Monday, December 29, 2008

The Baby Jesus Among Neighbors in Need

On Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year, the Sunday before Advent, we always read from Matthew’s gospel, the twenty-fifth chapter -- Jesus’ parable of the Great Judgment. At the end, when the King sits on the throne, all shall be judged on the basis of how well we responded to the needs of “the least of these.” Christ is encountered in giving the cup of water, the loaf of bread, in visits to the sick and imprisoned. Jesus is served by deeds of mercy to the “least of these.”

The parable is typical of the Savior who was born in a stable, the King of Kings who came among us as one of “the least of these.” Christians learn to encounter Jesus incognito, in the form of those who are marginalized, pushed to the bottom, neglected.

In my visits to dozens of United Methodist congregations this fall I’ve been impressed by the sort of people who are formed by listening to stories like the Great Judgment and the babe who is born in a manger. They are people, these Methodists, who, though their church is tiny, gathered a ton of food for Angel Food ministry. They got organized and built this year, by my count, about a dozen Habitat Houses. They welcomed the homeless into their churches and they continued work on the devastation of Katrina. In a year of economic stress, dozens of our churches, large and small, have postponed anticipated building expansions or staff increases and pastors have forgone salary increases so they can pay 100% of their fair share of Conference ministry support. They have put the needs of poor children, and overseas missions, and a wide array of benevolences ahead of their own.

Why, in a society that encourages much self-centeredness and personal acquisitiveness, did these Christians buck cultural trends and take responsibility for the needs of people who weren’t among their own family or friends? I think it was because they know by heart the story of the Nativity, the story of a God who came among us as a helpless, needy baby, born to peasant parents, lying in a feed trough.

“There are many of you,” Martin Luther scolded his sixteenth century German congregation, “who think to yourselves: ‘If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the little baby!’…You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem…. Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor.”

Christ gave us himself, present in the needs of our neighbors. The one who was born in a Bethlehem stable commanded us to care for “the least of these.” We cannot see Christ, we do not truly worship him or follow him without obeying him in our acts of mercy to those in need. Thanks be to God there are thousands of Alabama United Methodists who not only believe the Bible, but obey it as well, who not only love Christ, but see him in the neighbor.

Merry Christmas.
Will Willimon

I'm convening a Bishop's Summit on Ministry to the Marginalized on the morning of February 19, 2009, here at the United Methodist Center. If you are working in ministries with those in need, please mark your calendar now.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Effective Churches

Earlier this year our Conference Lay Leader, Ellen Harris and I participated in a conversation, with Jurisdictional leaders on what makes for an effective congregation.

What are some of the main characteristic of a growing, effective church? I thought they devised a fascinating list. How does your congregation embody, or conflict with, these characteristic?


  1. Love their particularly community. Their pastors have found a way not only to love their congregations but also their neighborhood. Effective pastors help their congregations move beyond love of themselves, turning their congregations outward.
  2. Rise above mere contentment with things as they are and do what is necessary to expect and welcome change, disruption, and movement, similar to that of the Risen Christ.
  3. Find a way to welcome the stranger and to practice radical hospitality in the name of Jesus Christ. They find a way to be as interested in those who have yet to join the church as those already in the church.
  4. Have a clear sense of their primary purpose and keep focused on their primary God-given missions.
  5. Enable lay leaders to lead, not just manage. Lay leadership that feels a strong sense of responsibility for the future of their congregation.
  6. All have a strong, change oriented, gifted pastor.
  7. Make growth a priority and figure out how to grow.
  8. Keep focused upon Jesus Christ as the originator of, and the purpose for the church (rather than church as just another human oriented institution).

How does your church answer to these qualities of effective churches? What specific steps would your congregation need to take to live into the future in a different way?

William H. Willimon

Monday, December 01, 2008

Church Growth Keys: Multiracial, Happy, More Males Active

Kirk Hadaway is a veteran church observer of mainline church growth and decline. Recently, Hadaway released the results of a study he completed on mainline churches. I think it has real relevance for our work in North Alabama:

Congregations interested in increasing their weekly attendance would do well to make a plan for recruiting new members, become multiracial and make sure that serious conflict doesn’t take root. That’s the message of an analysis recently released by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary. The “FACTs on Growth” report, based on data collected in a 2005 survey of nearly 900 congregations, found that congregations reporting growth in worship attendance between 2000 and 2005 tended to exhibit certain common attributes.

Multiracial congregations had a better chance of growing than those predominantly consisting of one racial group. Some 61 percent of multiracial churches said they had experienced growth, while just 31 percent of predominantly Anglo congregations said the same.

But even more important may be whether people in the pews, no matter their race, actually get along with one another.

“Whether or not a congregation finds itself in serious conflict is the number one predictor of congregational decline,” writes C. Kirk Hadaway, director of research for the Episcopal Church and author of the report, released in December. “This finding points out the need for conflict resolution skills among clergy so minor conflict does not become serious, debilitating conflict.”

Conversely, congregations were most likely to grow if they:

  • had a clear mission and purpose as a congregation
  • conducted “joyful” worship services
  • adopted a specific plan for recruiting new members
  • had changed worship format at one or more services in the past five years
What’s more, congregations were likely to grow if men constituted the majority of active participants, said Hadaway.

Among congregations in which at least three out of five regular participants were men, 50 percent reported growth, but among churches where no more than two in every five regular participants were men, only 21 percent said they had experienced growth.

“As American congregations become increasingly populated by women,” the report says, “those congregations that are able to even out the proportions of males and females are those most likely to grow.”

-- Excerpts from Christian Century, January 23, 2007, p. 14

Will Willimon

Monday, November 17, 2008

Church of the Second Chance: Empowering A New Generation of United Methodist Leaders

In Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe, nineteen-year-old Ian tells his parents, Doug and Bee Bedloe, of his decision to leave college and become an apprentice cabinetmaker. This will enable Ian to raise the young children of his deceased brother, Danny. Ian has arrived at this decision because of the influence in his life of Rev. Emmett and the Church of the Second Chance, a congregation that believes in actual atonement, that is, that you must do something “real” to be forgiven for your sins. Ian’s sin was that he led his drunken brother to believe that his wife was unfaithful, after which Danny committed suicide.

In the crucial scene in which Ian tells his parents of the change in the course of his life, church and faith enter the conversation. Ian explains that he will have help from his church in juggling his new job and the responsibility for the children. This alarms his parents.

"Ian, have you fallen into the hands of some sect?” his father
“No, I haven’t,” Ian said. “I have merely discovered a church
that makes sense to me, the same as Dober Street Presbyterian makes sense to you
and Mom.”
“Dober Street didn’t ask us to abandon our educations,” his mother
told him.
“Of course we have nothing against religion; we raised all of you
children to be Christians. But our church never asked us to abandon our
entire way of life.”
“Well, maybe it should have,” Ian said
His parents
looked at each other.

His mother said, “I don’t believe this. I do
not believe it. No matter how long I’ve been a mother, it seems my children
can still come up with something new and unexpected to do to me.”[1]

Ian’s is a story of two kinds of churches. Dober Street is a church that mainly confirms people’s lives as they are. The Church of the Second Chance disrupts lives in the name of Jesus so that people can change. In my experience, young adults are more attracted to the church that promises them change, new life, and disruption than in the church that offers little but stability, order, and accommodation. Alas, too many of our churches have contented themselves with meeting the spiritual needs of one generation with the resulting loss of at least two generations of Christians. If we are going to fulfill our Conference Priority and summon a new generation of young Christians, I expect that we’ll have to look more like the Church of the Second Chance.

William H. Willimon

[1] Anne Tyler, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), p. 127.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Strategic Dis-Harmonization

In their excellent book, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition, my friends Russ Richey and Tom Frank quote from a book that I wrote some years ago with Andy Langford. “In a church that is overmanaged and underled, we desperately need our bishops to become leaders in the decentralization and creation of a new connection.”

I believe that more than ever after four years as a bishop. Tom Bandy has a wonderful phrase, “strategic dis-harmonization.” That is what a declining institution needs from its leaders, in my opinion. Unfortunately, too many of our leaders continue to administer the church as their greatest challenge as leaders was to insure constant, undisturbed harmony in the church. They still act as if the church were growing by leaps and bounds, as if our greatest challenge were to keep things in order, slow down movement, and stifle change.

We have expended too much time tweaking structures and machinery when what we need is to abandon unproductive, laborious, slow moving structures. Sometimes I think that many of our traditional ways of working were designed to make sure that they take the maximum amount of time to produce the minimal amount of fruit! Simplify, simplify!

I therefore applaud the work of the leaders of the North Alabama Conference who, in just a few years - completely reorganized the work of Connectional Ministries, getting the staff out into the Districts; moved from twelve to eight districts thus greatly simplifying administration and saving nearly a million dollars a year on administrative costs, money than can now be put directly into ministry; and changed the format of Annual Conference to make our annual gathering less expensive, more accommodating of the laity, and more efficient.

A number of our elected members of this year’s General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference said that they did not know how much had been accomplished in North Alabama until they witnessed the laborious, poorly planned, time-consuming and ultimately unproductive work of these gatherings. (Hooray for the North Alabama Delegation that introduced a resolution at Jurisdictional Conference entreating the planners to be more respectful of delegates’ time and patience by planning a better Conference.) All the more reason for us in North Alabama to forge ahead and show the rest of our Connection the good that can come by holding the church more accountable for the use of our time, the actually results of our work, and the stewardship of our resources.

William H. Willimon

Monday, November 03, 2008

Weak Clergy, Watered Down Christianity

I’ve said it before, I say it again. Few writers are as tough on us clergy as Soren Kierkegaard, that melancholy Dane. However, few writers better remind me of the high calling to which we clergy have been summoned.

Kierkegaard, here in his Journals, notes that in his day clergy had moved from being powerful people in their societies to “being controlled” by the surrounding culture. The result was a desperate attempt on the part of the clergy to be useful, to get a hearing, to appear to be relevant to whatever it was that the culture wanted. Thus was Christianity “watered down,” according to Kierkegaard.

The good news is that the situation now calls for clergy who are as tough on ourselves as the gospel is tough on humanity. Lacking the former crutches and accolades of the culture, we now must get our courage strictly from the gospel itself. We clergy must begin by applying the gospel to ourselves, before we apply it to others.

“Even then,” says Kierkegaard, “things may go badly”:

As long as the clergy were exalted, sacrosanct in the eyes of men, Christianity
continued to be preached in all its severity. For even if the clergy did
not take it too strictly, people dared not argue with the clergy, and they could
quite well lay on the burden and dare to be severe.

But gradually, as the nimbus faded away, the clergy got into the position of themselves being controlled. So there was nothing to do but to water down
Christianity. And so they continued to water it down till in the end they
achieved perfect conformity with an ordinary worldly run of ideas – which were
proclaimed as Christianity. That is more or less Protestantism as it is now.

The good thing is that it is not longer possible to be severe to others
if one is not so towards oneself. Only someone who is really strict with
himself can dare nowadays to proclaim Christianity in its severity, and even
then things may go badly for him.
--Kierkegaard, Journals[1]

Still, all things being considered, being a pastor is a high vocation, a great way to expend a life. The way of Christ is narrow and demanding, but it is also a great gift, even “in its severity.”

These are my thoughts, thinking with Kierkegaard looking over my shoulder, as I begin this week of ministry.

Will Willimon

[1] The Journals of Kierkegaard, Ed. Alexander Dru, Harper Torchbooks, 1958, 205.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Best of All God (Yet) With Us

Saturday, a week ago, we had a grand celebration of 200 years of Methodism in Alabama. Thanks to our North Alabama Conference Historical Society for providing us this opportunity to celebrate our heritage. From the Flint Circuit, we’ve grown to a strong, far flung Conference. This past month I’ve preached in two of the churches of the Flint Circuit (Shiloh and Ford’s Chapel). They have a grand 200 year history. The best of all, both churches are growing
The week before, at our Cabinet Retreat, I asked the District Superintendents, “What Biblical text have you found most helpful in your current ministry?”

One DS responded with Joshua 1:9 – “I was with Moses, I’ll be with you.” Joshua was reassured by God that even as God had supported and led Moses in the past, God would stand with Joshua in the present and future.

We have a wonderful past. We have huge challenges in the present. We wonder if we can show half the risk, creativity, and faith in a living, moving God that was shown by our forebears 200 years ago.

To us, as to them, God promises us that we need not face these challenges alone. God says to us, “I was with Lorenzo Dow (1803), I’ll be with you.” “I was with Matthew Parham Sturdivant (1808), I’ll be with you.” “I was with James Gwinn (1808), I’ll be with you. Therein is our hope for a future.

The last words of John Wesley were, “The best of all, God is with us.”

As we tackle our present challenges, as we hold ourselves accountable to the Conference Priorities, as Jesus demands our obedience to his Great Commission and the Great Commandment, the best of all is, God is with us.

William H. Willimon

“The weather is so bad today, there’s nobody out and about but crows and Methodist preachers.”"the Methodists around here are few in number, poor, and much despised."
- Comments heard in early 19th Century Alabama

Monday, October 27, 2008

Young Pastors' Network

We have had four young clergy from North Alabama attend the Young Pastors' Network that recently met in Tipp City, Ohio, at Ginghamsburg UMC. One of our young pastors recently posted about his experience at our Young Clergy Blog

Thursday, October 16, 2008


John Wesley famously said that the “people called Methodists” should “make all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” with the emphasis decidedly on the third part of that exhortation. Early Methodists dressed simply and lived simply. They founded societies for thrift, not in order to hoard but in order to give.

In a new book, The Decline of Thrift in America, historian David Tucker notes that throughout much of American history we saved up to 15% of our income. Thrift was an all-American virtue. Since the 90’s as credit got easy and borrowing became a way of life, there was a dramatic change. The average American now owes more credit card debt than at any time in history.

After one of the most tragic days in U.S. history, how did the President urge us to deal with our grief? “Go shopping.” Spending had replaced thrift as the chief American virtue. Those who had accumulated wealth for themselves and their families were lauded as representatives of the “American dream.” Our biggest trade deficits in history, along with unfunded spending on multiple wars are now bearing their bitter fruit. Reports from many of our pastors suggest that we are moving into a time of very painful recession.

Perhaps now is a good time to recover some Christian virtues that we thought we had outgrown. I pray that we will be given new moral direction that will point us back (or is it forward?) to the time-honored Wesleyan Christian values, like thrift. Times of financial crisis are good times to be reminded of what’s really valuable, from a Christian point of view.

To that end the Cabinet and I have planned ways in which we think we can save thousands of your generous dollars, changing the way we do business. Although we increased our Conference budget just over 1% this year, smallest increase in years, we have a philosophy of spending less on administration so we can spend more on mission and ministry. We’re having fewer meetings and we will spend even less on administration in the coming year. Mike Stonbraker has found some creative ways to cut administrative costs in the Northwest District. He says that his district is determined to keep utilizing the majority of their financial resources for mission and new church development. (The NW District just had a spectacular celebration of gifts to the Sumatanga Campaign.) Dale Cohen is leading Connectional Ministries in similar cost-saving measures, as is Scott Selman at our United Methodist Center. (This summer Scott set up the four-day work week at the Center, which has already saved us over 20% in utility costs.) I’ll be suggesting some ways that the Council of Bishops could follow our Conference lead in cutting costs in light of the present crisis.

In the present financial crisis, Charlie Carlton offers the resources of the United Methodist Foundation for counseling pastors and churches who are affected by the crisis. The Foundation has helped many congregations deal with building debt retirement and financial management. At my request the Foundation and Stewardship Resources will hold a summit on the church's response and solution based ideas to contnue funding our ministries, “WALL STREET, MAIN STREET AND CHURCH STREET FUNDING MINISTRY IN DIFFICULT TIMES” on Tuesday, October 21 at 10 a.m. at Cullman First UMC. All are invited.

Our goal is to practice thrift and cost-cutting measures in our work as a Conference in order that we make no cuts in our funding for mission and the Conference Priorities.

Those of us who work with the gifts of the hundreds of United Methodist churches have a responsibility prudently to expend your gifts in Christ’s work. By drawing upon our Wesleyan theological resources, the current financial crisis could be transformed into a God-give spiritual and moral opportunity.

Will Willimon

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Church and the Conversion of Emerging Adults

One of our Conference priorities is to reach a new generation of Christians. Our focus is upon the 18-30 age group, those who are being called “emerging adults.” If we are to reach this age group—the age group that we have sadly neglected and therefore find absence from our churches—we are going to have to understand them. Fortunately, a number of new books are helpful in that regard.

A major defining characteristic of this age group is their postponement of marriage. In just a couple of decades the average age for women to marry moved from 20-25 years old, and then the average age rose from 22 to 27 years old. Interestingly, this change in marriage began in 1970—about the same year that our church started losing membership and we began losing touch with the next generation.

Studies of the emerging generation seem to agree that the ages of 18-30, that is the threshold of adulthood, has become more complex, disjointed and confusing than in past decades. In his book Emerging Adulthood, Jeffrey J. Arnett (Oxford University Press, 2004) notes that young adults today put a high premium on finding their identity in an uncertain world. They are impressed with economic and political instability and live their lives accordingly. They focus much more on the self and less upon groups, and they tend to be overwhelmed by their sense of possibilities.

This summer I also read James L. Heft’s Passing on the Faith: Transforming Traditions for the Next Generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Fordam University Press, 2006). Adults, who grew up in the church retain very little of what the church taught them, says Heft. Our churches have not passed on the faith to our children. (The chances that someone who grew up in the United Methodist Church will still be United Methodist by age 30 are something like 1-6. For Episcopalians, Presbyterians and many others, the rate of attrition is even worse.) Jeffrey Arnett agrees with Heft’s gloomy analysis of those who happen to have grown up in the church. Arnett says, “The most interesting and surprising feature of emerging adults’ religious beliefs is how little relationship there is between the religious training they received throughout childhood and the religious beliefs they hold at the time they reach emerging adulthood….” A recent survey showed that today’s young adults attend church less, pray less, are less lik ely to believe in authority of the Bible, more likely to identify themselves as non-religious, and tend to be extremely suspicious of institutions and organized religion.

Not too long ago the church could count on a return to church by young adults when they had their first children. That appears not to be a pattern for today’s young adults. Because they are postponing marriage, the church can expect at least a 20 year gap between young adults leaving the church and returning. In her book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young American’s are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable than Ever Before, Janet Twenge(Free Press, 2006) depicts this generation of young adults as extraordinarily self-absorbed and narcissistic. Twenge thinks that we parents made a mistake in fostering in our children an aura of self-esteem, but did not give them realistic assessments of how challenging the adult world would be.

Today’s young adults are documented as having a great love of God, but less commitment to a particular religious tradition. When it comes to religion many of them are “dabblers and deferrers.” I believe that this is not only one of the most important challenges facing the church with this age group, but also one of our most difficult challenges as United Methodists.

Fortunately, we Wesleyans believe in conversion. We need to know more about what young adults need to be converted from and to. We also must set higher priorities on reaching today’s young adults. Young Christians are not a priority for us until every pastor spends as much time with this generation as with older generations, until each congregation shows in its staff, its budget, and its energies that it is really taking seriously our mandate to reach this generation for Christ. With God’s help, we can.

William H. Willimon

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A New Generation of Clergy Leaders

One of the North Alabama Conference priorities is to call and cultivate a new generation of clergy and lay leaders.  Why have we made new, young clergy a priority?  The average age of our clergy is 59.  We are facing massive retirements in just a few years.  In the past decade, we have been ordaining only about a third of the clergy we’ll need to replace retiring clergy and the average age of our ordinands has been rising.

This priority has been one of our greatest challenges: most of the leaders in our Conference, nearly all of the pastors of our most vibrant congregations, are over 50. In fact, at a recent conversation I declared, “this has been the most difficult priority of all our priorities to realize.”

Well, I was wrong!  Bill Brunson, the new chair of our Board of Ordained Ministry, reports that at the end of 2007, our Conference was forth in the entire connection in the percentage of elders under 35 years of age.  Here are the top four:  Arkansas - 284 Total Elders - 25 under 35 - 8.80% Holston - 322 Total Elders - 28 under 35 - 8.70% Oklahoma - 329 Total Elders - 28 under 35 - 8.51% North Alabama - 368 Total Elders - 31 under 35 - 8.42%

Sadly, that percentage, just twenty years ago, was about 30%.  Still, I am gratified that we are in the lead in the calling of a new generation of leaders.

Bill Brunson has led our Board of Ordained in a complete overhaul of the Board’s procedures for naming, noticing, and nurturing new clergy. They have changed scholarship funding procedures, visits to seminaries, and revamped the interview process.

I am pleased to report that already the Board’s work is bearing fruit:

This year we have 24 applicants for Provisional Membership.  The average age of those 24 is 38.5 years.   22 are applying for Provisional Elder with an average age of 37.68.  12 of the 24 applicants are 35 or under.  This is marked progress over the past two years.  However, it also indicates that we have much work to do.  This is still only about a third of the young candidates that we need, just to keep pace with retirements.

Robert Lancaster, pastor at Wesley Chapel, Northwest District, testifies to his congregation’s commitment to this priority: “Our Lay Leadership Committee has made it a priority to elect young adults to each of our committees.  We also put youth members on many of our councils and encourage them to speak up and be heard about their needs in the church.  Several of our older members are coming off committees, after many years of service, this year.  Please be in prayer they will also see the need for younger leadership to be trained, involved and supported….  Our Lay Delegate this past year to conference was under the age of 30….  He came back and gave two reports to the Sunday Morning congregation about the need for young pastors and leaders in the church.  We have made younger committee members a priority at Wesley Chapel.“

It is gratifying to see positive results for our efforts.  I call upon every congregation to pray and to make intentional efforts to notice, name, and nurture prospective new pastors.  ALL new clergy come before the Board of Ordained Ministry because one of our congregations has sent them there.  How many new pastors has your church produced in the past decade?  The 2009 Annual Conference will focus on this priority.  We are asking each congregation to identify and to send as member of the 2009 Annual Conference your most talented young adult.

It is wonderful to see progress being made on this priority.  Thanks for your efforts to give our church a vibrant, faithful, future.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An Emerging Generation for the Church

That the North Alabama Conference made reaching a new generation of Christian leaders a Conference Priority was prescient, according to recent reading that I’ve been doing on young adults.

Robert Wuthnow, a noted sociologist of religion at Princeton, has just done a thorough study of the twenty to thirty something. Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers (Princeton University Press, 2007) is a challenging read for those of us who are entrusted with the future of the church. Unfortunately, much of his data suggest that the future of the church is being shaped more by the absence of younger adults than by their presence. With few exceptions, the church has failed to respond to the changing life patterns and social trends that characterize contemporary young adulthood, says Wuthnow.

For one thing, young adulthood is getting longer. While those in their forties were once considered to be middle-aged, Wuthnow contends that young adulthood today extends to age 45. This is due, in part, to increases in life expectancy that make age 49 the midpoint of adult life. And while young adults age 20-44 still make up 50.7% of the population—roughly the same percentage as 30 years ago, they are a much smaller percentage of the constituency of most major faith traditions. Since the early seventies, the percentage of young adults that say they attend religious services weekly has fallen from 19% to 14%; and the percentage that never attend has increased from 14% to 20%. We Mainline Protestants have been hit hardest by these trends. The proportion of young adults 21-45 among mainline church adherents has declined by five percentage points since the early seventies, and the proportion in their twenties has fallen by seven points.

The most pronounced social trend defining the life patterns of this generation is delayed marriage. In 1970, 62% of people in their twenties were married; whereas now only 28% are married. Among those in their thirties, the percentage married fell from 83% to 52%. “Being married or unmarried,” says Wuthnow, “has a stronger effect on church attendance than anything else.” Almost all the decline in religious attendance among 21-45-year-olds has taken place among unmarried younger adults. Increasingly, when our churches manage to attract young adults, we are attracting an unrepresentative cross-section of young adults—those that are married with children.

“Many congregations have gotten spoiled,” says Wuthnow, “thinking they can serve young adults by sponsoring a lively high school group and then catering to young married couples with children.” Unfortunately, this approach leaves out three-quarters of today’s young adults. His research identified several characteristics of youthful congregations (those where more than 35% of participants are under age 35). For instance: 1) newer congregations seem to have an advantage in attracting young adults—30% of congregations successful at attracting young people had been founded since 1970, compared with only 16% of less youthful congregations; 2) youthful congregations tend to be located in metropolitan areas where many young adults live; and 3) youthful congregations are more racially and ethnically mixed.

I want to stress that reaching young adults is more than a matter of institutional survival. Of the most important decisions that we’ll make in life, most of those decisions are made during young adulthood. The church ought to be there. Also, Jesus is doing some amazing things within this generation. We ought to be working with Him.

If your congregation has launched some new, fruitful ministries with Emerging Adults, share what you have done with Robert Mercer, who coordinates and encourages our Conference Student and Young Adult Ministry. Let’s share those practices that God is using to get us back in touch with this generation of Christians.

William H. Willimon

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mercy Despite the Misery Among North Alabama Methodists

In the past month I’ve met with dozens of United Methodists individually and in groups discussing the future of their church, their discipleship and their response to the Conference Priorities. Our discussions were focused on church matters, but in the course of those discussions at dozens of locations throughout our Conference, mostly in small congregations, I became aware of other concerns.

From what I’ve heard I am becoming increasingly troubled about the economics of the middle class. Methodism is a mostly middle class movement, in our past and today as well. Something about the way we do church (maybe our middle-of-the-road theology?) appeals to folks in the middle. Today, folks in the middle are hurting. The “misery index” – inflation linked with the wages and jobs – is squeezing our people. Add soaring energy prices to this, as well as the housing crisis that is greatly reducing the value of homes, and it’s a crisis. It is downright un-American that our tax and wage structure have enabled the rich to get richer and the middle class to get squeezed. It’s ironic that we have chosen to wage the ill conceived “War on Terrorism,” borrowing most of the money for the war, charging it to our grandchildren, when the economy is hurting mid dle class Americans more than Islamic terrorists. For the first time in our nation’s history, the middle class is shrinking.

I heard little from either political party, at their conventions, that specifically addresses the problems that are engendered by our government related to the economy. Alabama has lagged behind the rest of the nation economically; now we are among the first to feel the middle class squeeze. Dozens of our congregations have programs to feed “the poor.” They report for the first time ever they are having members of their own congregations ask for help and they are having record numbers ask for help. Pastors are reporting an increased number of pastoral care cases that are directly attributable to economic pressures. A United Methodist student at Birmingham Southern told me last week that he could not go to college (because his mother and his father have been laid off from their once good paying jobs) if BSC had not given him a full scholarship. He thanked me for the church’s help. I sure don& rsquo;t have the answer to this increased misery, but let’s be sure to push our leaders to get out there and listen, learn, and pray that God will give them the political creativity and courage to act.

Of course, my major concern is the church. And my point is not the ineptitude and insensitivity of our national leaders, which is self evident. My point is that the current middle class squeeze makes all the more remarkable the response of the United Methodists of North Alabama . I thank God that I have the opportunity to see people in the middle show, even amid various levels of misery, the mercy of Christ. Last Sunday I dedicated a beautiful new building at little Hopewell Church in the Southeast District. Their pastor led them in doubling their space, building mostly with their own hands, debt free, AND paying more than their fair share of Conference obligations (apportionments)! (Cost of church buildings is the main excuse that pastors give for their congregations not paying 100% of their apportionments.) This summer the apportioned giving of the Northeast and the Southeast Districts has risen rather than fallen.

Alabama Christians are near the top of national percentage of income giving to charity and church. Last year our churches (filled with people in the middle class squeeze) gave millions of dollars to help people in need – two dozen Habitat Houses, 160 Volunteer in Mission teams, half a million dollars in Katrina relief, and more. It’s an amazing testimony to Christian generosity and gratitude to have such stewardship even in tight economic times. It is a sign that the mercy of Christ for those in need is astir among us. It’s evidence that good preaching and teaching, passionate worship and opportunities bear fruit. In a culture in which people are encouraged to look after themselves and their families, to vote their self-interest, and conspicuous display of affluence is praised as realization of “the American dream,” Christian stewardship has become a countercultural witness.&nb sp;

Average, middle class people made this country great. The promise of entrance to the middle class has been, at least until this last decade, part of the American dream. But more than any of that, the mercy being shown toward those in need among us by people who are themselves under economic stress, is a credit to the power of Jesus Christ to enable average, ordinary, people in the middle, to be spectacularly faithful.

So, this Sunday, when the offering plate is passed, or you are asked to make your yearly commitment to the work of the church, thanks for your witness. The world is seeing the mercy of Christ in you.

Will Willimon

Monday, September 15, 2008

Learning and Growing

Recently I saw a study of “successful aging.” According to the study, the number one factor in whether or not a person ages gracefully experiencing "the joy of being a ifetime learner" . . ,” There really is something to the old adage that we older adults must “learn something new every day” in order to stay youthful in spirit.

Perhaps that’s why I have so enjoyed my role as Bishop – I am forced, by the demands of this job, to learn something new every day. It’s rather amazing that I could say that – after all, I spent over two decades working at a university before coming here. And yet, it’s true. This job has been the most demanding educational experience of my life.

Recently I spent a day learning from a group of our assembled clergy and laity who were convened by Dale Cohen to discuss the state of the church, to label what we’ve learned and what we’ve achieved, to note lingering problems, and to give me my job description for the next four years. It was a great day, a gratifying time in which we claimed what has been done and we named that which is yet to be done to make our church more faithful to Christ’s mandates.

After the day was over, I listed my major learning from the discussion:

1. A great deal has been changed in our Conference that moves us from a culture in which decline and loss are normal into a culture in which growth and forward movement are planned for, evaluated, and expected.

2. There seems to be widespread understanding and enthusiasm for our Four Priorities as a way of focusing our work and moving us forward for the Kingdom.

3. There is much encouragement, particularly from the laity, about more attention to results, particularly growth in our churches.

4. There is a need for, and much encouragement of, greater accountability among our clergy and churches that is specifically linked to growth.

5. Many note and appreciate the changing role of the District Superintendent as a coach, mentor, and supervisor. As I noted, one of our slogans on the Cabinet is that the D.S. doesn’t only “make appointments” but also “makes appointments work.”

6. There is real pride that our Conference has become a leader in starting new communities of faith.

Thanks to all of you who are teaching me that our beloved connection can have a future, that God has great things in store for us if we will take risks for God, change lives, and grow more disciples (Conference Vision Statement).

I am so grateful to have been given another four years among you.

Will Willimon

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Early Methodism was organized by Wesley and Asbury on the basis of a series of questions. Wesley believed that the leader led by putting two questions to the church, and the church lived by responding to the leader’s questions.

Don’t you find it significant that the key questions with which Methodism’s first conferences opened were these three: 1. What to teach? 2. How to teach; and 3. What to do; that is how to regulate our doctrine, discipline and practice (Doctrine and Disciplines, 1798, Pg. 18). Notice the very first question – What to teach? Wesley was convinced that Christians must be intellectual equipped to follow Jesus. The demands of discipleship are too great not to have the whole person engaged by the claims of Christ including a person’s intellect. Wesley believed that preachers were primarily guardians of doctrine. They not only preached in such a way that won people to Christ, but to make sure they were winning people to Christ!

This past year I have had a number of experiences as bishop that have confirmed my sense that Wesley was right. The day we spent at ClearBranch pondering the Methodist Christian way of believing, including the follow-up sessions in numerous churches, the Conference-wide discussions on War and the War in Iraq, as well as the teaching experiences I have had in dozens of Alabama churches, have all convinced me that Methodist people want to be taught. They long to grow in their faith. They expect their church to offer meetings whereby they grow as disciples.

The Wesley movement was distinguished principally by its determination not only to win people for Christ but also to grow people into Christ. Notice that our Conference mission statement explicitly states our intention to “Grow More Disciples” for Jesus Christ. A primary way we grow in our faith is by continuing to be informed about our faith, to explore the richness of Christian believing and to learn more about Jesus and his way.

I am therefore impressed that any growing must also be a teaching congregation, where the chief teacher is the pastor. In congregations that are successful in reaching new disciples, the need for teaching and Christian formation is even greater. We not only want to reach people for Christ we want to teach people for Christ. Every pastor ought to be able to identify a setting, other than the pulpit, in which that pastor is teaching people for Christ.

Woe to any pastor or congregation that gets preoccupied with merely caring for the congregation, managing and maintaining the organizational machinery of the congregation and neglect the duty to teach the faith.

One of the most appealing aspects of the younger generation that we are trying to reach is that they appear to have a wonderfully “teachable spirit.” They realize that they have not been well informed about the faith, and they appear to be grateful to, and attracted to a church that takes the teaching office seriously.

What to teach – the substance of the Christian faith, its most important convictions – how to teach – how to let the Holy Spirit energize a new generation of disciples – note that this comes before any of our righteous work, our regulative responsibilities and our organizational forms.
Someone has said that the primary work of leadership is asking the right questions. It is up to the leader to ask good questions; and it up to the congregation to give appropriate answers. Thank you Wesley and Asbury for teaching us to ask the right questions!

William H. Willimon

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Thinking Like Christians

I’ve just returned from the third of our “Bishop’s Conversations on the Iraq War.” Thanks to Anne Wheeler and her team for organizing these events. Nearly four hundred Alabama United Methodists engaged in fruitful, prayerful conversation and thereby modeled Wesleyan “Christian Conferencing.”

These conversations were planned to be learning experiences. I told each group, “Here we are going to try to think like Christians about war and this war. We will try to think biblically and in a specifically Christian way.”

I was proud of the way we discussed a passionate, controversial issue. I hope everyone grows in the faith and understanding. I sure did.

Here are some of my learnings:

  • It’s a real challenge to think about things as followers of Jesus Christ. It’s much easier to think like Americans of the left or of the right, to ask merely “What works?” or “What do most people think?” It’s a challenge to ask, “What does Jesus require of his followers?” or “What does the Bible say?”
  • There is no Christian consensus on the current war, even though I did find general agreement that scripture and the church’s tradition make war, this war in particular, or any other war, a questionable action for Christians. Christians who defend war as an appropriate response to evil and conflict have got their work cut out for them.
  • Among those United Methodists who defend the war as justifiable they are diverse and conflicted in what they think about the war. Many people who believe this war is justified, believe that these who initiated this war have done a terrible job of executing the war. There are many diverse opinions, which is one reason why I don’t think “resolutions” do justice to the complexity of the issue.
  • There is widespread regret and even deep repentance among our United Methodist people about this war.
  • Many of our people are eager for their pastors and their church to give them help in thinking like Christians about the war. They were grateful that their church had these gatherings, though many felt that such discussion was long overdue.
  • Church resolutions, statements by bishops or Annual Conferences about this war may not be as helpful as prayerful, humble, conversation with fellow Christians. (Perhaps I was the one who said that!)

After these experiences around our Conference, I encourage your church to engage in “Christian Conferencing” on this issue. Write Anne Wheeler and she can send you some great resources from our church that should be helpful.

William H. Willimon

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bishop Willimon's perspective on Young Clergy has posted videos on the issue of Young Clergy and Bishop Willimon is featured in the series. Please visit this site and watch all seven video clips!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Look Back

We are coming back this September with new posts from Bishop Willimon. In the meantime, we'd like to ask our readers to comment on some of their favorite posts from Bishop Willimon over the past few years.

We'd also like to hear your insights and thoughts on these posts for a news story to be posted at our North Alabama Conference website:

Bishop Willimon is now part of the Christian Century blogroll. Check out other innovative blogs on their website.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer Update

Please remember that Bishop Willimon will return with new posts in September after a busy summer of conferences and speaking engagments, such as the following event in Cambridge:

During the first week of August, Bishop and Mrs. Willimon will be in Cambridge, England, where he is speaking at the C. S. Lewis Conference at Kings College in Cambridge.  The C. S. Lewis Conference explores the significance of C. S. Lewis and his work for the contemporary practice of the Christian faith.  Bishop Willimon will be speaking on the notion of the belief in salvation as it relates to the life of C. S. Lewis.

“I have been pleased with the reception of my book on salvation, Who Will Be Saved? in England.  I was fortunate to have my book come out about the time that N. T. Wright’s book came out along the same lines.  He is Bishop of Durham, England, and it is gratifying to see how our thought seems to be running in complementary ways.”

This is Bishop Willimon’s second time as a leader in the C. S. Lewis Conference in England.  He will be speaking with other Christian writers like Philip Yancey, John Polkinghorne and Earl Palmer.

Also, please remember to visit our on-going conversation about young clergy:


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jurisdictional Conference Area Report - Birmingham Area

At our Jurisdictional Conference this July, I will be submitting an "Area Report" for our Annual Conference.  I thought that you might enjoy seeing the report that I will be submitting.  Thanks to all of you for a wonderful first four years serving you in North Alabama.


At a recent Annual Conference we modified our vision statement to read: “Every church challenged and equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.”   The change reflects our determination to hold ourselves accountable to the Great Commission in every aspect of our Conference life.

From our vision, we have developed Four Priorities: Natural Church Development, Empowering a New Generation of Leaders,  New Congregations, and Effective Leadership.  We are in a process of aligning every aspect of our church life to these priorities.

Natural Church Development is a proven means of revitalizing congregations and moving them into a mission mode of life.  We have trained dozens of Natural Church Development coaches and we are holding every congregation and pastor accountable to the expectation to utilize NCD.  Our monitoring of our congregations that utilize NCD shows us the effectiveness of the program.  For the first time in two decades we are showing growth in numbers of professions of faith and new members.

We are reorganizing our Board of Ordained Ministry and the process of ordination in order to focus on recruitment of new, young pastors.  We are determined to streamline the ordination process and to be more attentive to the fruit of the process – effective pastoral leaders for the Twenty-First Century.  We created a three year Residency in Ministry program to equip our newest pastors in leadership skills that are required for growing our church in the future.  Faced with an aging clergy membership as well as a shortage of qualified candidates, we are moving into a posture of recruitment.  We are devising means of equipping every congregation to notice, name and encourage top candidates for the ministry.

For some years our Conference has been working at establishing new communities of faith.  We have led the church for a couple of years in the number of new church starts.  Through a process of constant evaluation and assessment, we have reorganized our training for new church pastors and our selection of those called to serve.  We are pioneering in the exploration of different models for starting new congregations, stressing the need for multi-ethnic congregations in economically marginal communities.  Our success rate for new church starts is considerably above the national average.  Our goal is to start a minimum of twelve new congregations each year.

We have found that the path to more effective clergy and lay leaders is through accountability.  For the past three years, on our Conference website, we display graphs for every congregation showing patterns of attendance, giving, and baptisms for the past six years.  Making these statistics more available for all to see has been a big step forward for us.  Beginning this year we are instituting the “North Alabama Conference Dashboard” that will display weekly figures for attendance, giving, professions of faith, and baptisms.  Every Monday, every congregation in the Conference will log in and report their figures for that week.  District Superintendents will be able to make comparisons and to monitor every congregation’s faithfulness on these bases of the “Dashboard.”  We believe this will be a huge step forward in accountability.

Every full time pastor who may be involved in a possible move is interviewed by a panel of three District Superintendents who get a clear picture of that pastor’s productivity and strengths.  Every congregation submits a statement of goals and objectives in ministry before consideration for a change in appointment.  Every full time pastor who moves to a new appointment in our Conference is trained to devise a “First Ninety Day Plan” that outlines what the pastor will do in his or her first three months in a new parish.  Working with the District Superintendent and the lay leadership of the congregation, the pastor will work through the Plan so a tone of transformative leadership will be engendered in the congregation.  In four years of these procedures for appointments, we have not had a single appointment that we have had to change due to a poor fit.

In 2006 we reduced the number of our Districts from twelve to eight.  This not only led to more efficient oversight of our churches but also gave us nearly a million dollars a year in savings that we were able to put into New Church Development. 

Mainly as a result of our economy in administration, we have limited the increase in our Conference budget to about 2% per year, the smallest consecutive increases in the Conference Budget in decades.

While we continue to struggle with a comparatively low rate of apportionment participation, this past year we increased our apportionment percentage by over two percent (for a total of over 82% giving to apportionments).  This meant that we raised nearly a million dollars more for ministry in 2007 when compared with 2006.  Our goal is to increase our percentage of apportioned giving by 2% each year until we are at 100%.

In 2007 our Camp Sumatanga launched a 4.5 million dollar capital campaign that is ongoing.

We have conducted a Conference-wide study of United Methodist Beliefs, led by our lay leadership.

We have also had good participation from our Conference in the Katrina appeal (over half a million dollars raised), the Nothing But Nets Campaign, and the Central Conference Pension Initiative.

For the past four years we have enjoyed our beautiful new Conference Center on the campus of our Birmingham-Southern College.  This 4.5 million dollar facility has been a great help to our work and has provided a wonderful cohesiveness to our Conference.

Patsy and I feel grateful to God for our first four years in the North Alabama Conference.  We have learned much and look forward with eager anticipation to our next four years.  Christ has given our Conference some exciting new ideas and the people and the resources to act upon those ideas.  We are seeing our Conference vision become a reality in the lives of the churches in our Conference.  For all this, we give thanks.

William H. Willimon
Resident Bishop

Monday, June 23, 2008

Tax Reform as a Religious Issue

Susan Pace Hamill, a member of Tuscaloosa’s Trinity United Methodist church and a professor at the University of Alabama Law School (also a graduate of Samford’s Beeson Divinity School) has become the conscience of our state on matters of taxation. I’m proud of the work that Susan is doing in this area.

And she has done so with an approach deeply rooted in the notion that Jesus judges us on the basis of how we treat “the least of these among us.”

Professor Hamill says that many of our state’s laws do more to burden the poor and relieve the rich than vice versa. She cites the worst states (her “sinful six”) as Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, South Dakota, and Texas.

She believes, as do I, that part of kingdom work is pushing for economic justice, particularly for poor working families. Tax revenues are essential to fund the reasonable opportunity for a decent life for all made in the image of God.

She quotes a well-known verse (Luke 12:48) “To whom much is given, much is required.”
I agree. Our resources as a church and as a state are a means to “spread scriptural holiness across the land” as Mr. Wesley taught us. Reform of our tax policy is one important part of our work for the Kingdom.

Our state legislature’s recent failure to remove the state portion of the grocery tax disappointed me as I hope it did you. I pray that the upcoming special session of the legislature will pass the Tax Fairness Amendment. This amendment would end the $550 million state income tax deduction for federal taxes, remove the 4% state portion of the grocery tax, and expand personal exemptions and the standard deduction raising the income tax threshold to $20,000 from the current shockingly low $12,600 for a family of four.

I commend Susan Pace Hamill’s work to you, particularly her book AS CERTAIN AS DEATH (Carolina Academic Press, 2007) and hope you will join me in praying for and working toward a more just and equitable tax system for our state. A good way to involve yourselves and your church in these matters is to work with and support Alabama Arise, a coalition of 155 faith-based and community groups ( a number of whose leaders (such as Mark Berte) are active United Methodists. Alabama Arise has all the facts and figures of the Alabama tax problem and is working hard to change things.

We can do better. With God’s help, we shall.

Will Willimon

Monday, June 09, 2008

Empowering A New Generation Of Leaders

One of our Annual Conference priorities is equipping and empowering a new generation of United Methodist leaders. With a median age of 59 years old, our Conference is determined to empower a new generation to lead our church into the future that God has for us.

Dorothy Scott, one of our fine pastors, sent me this letter just after this year’s Annual Conference:

I thought you would appreciate the highlight of my annual conference experience
this year. Both the lay member and youth member from my church were experiencing annual conference for the first time. I drove Izabella Godsey, my youth member, back to Huntsville Saturday afternoon. She shared with me how wonderful and meaningful the entire experience had been for her. She talked about how this experience had her considering going into the ministry. I asked if she would be
willing to speak in church this morning, to share what this experience meant to her and what the church needed to know from Annual Conference.

This is just some of what she had to share, "Annual Conference was a very special experience for me. I learned a great deal about the United Methodist Church. We as Christians need to be about making disciples for Jesus Christ. I need to be making
disciples for Jesus Christ. From now on I intend to be about making disciples for
Jesus Christ. Thank you for making this experience possible. I hope that this experience will lead me to helping Valley to grow more Christians."

Izy has always been a wonderful example of faith. She was in the first confirmation class I led at Valley. One of the joys of being at Valley has been watching us develop a youth and children's program. I thought about this as Lovett Weems shared that
young ministers came from growing up in the church. Izy's grandparent's and aunt
had been active at Valley when I arrived. The first change I made at Valley was to develop a children's program and Izy was one of the first new children to begin coming regularly to church. Izy is currently 17 and when she turned 16 she became a more active member because she could drive herself to church and not depend on her parents for a ride. She loves opportunities for leadership and she has been in
charge of crafts at VBS for three years. I do not know what the future will hold for Izy but I believe that this conference strenghtened her faith and encourage d her toward serving Christ.

My lay member had to leave on a business trip at 8 a.m. this morning. She wrote me an email at 6:30a.m. saying that she had written up a series of educational moments
to share in the next few weeks about the ministries of our church. She and I discussed these moments during conference. They are designed to help Valley learn about what great ministry the church is about and encourage greater financial support. Jenny is a very successful and busy business woman who is in the midst of great professional transitions. She worked her entire month around being able to
come to conference. Her two children returned from our first youth mission trip on Friday. She hoped to spend time with them before having to leave for the next two weeks on business. However, in the midst of all this she took the time to take what she learned from conference and write it up so that it might be shared by her husband with the church in the next few weeks.

Both Jenny and Izy give me great faith in the future of the United Methodist
Church. This weekend strengthened and encouraged them. As a pastor when you push people to try something new it is so important that it enrich them. Thank you for making this happen for them.

Yours in Christ,
Dorothy Scott (Thankful to be serving at Valley UMC for another year)

Dorothy’s story is far from unique. This is what happens when we really focus ourselves upon the priority of a new generation of Christians. I’m recommending that next year our entire Annual Conference be focused upon the single priority of empowering a new generation, that any reports be made exclusively by those under forty, and that every church send lay delegates who are all under forty. Jenny and Izy are in every congregation. We must notice them, nurture them, and empower them for God to use them in giving our church a future. By God’s grace, we will!

Thanks for a great Annual Conference.
Will Willimon

Monday, June 02, 2008


The women returned from the cemetery on the first Easter morning, announcing, "He is Risen!"

The response of the disciples, the church, us?

With one voice we responded that the women preached "an idle tale" (Luke 24:11).

What is there about us that tends to disbelieve the possibility of resurrection, to be cynical and hopeless? Let's be honest. Something there is in us that has a stake in hopelessness. Those who would protect the status quo, these who profit from the present system, tend to be threatened by hope.

In one of my previous churches I had a member who was negative about everything. When anything new was proposed, he could be counted on to produce a doleful litany: It won't work. We tried that a few years ago and it failed. We just don't have a really committed congregation.

There's no money.

On and on it went. He managed to kill every new initiative with his hopelessness.
I complained to an older, wiser pastor who said to me, "The only way to defeat such defeatism is by having one honest to goodness success. Nothing disempowers cynicism like success."

He was right. For the first time in recent memory, we had a very successful Stewardship campaign. That was the last we heard from Mr. Defeat.

I've got this on my mind because this year's Annual Conference theme is simply "hope." Scripture tells us that we Christians are always "to be prepared to give an account for the hope that is within you."

As I prepare for this year's Annual Conference, here are some specific gifts of God that fill me with hope:

  • This past year we raised nearly a million more dollars for mission and ministry, the highest rate of giving in our history.
  • Nearly a dozen new communities of faith were formed, making our Conference one of the leaders in New Church Development in the United Methodist Church.
  • Our churches brought over four thousand people of faith in Christ this year.
  • We created the Residency in Ministry program to equip and mentor our newest clergy, a model for the rest of the church in the development of new leaders.
  • This July we will institute an extensive on-line system (created by our Conference Connectional Ministries Staff) for weekly measurement of discipleship – accountability for all of our congregations. Every congregation will report, every week, on its fidelity to Christ. This is a groundbreaking effort to recover Wesleyan accountability.
  • Natural Church Development has transformed and energized over two dozen of our congregations that were previously in decline.
  • Our Cabinet has greatly streamlined, personalized, and made more results-sensitive our methods for clergy appointments. Through our triad interview process, the First Ninety Days program, and other means we are greatly improving our success rate for clergy appointments, giving churches the clergy leadership they need to be faithful to our Priorities.

Signs of hope! Easter continues! The women were right! He is risen indeed! Defeatism is being defeated by the Risen Christ.

William H. Willimon

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


You probably know that important guides for the Christian faith are the Synoptic Gospels.  Synoptic is a word that comes from the Greek meaning literally to "see together."   A "symphony" is when everything sounds together. Synoptic is when we see everything together – such as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, whose accounts of Jesus more or less parallel one another.

The Cabinet and I have found helpful the leadership insights of Gil Rendle from the Alban Institute in Washington.  During one of our sessions Gil stressed the need today in the church for what he called "non-synoptic leadership."  Gil said that in organizations of the past, when there was low complexity and low conflict, leaders could be simply problem solvers.   Here is a problem; here is to fix it.  In the modern world, where problems seem to be so complex, leaders adopted strategic planning. Much energy was spent in thinking through a complex problem and engaging in complex long-term solutions.  

In the complex and conflicted human organization called today's church, Rendle says that leaders can no longer function well with either problem-solving or strategic planning.  It is unproductive in a conflicted organization where people feel very differently about many different subjects to spend so much time negotiating, bargaining, and planning for a distant future.  Now leaders must act, even if they aren't sure if they have a consensus backing them up, even if they are unsure of the results of their actions.  This is "non-synoptic leadership." 

When I was a young pastor, put upon the church with virtually no training in pastoral leadership, an older, more experienced pastor gave me a couple of bits of advice that I have not forgotten.

 "I am sure someone has told you that you shouldn't change anything when you go to a new church for at least a year," he said to me.  Indeed, someone had told me just that. "Well, forget it!  Don't change anything in a new church unless you become convinced that it needs changing!  Change anything you think that needs changing and anything you think you can change without the laity killing you.  Lots of churches are filled with laity who are languishing there, desperate for a pastor to go ahead and change something for the better.  Lots of times we pastors blame our cowardice, or our lack of vision, on the laity, saying that we want to change something, but we can't because of the laity.  We ought to just go ahead and change something and then see what the consequences are."

I was surprised by his advice.

"And don't wait until everybody is on board, and every possible person agrees with you until you act on some issue," was his second bit of advice.  Sometimes we ask people to make a decision about some change and they don't yet know enough about it to make a decision. There are a good number of people that will never be for the change, no matter what.  Waiting for them to be positive about change is to unfairly empower them over the church. "Don't put every move you make to a vote, unless you have to," was his final bit of advice. 

That older pastor was a practitioner of "synoptic leadership" though he did not know it by the name. 

In any difficult issue Gil Rendle said, automatically about 20% of people in the organization are for doing things differently.  About 20% will never be in favor of doing things differently.  That leaves over half the people of the organization who stand a chance of changing their opinion on the matter.  "A pastor can waste a huge amount of time waiting for, and trying to convince the 20% who will never change.  Work on that 60%, and try to give them room to feel positively about the change at their own rate."  These are some of the principles of non –synoptic leadership.

In the Book of Acts the Apostles have the so called "Jerusalem Conference" in which there is "no small debate" over what to do about the inclusion of Gentiles into the church.  We are not given the details, but I am sure that when you have got people like Paul and Peter locked in debate, there was no small debate!  However, the conference ends with a compromise, an agreement of what to do about the Gentiles.  Luke comments, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…" 

I take this as a biblical example of non-synoptic leadership.  The scriptures do not say that everyone at the Conference agreed with the solution.  It does not even say that a majority agreed with the solution.  Rather it said that there was a sense in the meeting that the Holy Spirit was in this, though not everybody could say for sure in what way the Holy Spirit was in this.  It also seemed good to try to keep with the movements of the Holy Spirit to move ahead, even though everyone could not see the ultimate outcome of their decisions.

Thank the Lord that the ultimate outcome of their decision was the church as it has been given to us today.

It has not been given to us to see the ultimate destiny of everything that we are doing in the church today.  We do not have a complete synoptic point of view.  And yet, by the grace of God we don't have to.  We can trust God.  We can attempt to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit and move along, confident that God gives us what we need to be faithful in our own time and place.

 William H. Willimon


Please pray for the work of our Annual Conference, meeting this year at Clearbranch. Our present Annual Conference, in its two-day form is a great example of the fruits of non-synoptic church!

Monday, May 12, 2008

General Conference 2008: North Alabama Leading the Way

The theme of the 2008 General Conference was "a future with hope." Our 2008 North Alabama Annual Conference theme is "Hope." And this is not the only parallel between what our Conference is doing and the work of the recent General Conference.

Just as the North Alabama Conference has four priorities which help to guide our ministry as an Annual Conference (new congregations, natural church development, effective leadership for the 21st century and empowering a new generation of Christians) the Council of Bishops and the staff of the church's general agencies called upon United Methodists to adopt four "areas of focus."
  • Developing principled Christian leaders for the church and the world
  • Creating new places for new people and renewing existing congregations
  • Engaging in ministry with the poor
  • Stamping out killer diseases by improving health globally

Two of these foci match with two of ours. We have also been active in the "Nothing But Nets" campaign to stamp out Malaria (which will be our Annual Conference Offering this year).

Our delegation was committed to containing costs in the General Church. A budget of almost $642 million was developed. The budget was aligned with the 4 ministry foci (just as the North Alabama Conference has been aligning our Conference budget with our Four Priorities). This new budget keeps more resources at the local church and Annual Conference level rather than having large increases in the General Church budget. Our North Alabama Delegation helped keep the budget to less than a 2% increase per year, the smallest increase in decades. Our Treasurer Scott Selman, a lay delegate to General Conference, served on the Finance and Administration legislative committee and led in this area (just as Scott has enabled our Conference to have two years in a row with the smallest budget increases in years.).

Another action that parallels some of our work here was when the General Conference revised the mission statement of the United Methodist Church. It was revised from "the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ" to "the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." A couple of years ago we in North Alabama changed our Conference vision statement to "Every church challenged and equipped to make more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives." This addition of "more" has helped us focus on our mission of making disciples.

In North Alabama we have a priority of empowering a new generation of Christians. This year's General Conference had the highest participate of people under 30 than any other General Conference in history. We had several young adult delegates and reserve delegates from North Alabama. Again, this is an area in which our Conference has been changing our ways of working (see this year's Nominations Committee report) in order to reach more young adults and empower them for church leadership.

General Conference added "your witness" to the church membership vows of supporting a congregation with "your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service." All United Methodists are witnesses of Jesus Christ. It is gratifying to see General Conference take up this passion for disciple-making that has characterized our Conference in recent years.

Another piece of legislation that will have a big impact is the new eligibility of local pastors, probationary members and associate members to vote for clergy delegates to General Conference. They still cannot serve as delegates, but their voices will be heard. Our Conference has more local pastors working in ministry than any other Conference in the Connection.

The worldwide nature of our church was apparent throughout the Conference. One of our delegates, Robert Sparkman, worked at legislation ensuring equal representation on general boards and agencies. This means those areas where the church is growing (such as Africa and Korea) will also have voices on General Boards and agencies to help guide our denomination in our disciple making mission.

We heard a memorable speech from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia. She shared that the influence of the United Methodist Church helped shape her. She was educated in a school United Methodists started. Now she is a proud United Methodist serving as the first democratically elected woman head-of-state on the continent of Africa. One of our District Superintendents, Richard Stryker is a native of Liberia and Oliver and Elaine Clark served there as missionaries.

During General Conference we heard a report of the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Scores of North Alabama VIM workers continue to play a big role in this effort.

One sign of hope that was present throughout the Conference was that the altar and podium were both made from wood that came from the property of Gulfside Assembly. Though Gulfside was destroyed in Katrina, we are rebuilding this historic center. North Alabama's own Mollie Stewart is serving as interim executive director for Gulfside Assembly.

So, in a number of ways, the direction of the North Alabama Conference -- as we work toward our priorities, as we attempt to focus our efforts - is having an influence beyond our Conference. It is a sure sign of hope to find our United Methodist Church, in it recent General Conference, moving in much the same hopeful direction.

William Willimon

Monday, May 05, 2008

Pastoral Wisdom

Recently I wrote to our retired pastors asking them to share with me their best insights on the work of pastoral ministry. In their years of ministry, what had they found to be the essential qualities for faithful pastors?

I have received over fifty wonderful responses. They represent over two millennia of wisdom! Here are some recurring themes in their responses.
  • Successful pastoral ministry requires not only theological ability, biblical fidelity, and a good personality; it requires hard work! Pastors must be "self-starters" who proactively engage their parishioners and their communities by knocking on doors, engaging in conversation, making contacts and other efforts to reach people. Disciplined, determined work is required.
  • Faithful pastors must have a vivid sense of vocation, a sense of being summoned by God to do this work. The work that pastors do is too demanding to do it for any other reason than the conviction that one is called to do this work, that God wants you to do it.
  • The only enduring reasons for being in ministry are theological. Pastors must constantly refurbish their sense that this is a "God thing," that ministry is more than a mere "helping profession." Pastoral ministry arises out of theological commitments and is dependent upon what God is doing in the church and the world.
  • Though some seem to believe that pastoral visitation is outmoded, there is no substitute for meeting people where they live, from offering yourself to them through visiting in their homes and businesses.
  • Pastoral ministry is relational. Your people must believe that you care about them, that you know them individually, and that you are trying to love them.

I find these to be enduring insights about ministry, gleaned from many years of collective wisdom. I share these with you in the hope that you will be inspired as I have been by our retired pastors.

Will Willimon

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Who Will Be Saved?

Who Will Be Saved? is the central question of my newest book, from Abingdon Press.

In the last few years, teaching and preaching in our churches, I've found a good deal of interest, and some confusion, in regard to what Christians believe about salvation in Jesus Christ.  We Wesleyans have always taken an orthodox view of how and whom Jesus Christ saves.  But we have also stressed salvation as part of the active, seeking, relentlessness of God into all corners of creation, all types of humanity.  

This book deals with issues of the scope of God's salvation in Jesus Christ, the place of other faiths in Christian views of salvation, heaven, forgiveness, eternal damnation, universal salvation and many other matters related to the main theme of salvation.  It is available now from Cokesbury.  

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Question of Revitalizing our Older Churches

As I wrote last week, as I go about the North Alabama Conference, I repeatedly hear a couple of questions that I would like to attempt to give an answer.  These questions which I fear are based on misinformation or a lack of information.  Last week, I responded to the question, "Why do we start new communities of faith mostly in all white, affluent suburbs? This week,  I'll attempt to answer the question: Why are we starting new churches when we ought to be revitalizing our existing congregations?  I hope my responses will be helpful in better understanding our North Alabama Conference Priorities.

Will Willimon

2. Why do we start new communities of faith rather than revitalizing our older churches?

The answer is WE DO REVITALIZE our existing churches that are willing to move into a new future.  We are now able to provide revitalization help (Natural Church Development) to EVERY church that wants to be part of the program.  Natural Church Development is a Conference Priority and is changing the future for many of our congregations.  To date, we have NO existing, older congregations that have undertaken Natural Church Development, followed the program, and been committed to the process that have not reaped positive results.

Most of our Connectional Ministries staff spend most of their time in congregational revitalization.  And we have had some dramatic results.  A few specific revitalizations projects come to mind.  We have been successful with revitalization projects at:  Calera First, Pelham First (Lakeview), Gadsden Central (Christ Central), University Church Huntsville (Grace UMC Huntsville), Genesis (the relocation of Grace UMC in B'ham).  All of these are relocations.  If some of our older churches will consider relocation they too may achieve new life.  Other revitalizations that come to mind are:  Jasper First, Huntsville First, Tuscaloosa First, Friendship Athens, Guntersville First, Trussville First, Gardendale-Mt. Vernon, Bluff Park.  These are thirteen older churches that have new life.  There are other smaller churches as well.

Warning: Dick Freeman, Thomas Muhumba, and Dale Cohen would have me add: No existing, older churches can be revitalized without risk, commitment, and a determination to be faithful to the mission of Christ no matter what. 

If your church is in decline and not growing, it is because your congregation has decided to die rather than to live (alas, there is no in between when it comes to churches).  The majority of our churches are not growing, thus we have a huge challenge before us.  Still, our major challenge is not to find good resources for helping a church grow and live into the future; our challenge is to have pastors and churches who want to do what is necessary to live into Christ's future.

While new communities of faith do evangelize more people, tend to be more multicultural, multiracial, and welcoming to new members than existing congregations, and while we are not beginning as many congregations as we are losing congregations (over half of our congregations failed to make ONE new Christian in the past two years!  These are clearly churches that are dying), we are showing good, solid progress in congregational revitalization.

The good news is that we now have a proven, reliable, theologically based program (NCD) for church revitalization and growth and we now have a group of pastors and lay leaders who know how to utilize NCD for the benefit of our older congregations.

Log into our Conference website, look at your congregation's recent record under"Church Stats" and decide if your congregation should be participating in NCD now.

God is blessing our efforts for revitalization.  Thanks be to God!

Will Willimon

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Question of Planting Churches in Non - "Upper-Class White Suburbs"

As I go about the Conference, I've repeatedly heard a couple of questions that I would like to attempt to give an answer. The questions are: Why do we start new communities of faith mostly in all white, affluent suburbs? And, Why are we starting new churches when we ought to be revitalizing our existing congregations?

For the next two weeks, I'll be attempting to answer both of these questions, questions which I fear are based on misinformation or a lack of information. I hope my responses will be helpful in better understanding our Conference Priorities.

1."Why do we plant new communities of faith ONLY in upper-class white suburbs?"

This is a common misconception about our new communities of faith. The simple answer is that we DO NOT plant ONLY in upper-class white suburbs!

Under the leadership of Dick Freeman, in the past two decades we have planted: House of Restoration, Glenn Addy, IMANI, Church Without Walls, Church Across the Street, Tabernacle, Genesis (Guntersville), The Summit (Hwy 431 in Albertville), New Life (on Sand Mountain at Grant, AL), Church of the Reconciler, Albertville Hispanic, Cullman Hispanic, Decatur Hispanic, Riverchase Hispanic, Florence Hispanic, Huffman Hispanic, Big Sandy in rural Tuscaloosa County, Jordan Crossings, Brandon in East Florence. These are 19 that ARE NOT in "upper class white suburbs." Not all of these new communities of faith root. For instance, we worked at IMANI for nearly a decade before we finally decided that we were not going to succeed. However, most of our communities of faith that have been multicultural, multiracial, and are in or near marginalized neighborhoods have succeeded far beyond the national average for new church starts.

We have invested, as a Conference, close to ten million dollars in these new church starts, nearly half of our total investment in new church starts. Our main limitation is pastoral leadership. We simply do not have enough pastors (yet!) who are multilingual or who have gifts for ministry in these settings.

However, some of these churches like "Genesis" in Guntersville are amazing places that are national leaders in ministry in settings where there are many people in need. Jesus has assigned us this mission and, with God's help, in places throughout our Conference, we are stepping up to the task!

Will Willimon

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

He Came Back...To Us!

And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb…. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe,…he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised;… he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." Mark 16:2-7

Mark says that on that first Easter, women went to the tomb to pay their last respects to poor, dead Jesus.  To their alarm, the body of Jesus was not there.  A "young man, dressed in a white robe" told them, "You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified?  Well, he isn't here.  He is raised.  He is going ahead of you to Galilee."

Here's my Easter question for you:  Why Galilee? 

Galilee?  Galilee is a forlorn, out of the way sort of place.  It's where Jesus came from (which in itself was a shock -- "Can anything good come out of Galilee?").  Jesus is Galilee's only claim to fame.  Jesus spent most of his ministry out in Galilee, the bucolic out back of Judea.  He expended most of his teaching trying to prepare his forlorn disciples for their trip up to Jerusalem where the real action was.  All of Jesus' disciples seem to have hailed from out in Galilee.  Jesus' ultimate goal seems not to focus on Galilee but rather on the Capital City, Jerusalem.  In Jerusalem he was crucified and in Jerusalem he rose.  Pious believers in Jesus' day expected a restoration of Jerusalem in which Messiah would again make the Holy City the power-center that it deserved to be, the capital city of the world.  Which makes all the more odd that the moment he rose from the dead, says tod ay's gospel, Jesus left the big city and headed back to Galilee.  Why?

One might have thought that the first day of his resurrected life, the risen Christ might have made straight for the palace, the seat of Roman power, appear there and say,  

"Pilate, you made a big mistake.  Now, it's payback time!"

One might have thought that Jesus would do something effective.  If you want to have maximum results, don't waste your time talking to the first person whom you meet on the street, figure out a way to get to the movers and the shakers, the influential and the newsmakers, those who have some power and prestige.  If you really want to promote change, go to the top. 

I recall an official of the National Council of Churches who, when asked why the Council had fallen on hard times and appeared to have so little influence, replied, "The Bush Administration has refused to welcome us to the White House."  How on earth can we get anything done if the most powerful person on earth won't receive us at the White House?

But Jesus?  He didn't go up to the palace, the White House, the Kremlin, or Downing Street.   (Jesus never got on well with politicians.)  Jesus went outback, back to Galilee. 

Why Galilee?   Nobody special lived in Galilee, nobody except the followers of Jesus.  Us.

The resurrected Christ comes back to, appears before the very same rag tag group of failures who so disappointed him, misunderstood him, forsook him and fled into the darkness.  He returns to his betrayers.  He returns to us. 

It would have been news enough that Christ had died, but the good news was that he died for us.  As Paul said elsewhere, one of us might be willing to die for a really good person but Christ shows that he is not one of us by his willingness to die for sinners like us.  His response to our sinful antics was not to punish or judge us.  Rather, he came back to us, flooding our flat world not with the wrath that we deserved but with his vivid presence that we did not deserve.   

It would have been news enough that Christ rose from the dead, but the good news was that he rose for us.

That first Easter, nobody actually saw Jesus rise from the dead.  They saw him afterwards.  They didn't appear to him; he appeared to them.  Us.  In the Bible, the "proof" of the resurrection is not the absence of Jesus' body from the tomb; it's the presence of Jesus to his followers.  The gospel message of the resurrection is not first, "Though we die, we shall one day return to life," it is, "Though we were dead, Jesus returned to us." 

If it was difficult to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, it must have been almost impossible to believe that he was raised and returned to us.  The result of Easter, the product of the Resurrection of Christ is the church -- a community of people with nothing more to convene us than that the risen Christ came back to us.  That's our only claim, our only hope.  He came back to Galilee.  He came back to us.

In life, in death, in any life beyond death, this is our great hope and our great commission.  Hallelujah!  Go!  Tell!  The risen Christ came back to Birmingham, uh I mean Galilee.

William Willimon

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Thinking Resurrection

Gerhard Manley Hopkins has a poem in which he inserts the prayer, “Easter in us.” He uses the noun Easter as a verb. “Easter in us.” Let Easter get in to us, come where we live, permeate our souls.

Which sounds not only grammatically, but also theologically strange. But perhaps that’s how the resurrection feels to us - as an active verb, not a passive noun. Luke has a fast paced account of the startling events of Easter. The women arrive at the tomb and in amazement discover he is not here, he has risen. Then Luke turns to what happens later in the day.

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmau, talking with each other about all these things that had happened. As they were talking and discussing Jesus himself came near but their eyes were kept from recognizing him….”

They didn’t know Jesus. Two of his closest disciples didn’t know him! It had only been three days since they had dinner with him. Now, on Sunday afternoon, they didn’t know him.

Here is our question for today, class. Why didn’t they know him? Luke says, “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Yes. But why?

Every now and then some sweet person will say something to me like, “I just don’t get it. God has never spoken to me. When I tried prayer, I was just talking to myself. This whole religion thing just seems like so much hooey.”

Perhaps their “I just don’t get it” may not be a testimonial to lack of intelligence but rather to their possession of a particular kind of intelligence.

There is among us a sort of intelligence that has been wonderfully productive of all sorts of things - bridges, penicillin, fax machines, quantum physics, Britney Spears. And yet that same intelligence - so enamored with empiricism, facts and figures, and common sense - has its limits.

As Douglas Sloane, in his book on higher education puts it, in American universities, at least since the early 1900’s quantifiable thinking (statistics, matter, money) has reigned supreme while qualifiable thinking (thoughts of beauty, right and wrong, good and bad) has had a rough go of it.
Augustine, as a bright young man with a superior classical education, confessed to Bishop Ambrose that he had tried to read the Bible but frankly, he was unimpressed. To him the Bible seemed like woefully inferior literature, crudely written, poorly edited.

“You young fool,” replied Ambrose. “You can’t get it because when you read in the Bible about ‘fish,’ you think ‘fish.’ When you read ‘bread,’ you think ‘bread.’”

Ambrose explained to him the spiritual depth of scripture, showed young Augustine levels of meaning beyond the surface appearance of things.

Thus, years later, after entering this strange new world of the Bible, Augustine is sitting under a tree in a garden. He hears a child singing, “Take up and read, take up and read.” Is it the voice of a child or an angel? By this time his imagination is so excited, his consciousness so heightened that he can’t tell the difference. He does what the voice says, takes up the Bible, flops it open to an obscure passage from Romans, and his life is changed forever. After that, we call him “St. Augustine.”

This week I’m speaking at Wake Forest University. When I was a college chaplain I realized that the students with whom I worked were quite smart but were also those on whom we had spent years of education, and a fortune in tuition, beating into him the notion that the world is flat. A tree is a tree. A mystery is to be explained. A miracle is to be disproved. Everything going on out there is the result of some easily discovered material cause and everything going on in here is due to something your mother did to you when you were three.

It’s the modern world - closed, fixed, flat, demystified, disenchanted and dull. Don’t expect surprises and, if by God grace a surprise really occurred, don’t expect to get it because you’ve lost the means even to know a surprise if you got one.

Why didn’t they recognize Jesus when they walked along the road with them? We get defeated by the limited, officially sanctioned, governmentally subsidized world view. Death blinds us, tells us that the world is closed shut and, if there is an intrusion, an invasion not of our own devising, we don’t get it.

Two followers of Jesus are trudging along the dusty road seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus when suddenly the risen Christ joins them incognito on their journey. The Risen Christ is to them a stranger. By the time they reach the end of their journey, they have moved from discouragement and despair to hope and faith. That’s the road each of us, if Sunday is half true to its promise, gets to walk.

The Road to Emmaus is the way. That was the first name for the church - The Way. The church, when it is half true to its promise, is a group of people on a road where, wonder of wonders, the Risen Christ meets us.

If you want to experience the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in your life, where you live, just get up in the morning and put one foot in the front of the other and head down the road. Follow the way. But please, go with a bit of imagination. Walk with the expectation of the possibility of surprise.

John Dominic Crossian says that there are three different places in the Holy Land which claim to be the Village of Emmaus. Three places! Furthermore, says that there is no record of any village called “Emmaus” in any ancient source. The only place in all of the writings in the New Testament where we hear of the Village of Emmaus is here in Luke’s Gospel.

He says, “Emmaus is nowhere. Emmaus is everywhere.”

Emmaus is wherever in your life journey, as you are on the way, either at church, or in a dormitory, at a family dinner table, where by the grace of God your eyes are opened and you see the Risen Christ present. Easter in you.

William Willimon