmation period and then conduct the class as a guided study through the Bible, utilizing the Core Terms in conversation with the Life Applications. The sidebars, particularly the Life Applications, are easily read by children from older elementary age up.

Just last week I was asked to lead a Bible study among a group of homeless persons in one of our urban congregations. Most of the participants are HIV positive. They wanted a Bible study that would be relevant to their illness. Wondering what to teach, I turned to the Wesley Study Bible. I immediately saw a trajectory emerging from the sidebars: Wesleyan Core Terms – Healing, Visiting the Sick, Health, Social Holiness, Physician of the Soul lined up nicely with Life Application Topics -- Acts of Kindness, Comfort for Illness, Mercy, Prayer in the Face of Trouble, and Suffering. I was on my way to a Bible study that traced these themes throughout scripture.

You probably know that Methodists were among the originating leaders of the Sunday School Movement in Nineteenth Century America. That movement was, in great part, a creative attempt to get the Bible into the hands of everyone, particularly those who had been excluded from the educational systems of the day. The Wesley Study Bible continues that grand tradition of scriptural accessibility. I know a woman who leads her congregation’s prison ministry, going into prisons and conducting Bible studies among the inmates and worshipping with them. I look forward to offering her the Wesley Study Bible as a resource for Bible study related to life in the Wesleyan tradition.

In the usage of the Wesley Study Bible a new generation of Wesleyan Christians is putting scripture into practice. Scripture is not only God’s word; it is God’s word for everyone and everyone is meant to put God’s word into practice. Through the Wesley Study Bible, John Wesley continues to correct, prod, and discipline the People Called Methodists through the study of scripture.

William H. Willimon

"Reading the Bible Like Wesleyans"

This will be a discussion, led by Bishop Willimon, on the unique Methodist way with scripture. How does United Methodist "practical Christianity" inform our reading of scripture? Bishop Willimon will discuss the particular Wesleyan contribution to the study, interpretation, and embodiment of Holy Scripture.

This event is open to all interested pastors and laypersons. The same workshop will be repeated in two different locations on March 7, at Canterbury UMC in Birmingham, and March 14, at Trinity UMC in Huntsville, 9:30 - Noon. The Wesley Study Bible can be purchased through Cokesbury, Birmingham.

This event coincides with the publication of the Wesley Study Bible by Abingdon Press. The Wesley Study Bible is a unique study Bible that is edited by Bishop Willimon and Dr. Joel B. Green, formerly of Asbury Seminary. The Bible will be available from Cokesbury in February.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Reading the Bible Like Wesleyans

On March 7 at Canterbury UMC in Birmingham and on March 14 at Trinity UMC in Hutnsville, I will be leading a discussion on the unique Methodist way with scripture. I will discuss the particular Wesleyan contribution to the study, interpretation, and embodiment of Holy Scripture.

This event is open to all interested pastors and laypersons. The same workshop will be repeated in two different locations on from 9:30 - Noon. The Wesley Study Bible can be purchased through Cokesbury, Birmingham.

This event coincides with the publication of the Wesley Study Bible by Abingdon Press. The Wesley Study Bible is a unique study Bible that is edited by Bishop Willimon and Dr. Joel B. Green, formerly of Asbury Seminary. The Bible will be available from Cokesbury in February.

The Wesley Study Bible

Dr. Joel B. Green, (distinguished biblical scholar, formerly of Asbury Seminary, now at Fuller Seminary) and I have been working for the past three years on the Wesley Study Bible. To be published this February, the Wesley Study Bible is quite an event. Dr. Green and I have invited nearly two hundred of our church’s best biblical scholars, Wesley scholars, and scholarly pastors to produce the Wesley Study Bible. I thank the Cabinet and the North Alabama Conference for giving me the time and the encouragement to work on his project. Hailed as a landmark event in this history of the United Methodist Publishing house, I believe that this Bible will be a grand resource for ministry. I commend it to our pastors and congregation.

The most wonderfully Wesleyan aspect of the spectacularly successful Disciple Bible Studies is its name. It’s not the “Thinking Long Thoughts about Scripture” series, or the “Noble Ideas from the Bible” series. It’s Disciple. As I see it, John Wesley made two enduring contributions to the church universal: (1.) Scripture is meant to be embodied, performed, and enacted in our daily lives. We’re not talking distinctively United Methodist Christianity if we’re not talking practical, incarnate, obedient Christianity. We read the Bible to strengthen our disciplines of discipleship. (2.) Discipleship is for everybody, young and old, rich and poor. Wesley’s vision was that it was possible for ordinary Eighteenth Century people, of every age and rank, to be saints – if they were disciplined, educated, and formed by Scripture. Early Methodists designed a score of creative means to enable the accomplishment of those two goals.

Randy Maddox showed me an exchange of letters between Wesley and Miss J.C. March that illustrates the twofold particularities of Wesley’s practical Christianity. Miss March had written to Wesley about inadequacies in her spiritual life. Wesley replied, without noticeable sympathy for her plight, chiding her to give up her “gentlewoman” airs and be a disciple of Jesus. How? “Go see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross, woman!... Jesus went before you, and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman; you bear an higher character. You are an heir of God!”

Two years later, in response to Miss March’s continued whining about her sad spiritual state, an aggravated Wesley replied, “I find time to visit the sick and the poor; and I must do it, if I believe the Bible….. I am concerned for you; I am sorry you should be content with lower degrees of usefulness and holiness than you are called to.” It’s vintage Wesley. For Father John, biblical interpretation meant not just thinking about Jesus by reading the Bible but also getting busy in Christ’s work, going where Christ goes, doing what Christ commands us in the Bible. (I count 86 references in his sermons to the importance of prison ministry.)

This vignette from Wesley’s life is a rationale for the usage, in our congregations, of The Wesley Study Bible (NRSV). Joel Green and I, working with editors of the United Methodist Publishing House, assembled a diverse, distinguished group of scholars and scholar-pastors whose marginal notes and sidebars enable biblical passages to speak in fresh and revealing ways. Their work on this Bible proves the fruitfulness of reading scripture from an enthusiastically Wesleyan perspective.

Here is the beginning of the introduction to the Letter of James:

Martin Luther dismissed the Letter of James as “an epistle of straw”…. For John Wesley, however, this small letter was central for Christian faith and life. In his journal he described James as a remedy against the general temptation of leaving off good works in order to increase faith…. Elsewhere, Wesley observed that, when James wrote his letter, “That grand pest of Christianity, a faith without works, was spread far and wide; filling the church with….envy, strife, confusion, and every evil work’”….

Throughout the text are sidebars that (1.) treat Wesleyan Core Terms related to various passages and (2.) apply the text with selected Life Application Terms for individual believers and the church. You will find Wesleyan Core Terms ranging from Acceptance and Almost Christian, to Yielding to Temptation and Zeal, concise discussions of Classes, Connection, Conscience, Conversion, Conviction of Sin and more. This Bible is a treasure trove of Wesleyan believing.

Here is part of the sidebar for the Wesleyan Core Term “Faith and Works”:

For many faith and works are two aspects of Christian living that seem to be in opposition to each other. But not for Wesley! For him, faith and good works are united in God’s love. God expresses God’s love for us in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ; and we, in turn, express our response to God’s love through our good deeds, particularly toward those in need….

Distinguished pastors from a dozen different Wesleyan church families have tackled Life Application Terms that encompass the full range of Christian discipleship, everything from Acts of Kindness to Christ Died for You, from Justice to Conflict in the Church.

Linked with the Letter of James, Chapter 2 is this Life Application Topic, “Caring for the Poor”:

Today, we honor the rich as potential patrons of our church; James says the poor are rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom (2:5), and the rich are in big trouble. Where did John Wesley get his scorn for the rich and his advocacy for the poor? He read James…..

With its constant combination of historical and theological background, paired with Wesleyan theology and practical application, I think that you will find the Wesley Study Bible to be a great to explore again that life-giving territory that Karl Barth once called, “the strange new world of the Bible.”

William H. Willimon