Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It’s All About Numbers

Although I’ve never heard this comment from a bishop, a pastor, or a church that was growing, a frequently heard comment in response to our Conference Priorities, from those who have limited their ministry to decline is, “So? It’s all about the numbers.”

Though I don’t see much indication that we have become infatuated with numbers (I was miserable at math in school) in our evaluation and deployment of our pastors, in our evaluation and leadership of our churches (most of our churches are still declining rather than growing) some question our historic Wesleyan focus on numbers of baptisms, attendance, membership, giving, and mission. The church is all about Jesus Christ and his mission. Are we now guilty of moving toward an “It’s all about numbers” posture?

We loaded up our car for our annual family vacation. I had been clear with the family about our time of departure for the beach. Patsy had dutifully loaded the car. I had dutifully been clear about the time of departure. Harriet was there. Where was William?

“That does it. We’re leaving. He knew the time and yet he’s not here,” I said, in love.

“We can’t leave without him,” Patsy asserted. “How can you go on a family vacation without the whole family?”

I responded, “Look, we have one child who obeyed the rules, did as she was told, is punctual and obedient. Isn’t that good enough? Let’s go. Don’t worry about the other fifty-percent of our children.”

“We have two children. We are not going anywhere without everybody,” Patsy commanded, in love.

“One, two, whatever,” I responded. “So? It’s all about numbers! What difference does it really make whether we have all of our children or half of our children? The important thing is the quality of our family interaction on the vacation. This is about love, not numbers!” (adapted from the Annual Conference learning session with Mark DeVries)

You have a problem with our caring about the actual fruit of ministry, the results of our work? Take it up with Jesus (or John Wesley) who commanded us to go into all the world (100%) and make (more) disciples.

There is nothing wrong with most of our churches, nothing that they need to do, other than reach more people. There is no more honest, potentially life-giving measure of ministry than the numbers that are found on our Conference Dashboard.

The Sunday after this year’s Annual Conference Patsy and I had the privilege of worshipping at Northwood UMC in Florence. There, Rev. Peter Hawker is leading this church into the first growth they have had in many years. In just three years Peter has transformed Northwood through an emphasis on passionate worship, mission to the community, and risk with the Holy Spirit.

Upon entering the Northwood sanctuary, the first thing that one notices is that the first two rows of pews are filled with children and youth. Peter commented that only a handful of those children “are ours.” Most of the children (a number of whom the church recruited from “meth families”) are children that Northwood recruited for the church. I thought of all the dying congregations who say “we have no children or youth anymore.” Those children are leading Northwood (100 years old this year) into a vibrant future, all because a church decided to find a way to be obedient to Christ’s mission.

“We weren’t willing to enter the Kingdom of God without all of our children, all of them with us,” said Peter.

And I responded, in love, “So? It’s all about the numbers.”

William H. Willimon

Which North Alabama congregations grew last Sunday? You can find out by visiting our Conference website and clicking Church Stats at the top of the page. Then look through our Conference Dashboard.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Good News by the Numbers

After my first Annual Conference as Bishop in North Alabama, I read the story of that gathering in The Birmingham News. The story was a glowing report of all that we were doing as a church. Impressive. But the story ended with, “this year, as with all previous years, the North Alabama Conference lost four thousand members.” Our bubble was burst. Why is it that good news, no matter how good, always seems to be defeated by bad news?

This year Lori Carden, our Conference Statistician, gave one of the most encouraging reports we heard at the 2009 Annual Conference: Growth! Documented, unavoidable, growth. Lori noted once again that we are an aging church: the death rate for North Alabama United Methodists in 2008 was 8 times higher than the death rate for the state of Alabama. This is what happens when our congregations limit their ministries mostly to people my age. More than 2000 people were removed from church rolls, not by disaffection with our church, but rather by death. Our total membership for the Conference decreased by 852 people. At the end of 2008 total membership was 149,473. Not much good news there.

But then Lori gave us an expanded look at our numbers. The loss of 852 members is THE SMALLEST DECLINE WE HAVE HAD IN TWO DECADES! This past year we cut our rate of loss by two thirds! Lori also noted in 2008 professions of faith increased by 401 people; ethnic membership was up by 689 people and the number of people who were baptized in North Alabama United Methodist Churches was up by 115. She also noted a huge increase in the number of people participating in small groups – 8425 people!

How did we do it? I’m sure that most of this growth was due to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But we also let the Holy Spirit guide us: we defined an “effective pastor” as someone who knows how to lead a church to grow, we began to notice our numbers with the initiation of the Conference Weekly Dashboard, we gave pastors and churches skills (NCD, Healthy Congregations Program, Ethnic Church Development, and New Church Development) in how to produce growth, we started more new congregations, and the Cabinet vowed to do a better job of keeping pastors in place or moving pastors on the basis of a pastor’s ability to grow a church.

These are wonderful numbers that are evidence that we are moving in the right direction. They are also validation that if your church is not growing it is probably because your church has decided (even if unintentionally) that it can’t grow, has not availed itself of the great resources for growth that we now offer, and has therefore decided to decline and die. The good news is that God is graciously granting those pastors and congregations fruit who desire and work for fruit. Thanks be to God!

Will Willimon

Is YOUR church growing? Find out by logging into the Church Stats section of our Conference Website: there you will find a picture – by the numbers – of the spiritual health of your church.

Monday, June 01, 2009

God Send Us Preachers

This week the theme of our Annual Conference is empowering a new generation. A highlight of Annual Conference is Ordination when we will ordain a new group of United Methodist pastors. I’ve written this hymn for the Commissioning Service this year. Please pray this as a prayer that God will continue to send us a new generation of pastoral leaders to lead our church into the future.

God send us preachers brash and true;
Make them to serve your holy word.
Your summons shall by them be heard.
In sermons bold, we have heard you.

You said the Word and there was light,
Made new creation by your voice.
When in your presence we rejoice,
You’ve come to cheer our darkest night.

Your living word made prophets bold,
The Spirit-giv’n Good News to preach.
None could out run your Spirit’s reach;
Brave preachers spoke as they were told.

God speaks to us by God’s own Son.
Salvation preached for all to see.
When truth is told, God’s victory,
God’s Word made flesh, God’s will is done.

Each time a preacher stands to speak,
Whenever hungry hearts are fed,
Your church discovers one more time
That Christians live not just by bread.

Give preachers courage to obey,
In some dead place or silent hell,
The angels’ Easter charge, “Go! Tell!”
To call more foll’wers to the Way.

These preachers shield from love of praise;
Ignite their sermons with your fire.
May they not fear their people’s ire,
But serve your Word, throughout their days.

When hands upon their heads are laid
On this, their commissioning day
May they know now your pow’r to say
That same strong Word your Saints obeyed.

Lord speak to us, our fears relieve;
Just say the word and we are healed.
Hearing your word is faith revealed,
Though we’ve not seen, yet we believe!

Will Willimon

Note: Can be sung to tune of #157 “Jesus Shall Reign,”

Advice for New Pastors 4

This past year Allan Hugh Cole, professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, has edited a book for new pastors, From Midterms to Ministry (Eerdmans). I was asked to write a chapter in the volume, recounting my own journey from seminary to the parish, drawing out any implications that my experience had for new pastors.

This month, thousands of new pastors will emerge from seminary, a few of them coming to join the ranks of the North Alabama Conference. I therefore offer these thoughts in the next few weeks, hoping that they will be helpful to those of us who are new in the pastoral ministry and those who are not.

The Necessity of Mentors

One of the most important decisions that a new pastor can make is to obtain a good pastoral mentor. Ministry is a craft. I am unperturbed when new pastors sometimes say, “Seminary never really taught me actually how to do ministry.” I think seminary is best when it instills the classical theological disciplines and exposes to the classical theological resources of the church, not so good at teaching the everyday, practical, administrative and mundane tasks of the parish ministry. One learns a craft, not by reading books, but by looking over the shoulder of a master, watching the moves, learning by example, developing a critical approach that constantly evaluates and gains new skills.

Selecting a mentor can be your greatest challenge as a new pastor. Few experienced pastors have the training or the gifts for mentoring a new colleague. The “Lone Ranger” mentality afflicts many lonely pastors and their work shows the results of their failure to obey Jesus’ sending of the Seventy “two by two” (Luke 10:1). Some senior colleagues are often threatened by your youth, or your idealism, or your talent, seeing their own failures and disappointments in the light of your future promise. You will encounter those experienced pastors whose main experience has been that of accommodation, appeasement, and disillusionment with the meager impact of their ministry. They have a personal stake in robbing you of your youthful energy and expectation for ministry. Their goal is to get you to say, “Well, I thought that ministry in the name of Jesus would be a great advent ure but now I’ve settled in and turned it into a modestly well paying job.”

Yet in asking someone to be your mentor, to look into your life, to show you how to do ministry as they have done it, is one of the most flattering and affirming things you can do for a senior colleague. The Christian ministry is too tough to be done alone. There is something built into the practice of Christian ministry that requires apprenticeship from Paul mentoring young Timothy to Ambrose guiding the willful Augustine, to Carlyle Marney putting his arm around me and saying, “Here’s what a kid like you has got to watch out for.” In my experience, one of the most revealing questions that I can ask a new pastor is, “Who are your models for ministry? Whose example are you following?”

One of the most decisive examples given to me, in my first months of ministry, was a negative one. I was attending my first Annual Conference. Between one of the sessions, an older, self-presumed wiser pastor took me aside and said, “Son, you seem ambitious and talented. Let me give you some advice that I wish someone had given me when I was at your age. Buy property at Junaluska (Lake Junaluska, the retreat center now Methodist resort near our Conference).”

Property at Junaluska?” I asked in wide-eyed stupidity.

“Right. Doesn’t have to be a house. Perhaps start with an undeveloped lot. Eventually move up to a home at Junaluska,” he continued. “Name me one person on the Bishop’s Cabinet who doesn’t have a house at Junaluska,” he responded before moving on to offer advice to some other promising young pastor.

I thought to myself, “Four years of college. Three years of seminary. Three years of graduate school for the purpose of a lousy mortgage at Lake Junaluska. This is what it’s all about?”

That interchange was one of the most significant in my first days as a United Methodist minister. It was encouragement for me to lay hold of the vocation that had taken hold of me. Standing there in the lobby of the auditorium, I prayed, “Lord, you have my permission to strike me dead if I ever degrade my vocation as that guy has degraded his.”

That I am here today, over thirty years after my transition from seminary to the pastoral ministry, writing this essay, suggests to me that I kept the solemn vow I made that day. More likely is that the Lord is infinite in mercy, full of forgiveness, and patient with those whom the Lord calls to ministry.

Will Willimon

P.S. Last year I asked our churches to send us, as lay members to Annual Conference, their most promising, new, young leaders. Our theme this year is around our priority of empowering a new generation of United Methodist Christians. We will plan to equip EVERY congregation to reach more people in this new generation. I just received word that our lively First UMC Decatur will be sending lay members who are 23 and 24 years old! We are discovering that we CAN reach a new generation IF we will invite them and welcome them into the leadership of our churches. See you at Annual Conference and at the “Rush of Fools” concert at the ending of Conference!