Monday, June 21, 2010

Gifts of God – for the Work of Ministry

Service of Ordination
Canterbury United Methodist Church
Birmingham, Alabama
June 4, 2010

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (NRSV)
-- Ephesians 4:11-13

Tonight we gather to celebrate the truth of Ephesians 4:11-12. It is theologically impossible for there ever to be a shortage of clergy, a dearth of leaders for the church, not enough people to do the mission Jesus has called us to do. The New Testament, from Jesus’ first calling of his disciples, all the way through the Acts of the Apostles testifies to the truth: Christ never leaves his church without leadership.

The writer to the Ephesians calls leaders, the gifts of God for the church. So I first want to say, “Thank you Lord, for the gift of these lives whom you have given us tonight, those on whom hands will be laid. John, Mary, and all of you are God’s great gifts to us.

Sometimes the poor old myopic church has difficulty seeing God’s gifts as gifts offered to us. It only took us 1500 years to see the gifts God was giving us in women whom God had called to ministry.

Sad to say, in the last thirty years we have so shrunk the United Methodist Church that we cannot utilize all the gifted people God has sent us, which has made being on our Board of Ordained Ministry a real heartache this year.

But thanks be to God once again God has not left us to our own devices, God has sent us just the new leaders that we need for the future, and you gifts of God now sit before us.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that the most miserable job she ever had in the church was sitting on her church’s Board of Ministry, having to decide whom to admit to the priesthood. She said the candidates that year were a motley crew, people who had bombed out in marriage or other better paying careers, people of questionable emotional stability.

For her, the straw that broke the camel’s back was one guy who, as proof of this call into the ministry, pulled up his shirt showing where the off duty policeman’s bullet entered his side, exiting his back. He took the bullet as a young man while attempting to rob a convenience store.

“That bullet,” he said pointing to his side, “was my burning bush. That was my call into the ministry.”

The committee was aghast. In the discussion that followed some said, “Look, he’s served his time in the state Pen. Maybe he’s been redeemed.”

But Barbara said the most moving argument was in the man’s citation of the burning bush story, the call of Moses to lead God’s people. “I knew enough of the Bible,” she said, “to know that God loves to call some strange, strange people into the ministry.”

We don’t have time to hear all of your stories tonight, but I’m sure if we did, we would all say in unison, “God still calls strange, strange people into the ministry!”

You are here tonight because you have been summoned, called. You are here as God’s idea of what the church needs. You are here as God’s gifts to God’s people.

Why? Our text tells us: to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. Maybe you know that Greek has no punctuation. So there was some debate in the church over where to put the comma in this long sentence. The old King James had it, “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors” comma, “and some teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” This wrongly implied that the church has apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. The teachers equip the saints for the work of ministry. Newer translations rightly remove the comma so it reads that we have prophets, evangelists, pastors and some teachers (no comma between pastors and teachers) why? To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

The whole point of ordained evangelists, pastors, and teachers is to equip the saints (that is, everybody in the church) for the work of ministry. It’s not that pastors do the work of ministry, it’s that we equip the people of God for the work of ministry. Our whole point, as pastors, the judge of our ministry is how well we equip the baptized to do the work of ministry.

Thus my friend John Westerhoff said, “If you are a layperson who spends more than ten hours a week at church, then you are wasting your time.” Your ministry is not to be at church, running errands for the pastor; your ministry is in the world with Jesus.” Westerhoff added, “And it you are a pastor who spends more than ten hours a week working outside the church then you are wasting your time. Your ministry is to equip the saints for the work of Jesus in the world.”

We dare not send anyone into a bank, or a middle school, or to the statehouse in Montgomery these days without giving them the essential equipment to survive as a disciple of Jesus.

That’s one of the reasons why I worry that some of our Sunday worship just doesn’t have enough biblical/theological substance. I’m not worried that some of the music is cheesy and some of the content is trivial – though it often is! I worry that we are not giving the saints enough equipment to do the work of ministry.

I beg you newly ordained (I beg all of us, myself included!) not to rob your people of their God-given ministries in your attempts to be a good pastor. We have churches that have too much pastor for too few laity. The result is the pastor, because he or she has enough time to do it, takes over ministry that God has given to talented laypersons.

The Methodist movement spent its first century, it’s most productive century, under the premise that you should keep Methodist clergy moving constantly, never letting them stay long enough in any one place to become embedded so that the laity gave to the clergy that which God expected the laity to do.

Each years as the Treasurer hands the figure for connectional giving (apportionments) to me -- so I can hand it to the DS’s, so they can drop it on the clergy, who then drop it on the laity – I ask myself: how did our financial support for mission and administration, for benevolences and the connection become the sole responsibility of the clergy? Not one single congregation in our Conference treats its stewardship in that way. We are getting the sad results that we deserve.

My last congregation was an inner city church that had shrunk in ten years from a thousand members to barely thee hundred when I arrived. I was overwhelmed by all that needed to be done. First meeting with my SPRC I handed them a stack of note cards. On each card I had written one task that I did as a pastor – everything from preaching, to visiting the sick, to evangelism, to composing the Sunday bulletin. Then I said to the SPRC, “I’ve only recently arrived here. These are all the tasks that I could do as your pastor, but I don’t know what’s most important for me to do here. Arrange these tasks in order of importance.”

I left the room. They debated for an hour, then called me back. I was shocked to see “preaching” at the top of the list, followed by “teaching,” followed by “prayer”!

“This congregation is desperate for new members,” I said. “I thought you would have put evangelism at the top of the list, visitation of prospective members, something like that.”

“We’ve lived in this town all our lives,” one member said. “You just moved here. If there’s any visiting to be done, any evangelism, it’s up to us, not you.”

Another said, “We haven’t had a sermon or a worship service that I wanted to invite anybody to. You preach well; we’ll find you a congregation to hear it.” (Laity!)

God help us if, in your ministry, you don’t equip the saints for their ministry but rather rob them of their God-given ministry.

The good news is that God has given us all we need to be faithful to God’s commands, to further his mission in the world. You will find, if you open your eyes, that God (or the bishop!) will never send you to any church where God will not give you the people you need to do God’s work.

The gifts of God for the people of God! Thanks be to God!

William H. Willimon

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Truth Shall Set You Free

***Disclaimer: this post is not written by Will Willimon.

I recently received my Olan Mills' 8 x 10 portrait photograph in the mail this week from our North Alabama Annual Conference clergy pictorial directory. As I looked at the portrait in disbelief, I showed it to my wife and said: "I don't look like this!" I realized on that day that I have an entirely different mental picture of myself. This mental picture is not based upon how I look right now; it is based on what I looked like six years ago. It is the Facebook affect. We would rather not put the true pictures of ourselves out in social media, and so we post pictures from 2, 5 or 10 years ago.

I love the lyrics to the song, "You Can Do Better Than Me," by Death Cab for Cutie: "I've been slipping through the years. My old clothes don't fit like they once did. So they hang like ghosts of the people I have been."

It's hard to look at a realistic picture of who you truly are. My church is currently going through a ministry assessment and long range plan development as we look ahead to the year 2020. We began looking at the worship attendance for the contemporary worship service I regularly preach and we realized that the attendance spiked in 2004 and 2005. No one realized that this had happened. We thought we were still doing that well. The numbers told us the truth about ourselves. We needed to change the things we are doing that we shouldn't be doing and we should do the things we are not doing in order to help the service return to its upward trajectory. We also have to be honest that this service may not be the answer for many people and a fourth style of worship may be needed in our congregation.

There has been a lot of buzz online about numbers and clergy effectiveness due to Bishop Willimon's post and recent news about guaranteed appointments. It seems as though tension is rising in our denomination. We know that we need to turn the ship -- to help the United Methodist Church return to being a movement of transformed people rather than a connection of loyalists sustaining a structure. However, it seems as though whenever a suggestion is made to help us transition towards growth it is criticized and shot down. I am starting to feel that we are becoming less like the church in Acts, which prayed things out together, and more like a church that resembles our current political landscape where we shout at each other and ignore the core problems. Just like many meetings in the church, we think that talking about it is actually doing something about it.

And if you think about it, being evaluated by attendance seems so corporate. It seems as though members and visitors are becoming "customers." We rightly point to the fact that quality is just as important as quantity. But if we are honest, we are most likely celebrating other numbers in our denomination and in our local churches: we count the number of flood buckets sent to Nashville; we count the number of folks that are engaged in mission; and we count the offering which goes to support our buildings and ministry and mission. We care about numbers to an extent, but then there is that invisible line where it just doesn't feel "Methodist" to count those numbers.

So what does that say about us? Are numbers really the problem or is it the accountability that follows that makes us queasy? My guess is that some do not trust the powers that be with making the right decisions with the reported numbers. If that is the case, we do have means by which to hold cabinets accountable within the Discipline. However, might it also be true that we do not want to know the truth about our own churches and our own ministries? The truth is sometimes excruciating, but at least it has the potential for transformation.

Numbers are not the product or the fruit. They are merely a means by which to access the health of missions and ministry. People matter. So the goal is not simply better numbers but healthier churches reaching more people - making them into disciples. May the numbers be a means of grace and a challenge to minister more fervently!

Mike Holly
Canterbury UMC

Monday, June 14, 2010

Let the Children Come

A couple of decades ago, in a sincere attempt to make our churches more accessible and welcoming to children, some of our churches adopted an innovation: the children’s sermon. Today the children’s sermon is, to my mind, a prime example of a noble effort but an unfortunate strategy. I’ve heard lots of children’s sermons. Tried a few myself. For what it’s worth, here is my assessment of children’s sermons.

I sometimes say that I’ve only got two objections to children’s sermons: they are not for children and are usually not sermons.

They are not for children. Any child younger than older elementary age (who usually avoid coming down for children’s sermons) cannot possibly comprehend the complicated analogies and object lessons of most children’s sermons. When an adult says to a preacher, “I get more out of your children’s sermons than your regular sermons,” this is not a compliment to children’s sermons but a criticism of our sermons! At their worst, children’s sermons put children on display, sometimes embarrassing them with a “Kids say the darnedest things” routine. At their best, they reach only a small proportion of children. Besides, if we really want to reach our children and to affirm them, the sermon strikes me as the least effective liturgical act to reach children.

They are not sermons. If a sermon is an attempt faithfully to proclaim the Christian faith, then the moralism and trite common sense of children’s sermons make them questionable. “Let’s all be good boys and girls next week,” is a long way from the truth of the gospel.

From what I observe the most effective children’s sermons are delivered by lay persons who are called and equipped by God to communicate with children. A stiff, uncomfortable, age inappropriate lecture by a pastor sends the wrong message to children and congregation. True, it is important for the congregation to see the pastor as relating well to children (our aging church desperately needs more young families and children) but there are numerous ways to do this more effectively than in exclusively verbal, abstract communication. For instance, every time the church celebrates a baptism, why not call all the children down front and have them gather about the font so they can see what’s going on? Try to explain one thing we believe about baptism to the children. They may have difficulty knowing what to make of “redemption” but they all know about water! Jesus communicates with us through ordinary, everyday experiences like eating and drinking, bathing and singing, all activities that are accessible, though at different levels, to children.

I fear that children’s sermons tend to backfire, saying to parents and children that which we do not intend to say. We wouldn’t interrupt the congregation’s worship with, “And now I would like all those of you who are over 65 to come down front while I say something sentimental and sappy to all of you old folks.” That would be ugly. So why do we single out the children saying in effect, “Boys and girls, I know that you are bored stiff by Christian worship, that you can’t get anything out of what we do when we praise God, so come down front and I’ll take a few minutes to try to make this interesting for you.”

Be suspicious when someone says, “My child doesn’t get anything out of worship.” Children can sing, pray, read, or simply enjoy being with others in praising God. Children can be asked to prepare and read the scripture on Sundays, or to usher. I have been in the habit of producing a “Children’s Bulletin” for our children each Sunday (Dale and Kelly Clem began this practice at Duke Chapel when I was there.) I was deeply moved when I visited an African American congregation in our Conference where the children all processed with the choir and the children’s choir sat in the choir loft for the service. “It’s our way of saying to them how proud we are that they are here with us,” explained the pastor.

United Methodism has a problem, as do a number of denominations, in retaining our young. I saw a study a few years ago that proved to me that those churches that remove their children from worship on Sunday (taking them off to ‘children’s church’) have a difficult time of retaining their children in their church as the children grow up. Those churches that lovingly find a way to keep their children with them on Sunday tend to keep their children as throughout their lives. We must not squander the most formative years of our children’s lives by removing them from the central, defining act of the Christian faith – the Sunday worship of the congregation.

I therefore hope that our churches will show their full commitment to the full inclusion of children in our Sunday worship, that we will not imply that they are not full and valued members of our fellowship. Our Lord has expressly given little children a place at the center of his Kingdom. We are not in any way to hinder or to forbid them. Let’s pray that God will give us the determination and the creativity truly to include our young in our church.

Will Willimon

Monday, June 07, 2010

Psalm 121:8

“The Lord will preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore.”

On a day last spring I returned home (the afternoon that I put Patsy on a plane to rush to the bedside of her dying mother). I opened the door and immediately realized that we had been robbed.

Of course my first concern was not for the things that were taken (I could see that the burglars had not taken anything of value), but rather that the burglars were still in the house. I immediately exited and called the police.

To this day, even months later, we enter the house with some anxiety. At last we have a functioning alarm system. Still, one can’t be too sure.

I remember a woman in my church telling me how difficult it was for her to attend evening meetings at the church, saying, “I'm not fearful to drive to the church. The hard part is leaving my home and then returning home after the meeting.”

She is right. Entrances and exits are the most dangerous part of your day.

We pastors spend much of our ministry helping with entrances and exits. In baptism we welcome new life into the church. In funeral we bid farewell to those who leave this life, sending them over the threshold to the next. We work to integrate new members into the congregation; we send forth beloved members to another congregation. Thus, on our Conference Dashboard every week we count baptism and professions of faith and we count loss of members.

Entrances and exits, coming in and going forth are often frightening. We come into a new space, a new world and there is often anxiety. We leave a place, relinquish an old, accustomed world, and there is a sense of loss.

One of our most important innovations in North Alabama is our First 90 Days plan that is required of all full-time pastors and district superintendents. We ask for a specific, public, plan for succeeding in a new ministry. What occurs in the first days is crucial.

We are now devising a similar program for The Last 60 Days in which exiting pastor and the entering pastor work together, with the receiving congregation and receiving DS to produce a productive, smooth transition. Here is connectionalism at work!

Here is the Psalmist’s promise: In the often anxious times of arriving or leaving God is there. Our God promises to be with us in our coming in and our going out. We cross no joyful or painful threshold in life where God does not go with us, preserving us, coming in or going out for evermore.

William H. Willimon

From the letters that I’ve received, this year’s Annual Conference, with teaching by Adam Hamilton, was the best ever. Pray for all of our pastors and their families that will moving next week to new assignments.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


Every person who joins the North Alabama Cabinet including our newest members: Lori Carden, Sherill Clontz and Bill Brunson read a book that has revolutionized our ministry of oversight. Marcus Buckingham’s First Break All the Rules. Now Mike Stonbraker has had the Cabinet read a related book, Patrick Lencioni’s Three Signs of a Miserable Job. Miserable jobs share three things: Anonymity, Irrelevance and Immeasurement.


Fulfillment of any job requires being known by the management. “All human beings need to be understood and appreciated for their unique qualities by someone in a position of authority.” (p.221) The Cabinet has learned that following up with responses on our weekly Dashboard reports is one way we can show that no one is just blending into the system. It is pertinent for us to make sure all our pastors are aware that those of us who are in the ministry of oversight know them, down deep, and that we know the challenges they are tackling.


Lencioni defines irrelevance as knowing that your job matters. This is one of the greatest stresses of being a pastor. Many times we do not see the finished product. “It’s so ridiculously clear, and yet almost none of the managers out there take the time to help their people understand that their jobs matter to someone! (p.133)

DS’s must never require pastors to do “busy work” or to attend meaningless meetings. “If a manager has any responsibility in the world, it’s to help people understand why their work matters. If they don’t think that’s their role, then they’re the ones who don’t deserve their job.” (p.134). Much of what we do may not have effect for years to come. How one impacts another’s soul may never be known except by God. So this brings us to the final stage.


For Lencioni this is focused more on an individual gauge of measurement than overall corporate gauging. We can set up the benchmarks, but there still has to be a personal sense of measuring success and accomplishment. “…if a person has no way of knowing if they’re doing a good job, even if they’re doing something they love, they get frustrated.” (p.128). He goes on to say that it is all about feedback. Buckingham says, “people don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That’s hard enough.” (p.79) No pastor excels in every area of ministry. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?...but covet earnestly the best gifts.” (1 Corinthians 12:29 and 31) We must help pastors measure those areas that are important for the life of the church and areas in which a pastor excels.

Measurement is necessary for accountability. Immeasurement robs pastors of the joy of saying, “God did that through me,” and “I am going to improve in this area and measurement will confirm when I improve.” “Because people who aren’t good at their jobs don’t want to be measured, because then they have to be accountable for something. Great employees love that kind of accountability. They crave it. Poor ones run away from it.” (p.131)

Mike Stonbraker says that after reading Lencioni he, as a District Superintendent, was led to ask some self-assessment questions that might help our pastors to have more fulfilling ministries: Do I really know my people? Do they know how their work impacts, and how? Do they know how to assess their own progress and success?

Through the Conference Dashboard and other changes in the way we are working, those of us in the ministry of oversight can be used by God to make ministry more fulfilling for all our pastors.

Will Willimon

Anything Worth Doing For God Is Worth Counting

How do we Methodists define effective clergy? We do it with one word: growth. Effective clergy know how to grow the church in its membership, witness, and mission.

In North Alabama we now have a “Conference Dashboard” that every church logs in on Monday morning and reports their numbers for that Sunday’s attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, offering, and participation in mission. Anyone can see the numbers for any church in our Conference over the past three years. The push-back we have received in this endeavor has surprised me. In nearly every group of clergy in which I’ve discussed our work, there is always someone to repeat at least one of these mindless mantras: ‘It’s all about numbers is it?’ ‘You can’t measure clergy effectiveness, can you?’ ‘So it’s come to this: putting the butts in the pews.’ Yada, yada, yada.

There may be something to be said for some of these slogans. Except not in the United Methodist Church. We’re Wesleyans. That means we believe in the growth of the Kingdom of God. John Wesley had friction with the established church of his day, not only because of his vibrant Trinitarian theology, but also because of his refusal to limit his ministry to the moribund English parochial system.

From the beginning, Methodists were inveterate counters and numbers keepers.

Dick Heitzenrater tells me that in the annual minutes of 18th British Methodism, beginning in 1769, the Circuits that had fewer members than the previous year were marked with an asterisk (12 of the 48). By 1779, that number had expanded to 18. The question was asked at the Conference, “How can we account for the decrease in so many Circuits this year?” The answer: this was “chiefly to the increase of worldly-mindedness and conformity to the world.”

As of 1781, Wesley marked with an asterisk those Circuits who had an increase in membership, which was the case with 32 of them, or exactly half. This method was used for a few years until the percentage of Circuits that experienced increases in membership were 75% of the connection.

Our North Alabama Conference once had four full time people who spent their whole day collecting numbers from our churches. These numbers were duly reported and printed in the Conference “Journal.” Yet here’s the thing: not one single decision was ever made, by the Bishop or Cabinet, on the basis of any of these numbers! It was as if we were all engaged in a studied effort never to notice any of the numbers we were so assiduously and expensively collecting. Of course, when the numbers were as bad as ours -- over half our congregations had not made a new Christian in the past three years, a twenty percent decrease in membership -- it takes courage to note the numbers.

Wesley frequently cites numerical growth as indicative of spiritual vitality. In his sermon “On God’s Vineyard,” Wesley celebrates that the London Methodist Society grew from 12 to 2,200 in just about 25 years. Heitzenrater speculates that Wesley was trying to spur them on, since their membership had slowed to a gain of only 400 new members in the latest 25 years.

Wesley sent pastors to those areas where, in his estimate, there were the most souls to be saved. He told his traveling preachers not just that they ought to read, but also put a number on it: at least five hours a day. Wesley also kept a close eye (with charts in the annual “Minutes”) on how much money was collected each year—for Kingswood School, for new preaching houses, for the pension fund, for operating expenses. The Annual Conference was invented, not just as opportunity for worship and fellowship, but mostly for the purpose of everyone rendering account and confessing their numbers.

I can’t speak for other church families, but in the Wesleyan family, studied obliviousness to results, deploying pastors without regard to their fruitfulness, pastors shrinking churches, pastors keeping house among the older folks left there by the work of a previous generation of pastors, and churches having a grand old time loving one another and praising God without inviting, seeking, and saving those outside the church, do not make for faithfulness.

“Numbers aren’t important.” Really? Tell it that to Jesus and his parables of growth and fruitfulness. Tell it to the Acts of the Apostles.

Tell it to John Wesley.

William H. Willimon

See you at our yearly Accountability Session - - Annual Conference at ClearBranch, June 4-5. Leadership is this year’s focus.