Monday, September 27, 2010

The Sending of Pastors

I’ve had numerous inquires from other Bishops and Conferences about the changes we have made in the appointment of pastors. For the next few weeks I’ll be describing some of those innovations.

United Methodism is noted for its practice of “a sent ministry.” You can’t call or hire a United Methodist pastor – we are sent to churches. How do the Cabinet and I make appointments?

The first thing that we consider is the health and well-being of a congregation. There was a time when some people thought the purpose of the Cabinet is to care for the career advancement of the clergy! Not according to our Discipline and not in the North Alabama Conference. The main task of the Bishop and District Superintendents is to send clergy who can lead the mission of each congregation.

Long before a decision is made to make a pastoral change, the District Superintendents survey the churches in their district trying to determine how things are going. Every week we note the Benchmarks on the North Alabama Dashboard. The most immediate indicator is the trend in worship attendance but other important indicators of vitality are the number of baptisms, the number of new members, and especially the number of those new members who are joining through profession of faith. These numbers are a revealing indicator of the spiritual health of a congregation.

A church’s Natural Church Development (NCD) score sharpens our knowledge of a congregation. Understanding a church’s greatest barrier to growth (referred to as the Minimum Factor) and its strength for growth (referred to as the Maximum Factor) gives a DS the insight needed to determine if the current pastoral leadership is capable of leading a church to greater healthfulness.

Of course, one of the greatest ways to assess the health and the well-being of a church is through direct observation as DS’s engage with the church through visits, through interaction via email, phone calls, or at training events and through prayer. I also listen to and respond to a sermon from every full time pastor who may be moved.

Only about 12% of our churches experience a pastoral change in a given year. We have definitely moved to longer term pastorates. However, when the indicators show that a pastoral change would strengthen the mission of a congregation, our goal is to move into that change through accurate, deep knowledge of what God is doing (and wants to do!) in your congregation. We are determined to do our best faithfully to know and to assess the mission and performance of our churches, pioneering these methods in the North Alabama Conference, we believe that we are changing the face of United Methodism in our practice of sending pastors.

Will Willimon

On October 13, from 10:00 a.m - 2:00 p.m. at the United Methodist Center we are having a great conference on Urban Ministry and ministry with the marginalized in urban settings, led by my friend, Gary Mason from Belfast, Northern Ireland. When I visited with Gary a few years ago, I was so impressed by the connections between what he is doing in Belfast and what we are attempting in Birmingham and elsewhere. Please join us by registering with Rev. Matt Lacey on our Conference website.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pastors and the Poor

One of the great products of the North Alabama Conference is Dr. S T Kimbrough. S T is the world’s greatest scholar of Charles Wesley hymns, and a great missionary leader. He will be one of our speakers at the Gathering of the Orders Retreat at Sumatanga October 18-20, 2010. S T responded to one of my Bishop’s Emails last year, with a Wesleyan Hymn that speaks of the high responsibility that we pastors have in paying more attention to the number of persons reached for Christ (particular the poor) and less attention to the numbers in our salaries: I suggest that you use this hymn as a prayer this week.

William H. Willimon

Dear Will,

I just read your weekly message, “Anything worth doing for God is worth counting.” I could not but think of one of the Charles Wesley texts that I discovered among his unpublished literature a few years ago. I first published it in a little book SONGS FOR THE POOR.

Your message mentioned above reminded me of Wesley’s text “You pastors hired who undertake”. It captures part of what you are saying and is a great hymn with which to open an annual conference.

I think part of the numbers keeping to which you refer, though I know you are referring to congregations in general, is also accountability for what we pastors do with our own resources. If we pastors, as Charles Wesley suggests, can pillage the poor, can we expect anything more from our congregations?

Charles Wesley’s text is below.


1. You pastors hired, who undertake
the awful ministry
for lucre or ambition's sake.
a nobler pattern see!
Who greedily your pay receive,
and adding cure to cure,
In splendid ease and pleasurers live
By pillaging the poor

2. See here an apostolic priest
commissioned from the sky,
who dares of all vain self divest,
the needy to supply!
A primitive example rare
of gospel-poverty
to feed the flock one's only care,
and like the Lord to be.

3. Jesus to us apostles raise
like-minded pastors give,
who freely may dispense thy grace
as freely they receive;
who disengaged from all below
may earthly things despise,
and every creature-good forego
for treasure in the skies.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Financial Faithfulness

When someone contributes money to the work of the Kingdom of God through a United Methodist congregation, it’s my job to insure that the gift will be administered faithfully. United Methodism has a score of carefully articulated structures and procedures whereby we practice financial accountability and faithfulness.

North Alabama is blessed by the ministry of Scott Selman, our Conference Treasurer, a CPA who has served us for over a decade and who has made us a leader in sound, careful financial management in the UMC.

When the financial crisis hit our beloved Birmingham-Southern College this summer, I asked Scott to review with me our accounting and audit procedures. I am happy to report that we are not only in full compliance with the prescribed procedures of our church, but that we go beyond what is required to insure that a crisis of financial management like BSC has suffered will not strike the North Alabama Conference.

For our $11 million budget, we have fully transparent oversight of our financial operations by a clergy-lay committee, the Council of Finance and Administration. For another thing, we have Scott Selman as our CFO! Our Conference lives within its means, keeps administrative costs to a minimum, and tries to stay focused on our priorities and mission. Because our offices are on the campus of BSC, we have not only watched the BSC crisis with concern but we have also made this as a time for self-examination of our own financial practices.

Speaking of our United Methodist Center building, we opened our beautiful building in April, 2005. The total cost of the building was $4,817,420.25. During the planning phase for the new building, the Conference Trustees authorized a maximum internal indebtedness on the new building of $2.5 million. The building has no outside indebtedness (banks or other financial institutions).

As you know, the major reason for the pain at BSC has been the poorly managed accumulation of a large amount of indebtedness, without adequate debt service plans. I am pleased to announce that as of December 31, 2009, the internal indebtedness on our building was $840,676, having paid off, in the past five years, half of our internal indebtedness. That indebtedness will decrease by $75,000 or more per year until the indebtedness has been completely eliminated, a rather remarkable fiscal achievement.

Scott Selman also reports that the cost of operating our Methodist Center has been reduced in recent years due to our four-day work week schedule and staff out placement into local churches. (Conversations are ongoing with Birmingham-Southern College about our offer to of the College of some of our vacant space.)

As is true of a local congregation, so it is true of our Annual Conference – (1.) all money is held “in trust” as the sacred stewardship of our people and (2.) the reason why the church receives money is faithfully to participate in the mission of Jesus Christ.

One of our slogans in local churches is “mission follows money” – people give when they believe that their money is used in mission. One of the reasons why our Conference can be fiscally responsible is that our people believe that when they give to our church, their gifts will be used faithfully.

Will Willimon