Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Word Made Flesh

It’s a story so strange we could not have dreamed it up by ourselves, this story of how God was incarnate in Jesus the Christ. An embarrassing pregnancy, a poor peasant couple forced to become undocumented immigrants in Egypt soon after the birth of their baby, King Herod’s slaughter of the Jewish boy babies in a vain attempt to put an end to this new “King,” From the beginning the story of Jesus is the strangest story of all. A Messiah who avoids the powerful and the prestigious and goes to the poor and dispossessed? A Savior who is rejected by many of those whom he sought to save? A King who reigns from a bloody cross? Can this one with us be God?

And yet Christians believe that this story, for all its strangeness, is true. Here we have a truthful account of how our God read us back into the story of God. This is a truthful depiction not only of who God really is but also of how we who were lost got found, redeemed, restored, and saved by a God who refused to let our rejection and rebellion (our notorious “God problem”) be the final word in the story.

Jesus the Christ (“Christ” means “Messiah,” “The Anointed One”) was a human being, a man who was born in a human family, attended parties (he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard by his critics), moved constantly around the area of Galilee, ran afoul of the governmental and religious authorities, taught through short, pithy stories (“parables”), did a number of surprising and utterly inexplicable “signs and wonders,” and eventually was tortured to death in a horribly cruel form of capital punishment which the Romans used against troublesome Jews and rebellious trouble makers. A few days later Jesus’ astonished followers proclaimed to the world that Jesus had been raised from the dead and had returned to them, commissioning them to continue his work. (This aspect of the story has always been somewhat of a reach for those who prefer their gods to be aloof, ethereal, and at some distance from the grubby particularities of this world.)

While these are roughly the historical facts of Jesus from Nazareth, as is so often the case, the raw facts don’t tell the whole story. From the first many knew that Jesus was not only a perceptive, challenging teacher (“rabbi,” teacher, was a favorite designation for Jesus) but was also uniquely God present (“Emmanuel,” means “God with us”). In a very short time Paul (whose letters are the earliest writings in the New Testament) could acclaim crucified and resurrected Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, the Christ, the one who was the full revelation of God. Jesus was not only a loving and wise teacher; Jesus was God Almighty doing something decisive about the problems between us creatures and the Creator.

This is the story we Christians name as “Incarnation.” It is a strange, inexplicable story that we happen to believe is true, the story that explains everything, the key to what’s going on between us and God. It is the story that we encounter each year at Advent, that season of reflection and penitence before Christmas.

It’s Advent. The church gives us the grace of four Sundays to get ourselves prepared for the jolt of once again being encountered by the Word made flesh, God with us.

Happy Advent.
William Willimon

Monday, November 21, 2011

When “Mine” Becomes “Thine”

S.T. Kimbrough, a great treasure of our Conference, is the foremost living scholar on the hymns of Charles Wesley. S. T. called my attention to Wesley’s hymn, “Happy the Multitude,” in which Wesley says that we Christians should banish “mine” from our vocabulary. On this week of Thanksgiving, pray with me this prayer, Wesley’s poetic response to Acts 4:32, “The multitude of them that believed, were of one heart, and one soul; neither said any of them, that aught of the things which he possessed, was his own, but they had all things in common. Neither was there any among them that lacked.”

It’s good to be reminded that our faith was born in the miracle of religious conversion that led to economic transformation as those who had previously been taught that their possessions were “mine” became born again to see that all we have is God’s (“thine”).

One of the most miraculous transformations that God works in the heart of the Christian is, in a culture of consumption and material aggrandizement, is the transformation from seeing the world as essentially “mine” to “thine.”

1. Happy the multitude
(But far above our sphere)
Redeemed by Jesus’ blood
From all we covet here!
To him, and to each other joined,
They all were of one heart and mind.

3. Their goods were free to all,
Appropriated to none,
While none presumed to call
What he possessed his own;
The difference base of thine and mine
Was lost in charity Divine.

4. No overplus, no need,
No rich or poor were there,
Content with daily bread
Where all enjoyed their share;
With every common blessing blessed
They nothing had, yet all possessed.

S.T. Kimbrough, The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley (Nashville: Kingswood, 1992), 2:295–96.

Happy Thanksgiving.
William Willimon

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Transformational Ministry

The Reverend Mary Bendall has been leading a remarkable ministry at Tuscaloosa First. She and Ken Dunivant are working a remarkable transfromation of this historic, beloved congregation, leading it into the future. Having visited "The Bridge" on a number of ocassions, having met with the worship leaders of this dynamic, contemporary service, I asked Mary to relate what she has been doing, how she has been leading, and the things that worked. Here is Mary's response.
Will Willimon

Approach to Pastoral Ministry: My job is not to personally do every task of ministry. But rather to develop people who in turn create a really great community of faith. I believe there is a significant difference in those two approaches. It was tough at first to realize and accept that I am not the one anymore who gets to teach every class, or set the table or arrange the bread and juice, or make the bulletin board, or offer every prayer, or light every candle. I try as much as possible to be clear on what my responsibility is as the pastor, and what is the responsibility of the people of the church. I think that as pastors we can inadvertently hold the church back when we operate with the mindset that we have to have our hands in everything. I’ve learned that a church becomes a place where people want to be only when pastors spend time developing people, and then releasing the ministry to them. I think people don’t join churches, or attend them, because of the band/choir or the preacher. When we clergy are having down-feeling days we are tempted to believe that we are doing something so great that people are coming to see us. Dangerous, misguided thought. Actually, I feel like people join churches, or get up early on the weekends to attend a church, because of two things: the people of the church were warm and seemed real (or at least not as horrible and hypocritical as the last time they tried church) and, secondly, they walk out of worship having encountered the Holy even if just for a fleeting moment. A moment in worship with the God who changes lives. That’s worth coming back for.

Strengths-Based Ministry Emphasis
: I believe that serving and leading from our God-given strengths is a pretty good way to do things. Five years ago we began lifting up and naming strengths and why knowing your strengths matters. I began to actively help church members identify and develop their talents and strengths. Just having the conversation helps people to connect the dots that a life of faith is about doing also, not just being. In other words, as great as it is to come to worship on Sunday mornings, what matters most is what you do with yourself and who you are becoming because of your faith. When my language shifted to that I began to see a difference in our church. This September we begin our 15th round of Ministry by Strengths classes. At the end of the six-week class I have individual strengths conversations with each person in the class about what they sense from God about their next steps in life and ministry and serving. Beyond taking the Ministry by Strengths class we expect people to find a place to serve and to continue to grow. I intentionally have conversations with church members about their strengths and how they are using them. And because of that, they in turn have those same conversations with one another, and that is really where you see some good fruit. Church members having conversations with other church members about calling and fruit and life and strengths and God. That is good stuff. Having had close to 300 people in our church take the class, we have been able to start to shape the culture around the idea that God call us to serve in the area of our greatest natural strength. We used to have one designated day where people could sign up for a ministry. That worked well for several years. We discovered that we really had a need for a mechanism that would help someone new get involved right away. We created ServeLINK – our catalog of serving opportunities. It contains descriptions of almost all of our ministry/outreach/mission/serving opportunities. It is on our website (www.fumct.org) and people can simply register whenever they would like to. Printed copies of ServeLINK are also available throughout the church, along with brochures about the major areas of the church. All new members are given a “new member packet” which contains the brochures and a copy of ServeLINK. This helped us expand our recruiting by giving the congregation the opportunity to sign up 24/7. We also created GroupLINK which is where they can sign up for classes and small groups.

Worship Design:
The area of worship design is one of the most important things that we do. Sunday morning is our greatest opportunity to connect with people. (For all intents and purposes, it is my “game day” – yes, I’ve lived in Tuscaloosa too long ;)) But we really only have one shot to get it right, to create an environment where people can connect with God and each other. Sunday morning is very important. As Robert Schnase observes in his Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, one hour of passionate worship affects all other hours of the week. I have found that the best way to make Sunday morning rich and meaningful is to empower teams of church members to design and implement it. Pastoral duties are mine, but everything else is done by the people of the church. I lead the Bridge design team which is comprised of the leaders of each of the Bridge ministry teams. We have met just about every Tuesday night for the past six and a half years. It is the reason the Bridge works. It is labor intensive and demanding. It requires advance planning and teaching church members how to design worship. It is not always the quickest way to plan worship, but we have seen time and time again it is a really, really good way to do it. At our weekly sessions, we work together to design, imagine, dream, create, implement and then evaluate each and every Sunday. Watching people move from attending a worship service to becoming the leader of a team that implements the service, and watching them discover their strengths, build upon those strengths, and then put their own blood, sweat and tears into making the Bridge work is a beautiful thing.

Measuring Results:
I count and measure and name everything. I have learned in my D. Min. program the value of measuring. It was once said at a class that “you measure the things you can so that you can experience the things that cannot be measured.” Counting is huge. You can ask our team, sometimes they wonder about my constant reminders to get accurate numbers on things. I count vertically and horizontally. I track our worship attendance of course and look for trends. But, I also count horizontally – I track what is happening to people the longer they are part of this place. In my mind, high vertical numbers with low horizontal numbers is a problem, so I work to set up opportunities and processes for people to come in to the church and then move horizontally, so to speak, into deeper involvement and serving and ministry. And then into leadership roles. Every number is a person, a story, a life. To me, that is worth keeping up with. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a privilege, truly.

Rev. Mary Bendall
Tuscaloosa First UMC

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Turn Around

After serving well as a member of the Bishop’s Cabinet, Lori Carden was appointed to our beloved but troubled congregation in Columbiana. Lori is leading a dramatic rebirth there. I asked her to share some of her leadership insights with the rest of us. One thing that makes this narrative remarkable is that I ordained Lori! Only a couple of years ago!

Will Willimon

Dear Bishop,

Upon reading your request I thought to myself, “He wants to know what is working? Well heck, working is what is working.” I humbly submit that I don’t have grand initiatives to carry us forward for years to come. My ministry has been more fundamental than that. I am simply working!

I set personal goals for myself. I make a minimum of nine contacts each week. I send three personal emails or cards, I make three phone calls and I make a minimum of three personal visits each week. In the book “Making a Good Move” by Michael J. Coyner this is part of what is known as “paying the rent”. If I stay focused in accomplishing this each week, then by the end of the year, allowing for two weeks vacation, I will have made a minimum of 450 contacts with my flock per year.

I spend time in prayer for my people. Don’t just blow this off as some pious statement. Seriously, I spend an hour each week with the directory in hand, looking at the photos, thinking of the people, asking God to bless them and to give pastoral discernment as to how to love them and lead them.

I took time to listen to as many people as possible. This was difficult because much of what I heard was repetitive. The opinions were strong and divided. It was very very hard for me not to offer rebuttals, take a side, and offer promises or to jump into a fix-it mode. Pastors need to use their ears not just their mouths. We have to check our defensiveness at the door. I possess a strong personality, so this took much prayer. After I had listened to them, I found most of them to be happy to listen to me.

I held a “state of the church dinner” and spoke to all of them at once. I called for complete transparency in all activities and works of the church. I spoke plainly and deliberately. I told them I was not there to worry about “hurting feelings” or who “might get mad and leave” but to lead us in Christ’s mission. I named the elephants. This takes a tedious balance of courage and humility. I spoke and watched as eyebrows raised and heads nodded in affirmation. They then knew that I was not afraid of much and was there to care for the good of God’s church first and foremost. The people here welcomed such candor and it seemed to bring us closer. I will hold these dinners twice per year.

I expect much and we do much. We must never underestimate God’s people. Let’s face it; our churches are filled with brilliant people and specialists of every kind. Pastors don’t know it all. It is our job to offer direction for people to engage their gifts. However, pastors have a large role to play in helping churches own and shape their identity.For example, I was told that this church pretty well shuts down for the summer, giving people “a break” and that it always has. I asked what I thought was a good question, “What are we breaking from?” I was told that the leaders were tired. My response was that we need fresh leaders and servants. I met with people and declared that we were not doing any less for the summer than any other time of the year. We kept our Wed. night children’s program going. All teams and councils met as usual.

I raised the bar. Now, worship attendance did drop again for summer this year as I had been warned, but people now know that the church doesn’t stop. I have great expectations and hopes for next summer’s attendance and involvement to be even better. It takes time to change the norms of a church but it can be done. Dare to declare and direct people! Pastoring is not for wimps!! At the end of the day this church enjoyed doing more for Christ and community. The people must never be underestimated. Just challenge them to be the great gifted people that they are

I began to teach an “Adult confirmation” class that teaches people what it means to be a Christian who is part of the UMC. Long time members and new members of all ages, our oldest is 87 our youngest 24, meet together for several sessions learning about our heritage, our theology, and our mission.

Staffing adjustments and changes were necessary. Not easy work but vital work. Just do it! Though we now have a great team for which I am most grateful, I know that it is never concrete. People come and go. Life happens. It is so sad when churches fail to recognize this fact of life and fearfully fail to address staffing matters.

As I prepared to answer your request I met with four of our key leaders and asked, “What is working with my leadership and what is not?” All noted the following;

1. My leadership is gutsy, honest and speaks truth. The State of the Church dinner was a hit!

2. I am present with presence. I teach, I visit, I preach, I counsel, I have office hours. I play with kids in VBS. (I had six people thank me for coming to VBS. Can you believe that?)

3. I equip by modeling. Then I trust people to do it better than I did it.

4. I lead. As one guy put it, “We know who the leader is without a doubt.” I also praise people when they earn praise.

5. I speak the name of Jesus and of the power of the Holy Spirit. I do a great deal of sermon preparation and preach directly from the text. Not topics with textual passages thrown in, but text with relevant correlations thrown in. There is a difference! So many people have thanked me for “preaching from the Bible”.

As far as any constructive criticism that was offered, each one said, “Just please, don’t give up and don’t stop and take care of yourself.” I asked them to hold me to account on taking my day or two off each week. I need that accountability.

I am serving a church that has been taught that as long as the district apportionments and pastor’s compensations were paid that they were doing enough. I will not take a raise in pay until annual conference apportionments are paid in full. (Even though I need the money to pay off my seminary debts) I am working to educate the people on the good that connectional giving affords. They don’t need a heavy hand on this matter but a healed and fresh perspective.

Pastors have been given the task of holding up and onto our identity before God’s people. As I tell my children, “Remember who you are whose you are”.

This is one of our basic yet most essential tasks as pastors.

Loving the Challenge,

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Ancient Theory for New Math

Paula Calhoun is leading an amazing congregational relocation, a virtual new church start at Stepping Stone UMC. A beginning to Paula's ministry has been her work in Scouting. I got to help the Boy Scouts of America celebrate their one hundredth anniversary. (I was a scout during their fiftieth.) Paula shows how scouting can be a means of evangelizing a new generation.

- Will Willimon

Albert Einstein said: “If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts.” I’m neither a physicist nor a mathematician—far from it! But I believe a theory can be used or practiced in order to change the facts.

I’ll give an example. I’m hesitant to use the ‘e’ word, but I’ll say it: evangelism often raises the anxiety level in Christian disciples. We believe in the concept and especially the theology; it’s the practice that sometimes provokes our pause. But to quote Einstein again: “God always takes the simplest way.” Looking back on God’s story, relationship multiplies or increases, including people and blessings. Or, to put it another way: relationship equals evangelism. It’s an ancient theory from a God who scores high in math! (See God with Abram and Sarai, aka Abraham and Sarah[i], or more recently: Jesus and a Woman of Samaria[ii], The Holy Spirit and the Apostle Peter at Pentecost[iii]).

Please hear me—I’m not there, yet. But I’m beginning to see multiplication in a more simple way and I believe facts can be changed by relationship—with God, with self and all others. One means of relationship can be exercised through scouts: Cub, Boy, and Girl Scouts in all their age groups.

I’m sure most of you are way ahead of me on this; so please join the conversation. After all, I grew up in a rural area of Alabama where scouting was not offered. I don’t know why. My parents drove me into town for piano lessons. My sisters took dance lessons. But we didn’t know to ask, “Why doesn’t someone—why doesn’t our church—start a scout troop?”

My entry into scouting came as an adult through the local church. I wouldn’t call the introduction a positive encounter. Standing in a dank fellowship hall smelling of mold and brittle crayons, I listened to stories of the large scout troop that once met there. I could still hear the faint echo of their feet and voices. But it was their feet that brought on the trouble and another “r” word—ruin.

The church council chair loved a pretty tile floor and every week, rain or shine, the fellowship hall floor got tracked up in some way: smudges in the wax finish, sandy grey mud from the parking lot or a few blobs of pizza sauce from the monthly Pack meeting (scouts and leaders practice clean-up, but it’s not a perfect process). And so, the church powers charged with carrying out the Gospel moved a new and not-good-news policy into being: “There will be no scout troop in this church.”

Standing there listening and looking at the spotless, now cracked tile floor in an empty space that leaked life far too long: I wondered if scouts and the ‘new rule’ started the decay and decline. Or—did the decay and decline prompt the thoughts and conversation that grew to fever pitch over a floor that could be mopped!

Thankfully, I came across another church and another and another that celebrate the scouts hosted by local churches. Does it sometimes get messy? Well, do our homes get messy if people live and grow there? Of course! But what a relief to experience life! Movement. Voices. Touch. Smiles. Laughter. And good work. Work that teaches and shapes, supports and guides.

Maybe we’ve hit on a revised theory: S = R = G = G x G. I confessed I’m not good at math! Let me put it another way: ‘Scouts equal Relationships that equal Gospel that equals Grace that multiplies Growth.’

It’s true we never begin with the end at heart, as in: let’s start and support scout troops so that we can grow our church. You can probably think of a good term for that kind of motivation. However—practicing relationship through scouting often prompts us to grow in a variety of ways, including new people, new disciples.

How do we work or practice the theory in order to change the facts? We start with simple gifts and servant ministry. If scouts meet at your local church, contact the leader and ask how you can help; go to one of their meetings or share a fireside event at their next camp-out (your presence is a wonderful gift!). If you enjoy serving in the kitchen, bake cupcakes or cookies for their next meeting. Prepare or help pay for their next pizza party…and if the floor doesn’t shine, grab a mop and make Jesus smile!

If your church already shows hospitality to scouts, here’s a salute to your generous grace! Not involved yet? Invite or begin a new troop in order to practice an ancient, but simple theory: relationship multiplies people and blessings. Act quickly to help change the facts. I look forward to seeing you September 2012 at The Methodist Encampment (more info coming soon)!

Paula Calhoun