Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Major Moves in Ministry

All of the gospels depict Jesus and his disciples as people on the move. They never stay anywhere long. Jesus teaches or performs some wonder, then immediately moves on. A dead god is a god who locates, settles in, never surprises. A living God is a God on the move.

We are privileged to minister in a time when ordained leadership is changing and adapting to be more congruent with the mission of Jesus Christ. After decades of floundering, thrashing about trying this and that latest scheme to renew the church, we are at last focusing and moving in a definite direction.

Recently I was asked to identify some of the most significant moves that we clergy are making in our leadership. I believe in these moves we are not only becoming more effective leaders, but also we are being more faithful to our Leader, Jesus Christ and his peculiar style of leading his church.

Today, the most effective, faithful pastors are making these moves:

Move from caregivers to passionate, transformative leaders
Moving from mere maintenance of the congregations that we have been handed from the hard work of previous generations of pastors, we are daring to let God use us to rebirth, new birth, and to transform our people to more actively participate in Christ’s mission. Any church that cares more about itself and its inner life than it cares for the world is a church in decline. Pastors are ordained for more significant ministry than merely care of the congregation.

Move from contented church of monopoly, to church in competitive, missional environment
We mainline Protestants have lost our monopoly on American religious life. We find ourselves in a mission environment in which our churches must compete with the lures of the world for our people’s faith. It’s a time when the church has the opportunity to recover the oddness and the joy of the peculiarity of ministry in the name of Jesus Christ rather than ministry as service to the infatuations of the world.

Move from nonchalance about results to attentiveness to results
One of the most dramatic developments among the churches of North Alabama is the creation of and the almost 100% participation of our churches in the North Alabama Conference Dashboard. We are determined to notice the numbers and to interpret the numbers as valid indicators of what God is doing among us. God intends for us to bear fruit and promises to give us what we need to bear fruit.

Move from preservation and sustaining to adaptation and supple, flexibility
Church observer Bill Easum told our Conference (the year before I got here) that the “seniority system is killing you.” United Methodism has no seniority system in our Discipline. We have put far too much stress on experience, wisdom, and continuity when we need more stress upon talent, adaptation, flexibility, and innovation. Our Conference mission statement states that our goal is to have, “Every church challenged and equipped….by taking risks and changing lives.” I am so inspired by the outbreak of innovative ministries among our congregations.

Move from the pastor as head of an organization to the pastor as spiritual leader and congregational catalyst
Pastors are becoming more than efficient managers. Pastors are preachers, those who tell the story which is the gospel, laying that upon the congregation on a regular basis and then pastors get out of the way, leaving Jesus to deal with his people. Pastors are there not to do ministry, no really even to lead ministry, but rather to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.”

Will Willimon

Our focus at this year’s Annual Conference is LEADERSHIP. Adam Hamilton will be teaching us all day Saturday, June 5. All pastors are urged to be present with their key lay leadership. See you at Annual Conference!

Monday, May 10, 2010

My First Sermon

Some of our pastors will be moving to new churches in a few weeks. Later this year Westminster John Knox Press will publish a collection of my sermons over the past forty years. Pouring through my old sermons has been a fun, humbling experience. I found the very first sermon that I preached at my very first church, Trinity, North Myrtle Beach, S.C. My father-in-law, Carl Parker had given birth to Trinity the year I was born, but the congregation had never thrived. So I went there in fear and trepidation, as witnessed in this first sermon. Trinity turned out to be a wonderful place to begin my ministry, a congregation whose rebirth validated the importance of faithful preaching as the key to congregational renewal.

First Sermon

1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5
March 3, 1974
Trinity United Methodist Church
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

A first sermon is much like a first date – I want to do well, put my best foot forward, not say anything too dumb that might render impossible a future relationship, impress you, reassure you that the Bishop made a wise decision in sending me to Trinity.

To continue the dating analogy, my anxiety is much like that of a “blind date.” I don’t know you and you don’t know me. You have heard about me, but only through the advance information from the District Superintendent, and you know that District Superintendents are sometimes not to be trusted.

So here I am –wanting to appear wise – but not overly wise, not offensively wise like William Buckley. I want to entertain, to engage you, but not to appear trite or comical. I’m thinking now, “I wonder what they expect of me? What would they like to hear?”

And there you are – wanting to appear likeable, congenial, a nice group of people with whom any preacher would love to live, wanting to impress me that the Bishop is really impressed by you and looking out for you when he sent me to you.

And here I am thinking….there are lots of empty pews out there; am I equal to the task? I wonder why they pay so little of their fair share of mission giving? Why did Peggy have such a pained look on her face when I mentioned finances to her. How come Joan said to me, after handing me a lemon pie, “Well, you really have got your work cut out for you, preacher”?
The District Superintendent told me that this church had lots of “potential,” but I don’t trust D.S.’s anymore than you do!

And there you are thinking….he looks young, too young. Some are thinking….he looks old, or if not old, at least short. He can’t play softball, I can tell that by looking at his arms. Oh well, maybe we can use him, second string, right field. I wonder why he really left his last appointment? How long will the “honeymoon last”?

Will there be a honeymoon?

I’m sure that George Baker told you that I had a good reputation, even though I’ve only been a pastor for a couple of years. But then George told me the story of the preacher who left a congregation. It was his last Sunday. End of the service the preacher is standing at the door. One woman was overcome with weeping and emotion. The preacher, touched by her grief attempted to reassure her with, “Oh Sister, don’t weep. Even if I’m leaving I know that the bishop will send you a wonderful preacher.”

She replied through tears, “That’s what they’ve been telling this church for twenty years and it ain’t happened yet!”

Here I am and there you are and you are wondering – will he take time for me? Will he listen to my story? Will be care that I’ve got problems? And will his ministry be adequate to meet my needs?

And here I am wondering – will I have time for all of them? Will they take time to know me as a person, or will they only know me as “The Preacher”? Will my talents be adequate to their need?

In other words, here I am – wondering, if I’m honest “are they good enough, kind enough, enlightened enough for me?” Will they receive my offbeat way with sermons? Will they pay me enough so that next year I can go to Annual Conference and look good enough to all my fellow preachers so I can say, “Look how I turned around things at Trinity?”
And there you are wondering – can he fix my marriage? Can he make my children behave? Can he keep me interested on a Sunday in a sermon? Can he attract more young couples to our church? Will he embarrass us in town?

For you and for me the first sermon is like a first date; we’re both putting each other on trial.

Knowing all this, I tossed and turned in preparing my first sermon, wondering what I should say and how I should say it to you.

“Preach that one on redemption that worked so well at Broad Street. You really wowed them with that one.”

Too heavy. Don’t want them to think they’ve got an egghead for a preacher.

“Use some football analogy; can’t go wrong by mentioning sports. They all love football.”

Better stay out of controversial matters – don’t know whether they tend to be for Clemson or for Carolina.

And so it continued, rummaging about in my old files, frantically searching for something impressive enough, entertaining enough, yet spiritual and humble enough, inspirational too – and do it all in about twenty minutes in my first sermon!

Then, as so often happens, I managed to get some good advice from an older, wiser friend of mine, a tired old preacher who has served (and even survived!) some of the toughest, meanest, hard-to-please congregations that ever were – Brother Paul.

In reminiscing about his preaching at First Church Corinth – a difficult appointment if ever there were one – Paul said:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus who became the wisdom of God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not be in human wisdom but in the power of God.

Saint Paul says to his first church: there you are, not wise by the world’s standards of wisdom, not the brightest candles in the box, not by a long shot. No Ph.D’s among you. Few of you rich, few prestigious. Not much ground for boasting among you.

And here I am, Paul: no silver-tongued orator here. Just a poor, often inadequate, sometimes disconnected, often boring, poor Bible-quoting preacher. No charismatic, good-looking TV Oral Roberts. Just a plain speaker of the plain, unadorned Good News.

That’s all.

Not that wise a congregation, not that wise a preacher, says Paul. Just you, just me, just the gospel.

Paul’s sermonic strategies are interesting in that they don’t try to be interesting. “I decided to know nothing among you – no six steps to salvation, no sure fire way to riches and happiness, no smooth, religious-sounding big words – I was determined to know nothing but the gospel. That’s the only good reason for you, or for me, to be here. The church isn’t about me and it’s not about you. It’s the wisdom and power of God. It’s about the gospel.

That’s a tough gospel truth. It’s so easy to get confused that we could really have a great church – if we could find just the right pastor who, along with being good with older folks and youth, also visits everybody all the time, prepares profound and moving sermons, and walks on water to boot! Or we could have a really great church if we could weed out all the half-way committed people and get this down to the really, really serious Christians.

But Paul says that’s not the way Christ works. Christ works by taking a group of people – not many all that wise, none too powerful and competent, not many rich – and uses them to show what a great, wise, powerful, competent God can do.

In my better moments I know: any good that I’m able to work here is that good that only God can do. God is going to have to work through frail, all-too-human, flawed people like you, like me, or no real good will get done.

I was asking one of you last week (I’m not going to tell you who it was but I bet you can guess), asking, “What do you love most about Trinity Church?” And you responded, “I love that God really is here. When I think of the sorry preaching we have endured over the past years I think it’s a miracle that we are still here! With the sorry preachers we’ve had it’s a testimony to the power of God that there is a Trinity Methodist Church!”

Can you guess who said that to me? And you know: he was absolutely right. Maybe not right about preachers but right about God. That there is a church here, that people like us are being saved, being used by God to take over the world for the kingdom of God. It’s “a miracle.”

So here I am wanting to come up with something brilliant for you and there you are wanting to be brilliant for me and Paul tells all of us: It’s not about brilliant people; it’s about a God who loves to create something out of nothing.

I confess I’d rather trust what wisdom I’ve got than to risk trusting the goodness of God to create a world out of chaos (Genesis 1), to raise the dead back to live (Luke 24), and to make the People of God out of those who were once nobodies and strangers (Trinity United Methodist Church).

There I am and there you are. Despite our weaknesses and inadequacies a loving, resourceful God is stupefying the world, using what the world regards as low, foolish and dumb to make something wonderful. We’ve only been in town a week now and yet already we have been amazed and what God is doing through you at Trinity Church. A Baptist mechanic was testifying to what a good church I was getting just this past Wednesday.

I’m not the greatest preacher in the world and you’re not the greatest church in the world but that’s OK because the greatest God in the world is surprising the world with God’s ability to create something out of nothing, right here in this congregation. So on this our first Sunday together pray for me that I would, week-after-week keep real clear about why we’re here, that I would look to Jesus and not to myself to make this a faithful church. Pray that on my last day here, when I’m preaching my very last sermon to you, I’ll be able to say, “When I came to Trinity Church, I didn’t come preaching lofty words of wisdom, fancy spiritual stuff and highfalutin theology. I preached Jesus Christ and him crucified. I preached the simple, unadorned Good News that God is saving the world through us. My only boast is the wisdom and power of God.”

There you are and here I am with nothing to bring us together, and no hope in life or in death, no chance of ever being the Body of Christ – nothing except Christ, the wisdom and power of God.

Frankly, I can’t wait to discover just how great and wise a God we’ve got. Let’s go!

Will Willimon

Monday, May 03, 2010

Lucky to Be Here

Some of our pastors will be saying good bye to their present congregations as they move to new congregations in the next few weeks. Later this year Westminster John Knox Press will publish a collection of my sermons over the past forty years. Here is my last sermon in Duke Chapel, a sermon about a student delivered with gratitude before a new group of Duke students on Orientation Sunday, students on their way in as I was on my way out.

Orientation Sunday

August 29, 2004

A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. Acts 20:7-12

I asked the class to write an essay, “My Life.” Just to introduce themselves. One essay, I shall never forget, began, “Last year I awoke from an eighteen year coma that was my life.”

He went on to tell of the influence of an incredibly wonderful art teacher who had, in his words, “awakened me from the mediocrity to which I had become accustomed.”

When I read that line, I knew that he had come to the right place. That’s what we do well at this university, when we’re doing our job. We snap people awake out of their coma. We call it “enlightenment,” or “the acquisition of knowledge,” but we could as well call it “awakening.”

I teach for the privilege of seeing the eyes light up, the lids spring open, the neck crane forward.

I fear the somnambulant, etherized, anesthetized morbidity of a class at three in the afternoon. My brilliant lecture killed by zombie-like night-of-the-living-dead drooping eyelids.

I have found that if I continue to talk in a low monotone, quietly, serenely and then, carefully, ever so carefully, slam a large book down on the desk while screaming, “WAKE UP!” It will do the trick.

Last year we were told that a study of students showed that sleep deprivation was the major health problem on campus. We needed to study to know that? Just visit my afternoon class about three thirty, you could have learned that for free!

Church is a favorite quiescent location for sleeping. I can see some of you bedding down out there! A few years ago, we broadcast our services on the local cable channel. I was excited about this extension of our ministry. I rushed home, flipped on the television to see how we looked on TV. There I was horrified to see one of our sopranos bedded down, head thrown back, soprano mouth gaping open throughout my sermon!

I complained to Dr. Wynkoop. He excused her sleeping with, “Look, she’s a student. Sometimes it’s hard for me to stay awake too.” I said, “She was dead to the world, brought a pillow in with her, a stuffed teddy bear and duvet! It was an outrage!”

She is no longer in our choir.

Last Sunday of last term, April, we had two services, the early service for the alumni who were with us that weekend. I concocted a different sort of sermon on Christian music and its effects. I was helped by the choir. I spoke, then the choir sang a favorite anthem, then I spoke again – the sermon was my commentary with the choir’s anthems interspersed throughout.

A couple of days before this sermon I asked Craig if he would like to take some of the speaking parts of the sermon. He was eager to do so.

Well, after the first service and our first time with this dialogical sermon, Robert Parkins, University Organist, who spends the service up there, encased within the Flentrop Organ where he can hear but can’t see what we are doing, came up to me and said, “I didn’t know that Craig was helping you out with the sermon so, after you spoke, and the choir sang, when I heard Craig speak I assumed that you had collapsed and died and that Craig had to take over the sermon.”

“You idiot,” I replied, “You mean that you thought I had died and that Craig just stepped over my body and continued the sermon?”


Church has become, for many, a place of slumber, a place of death. Sad. It ought to be place of resurrection, awakening.

Back in the summer when we thought we would do a “young heroes of the Bible” sermon series, it seemed like a good idea to me. Trouble is, there aren’t that many young people in the Bible, heroes or otherwise. So I have to go with who we’ve got, so today we look at a young man named Eutychus. Maybe he’s no hero, but he was young. He reminds me of some of you.

Paul arrives with Luke in Troas. On the “first day of the week,” that is, Sunday, they join other Christians for worship. “First day of the week,” is surely meant as an echo, of that phrase as it appears in Luke’s first book, the Gospel of Luke. First day of the week was when Jesus rose from the dead. So there’s a good chance that we’ll hear something about Easter. The congregation meets to “break bread” and to “hold a discussion” (v. 7). This is the very first, the very oldest description of a Christian Sunday in all the New Testament. Why do Christians meet on Sunday, the “first day of the week,” rather than on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday? It’s because it’s the day when Jesus was raised from the dead. Every Sunday is supposed to be Easter all over again.

Paul was preaching, and he’s on a roll. Paul’s come a long way to be at First Church Troas and so he gives them everything he’s got, the whole ball of wax. The sermon begins about eleven-twenty a.m. and continues “until midnight” (v. 7). (And you have the nerve to criticize the length of my sermons!)

Well, Paul as going on at some length about the Doctrine of the Trinity, or explicating the mystical connections in the Book of Numbers or whatever, “a young man named Eutychus” is mentioned. This is where you come in. If you are a Sophomore. His name “Eutychus” means in the Greek, “Lucky.” Young Lucky is precariously seated on a sill at an open window where, as Paul drones on about the awfully interesting last chapters of Leviticus, Lucky falls asleep just before midnight, topples out the open window, falling to his death three stories below where Luke says that a couple of ushers “picked Lucky up dead” (v. 9). (I guess his Mama goofed when she called him “Lucky.”)

Well, Paul stops just long enough to go downstairs, resuscitate Lucky and announce to the others, “Do not be alarmed, his life is in him. Now, as I was saying….” (v. 10).

That’s it? Paul’s not going to let a little thing like the violent death of the President of the Methodist Youth Fellowship and his subsequent resuscitation from the dead stop him. Paul’s on a role, it’s only one o’clock in the morning, and so he continues with the sermon.

As one commentator says, Paul’s resurrection of this dead boy “appears as a mere hiccup” during the middle of his lecture!

Lucky is brushed off, his breathing resumes, and church continues. Next day Paul is off to Melitus and Lucky is back at school with a bad headache but raised from the dead and no worse for wear.

In a mere two verses we are told that Paul has paused just long enough in his sermon to raise a young man from the dead and then church goes on as if nothing happened and young Eutychus, Lucky, was named patron saint of all those of you who have trouble staying alive during church.

Maybe Luke is saying, in this curious story about young Lucky, that this is the way church is supposed to be, not just then, but now. Somebody seated in the third pew from the back left, once was dead, now alive? Somebody near the left transept door awakened from a coma, big deal! Now, can I continue with my sermon? It’s another day at the office for the church, just your average, predictable, raising of the dead.

“How was church last night?”

“Fine. Preacher had some good points to make about Leviticus, but he went on too long. Lucky died during the service, but Paul raised him from the dead and we continued.”

The resurrection of Jesus means not only that Jesus is loose, on the move among us but it also means that we can get loose. Something about this God that just loves to wake people up, shake people up, raise people up. Something about this God’s preachers like Paul just loves to raise the dead without missing a beat in the sermon.

“Do you really think he can get over his addiction to heroine?” she asked, “I’m told that most people don’t. I’m told it’s terminal.”

“I think it’s possible,” said I. “But what do I know? I’m just a preacher who’s accustomed to seeing people raised from the dead all the time on Sunday.”

Some of you are quite new here in this church. This church probably impresses you as old, heavy, ponderous, and stable. It’s meant to. But don’t be deceived by first appearances. I could line up before you a whole gang of people named Lucky who, on some Sunday, some first day of the week, stumbled into this place, sleepy-eyed and somnambulant only to be jolted, rocked, shocked awake. We were just reading scripture, just singing a hymn, just finishing a sermon, and they fell out of line, sat straight up in bed, eyes opened -- like they were raised from the dead.

And I love to tell stories about the dead raised. I preached not long ago at a clergy conference, and after four of my sermons, a fellow clergyman asked, “What would you do without all those great stories of students who scorned their parents and thumbed their noses at the establishment?” God only knows what I’ll do, in my new life as a bishop, for sermon material when I don’t have clueless Sophomores raised from the dead.
I’ve seen young people here, fall out the window, land on their heads, die, get born again, be raised from the dead, get a life they wouldn’t have had had they not come in here on the first day of the week. One of great joys of preaching here is to get a front row seat on resurrection.

I was lucky to be here.

Will Willimon