Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Don’t Give Up Meeting Together

Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

Let us not give up meeting together,

as some are in the habit of doing,

but let us encourage one another.

-- Hebrews 10:24-25

The single most revealing measurement of a congregation’s health and spiritual vitality? Attendance at worship. That’s why the attendance number is reported every week by our churches on the Conference Dashboard.

That’s why I and the Cabinet have set for ourselves a goal of 4% increase in attendance in our churches in 2009. Church attendance among Christians in Alabama is the second highest of any state in the nation, so this is a goal we can reach.

“Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing,” says the writer of the Hebrews. It’s sort of a comfort to know that, even in the early church, some Christians had to be encouraged to come to church!

It’s also a reminder of how important it is to be together. “Christianity is a social religion. To turn it into a solitary affair is to kill it,” said John Wesley. You just can’t follow Jesus alone. Discipleship is never do-it-yourself. Christianity is a group thing.

Who is a Christian? Someone who has not given up meeting together. That’s not all that needs to be said about Christianity, but down through the ages we have no record of a single faithful disciple who refuses to gather with other fellow believers.

“That we may spur one another to good deeds.” This statement is a reminder that worship together is not only a way to love God but also a way to love our neighbor, to fulfill our responsibility to be “our neighbor’s keeper,” to “spur one another to good deeds.”

“I didn’t get anything out of your sermon,” says someone emerging from church. This statement betrays a misunderstanding of Christian worship.

Most of us learn that the supreme test of worship is not what I get out of it but also what my neighbor got out of it.

One reason why people may avoid Sunday meetings together is that it is so much easier to be vaguely spiritual, to cling to your cherished notions, and misconceptions when you have no fellow Christians to challenge and “spur one another.”

All over our Conference, in churches large and small, this Sunday about 100,000 of us North Alabama Methodists will convene. We haven’t given up on Jesus’ promise to meet us when just two or three of us gather. We will gather, praise God, seek divine guidance and correction for our lives, and spur on one another, by the grace of God the Father, Son, and Holy, Spirit.

Will Willimon

What are the attendance patterns at your church? Click on “Church Stats” on the North Alabama Conference website and you can see a picture of your church’s faithfulness.

Leadership in Stewardship

Last week we noted that the most important single factor in a congregation’s commitment to our shared giving program (apportionments) is a pastor’s commitment and ability to lead in the ministry of giving. Jesus commands us to be givers more than receivers.

The good news is that, even in tough economic times, most of our pastors and most of our churches are finding the means to be faithful in their stewardship. The vast majority (about 70%) of our pastors and churches pay their fair share of Conference administration and mission funds in full.

Marcus Singleton was recruited by us to Alabama from North Carolina to help turnaround our historic St. Paul’s church in downtown Birmingham. We are fortunate to have this talented young pastor among us. Last Sunday Marcus noted, in his sermon, that at St. Paul’s the economic downturn appears to have had no effect on people’s fidelity to the work of the church – those people who were faithful before the economic downturn have continued to be faithful during the recession. The reverse, sadly, is also the case noted Marcus. A new member joined St. Paul’s at the end of the sermon – one of the many who have joined since Marcus’ arrival. St. Paul’s is showing the greatest growth in the congregation’s recent history, thus validating my hunch that people will respond to the truth about their money!

The same week, Clauzell Ridgeway Williams, fresh out of seminary, serving Sweet Home in Gadsden -- a church that has been in precipitous decline for two decades, a church that was routinely receiving $20k in salary support from the Conference – will be totally off salary subsidy support by the end of this year and will pay 100% of their apportionments! I’ve often said that financial problems, the inability to pay fair share of apportionments (which rarely amounts to more than a mere 10% of a congregation’s income) is invariably an indicator of weak spiritual health. I’ve been to Sweet Home recently and can testify that this financial wonder is validated by the spiritual energy there on a Sunday morning.

Allen Beasley recently sent me pictures of the beautiful new building at Russellville, a building that was built to house the congregation’s rapidly growing ministries. Allen noted that this achievement is particularly noteworthy because Russellville has been hit as hard by the recession as any place in Alabama and from the beginning of the project the church vowed not to be delinquent in its payment of its fair share of apportionments.

The same week as Clauzell, Allen and Marcus were giving strong witness in the area of financial faithfulness, Mike Pope was concluding an entire month of messages on stewardship. Mike simply asked everyone to “give God a raise.” If someone was giving 10%, they were asked to give a little more. If someone was giving 5%, give a little more. “I mentioned how Jesus is worthy of a raise. He is never late, never calls in sick, never uses any vacation time… Second, I asked everyone to give Jesus a bonus.” The budget at Tuscumbia First was a bit behind so Mike asked for everyone to make a one time gift for the budget. Mike even led by example: “I sold my bass boat and gave all the money to the church.” Mike’s creative approach yielded fruit: “On October 4, 2009 we had an offering of over $121,000. We called it ‘Miracle Sunday’ and indeed it was miraculous!”

I agree. It was a miracle. But it was also the result of pastoral commitment to the ministry of stewardship.

I’ve just seen the District Financial reports. Two of our Districts, Mountain Lakes and Southeast (both in some of the hardest hit areas of our state) are ahead of last year’s apportionment payments. I’m certain that this is a testimonial to the leadership of those DS’s and to the pastors and churches in those districts.

Years ago I remember a wise old preacher saying, “Show me your checkbook stubs and I will tell you your theology.” Show me a congregation’s record of giving; it is an unerring testimonial not only to its theology but also to its pastoral leadership.

Will Willimon

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Pastoral Leadership in Stewardship

Bishop Al Gwinn, who is doing some great things in the North Carolina Conference, shared with me a study that was done in the West Ohio Conference related to the impact of pastoral leadership on the fair-share giving (apportionments) of a congregation. I found it interesting:

In the late 90’s Dr. Don House of the University of Texas ….had his graduate students run correlations on all the statistics of all the churches in the denominations to determine what were the critical factors in the payment of apportionments. The single biggest predictor of a church’s level of payment was its previous performance. This related directly to the pastor, i.e., the strongest correlation was to the pastor of the church. As the pastor moved, so did the apportionment payments. The second strongest correlation was with the district superintendent; the third was with the bishop.

In West Ohio, I’ve run studies of pastors and churches to see if patterns existed. This was done by looking at the payment history three years prior to a pastoral change, all during the pastor’s tenure at a church, and then three years following the pastor’s leaving for every appointment in the pastor’s career. Different conditions gave different results.

A. If a pastor with a history of paying apportionments in full was appointed to a church that had a history of paying in full the church always continued to pay 100%.

B. If a pastor with a history of paying less than 100% was appointed to a church that had a history of paying in full, the church stopped paying at the 100% level within the first year of appointment. If the pastor was appointed somewhere else within three years, the church returned to 100% payments within a year following the pastor’s departure. If the pastor stayed more than five years with the church paying less than 100%, it seldom returned to 100%.

C. If a pastor with a history of paying 100% was appointed to a church that had a history of paying less than 100%, the church usually moved to payment in full within two years and sometimes within the first year of the appointment.

D. The combination of a church and pastor with both having a history of less than 100% usually decreased payment from the highest point that either had ever attained. It often went to zero.”




Pays 100%

Pays 100%

Pays 100%

Pays <100%

Pays 100%

Pays <100%

Pays 100%

Pays <100%

Pays 100%

Pays <100%

Pays <100%

Pays <100%

Stan’s conclusions were that if appointments were based solely on placement in order to gain payout percentages, you would put:

(1) 100% pastors in 100% churches and less than 100% churches who have high apportionment balances and

(2) less than 100% pastors only in less than 100% churches with the smallest payout pastors going to churches with the smallest apportionment levels.

Our Annual Conference continues to have a low level of apportionment participation (when compared with other SEJ Conferences). I am sure that the findings of this study would apply directly to our Annual Conference. We have some pastors who have not led a church to full mission giving participation in their entire ministry; we have many more pastors who have never served a church, in any location or situation, that has not fully participated in our giving.

What this says to me is that the Cabinet (our DS’s receive salaries that are based, in part, on their proven ability to lead churches to participate in apportioned giving) need to take greater note of a pastor’s record of stewardship leadership in appointing pastors.

It also reminds us that apportionment participation is a testimony to a pastor’s leadership gifts in this area. Pastors who are truly committed to mission giving produce churches that pay 100% of apportionments regardless of that church’s financial situation. Pastors who aren’t committed to mission giving produce churches that are unfaithful in this area. Period.

Will Willimon

How has your congregation done in its giving patterns last Sunday, last month, over the past seven years? Click into the NAC website at “Church Stats” and find out.