Tuesday, July 31, 2007



God is doing great things through North Alabama’s ordination process. The entire probationary process has been changed. Commissioned probationers are now Residents in Ministry and the probationary process is now called Residence in Ministry (RIM). Mentors are trained coaches. Instead of seeming to be a series of hoops to negotiate, the group process will actually have purpose, meaning and consistency.

Each year of the residency process is now organized around a specific theme chosen for its practical application and usefulness in the professional development of new clergy. The first year of the residency process is built around workshops and seminars focused on ministerial identity. The focus in the second year of residency is ministerial leadership – all those skills pastors wish they had learned in seminary. The focus of the final year of residency is on integration and building a bridge that connects the experience of residency with the life of an ordained pastor.


North Alabama wants more effective clergy. We want our clergy to be more than just prepared and available for service. We want and need clergy who produce a deep, striking or vivid impression.

An example of pastors who are more effective is the recent urban/rural mission trip organized by two of our younger clergy. The youth of two different races and cultures (i.e. inner-city Birmingham and rural Appalachia) served together in each other’s neighborhoods. They not only did mission but grew in their understanding of “who is my neighbor” as well as made friends with some unlikely people. Go to
(http://www.northalabamaumc.org/news_detail.asp?PKValue=193) to read the full and vivid story.


Why in the world would anyone want to come to North Alabama to serve as an ordained minister? Sure you get to serve under Bishop Willimon. But the best reason (sorry Bishop!) is because God is doing great things here!


If you have either read this far or skipped down to the last part of the blog, then you may wonder to whom Bishop Willimon would be willing to turn over his blog. Well, my name is Amelia Sims and I have been given the wonderful opportunity to be the director of this new RIM program. As an ordained elder, I have been through the process as well as the have authority and experience to make this the best RIM program that will positively impact the effectiveness of ministers, churches and Christians in North Alabama.

God is working in North Alabama. Impressive ministry is happening here. You may be intrigued or want to know more. Maybe you are struggling with a call to ministry. Perhaps you are in the midst of college or seminary and are unsure where God is calling you to serve. You may see your own gifts, graces and strengths as needing a place to thrive and become impressive. If you want to know more about God’s work in the most and least likely places in North Alabama, just drop me an email at asims@northalabamaumc.org.

In Christ, Amelia Sims

Great Managers

The Cabinet and I have read a book together. The book is published by the Gallup Organization and is the result of a massive study of middle level managers and how they contribute to effective organizations. Seen from one perspective, District Superintendents are middle level managers. First Break All the Rules is a guidebook for how managers can help their employees be more successful. I thought that you might enjoy seeing my notes on the book, which I distributed to the Cabinet at one of our meetings.

(Marcus Burkingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules, Simon and Schuster, 1999, the Gallup Organization.)

Talented and gifted employees need good managers. (Substitute “District Superintendent” for “Manger” in this book. I think it works amazingly well.) How do the world’s greatest managers, find, focus, and keep their most talented employees? The manager is more important than any other factor in building a productive work place. It is better to work for a good manager in a bad company than to work for a bad manager in a good company.

Basic Questions by the employee that reveal the quality of management: Do I know what is expected of me at work? Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my job right? Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best everyday? In the last seven days have I received recognition and praise for good work? Does my supervisor care about me as a person? Is there someone at work who encourages my further development?

Every manager wants to get a positive response to these questions with every employee.

Great managers honor the unique differences with different individuals. Rather than bemoan those differences, they try to work with them, to try to accentuate their virtues, rather than work against them. People don’t change much. Don’t waste time trying to take out what was put in, rather strengthen what was put in. The manager reaches inside each employee, one employee at a time, and releases that employee’s unique powers. The manger’s role is a catalyst role, the one who speeds up the interaction between various substances in a situation. The manager becomes a catalyst to enable this situation in which an employee finds herself to be a learning and growing situation. Good managers become catalysts in four ways: they select a person, set expectations, motivate the person, and develop the person. These are the manager’s most important responsibilities.

You select a person. This demands clear-headedness. You must know how much of a person can you change. You must know the difference between talent, skills, and knowledge. You must know which one of these can be taught, and which cannot. You must know how to ask the questions that cut through a candidates desire to impress and reveal his or her true talents.

You must set performance expectations. You must balance the need for standardization, with the organization's need for creativity and flair.

You must be able to motivate. The main thing you have to invest is your time. You should spend as much time with your best people as your strugglers.

You must be able to develop the employee. We need to be masters at teaching and growth. You must combine closeness with sobriety of judgment about the person.

These are the four core activities of the catalyst role. If managers get distracted from these main activities, the organization will suffer.

Those of you who know the role of managers (District Superintendents) in United Methodism can see the possible connections with this book. Forgive me for saying, in a book a few years ago, that the United Methodist Church is “over managed and under led.” Leaders tend to be strategic thinkers, they look outward, look at the competition, look beyond today. Managers tend to look inward, toward the performance of the organization, in unleashing each employee’s ability to perform. Managers are absolutely essential. Without managers, the all-important catalyst role will be neglected.

I thought you might enjoy these insights from a management book and that you might join us in our rethinking of the role of the District Superintendent.

William H. Willimon

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rules of Transformative Leadership (Continued)

Last week I introduced Tony Robinson’s Rules for Transformative Leadership. A number of you report that Tony’s rules have provided some helpful insight into your own pastoral leadership style. This week I list the final five of Tony’s rules for pastors who would be more than mere managers:

1. Don’t overvalue consensus. Pastors tend to want to bring everyone along with all congregational moves. But intransigent individuals should be given the dignity of not approving of and not participating in every ministry of the church. Not everything needs to be put to a vote. Sometimes we need to ask members who have grave reservations about some course of action to trust those who want to move. Things can be evaluated later. If we wait until everyone is on board, we disempower those who are ready to take risks, and risk takers are usually in short supply in most churches. There may even be rare, difficult times when a pastor must be willing to split a congregation, be willing to let dissident, obdurate members disaffiliate with the congregation. Pastors are called to a ministry of reconciliation and peace making, yes. But we are also called to ministries of transformation, rebirth, and renewal. In order for something to be transformed, its old form must give way to the new, and that can be painful but the pain must be endured, expected, even welcomed, if there is to be new life.

2. Count the yes votes. We sometimes worry too much about those who are not yet ready to move, or may never be ready to move than we worry about those who are bored, frustrated, and disheartened when too little takes too long to happen in the church. I confess that I tend, as a preacher, to hear the voices of the two sermon critics long after I have forgotten the praise of the dozen who like my sermon. Sometimes we need to let the enthusiastic lay leaders go ahead, counting the yes votes. Rarely will a majority support a new ministry from the first, particularly if the new ministry requires risk. One caveat: never launch into a church building program if the vote is 52-48!

3. Create a new working group for a new job. Established structures tend to protect the status quo. Established boards love to say, No. If there is a new ministry to be done, you probably ought to create a new committee, composed of those who feel called to this work, to do the job. Ask the established boards not to stand in the way of new movements within the congregation, promising them an opportunity to help with later evaluation of the initiative.

4. Change by addition, not subtraction. It is easier to get approval to begin a project than to kill an established ministry. Why mobilize the supporters of the established program against you by declaring it dead and ready for burial? Go ahead with new initiatives. If the new program succeeds, people will gradually rally around it. People are more likely to let go of the old if they have something new to embrace.

5. Be persistent. Change, no matter how obviously needed, inevitably provokes resistance. Resistance, particularly where the matter is our devotion to and service of God, can be deep and unrelenting. Constancy is one of the essential virtues for Christian ministry, as we shall underscore in this book's last chapter. Robinson advises, “Don’t give up too soon.” Studies indicate that it takes about five years before a pastor has gained the trust of a congregation to make significant, threatening change. For many women pastors, it seems to take even longer. Count on a couple of more years before you see significant fruit. In a mobile society, where transiency is the norm, pastors must be in for the long haul if they are to be truly transformative leaders. Those of us (United Methodists) who cherish a proud tradition of pastoral itinerancy may need to admit that a long pastorate has become a countercultural witness in a culture where everyone is on the move.

In visits to countless congregations, and in my own pastoral experience, I have come to the rather frightening conclusion that pastors are a decisive element in the vitality and mission of the church. To be sure, as we have said repeatedly, the pastor is not to assume all ministry in the church. The baptized are the chief ministers in the name of Christ. Pastors are to lead through service rather than dominance. The Holy Spirit is the source of all ministry. But having said all that, we still must say that the pastor is decisive. The pastor's mood and attitude sets the tone for the congregation, conveys hope and energy to the people, hurts and heals, binds and releases. Sometimes, as a pastor, I wish it were not so, but it is. What Jesus wants for the church must become incarnate in a pastor or, in my experience, it does not happen.

I recall a distinguished church growth consultant who, in a workshop on congregational development, spent more than an hour listing all of the factors that were relevant to the vitality and growth of a congregation. There must have been more than two score of such factors listed. Then he led us in discussion. The first person to speak was a layperson who asked, "But don't you think the pastor is a key factor in all of this?"

The consultant replied, "Oh, certainly. If the pastor's leadership is lacking, you can discount everything that I have listed on the board. All of these factors contribute to growth. But if the pastor is inadequate, none of the factors that I have listed make any difference."

William H. Willimon

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Rules of Transformative Leadership

In previous emails I have noted that we pastors must conceive of ourselves as transformers rather than mere managers. Fidelity to Christ means a willingness to change, to be transformed. Pastor Anthony Robinson helpfully lists ten “rules of leadership” that are particularly applicable for pastors who serve congregations where people are resistant to change. [i] They are a good list of working principles for pastors who want to be transformative leaders within the congregation. I’ll list five of Tony’s rules this week and five in next week’s email:

1. Give responsibility back. When a layperson says, “Somebody ought to be doing this,” Robinson says he learned, as a pastor, to say, “That sounds like just the thing God may be calling you to do.” We must, in our pastoral leadership, help the laity reclaim that baptismally bestowed ministry.

2. Expect trouble. Too many pastors see themselves exclusively as peacemakers, reconcilers. Most of us pastors like to be liked, enjoy pleasing people. But conversion is inherently part of the Christian faith. The call for relinquishment of one belief and the embrace of another can produce conflict. People do not give up power easily. Sometimes, the congregation is dependent upon the pastor to ignite needed changes within the congregation. I vividly recall a morning after an unusually stormy board meeting. I sat in my study wondering what went wrong. Had I pushed too soon? Should I have been more patient? Ought I to have been more careful in my advocacy of a controversial position? Then I turned to the work at hand, preparation for next Sunday’s sermon from the Gospel of Mark. As is typical of Mark, the text was a story of conflict. Jesus preached. The congregation reacted in anger and rejection. It was as if a light went on in my brain, as if a voice from the text which asked, “Now what about your situation do you find surprising? Jesus encountered trouble. Are you a better preacher than Jesus?" Trouble comes with the territory when the truth is involved.

3. Value small steps. It is a virtue to have a long range vision, but it is essential for the pastor to realize that one gets there by a series of many small steps. There appears to be something inherent within the nature of the gospel that values small things - the widow’s coin, the pearl of great price, the few seed that fell upon good soil - small things that the world regards of low account. Robinson urges us to remember -- as we have the one-to-one conversation, as we teach the only two children who showed up for Sunday School, or visit the one sick person -- that the Exodus from slavery began with one step toward the Promised Land.

4. Plan. If you do not know where you are going, almost any road will take you there. Laity complain about the wasted time and dissipated energy that result from having no long range vision for the congregation, no means of holding ourselves accountable, no way to know when we have actually accomplished something and ought to celebrate. Planning helps keep a church on course, enables a pastor to prioritize pastoral time and focus energies in a commonly conceived direction.

5. Identify the vital few. Who are those who like to get things done? Who in the congregation can be counted upon to make things happen? You may not be able to rely on the officially elected leaders in order to initiate transformation. Sometimes the traditional leadership structure has too much at stake in preserving the status quo. Don’t tackle too many things at once; stick with the few things that are essential and possible. Give the congregation a few victories to celebrate rather than risk constantly being overwhelmed with many defeats.

Next week I’ll list Tony’s final five rules of transformative pastoral leadership. Let’s each of us measure our ministry by Robinson’s rules and rate our own effectiveness as pastoral leaders.

Willimon H. Willimon

[i] Anthony B. Robinson, “Lessons in Leadership,” Christian Century, (December 15, 1999), pp. 1230-1231.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Leadership Is About Change

Lovett Weems has written a helpful book on leading change in the local church -- Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003). Over the next few weeks, I will focus on some of his insights that are of relevance to pastoral leadership. Here are some highlights from his book that grabbed my attention and stimulated my thinking about pastors as leaders of change in the congregation:

Leadership is about change. However, change is also one of the toughest tasks that leadership faces. “People don’t want change. They just want things to get better,” says R. M. Kanter. Though organisms can adapt, they adaptation is very slow, and there is an actual inclination of all groups to resist change.

However, as people of faith, we have no option but to change, because change is part of God’s will for us. We believe in conversion. One of the attractions of religious institutions is that they help people to change.

Nancy T. Ammerman says, “The most common response to change, in fact, is to perceive as business as usual.”

Radical change is rare. Today’s management experts say that leaders need to reject revolution in favor of more gradual change. If change-oriented leaders are not careful, they can impose more stress on an organization than they can bear, and end up destroying what makes that organization viable. Leaders must emphasize continuity and constantly monitor just how much change an organization can bear, even as they are leading for change.

Bill Shore says, “Leadership is getting people to a place they would not get to on their own.”

Unfortunately, I fear that most of us pastors think of ourselves as caregivers to the congregation, maintainers of the status quo, rather than agents of change. Weems is calling us to another perspective on our vocation, a perspective that is informed by our theological commitments..

William H. Willimon

Monday, July 02, 2007


One of the most frequent questions I get is, “You say that we must do a better job of evaluating clergy effectiveness. How is it possible to define ‘effectiveness’"

I believe that those of us who are charged with the ministry of administration must get better at evaluating and rewarding clergy effectiveness. Thus the book that was read by the Cabinet, Marcus Burkingham and Curt Coffman,First, Break All the Rules (Simon and Schuster, 1999, the Gallup Organization), stimulated our thinking. One of the most important responsibilities of managers (read: District Superintendents) is to evaluate performance. Here are some of my notes from the book:

Managers make a mistake to believe that some outcomes defy definition.

A manager wants to turn talent into performance: There must be accuracy, standards must rule, don’t let the creed overshadow the message.

Focus upon each person’s strengths, work around his weaknesses, and don’t try to perfect them. Conventional wisdom says that “you can be anything you choose to be, there is a real you awaiting to be discovered and developed, within you.” This conventional wisdom is wrong. Conventional wisdom then says to identify your weaknesses and fix them. You can waste a lot of precious time on this. A bad relationship is not one in which your partner does not know you, it is one in which your partner knows you quite well and wishes you were utterly otherwise. The less effective manager believes that he or she is a mentor. This means that he is constantly in the role of a critic, a rearranger. Great managers help an employee to identify talents and then to develop those talents. They manage by exception. They spend most of their time with their best people.

Managers identify talents by watching an employee’s behavior over time. They want to manage the talents, to the requirements of the role. An aggressive person is matched to a role that requires someone who lights a fire.

We must manage by exception. Beware of all application of rules. Treat each employee according to his or her needs. New managers invest in their best. They spend most of their time with their best people. If you spend too much time with your strugglers, it is a sign that you are into control, rather than coaching and teaching. The manager’s best role is that of a catalyst, turning talent into productivity. Try to figure out better ways to unleash the distinctive talents of the person.

What about fairness? Fairness does not mean treating everyone the same. The better performance, the more time the manger spends with that person. This becomes an incentive. You cannot learn about excellence by studying failure. Be as good about describing excellence as you are about describing failure. Observe your best people and learn!

Poor performance must be confronted, directly and quickly. Sometimes there is poor performance because of “mechanical causes” – the employee lacks certain tools to get the job done. Personal causes are also a problem. Both are difficult to solve. Some performance problems are more difficult to identify and rectify.

Is the performance problem trainable? Once a weakness is perceived in an employee there are only three possible courses of action: Devise a support system, find a complimentary partner, or find a different role. Manage around the weakness so the employee can focus on his or her strengths.

You succeed by trying to capitalize on who you are, not by trying to fix who you aren’t.

The Peter Principle.We promote someone up to their level of incompetence. The Peter Principle believes that the way to reward someone for good performance in a role is to promote them out of that role! Every signal we send tells the employee not to stay in the same role too long. It doesn’t look good on the resume. Keep taking the “next step” this is the way you “get ahead,” and “get respect.” Sooner or later he steps into the wrong role. He can’t go back without great humiliation.

This system is built on false assumptions: Each rung on the ladder represents a slightly more complicated version of the previous rung, it creates conflict by limiting prestige to the next rung, what about alternative career paths. Create meaningful prestige on every rung of excellence. It assumes that varied experiences might make the employee more attractive.

Excellence in each role this requires a distinct set of talents. Good performance in one role does not guarantee good performance in another. Talents must not be confused with skill. The notion that “higher is better” is a damaging distraction. Legions of employees trying to scramble on to increasingly smaller rungs.

Create heroes in every role. Make every role a model. Anyone performing in an excellent way needs to be publicly recognized. There must be graded levels of achievement.

(I think this is a major challenge for our church. Too often we think that the only way to award effectiveness and achievement is to move effective clergy to bigger churches and higher salaries. But our closed appointment system is limited in its ability to ‘advance’ everyone. We have got to create incentives and rewards at every level of clergy deployment.)

The most effective people are those who look in the mirror at themselves, discover their talents, and learn to match those talents to their role. They are not those who look to the organization, climbing up the ladder, give them their job satisfaction.

The employee is the star. It is up to the employee to take charge of his or her life and career, make choices accordingly, and find the sources of satisfaction. The manager can’t do this.

(I fear that our system sometimes encourages clergy to think of the District Superintendent as the key to ‘advancement’ and job satisfaction, rather than satisfaction being a gift of God and a gift of knowing that you are doing God’s work wherever you are serving.)

Prestige must be spread throughout the organization. Therefore the employee is more free to pick roles that will bring lasting satisfaction.

Performance feedback sessions are important. These help the employee think about style, about talents and non-talents. There should be four of these a year. If you can’t do four a year, you have too many employees! It is important that some time alone be spend with each of your people.

People should be evaluated on the basis of performance outcomes.

Removing an employee from a role is one of the hardest of jobs. We need to get to know our employees, to risk friendship. It is hard to give bad news to a friend, but friendship is a good way to really get to know someone. There must be an uncompromising focus upon excellence, with a genuine need to care. Tough love.

Any performance is unacceptable which merely hovers around the average with no movement forward. The notion of talent frees the manager from blaming poor performance on the employee. Not all behaviors can be changed. Not all poor performance is the employee’s fault, due to laziness or lack of engagement. It is a matter of miscasting.

“This isn’t a fit for you, let’s talk about why.” Or, “You need to find a role that better matches your talents.”

“To care” means to set the person up for success. This is how firing can be a caring act.

Each human being is different, and those differences are the power that can be harnessed in an organization, and the manager is the means of doing it.

- Notes by Will Willimon