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