Monday, January 31, 2011

Our College on the Hilltop

For well over a century, Methodists in Alabama have delighted in our partnership with Birmingham-Southern College. This nationally prominent, academically excellent liberal arts college has been at the forefront of the mission of our church. Generations of North Alabama Methodists have grown in their faith, experienced their first hands on mission work, and deepened their commitment to Christ at our little college on the hill. The college has given millions in scholarship aid to UMC students, giving BSC the highest percentage of UMC students of any of our colleges in the country. Currently, over a hundred of our most effective pastors are alumni of BSC.

In the current financial crisis at BSC our church is once again having the opportunity to demonstrate our faith in and love for the college.

Here’s some of the ways we are helping BSC:

  • Scott Selman has delivered a check for $250,000 to BSC, advance payment on our yearly apportionment for scholarship for UMC students.
  • All of our churches are asked to receive a special offering for BSC on a Sunday before Easter
  • All our churches that give to our special asking for BSC are being asked to advance pay that amount immediately, doubling their gift. This could produce as much as $300,000 for the college.
  • All of us clergy trustees are making personal solicitations to all of our clergy alumni of BSC, asking them for special gifts and for contacts with potential donors.
  • I have offered to appoint a Chaplain to Birmingham-Southern from our Conference, with the cost being borne by our Conference for one year.
As you can see, our conference is in high gear to help BSC. We’ve stepped up and saved the college before and we can do it again. Andy Wolfe and I have made a short video which will be appearing on our website in the next few days. I am currently serving on the Presidential Search Committee; we have some wonderful prospective candidates. The Faith and Ethics Lectureship that Patsy and I sponsor will take place this spring. A visitation team from our UMC University Senate will be visiting the college this spring. I urge all of our people to give generously to BSC and to send us your best students during this crucial time in the life of our beloved college in the hill.

Will Willimon

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pastoral Leadership Challenges, Part 3

A great pastoral leadership challenge is raising resources for the ministry of the church. I’m delighted to report that Scott Selman tells me our pastors and churches have participated in Connectional Giving in 2010 at the rate of over 80%. That’s the highest percentage in the last three years! It is wonderful that the majority of our churches, even in challenging economic times, found a way to contribute to Christ’s mission, a sign of the high level of leadership in our churches.

Dr. Hugh Ballou has done some great work in his transformational leadership seminars. Last year Dr. Ballou interviewed me on church leadership issues. Here is a part of that interview:

Ballou: Will, have you ever been to a boring, unproductive meeting?

Willimon: Are you kidding? That’s one of the major things that Bishops do!

Ballou: I live to put an end to the boring, unproductive meeting. How can we have more productive church meetings?

Willimon: The first thing is to keep your eye on the prize. Focus on fruit, on results, on productivity. Then, form the meeting on the basis of those goals.

This is a little thing, but it has been transformative for the meetings of our Cabinet, and that is 1) have an agenda, but 2) in the minutes, have the secretary put down action items with dates. And let those be highlighted in red. People complain that we go to these church meetings and we talk about everything (blah, blah, blah) and then it just dies – it goes nowhere. We never hear about it again. Christ calls us, not just to have good plans, good intentions, civil discussions, but also to action.

We begin every meeting in my Cabinet by going over the action items from the last meeting. That has really improved morale on the Cabinet. People know that if they have debated an idea that it will be responded to and not be left to die from passive aggressive neglect.

I’ve heard the laity complain that we preachers tend to have meetings in order to hear ourselves talk, in order to give ourselves the illusion that – since we have spent so long at a meeting – we have actually done something for the Kingdom. Well, I think that may be unfair, but I can see their point.

One thing that the gospel writers all agree upon, in their narratives of Jesus and his work, is that Jesus spoke and worked from a sense of urgency. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent! Believe! Follow!

I pray that this same sense of urgency, that sense that God presses urgent business upon us, will characterize our meetings. In that way, every one of our church meetings has the opportunity to become a true meeting between us and the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ.

For more information on the seminars, on-line coaching, and books by Hugh Ballou, visit

Will Willimon

Friday, January 21, 2011


Click here for the backstory on this post.

It didn’t take our new governor long to stumble with his comment that if you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, “You’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” It took the governor a long time to apologize, saying he didn’t mean to offend. I’ve heard from lots of United Methodists who are not so much offended by the governor’s remarks as concerned that he – perhaps unintentionally – misrepresented the Christian faith.

While I’m glad that our dermatologist governor wants to be our brother in Christ, I want to assure him that, in Christ, we already are brothers. Christians don’t only accept Christ, Wesleyan Christians want to obey Christ and one way we obey Christ is by regarding those who once were strangers as our kin.

A number of United Methodists (many of whom say they are political supporters of the governor) have expressed dismay at his comments. Aside from noting the gap between our new governor’s rather irenic Inaugural Address and these comments in the setting of a church, I feel a need to clarify that Christians do not view someone as “brother” or “sister” on the basis of that person’s alleged faith commitments or personal virtues but rather on the basis of what we know of God in Jesus Christ.

Jesus has taught us to pray, “Our Father,” which naturally requires us to regard all children of the Father as siblings.

Christians don’t’ regard others as our brothers and sisters because they are members of our church, they affirm our creed, or because they are nice people. We relate to others as Jesus has related to us – making us brothers and sisters, not by virtue of who we are but on the basis of who he is.

As a Methodist preacher I know nothing of governing or dermatology. All I really know for sure is that God so loved the world (including those who, in my sin, I have yet to recognize as my sisters and brothers), that God gave us his Son who has a considerably more expansive definition of family than those in my political party, biological family, or church. I wouldn’t have known that my fellow citizens of Alabama are my brothers and sisters if Jesus Christ had not known me.

Will Willimon

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pastoral Leadership Challenges, Part 2

Dr. Hugh Ballou has done some great work in his transformational leadership seminars. Last year Dr. Ballou interviewed me on church leadership issues. Here is a part of that interview:

Ballou: As you know, I teach Transformational Leadership. One important part of this style of leadership is the area of relationships. Speak to the staff relationship area and how important that is to ministry and then, ministry overall is about relationship, with those whom you lead.

Willimon: There was a time in my ministry that I would have said that it’s all relationships and that, in the ministry, you have the opportunity to develop some deep, meaningful relationships. A pastor can only lead as far as people trust you and that you can talk into things. While affirming that relationships are key and that they are absolutely essential, I think along with that has got to be a vivid sense and commitment to the vision, to the results, to what we are all here together producing. A basic question: how do we know when we have succeeded? Or to put it more like John Wesley, What is the fruit of this ministry? I mention this because, it seems like in contemporary United Methodism, I think this is the result of pietism running out, relationships have become just about everything. I go to meetings where it’s a two-hour meeting. We spend the first 30 minutes on the hospital list reporting who is in the hospital and then we have prayer for them. Or we go to a meeting and spend the first 30 minutes of a one-hour meeting going around the room and introducing ourselves and telling where we are from. I know it’s better to do hard work with people you really know. But I question if just knowing people’s names and knowing where people are from contributes a huge amount to the output of the meeting.

More troublesome is that the overstress on relationships is a way of avoiding more threatening questions of productivity and fruitfulness. “By your fruits you shall know them.” When Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah?” “Are you God’s way of loving us?” Jesus says, “You go and tell John the following specific, measurable fruits of my ministry.”

As a Bishop, I am in the middle of moving pastors now for the coming year. A church says, “Why are you moving our pastor? We love this pastor. She’s the most loving pastor we’ve ever had. She sees my family when they were in the hospital. We’ve never gotten along better with a pastor. Everybody loves her. Nobody criticizes her and she loves us. Why would you disrupt that? We’re better off than we’re ever been.”

In too many cases I am forced to say, “Looking at the numbers, you’ll be closed in about 8 to 10 years. You are basically moving out of the business of being a church judging by how many people you have attending on Sunday, your professions of faith, your finances.”

Then the response is, “You don’t care about anything but numbers.”

I’m simply noting that concerns about relationship can have a sad side. We need to keep telling ourselves that we are in the business of relationships as Christians because the mission Jesus Christ gives us. The most important “relationship” we have is the relationship to Jesus Christ and his mission.

Ballou: Absolutely! It supports the first piece we were talking about, clarity in the vision.

Willimon: I was just thinking about that. I love your stress on clarity. This week, this is my thing – clarity. I’ve just read a good book by Bill Brosen (Dean of Sewanee School of Theology) The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation, Then and Now. And Bill says that when he listens to sermons, the biggest problem is clarity, just simple clarity. You can’t figure out what the preacher is talking about. Bill says that it’s a kind of theological problem and a sense of indecision when a preacher is unable to say, “I’m going to go with this as my subject; I’m not going to go with that.” Expanding that to leadership in the church, I’d say that one of the problems we have in the church is that we have these ridiculously broad, multi-faceted expectations - increase of love of God and neighbor, or we want to have a loving, caring congregation, or we also want to change the world and transform America into a Christian society. It’s a recipe for never accomplishing anything and never feeling that God has done something good through us.

So, therefore, clarity becomes a huge thing. What is it that God is most importantly calling you to do? What is it that the church says and does than nobody else can say and do? My complaint about and over stress upon relationships is that I feel that I am often in settings where you ask what is the main thing you want to do and the group could truthfully say, “The main thing we want to do is to spend an hour and a half together with no conflict and no uncomfortableness and then we want to go home and we don’t want anybody to ask ‘why are we meeting, why is it important, what is expected of this gathering?’”

The one thing necessary is Jesus Christ and his mission; all else is secondary.

For more information on the seminars, on-line coaching, and books by Hugh Ballou, visit

Will Willimon

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pastoral Leadership Challenges

Dr. Hugh Ballou has done some great work in his transformational leadership seminars. Last year Dr. Ballou interviewed me on church leadership issues. Here is a part of that interview:

Ballou: As you work with the churches in your conference what perspective can you give our readers leading in many types of churches about this area of foundations?

Willimon: An important foundation for a leader in the church is a sense of being called to do it. We pastors must be convinced that God really wants us to do what we do. In a broad sense we feel that we are here because I have been sent here. Methodists practice what we call a “sent ministry,” that is that you can’t be hired to do it you have to be sent to do ministry. This is a core United Methodist belief. At key moments that becomes very important to a pastoral leader to believe that God is in this and that I am here because God means for it to be this way.

Ballou: I work also with leadership in the business work that have their own idea of how it should be. In the context of church leadership, we are implementing God’s vision with a sense of calling. It this your sense?

Willimon: Yes, that’s a good statement, just what I’d expect of a Presbyterian! Whatever work a Christian does is supposed to be vocational. I think we are talking of a kind of transcendent sense of why we’re here. I’m not here simply managing the moment, but I’m here from some larger panorama that is being worked out through my little faithfulness right here.

Ballou: As you know I served the church for over 40 years. You knew me when I served a church in North Alabama. One of the things I have observed is that on a Myers-Briggs scale, both pastors and musicians have a dominant profile of introvert. How does this effect leadership?

Willimon: I remember reading where one observes that tendency toward introversion among clergy. The first thing is – acknowledge it and also acknowledge it as a real challenge. I remember reading that actors tend to be introverts. Which is counter intuitive – people on stage projecting, playing a role, communicating, which says to me that this is one thing that attracted them to the role of acting. They like cultivating and developing a kind of “unnatural” aspect of their personalities. I would say, it’s hard for me, (maybe it’s because I’m an extrovert, although I don’t remember how I score on the Myers-Briggs) but I do think that the parish ministry is essentially an extroverted activity. You’re in a politically charged situation. You’re a public leader. You’re up on view. You’ve got to find a way to work that. I am thinking of some pastors who are very shy, but they get over that shyness when they are leading their church or they work their shyness in a very positive way.

I got into some difficulty with some people in my book, Pastor, where I just said that I thought it was problematic if one was introverted and a pastor because so much of a pastor’s work is “political,” that is, it’s very public. Many of my seminarians, confirming what you said, were introverted people. They like to think about ideas, they like to think about God, and they like to be alone with a book, or in meditation. That’s great, except, at some point, they have to be comfortable with standing up in front of a group and saying, “Hey gang, I’ve got a vision of this, let’s go with it. Who wants to go with me? What can I do to talk you in to this?” It’s helpful to acknowledge shyness or introversion and then to ask God to work with it.

For more information on the seminars, on-line coaching, and books by Hugh Ballou, visit

Will Willimon

Monday, January 03, 2011

Prayer for a New Year

Christmastide ends this week as we move into New Year’s. As Christians we are reminded through the mystery of the Incarnation that we cross the threshold into a New Year not alone – God is with us. Thanks be to God!

By your grace, dear Lord, you have given us this New Year.

We give you thanks for more time to enjoy your goodness, more time to serve you, another year to show forth your glory that all may see your light shine through us and might come to faith in your Lordship and membership in your Kingdom.

Continue, Lord, to make all things new, even us. We move into a new year with some fears about the future. Give us faith that we venture into a New Year led by you and that you will give us all we need faithfully to serve you and courageously to follow you where you lead us.

Bless your church, we pray, set today amid new challenges and new threats. Give us what we need to meet the challenges and enable us not to be intimidated by the threats. Inspire all preachers with a fresh sense of the power and the urgency of your gospel. Fill each of our congregations with renewed vitality for the tasks that are set before them. Give us, we are bold to pray, wisdom, grace, and courage equal to the assignments that you will give us during the coming year. Help us to have half as much faith in ourselves and our discipleship as you have placed in us by calling us to be your disciples.

For all that has been, we give thanks. For all that is to be, we give you our determination to be half as faithful to you in the New Year as you have been to us in the past. Amen.

Will Willimon