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.