Monday, October 26, 2009

Truth and NCD

In the past months I have met with dozens of our congregations whose life is being transformed through Natural Church Development.

NCD is one of the many exciting innovations that Dale Cohen has brought to our Conference. The program has now been augmented by the appointment of Lori Carden to focus fully on NCD work and help take our NCD efforts to the next step.

People, once said, “Why are we starting new churches and not revitalizing older churches?” NCD is now a Conference Priority and our chief means of congregational transformation. Three times more churches are engaged in NCD than the number of new congregations.

While the NCD process offers many gifts, I would like to highlight just one: the ministry of truth-telling.

Time and again I’ve hard from pastors that the best thing about NCD is, “More truth has been told in this congregation through NCD than has been told in twenty years.”

One of the most significant moments is when a congregation, after a congregation–wide assessment focuses on its “maximum and minimum factors.” Truth is told in that moment. In fact, a major reason why churches fail to enter into the second year of NCD is the inability to face the facts of their situation and a fear that they have not the God-given resources to handle the challenges before them.

Of course, I’m a preacher, so I’m supposed to be in the truth business on a weekly basis. We also worship a Savior who is not only the way and the life but also the truth.

One of my leadership guides says, “A leader helps an organization face the truth that it has been avoiding for decades, all with the faith that the organization has the resources to deal with the truth.” I have that faith for the churches of our Conference. God has given us what we need to transform ourselves, to grow, to move more dynamically into the future – if we will avail ourselves of the God-given opportunities for transformation like NCD. Thanks to Lori Carden and to Dale Cohen for their great leadership in NCD.

William H. Willimon

Is your church in NCD? Email Lori Carden at to get your church on board.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Money and Mission

In many ways, this summer has revealed this to be the worst of times and the best of times for raising money for the work of Christ’s church. Historically, churches feel the effects of a financial recession about a year after the recession’s beginning. We are certainly finding that to be true. Our Conference receipts both for mission and for clergy benefits have taken a dramatic drop. We could receive the lowest percentage of apportionments this year in the last decade. Anticipating a shortfall of many hundreds of thousands of dollars, we have made some painful cuts in our Conference staff and budget. (Sadly, few of our congregations have had to cut their budgets as much as the Conference has been forced to cut its budget -- a commentary on the trend of some of our churches to keep more money within the confines of their own congregation.)

On the other hand, this was the summer that our churches raised over $400,000 within a couple of months to save Sumatanga. This was an unprecedented outpouring of support for our beloved institution. I have not seen such generosity since our response to Katrina. On top of that Matt Lacey tells me that this summer saw a marked increase in short term mission teams being sent from our churches to places of need all around the world.

I’m sure that there are many lessons to be learned about stewardship in this worst of times, best of times. In order to learn as much as I could, I read J. Cliff Christopher’s Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate: A New Vision for Financial Stewardship (Abingdon Press, 2008). Christopher chides church leaders like me who sound the alarm and plead for more money for ministry:

The church is the only nonprofit I know of that seems to believe that the more you cry that you are sinking, the more people will give to you. The exact opposite is true. No nonprofit I know of would ever send out a donor letter stating that they are running a horrible deficit and they just want the donors to help balance the budget. They know that such a letter actually discourages giving rather than motivates it. A nonprofit board will deal with budget matters in a board meeting but never publicize such to its donor base. The church goes out of its way to do just that.

In the nonprofit world, two institutions continue to outperform most of the others. The Salvation Army continues to get more donations each year than any social service agency or group. Harvard University leads all universities in endowment-giving year after year. Do they send out a message that they are dying on the vine and must have one more contribution to stay afloat? No, they say, “We took your money last year and we did great things with it. If you will give us more, we will do more great things.” And people give and give to them. People want results and these institutions give positive results!

Above all, Christopher stresses that “money follows mission.” He asked a group of pastors why people give:

They started blurting out, "taxes, guilt, involvement…" No one was even close. Finally, a lady who had been sitting quietly in the back raised her hand and said, "Number one is a belief in the mission. Number two is a regard for staff leadership, and number three is fiscal responsibility." She was right. I was stunned. I asked her where she was a pastor and she sheepishly said, "I am not a pastor, but my pastor told me about this seminar and thought I might learn something. I am the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity."

The one absolutely most important factor in why people give is mission:

People want to make the world a better place to live. They want to believe that they can truly make a difference for the better. There is embedded in us, it seems, a desire to finish out our work on this earth with a sense that we amounted to something. To sum it up, people want to be a part of something that changes lives.

The best way to raise money for your church is simply to DO YOUR JOB! I get frustrated reading newsletters of church after church that tell me how the men's group is going to have a breakfast on Saturday and the women are going to have a bazaar next Thursday and the youth will have a dance next Friday after the ball game. Then, over in the corner, usually separated by a bold line so that it stands out, I see financial statistics, which usually indicate that a certain amount was needed and a lesser amount was received, with a quote underneath, "God loves a cheerful giver."

When I see that I want to say, "What have I got to be cheerful about?" Did you show me one life story in this newsletter about how the church has been making our world better? Is there one life-changing story in the entire document? Do you really just exist so that men can have breakfast, women a bazaar, and youth can dance? What is it exactly that you want me to support?

I have noted, in our churches, that apportionment giving seems to be a barometer of the spiritual health of a congregation and of the congregation’s confidence in their pastor’s vision. Christopher confirms this:

What I have learned after working with over two hundred churches is that the person leading the flock makes a lot of difference in whether today's donors contribute as completely as they can. When they see a pastor who has a great vision and shows excellent skills in leadership, they will invest in that pastor's vision and trust in his or her skills to make the hopes of the donor come true.

How is your church doing in its stewardship fidelity? Log into the Conference Website and check out your church’s current giving patterns under our “Church Stats” page. Let us all see the current financial crisis as a time to reconsider our commitments, to focus on the main mission of the church, and to enable all our people, through their giving, to be part of Christ’s mission.

Will Willimon

This week I’ll be with our Order of Elders meeting at Sumatanga, exploring ways that our elders can be more effective in our leadership of the church

Monday, October 12, 2009

If This Were A REAL Church...

In spite of Jesus’ repeated warning that if we faithfully follow him we were sure to be crucified with him we keep thinking that the Christian faith is a technique for smooth sailing in life (Joel Osteen).

During a recent discussion with a conflicted congregation one of the leaders said, “If this were a truly Christian church, we wouldn’t be having these problems.” The assumption was that the congregation’s crisis was due to a failure to be real Christians.

Sometimes that’s the case. But not always. Sometimes we find ourselves in a painful, conflicted and difficult mess not because we’re not faithful to Jesus but because we are following Jesus!
In Judges 6, amid all sorts of defeats and struggles related to the conquest of Canaan, an angel appears and tells the Israelites that God is with them. Gideon impudently asks the angel, in effect, “If the Lord is really with us, why are we in this mess?” The implication is that, if the Lord were really behind us, we wouldn’t be failing.

But when the Lord promised to give Hebrews land, the Lord did not promise it would be easy. When Jesus promised us salvation he did not promise it would be painless.

Jesus calls us not only to get along with one another but to love one another, to forgive enemies, to love the truth which is Jesus Christ more than we love comfort and security, to both honor the past and be faithful to a living, loving God. That’s tough.

Most human institutions are content to survive, to make it from one year to the next in solvency. The church must make disciples, be light to the world, tell a deceitful, death-denying culture the truth, etc. In other words, Gideon, sometimes we’re in a mess because the Lord is really with us! And we find ourselves in peril because we’re really with the Lord.

Our church faces many challenges – financing ministry in a recession; managing a complex far-flung organization; attracting people who have so many options in their lives, etc.

Let us remind ourselves in worship this Sunday that our greatest challenge is that which it has always been – loving and serving a living, truthful God!

William H. Willimon

This coming weekend Patsy and I will be at the Clergy Spouse Retreat at Sumatanga. I hope to greet many of our clergy spouses at this great gathering.

Monday, October 05, 2009


Knowing where you are going is more important than know how you will get there. - Gil Rendle

North Alabama Conference Priorities:
New Congregations
Natural Church Development
Effective Leadership for the 21st Century
Empowering a New Generation of Christians

After church consultant Gil Rendle met with the Cabinet in 2006 we devised a set of Priorities to recommend to the Conference and to focus our work. One of the challenges our church has had is to identify and to focus upon “the one thing needful” in our work. There are so many things we could do; what is the most important thing for us to do in this time and place?

These priorities have acted as magnets, drawing us forward, pulling us into a more vital future. The priorities have given us some tangible successes:

  • We quickly became a leader in starting New Congregations. We are still closing three times more churches than we open, but we now have a structure for equipping new church pastors and supporting new communities of faith and we have reorganized our efforts so that we are starting a greater variety of new churches.
  • A couple of hundred of our established congregations are experiencing renewal and vitality through their participation in Natural Church Development. At last we have a proven, effective way of equipping pastors and congregations to move forward.
  • Empower a New Generation. Our Board of Ordained Ministry has reorganized itself to seek and ordain new young clergy. Although this has been a priority that has proved difficult to attain, the average age of our candidates for ministry is the sixth lowest of any Conference.
  • Effective Leadership. We have defined clergy effectiveness in terms of ability to lead growth. We now have (in the Conference Dashboard) up to the minute measurementof results and fruit in key areas of growth for every congregation. We have exited some of our least effective clergy and we are attempting to administer our clergy appointment system with greater attention to fruit. Yet (judging from our results in terms of continued declines in giving and in attendance and membership) we have much more to do. Our Lay Leadership needs to take much more responsibility for effective, accountable leadership.
  • Missions. Our newest priority is linked to the attainment of all our other priorities. It is also an area that shares much activity in all sorts of churches. And yet our poor Apportionment support and the number of congregations who are not participating in mission show that we’ve got lots to do.

How does your congregation look when measured by these priorities? The good news is that God is giving us new fruit. The challenge is that, we still have pastors and congregations who have yet to experience the joy of being drawn forward by this vision. And yet, by the grace of God, we are experiencing documented forward movement. Thanks be to God.

William H. Willimon