Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Praying Our Way Through Ministry

I’m so pleased by the North Alabama Conference United Methodist Prayer Summit. It’s to be held once again this year at Sumatanga on January 24-27, beginning on Monday morning. If you are a pastor, I hope that you will join in this intense experience of pastoral prayer.

This gathering pleases me because (1.) I had nothing to do with its institution – Paul Lawler and Robin Scott are among those who created the Prayer Summit a couple of years ago, and (2.) my own ministry in North Alabama has reawakened in me a conviction that Christian leadership is so demanding that it can only be undertaken in prayer. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Christian leadership is a form of prayer.

You may have heard me recall that the morning I was elected bishop, an older, experienced bishop whispered to me – as I sat in shock on the stage at Junaluska – “Friend, you have just improved your prayer life.”

It was true. The work that Jesus calls us to do is more than that which can be done through good technique, savvy leadership skills, or even wise corporate management. As Jesus said to his disciples (when they had failed at Christian leadership), “this sort of thing can’t be done without prayer.” (Mark 29)

Therefore our prayer, as Christian leaders, ought to be for the wisdom, strength, insight, inspiration, and empowerment to do the work that Jesus calls us to do. No Christian ministry can be done alone. We ought to pray for ministries that are so demanding, so difficult, that without the constant blessing of, intervention of, and will of God to make them work, they will fail miserably.

Without the empowerment of prayer, ministry too easily degenerates into that which can be achieved by merely human effort. What Jesus calls us to do cannot be done except by miraculous divine intervention. Therefore, we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done right now, on earth, in Alabama as it will, through your saving work, one day, forever in heaven……Amen.”

Will Willimon

Monday, December 13, 2010

Making Membership Mean Something

In our determination to start more new congregations among those who are under served by our church, we created The Community Church Without Walls on the west side of Birmingham. R.G. Lyons is the pastor and he is convening a very different and very exciting sort of new United Methodist Church, thereby leading us into new dimensions of urban ministry. Noting the wonderfully high AVM number (attendance as average of membership) at The Community Church Without Walls, I asked R.G. for his interpretation of this wonderful outreach. Below is his reply.

I love R.G.'s distinction between “belonging” and “membership.” The Church Without Walls seems to really be making “membership” in the Body of Christ mean something. Amen!

Hey Will,

A while back I got a letter from you requesting a response about why our attendance is so much higher than our membership. For us, it is pretty simple...we make membership mean something. Everyone who seeks membership must go through a 12 week class and retreat and we have expanded the membership covenant to be more specific in the commitments we are making. So everyone who becomes a member, commits to worshipping weekly in at least one house church (unless sick or out of town or some other emergency that can't be avoided), spend time daily in Bible study and prayer, lives in love and peace with members/attendees of CCWW, and be involved in at least one ministry of CCWW in a hands-on capacity.

I explain membership something like this: "Membership is not about belonging. Everyone belongs; everyone is welcome. Membership is not about gaining special privileges...becoming a member does not mean you get something that non-members do not get. Rather, membership is about a commitment that you believe God is calling you to serve him by serving the church." Something like that.

For us, it has worked very well. I am very pleased that the overwhelming majority of our members have taken this covenant very seriously. So, the reason our AVM is so high is simply because we make membership a high commitment.

R.G. Lyons

Monday, December 06, 2010

Church on the Move: In the Power of the Holy Spirit

This fall I was fortunate to participate in a church wide study of the Acts of the Apostles at our dynamic Canterbury Church.

The Acts of Apostles is addressed to a church in trouble. Reading between the lines of the text, here was a church that was constantly clashing with culture, a church that was holding on by its finger tips, a church with severe money problems. How does Luke, author of Acts, inspire and ignite a troubled church? By reminding them that church isn’t about us in the first place. What is “core” of church, what is the basis of the church’s life and mission? It’s the Holy Spirit descending, convening, and sending.

So much so is the Holy Spirit the chief actor of Acts that some have said we ought to rename it to “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

For instance, if one were to ask the church in Acts, “How did you decide to leap over all traditional boundaries and launch a mission to the Samaritans?” the church could have responded, “We didn’t. We didn’t decide, plan or program any of the Samaritan mission. The Holy Spirit dragged us out of our churches and into that mission.”

After the first martyrdom, the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, a great persecution arose against the church. The church ran away to Samaria. Surely nobody would pursue them there. And while they were there, Philip did what Christians do – Philip told some people about Jesus. To the church’s surprise, the Holy Spirit descended and the Samaritans, outsiders to be sure, were baptized.

My image of the church that appears in the Acts of the Apostles is a church that is being dragged kicking and screaming into ever expanding areas of ministry, breathlessly attempting to keep up with the movements of the risen Lord. That’s evangelism, that’s mission – attempting to keep up with the movements of the Holy Spirit, attempting to keep up and not lag too far behind God’s relentless, restless movement to retake the world.

There is little biblical justification for a church that’s located, situated, bound to one place either geographically or organizationally. “Location, location, location,” was never a statement made by Jesus. How sad that the mission of many of our churches is the acquisition of and the upkeep of real estate.

The major reason given for the non participation in our Conference’s program of fair share mission and connectional giving? Real Estate. It’s a sad irony that our churches that built buildings for ministry have now allowed their ministry to be consumed by buildings.

We have found that when a church attempts to reach a new generation of Christians, Christians under 35, we know of no young Christians who respond to the appeal “Come! Help us to keep up our building!”

As Bill Gandy (DS in Mountain Lakes District) keeps reiterating, “The main difference between a growing church and a dying church is INWARD / OUTWARD.” A Church that focuses mostly on inward concerns falls under the judgment of a God who says, “For God so loved the world that God gave . . . .

In the Acts of the Apostles, the church is always on the move, always pushing out, always outward rather than inward, always being drawn, pulled and pushed by the Holy Spirit into “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1).

By God’s grace we are that church. By God’s grace, and the pulling and prodding of the Holy Spirit, we can be that church!

Will Willimon

Monday, November 29, 2010

Impacting Church Attendance

I have often noted the importance of Sunday attendance as an indicator of a congregation’s vitality. Each week I correspond with those pastors who, according to the weekly Dashboard reports, lead churches who show the largest gain in attendance. Attendance, as a percentage of total membership, is one of the most important measurements of a congregation’s spiritual health. (Do you know your church’s AVM number? The Conference Dashboard can tell you.)

I’ve asked dozens of pastors to share with me something that they have done that may account for a sustained rise in attendance.

While I’ve earned much in these conversations, here are a few insights on how our churches are finding ways to grow participation:

  • An increase in the AVM number (attendance as percentage of membership) is a sure sign of congregational confidence in and responsiveness to pastoral leadership. Last year Bill Brunson and Wade Langer (Trussville UMC) have set specific goals for increasing their AVM number, carefully monitoring their progress each week, and they got specific results.
  • Mike Skelton (InnerChange) and Mike Edmondson (Helena) both stress the need for a culture of hospitality.
  • Mary Bendall (Tuscaloosa First) has initiated a fine program that trains greeters and hosts to begin the welcome of guest in the church parking lot.
  • Do something to show expectation and determination to grow the church. Any growing congregation is a testimonial to a pastor and a congregation who have determined to grow rather than to decline and have asked God to show them how. Calvin Havens at Friendship in the Northwest District has a congregation that has exploded with young adult growth. Calvin says that a big factor is deciding that “the church exits for those who are not here as much as it is for those who are here.”
Will Willimon

Is your congregation growing? Is its AVM increasing? You can find out exactly how well your church is doing this week by logging on to the Conference Dashboard.

Jesus is Better than Politics

Knee deep in the church’s response to the crisis in Haiti, overwhelmed by the determination of United Methodists to respond to the suffering there, I received an unsolicited email from the folks at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) complaining about the President’s health care plan. (Victims of Obamacare, By Mark Tooley, 1.28.10) Thousands of you are on the IRD’s unsolicited email list. From time to time I hear from you, upset about something that the IRD is upset about. They tend never to be concerned about anything that concerns the church – like the suffering of sisters and brothers in Haiti, the content of our preaching, the quality of our discipleship, the orthodoxy of our theology.

The email tirade was fairly typical for the IRD – snide, caustic, right wing conservative, devoid of any reference to the Bible or Jesus. Mr. Tooley is a good enough writer but he is utterly innocent of any theological interests. And so is the IRD. Note their title: Religion and Democracy. They never talk about Christ and they seem to think that politics and government is the answer to everything. The IRD seems to be a group of people who worship “religion” and “democracy” whereas the United Methodist Church is trying to worship and to obey Jesus. Emails from the IRD could as easily be released by Mormon Glen Beck or some Islamic Society as by any Christian church. Though their main function is to attack mainline churches, “church” is not in their name. Right wing politics appears to be their church.

Of course, I’ve been critical when left wing politics plays a greater role in our conversation as a church than scripture or Jesus. But standing there, trying to get those water purification systems out of Alabama and into Haiti, wading through the hundreds of health kits that Alabama Methodists produced in one week, with our Conference website jammed with Methodists attempting to give money to Haiti, I was once again reminded of the irrelevancy of the IRD. They may have generous funding from a few right wing fanatics, they may have some interesting things to say about politics, and Mr. Tooley may be (in certain moments) a good satirist, but they don’t have much to do with being the church. Jesus Christ ought to control the church’s imagination – not politics left or right.

I hope that you will keep this in mind the next time you receive an email from the IRD. We’re United Methodist Christians. We have more important things to worry about than the purely infatuations that worry the IRD. In a world that worships politics as divine, we have more important things to do than politics.

This week of Thanksgiving, as you give thanks to God for the gifts of religion and democracy, be sure to give thanks that we are saved neither by religion nor democracy but rather by the work of Jesus Christ!

Will Willimon

Monday, November 15, 2010

Accentuating the Positive

It is unsurprising that there is much failure in the Christian church. After all, we are attempting to worship and to serve a crucified savior.

It is also unsurprising that we have many dispirited pastors and churches – after all, leadership in an organization that has as its mission the conversion of the world, the rescue of sinners, the worship and service of a true God, is hard, countercultural work subject to much resistance. Christianity is a minority movement that has, from its inception, had friction with the surrounding culture.

What is surprising, considering the mission of the church, is that we have churches (like Haleyville UMC and Canterbury UMC) and pastors who are positive, fulfilled, excited, and fruitful. A few of our pastors and churches failed to participate at the full, fair level of expectations in our shared giving. We all know all of the reasons and excuses they give for their failures.

However, nearly two-thirds of our churches and pastors paid 100% of their apportionments and showed their full, fair commitment to our mission.

Nearly half of our churches have not made a new Christian in two years. These churches are dying and are failing to fulfill the mandate of Christ.

However, about a third of our churches made four thousand new Christians last year.

As those who deploy our clergy, the Cabinet and I need to continue to identify, to learn from, and to effectively utilize those pastors who have shown (as demonstrated on the NAL Conference Dashboard!) a remarkable ability to lead God’s people. We also need to note those congregations who want to grow and who can grow and spend most of our energies with them.

In a declining institution there are always some people who have influence in the institution simply because they are negative. “See? I told you this wouldn’t work,” they say.

Therefore our prayer as church leaders ought to be, “Lord, give us eyes to see all those faithful ones who are being obedient to you, who are daring to trust your promises, and who are offering their gifts to you in your service and whom you are blessing with fruitfulness and growth. Amen.”

Will Willimon

Monday, November 08, 2010

North Alabama Conference Innovations Leading The Way For The UMC

I’ve been at the Council of Bishops in Panama this past week. At our meeting we heard the final report of the Call to Action Project, an assessment of widespread structural, governance, financial, and leadership issues that must be addressed in order for the United Methodist Church to be effective in its mission.

When I first read the full report, my reaction was “This is obvious. We’ve been doing most of this in North Alabama for the last four years.” But upon reconsideration, I realized that it is important for our church to rally around the obvious work that we need to do and get on with that work now. I also realized that the North Alabama Conference’s work has had far reaching implications in the General Church.

Our Conference leadership decided, a half dozen years before the CTA Steering Committee, that “as a Church we have pursued self-interests and allowed institutional inertia to bind us in ways that constrain our witness and dilute our mission." Through our Priorities, radical changes in budgeting, transformation of Connectional Ministries, the weekly Dashboard, reorganization of the Districts and the Cabinet, and the augmented process of consultation, evaluation, and accountability related to pastoral appointments we have been busy taking specific measures to address the obvious need for change. We are much better focusing our energies upon solving the issues that the CTA cites: decades of membership and attendance decline, decline in baptisms and professions of faith, less ministry fruitfulness, an aging demographic of members and leaders, and financial stress. We have also been enacting what the CTA says our whole church must do: “fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

All of the congregations of the North Alabama Conference should be gratified that our innovative leadership is being noted and followed by the rest of the Connection. I see the CTA report as not only giving the Council of Bishops a much needed agenda but also as confirmation, by the General Church, that our Conference leadership is indeed leading us in the right direction.

Will Willimon

Below are some of the highlights of the CTA report. Note how well these emphases align with our North Alabama Conference Priorities:

Key Drivers of Congregational Vitality include:

  • Effective pastoral leadership including management, visioning, & inspiration
  • Multiple small groups (study, fellowship, and service) and programs for children and youth
  • A mix of traditional and contemporary worship services
  • High percentage of spiritually engaged laity who assume leadership roles

    *Approximately 15% of the 32,228 U.S. churches scored high in vitality based on the vitality index established by the study.

"Leaders, from bishops, clergy, and laity across the connection, must lead and immediately, repeatedly, and energetically make it plain that our current culture and practices are resulting in overall decline that is toxic and constricts our missional effectiveness", according to the committee findings.

The CTA Steering Committee will present a set of five interdependent initiatives.

  1. Starting in January 2011 and continuing for ten years, use the drivers of congregational vitality as initial areas of attention for sustained and intense concentration on building effective practices in local churches.
  2. Dramatically reform the clergy leadership, development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems.
  3. Collect, report and review, and act on statistics that measure progress in key performance areas in order to learn and adjust approaches to leadership, policies, and use of human and financial resources.
  4. Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming a) responsibility and public accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, participation in servant/mission ministries, benevolent giving, and lowering average age of participants in local church life, and b) establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
Consolidate program and administrative agencies, align their work and resources with the priorities of the UMC and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations, and reconstitute them with much smaller competency-based boards of directors in order to overcome current diffusive, redundant, expensive, and independent structures.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Ministry to Our Senior Methodists

North Alabama United Methodists honor our elder United Methodists with one of the most generous pension and insurance programs in the country, our extensive Superannuate Homes Program provides housing for retired Elders and spouses, and the Reverend Don Neal's office provides extensive supportive services for our retired clergy.

Most notable of all, The United Methodist Retirement Homes of Alabama and Northwest Florida is a national leader in ministry to the elderly.

In November the Rev. Wray Tomlin, the Executive Director Emeritus for The United Methodist Retirement Homes, will retire after more than 30 years of service among us.

Ray came to Birmingham from the Tennessee Conference in 1978 to lead our Methodist Homes for the aging in its ministry of meeting “the needs of God’s Older Children by providing a retirement community environment of abundant life, combined with the care of qualified professionals.” At the time of his arrival the United Methodists had two homes. Today, under Ray’s leadership, we have 13 facilities for elder care under the Methodist Homes for the Aging organization. There are more than 1600 residents and more than 800 employees that offer 6 care levels from “independent cottage living” to assisted living, to skill nursing care to Alzheimer care units.

Our goal has been to provide a safe, secure environment whereby our seniors can continue to make significant contributions to our church and Ray has helped us to achieve that goal.

A number of years back Rev. Tomlin put together the “Fountain of Love” program and began to ask churches and individuals to assist in enabling some of the Homes for The Aging residents who with loving care were outliving the financial resources they had saved for retirement. Today the “Fountain of Love” program continues to help many residents stay in one of our United Methodist Homes long after most or all of their financial resources are depleted or gone.

Although Ray officially retires this fall, I have no doubt that he will continue to be concerned for this marvelous program he has helped create and has guided so wisely. Likewise, his example and dedication to the ministry of caring for God’s Older Children will be an example for the church for many years to come

Well done Wray! You have made us a nationally recognized leader in ministry to seniors. It’s our way of honoring our past by preparing for the future care of our honored elders.

Will Willimon

Monday, October 25, 2010

Birmingham-Southern as a Church College

I’ve had a relationship with Birmingham-Southern College long before coming to North Alabama. My friend Neal Berte had invited me to speak at the college. I am the grateful recipient of an honorary degree and, until this semester enjoyed teaching classes at the College.

Having been on the campuses of dozens of church related colleges, I can say without fear of contradiction, that BSC enjoys one of the most positive relationships with the church of any college in our connection. Our church not only gave birth to BSC but, in Neal Berte's presidency helped save this college. BSC currently receives about $300,000 from the North Alabama Conference per year, our largest size, local benevolence.

When our previous president was installed, I said at his Inauguration, “We entrust to your care a college that we have birthed, a college that we have loved, a college that we have saved, and a college that we have sacrificially sustained.”

The current, unprecedented crisis at BSC is the results of: the CFO’s pattern of financial mis-statements to Administration and Board, financial aid to students at an unsustainable discount rate, expensive and inadequately funded building projects. These mistakes have caused a huge amount of pain and anxiety about the future.

I also believe that we are in this crisis because the college, for a moment, lost sight of its identity as a church college.

I want you to know that we trustees are determined to preserve and even strengthen our beloved college. BSC is blessed with a self-sacrificial faculty of great academic ability, some of the very best students in our region, a beautiful campus, and a church that loves its college.

Some of the very best students, in a college with academically able students, come to the college from United Methodist Churches. Laura Sisson, our Director of Church Relations, provides support for these students. Some of our most able pastors are products of BSC. The majority of our Board, including our chair are Methodists. My message to North Alabama Methodists is:

  1. Our college is going to weather this crisis and prevail. We are making changes in the way the college is governed and we are seeking a new President who can lead us forward.
  2. Send us your well qualified UM Students. Birmingham-Southern is a quality, church-related environment for undergraduate education. The education offered here is superb.
  3. United Methodist Alumni need to speak up for and to generously give to the college now. If your congregations are not currently paying its full higher education apportionment, we desperately need that paid in full this year and the next.
God has graciously given us a great treasure in Birmingham-Southern College. I’m determined that this crisis will be an opportunity to recover and to strengthen our church’s ties with the college. We need BSC and BSC needs us.

I’m in a rare and privileged position: I get to go to work on the campus of one of the most beautiful and academically rigorous small colleges in America – BSC – a church-related college.

William H. Willimon

One of BSC’s greatest alumni is Bishop Robert Morgan. For more than a decade he has taught popular courses at BSC and thereby sent us some of our most talented new pastors. This month Bishop Morgan will be honored by Candler School of Theology with its Distinguished Alumnus Award. Congratulations to Bishop Morgan and to BSC on this honor.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Getting Off to a Good Start

The sending of pastors is a demanding, prayer-filled process. Along with our innovative use of NCD scores, the Strengths Inventory, the Dashboard numbers, and the Triad Interviews (discussed here over the last three weeks), one of the Cabinet’s most striking innovations is our First Ninety Days process that Dale Cohen has designed for us.

After a rigorous appointive process that has made North Alabama a leader in appointive innovations, pastors and PPRC chairpersons are notified and a date is set for an announcement to be made on a Sunday.

All pastors who are moving attend a First 90 Days Training Event to help them prepare for the transition and to learn how to develop a plan for succeeding in their new appointment. Lay Leaders in churches that are receiving pastors are also invited to attend an event called “Getting Off to a Good Start: The First 90 Days for Local Church Leaders.” This training is designed to facilitate dialogue and partnership between the new pastor and their church. The outcome for pastors is having a written plan in place that their share with their DS who reviews it and then monitors the implementation of the 90 Day plan. Part of this plan is shared with the leadership in the local church through a series of conversations held over the initial 90 day period.

We have never had a pastor or church who faithfully followed the First 90 Day Plan to have any difficulty in the first year that necessitated a move in the first year. Every pastor having a definite, public plan for the first days in ministry has been one of our most effective ways to help pastors succeed in a new congregation.

This past year every full time pastor who moved received a letter from me and the DS citing specific expectations for results of ministry in the first year: specific, measurable expectations such as “a 10 percent increase in Sunday attendance,” or “a two percent increase in baptisms of those under 21,” or “a five percent growth in children’s ministry,” etc. Our pastors are responding so well to this increase in expectation and accountability. These letters, signed by me, the receiving DS, and key lay leadership as well as the pastor, are giving congregational leadership the tools they need to lead their congregations to growth.

Moving can be a stressful time for pastors and for congregations, too. The conference insurance program offers assistance for pastors and pastors’ families through United Methodist Pastoral Care and Counseling and when facing a move, many people have found this to be a useful benefit.

Every time your church experiences a pastoral transition, God gives you another chance to demonstrate once again your faithfulness to the Kingdom of God as you dream of the possibilities that lie ahead and move forward with faith, believing that your best days are yet to come. This is one of the great gifts of United Methodism’s practice of sent ministry.

Will Willimon

Monday, October 11, 2010

Pastoral Transitions: Consultations and Triads

We have made major improvements in the way we appoint pastors in our Conference. For the next few weeks I’ll be highlighting some of these changes.

Nearly all clergy moves in our Conference begin with a request from the pastor or from the congregation. Generally, a DS is made aware through a pastor or a chairperson of the Pastor-Parish or Staff-Parish Relations Committee that there is a need for a pastoral transition. For moves made in June, this contact is generally initiated in January or February of the year.

Sometimes pastors initiate a move because they feel they have accomplished their main goals. At other times they request a move because they feel like they have reached an impasse in the congregation. Just because a pastor or SPRC requests a move does not mean that a move is automatic. Sometimes the DS may urge the pastor and congregation to work through their impasse, to dig in and seek transformation of the congregation.

A pastoral transition is requested only through its PPRC which represents the congregation to the DS. Congregations may initiate a move when they have determined that the current pastoral leadership is unable to contribute more value to the congregation in mission and ministry. This could be the result of the changing needs in the congregation and in the community and the gifts and abilities of the current pastor not lining up with the needs. Your DS has been trained carefully to evaluate what is in the best interest of both the congregation and the pastor and represent to the Cabinet their understanding of what should be done.

If a DS determines that a move is in order, either through the DS’s own assessment of the situation, the request of a pastor, or the request of a PPRC, the DS notifies the remainder of the Cabinet that a pastoral transition is anticipated for your congregation. After a series of steps are taken, a master list of all the potential moves is compiled and presented to the Cabinet for consideration.

It is the responsibility of a pastor who requests a move to relay this information to the PPRC. It is most helpful if the pastor shares honestly and openly with the PPRC so that the PPRC understands that the move is being initiated by the pastor. It is the responsibility of the PPRC that requests a pastoral move to relay this information to the pastor. Again, it is most helpful if the PPRC shares honestly and opening with the pastor about the reasons for requesting a change. It is the responsibility of the DS to consult with the PPRC of a congregation and with the pastor if the DS is initiating the move and to inform them of the reasons why the DS feels this is necessary.

The process of discussing the possibility of a pastoral transition is known as “consultation” and is directed by ¶430-¶435 in the Discipline. Even with consultation that the PPRC’s role is advisory to the Bishop and Cabinet. In the North Alabama Conference once it has been determined that a pastor may be up for a move, the first step is for the pastor to prepare a DVD of a sermon preached in an actual worship service to be presented to their DS and to the Bishop. The Bishop and DS respond to the pastor in writing about the sermon. Then the pastor meets with a Triad Interview Team consisting of three members of the Cabinet in late January or February. This is one of our most effective North Alabama contributions to the appointive process. Generally, the pastor has been asked to respond in writing to a brief series of questions about his/her ministry and his/her congregation and the reasons why a move is being considered. The responses are distributed to the Triad Interview Team members prior to the consultation so that they can prepare further questions for clarification and insight to ask at the interview. A pastor’s spouse is welcome to participate in the Triad consultation.

These Triad consultations have dramatically changed our appointive process. Each pastor has at least four members of the Cabinet who have spent the time to understand the dynamics related to the anticipated move—both to provide the best opportunity for the pastor to utilize his/her strengths in a new appointment, but also to understand the needs of the pastor’s current congregation to assist in finding the right pastor to follow in their appointment.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Making Appointments Work

For the next few weeks I’ll be highlighting some of the new ways our Cabinet is working to improve our process of sending pastors.

One of our watchwords on the Cabinet is that “The Cabinet doesn’t make appointments; we make appointments work.” It is our duty to garnet as much information as we can about churches and their God-given mission and the gifts that God has given our pastors to lead that mission.

Once we have a list of the congregations that ought to have a pastoral change, and once the Triad consultations have taken place (see last week’s email), I encourage the DS’s to begin to talk and to begin to try to piece together the complex network of inter-related parts known as pastoral appointments. Of course, through the Triad consultations, a host of factors have been introduced that include the specific mission of our churches, special needs of a pastor’s family, unique congregational situations requiring a specific type of leadership and skills, varied levels of pastoral leadership available for appointment, the balance between appointments coming open due to the number of anticipated retirements and the number of people who will be approved for ministry and in need of an appointment, and other factors.

This means that when the Cabinet meets for the First Round of Appointments, there has already been much discussion between DS’s. The overarching goal of making pastoral assignments is to make a series of appointments that maximizes the leadership capability of the pastors who are up for a move while providing the best possible missional leadership for those congregations who will be receiving a new pastor. It’s a tough task, partly because we are required by our Discipline to appoint every Elder in good standing. Alas, a number of our congregations have shrunk below the level of being able to provide an Elder’s salary and benefits, so the task can be daunting. We try to keep clear that our chief task is to get every congregation the best pastoral leadership we can.

The total minimum financial obligation for having a full-time pastoral position filled by an Elder/Deacon or a Probationary Elder/Deacon is $70,000 including salary and benefits. Lovett Weems of Wesley Theological Seminary has shown us that a church must average 125 adults in worship to sustain the ability to fund a full-time pastor’s salary, an adequate program for growth, an appropriate mission program, maintaining its facility, and to participate fully in connectional giving. We are sure that more churches will move from full-time to part-time. We anticipate many more of our churches to be placed on multiple congregation circuits in order to meet the challenges of funding trained, ordained clergy.

For our deliberations, we prepare a one-page information sheet on each pastor who is moving. The sheet includes: Pastor’s name, clergy status, marital status, Strengths-Finder top five strengths, NCD scores for the church the pastor has served, seven year summary of that church’s benchmarks during the pastor’s tenure, photo of the pastor, appointment history, and the name and number of the PPRC chairperson. We also take into consideration a pastor’s record of leadership in shared missional giving. We know which pastors have gifts for leading churches in that uniquely Wesleyan concept of shared ministry and it is our duty to act on this knowledge.

We are pleased that our careful evaluation, our desire to gather as much insight and information about churches and pastor, has led us to a high rate of success in pastors being well received by our congregations and pastors having long and productive pastorates. With God’s help, that is our overall goal in the Wesleyan practice of sending pastors.

Will Willimon

On October 13, from 10:00 a.m - 2:00 p.m. at the United Methodist Center we are having a great conference on Urban Ministry and ministry with the marginalized in urban settings, led by my friend, Gary Mason from Belfast, Northern Ireland. When I visited with Gary a few years ago, I was so impressed by the connections between what he is doing in Belfast and what we are attempting in Birmingham and elsewhere. Please join us by registering with Matt Lacey on our website

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Sending of Pastors

I’ve had numerous inquires from other Bishops and Conferences about the changes we have made in the appointment of pastors. For the next few weeks I’ll be describing some of those innovations.

United Methodism is noted for its practice of “a sent ministry.” You can’t call or hire a United Methodist pastor – we are sent to churches. How do the Cabinet and I make appointments?

The first thing that we consider is the health and well-being of a congregation. There was a time when some people thought the purpose of the Cabinet is to care for the career advancement of the clergy! Not according to our Discipline and not in the North Alabama Conference. The main task of the Bishop and District Superintendents is to send clergy who can lead the mission of each congregation.

Long before a decision is made to make a pastoral change, the District Superintendents survey the churches in their district trying to determine how things are going. Every week we note the Benchmarks on the North Alabama Dashboard. The most immediate indicator is the trend in worship attendance but other important indicators of vitality are the number of baptisms, the number of new members, and especially the number of those new members who are joining through profession of faith. These numbers are a revealing indicator of the spiritual health of a congregation.

A church’s Natural Church Development (NCD) score sharpens our knowledge of a congregation. Understanding a church’s greatest barrier to growth (referred to as the Minimum Factor) and its strength for growth (referred to as the Maximum Factor) gives a DS the insight needed to determine if the current pastoral leadership is capable of leading a church to greater healthfulness.

Of course, one of the greatest ways to assess the health and the well-being of a church is through direct observation as DS’s engage with the church through visits, through interaction via email, phone calls, or at training events and through prayer. I also listen to and respond to a sermon from every full time pastor who may be moved.

Only about 12% of our churches experience a pastoral change in a given year. We have definitely moved to longer term pastorates. However, when the indicators show that a pastoral change would strengthen the mission of a congregation, our goal is to move into that change through accurate, deep knowledge of what God is doing (and wants to do!) in your congregation. We are determined to do our best faithfully to know and to assess the mission and performance of our churches, pioneering these methods in the North Alabama Conference, we believe that we are changing the face of United Methodism in our practice of sending pastors.

Will Willimon

On October 13, from 10:00 a.m - 2:00 p.m. at the United Methodist Center we are having a great conference on Urban Ministry and ministry with the marginalized in urban settings, led by my friend, Gary Mason from Belfast, Northern Ireland. When I visited with Gary a few years ago, I was so impressed by the connections between what he is doing in Belfast and what we are attempting in Birmingham and elsewhere. Please join us by registering with Rev. Matt Lacey on our Conference website.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pastors and the Poor

One of the great products of the North Alabama Conference is Dr. S T Kimbrough. S T is the world’s greatest scholar of Charles Wesley hymns, and a great missionary leader. He will be one of our speakers at the Gathering of the Orders Retreat at Sumatanga October 18-20, 2010. S T responded to one of my Bishop’s Emails last year, with a Wesleyan Hymn that speaks of the high responsibility that we pastors have in paying more attention to the number of persons reached for Christ (particular the poor) and less attention to the numbers in our salaries: I suggest that you use this hymn as a prayer this week.

William H. Willimon

Dear Will,

I just read your weekly message, “Anything worth doing for God is worth counting.” I could not but think of one of the Charles Wesley texts that I discovered among his unpublished literature a few years ago. I first published it in a little book SONGS FOR THE POOR.

Your message mentioned above reminded me of Wesley’s text “You pastors hired who undertake”. It captures part of what you are saying and is a great hymn with which to open an annual conference.

I think part of the numbers keeping to which you refer, though I know you are referring to congregations in general, is also accountability for what we pastors do with our own resources. If we pastors, as Charles Wesley suggests, can pillage the poor, can we expect anything more from our congregations?

Charles Wesley’s text is below.


1. You pastors hired, who undertake
the awful ministry
for lucre or ambition's sake.
a nobler pattern see!
Who greedily your pay receive,
and adding cure to cure,
In splendid ease and pleasurers live
By pillaging the poor

2. See here an apostolic priest
commissioned from the sky,
who dares of all vain self divest,
the needy to supply!
A primitive example rare
of gospel-poverty
to feed the flock one's only care,
and like the Lord to be.

3. Jesus to us apostles raise
like-minded pastors give,
who freely may dispense thy grace
as freely they receive;
who disengaged from all below
may earthly things despise,
and every creature-good forego
for treasure in the skies.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Financial Faithfulness

When someone contributes money to the work of the Kingdom of God through a United Methodist congregation, it’s my job to insure that the gift will be administered faithfully. United Methodism has a score of carefully articulated structures and procedures whereby we practice financial accountability and faithfulness.

North Alabama is blessed by the ministry of Scott Selman, our Conference Treasurer, a CPA who has served us for over a decade and who has made us a leader in sound, careful financial management in the UMC.

When the financial crisis hit our beloved Birmingham-Southern College this summer, I asked Scott to review with me our accounting and audit procedures. I am happy to report that we are not only in full compliance with the prescribed procedures of our church, but that we go beyond what is required to insure that a crisis of financial management like BSC has suffered will not strike the North Alabama Conference.

For our $11 million budget, we have fully transparent oversight of our financial operations by a clergy-lay committee, the Council of Finance and Administration. For another thing, we have Scott Selman as our CFO! Our Conference lives within its means, keeps administrative costs to a minimum, and tries to stay focused on our priorities and mission. Because our offices are on the campus of BSC, we have not only watched the BSC crisis with concern but we have also made this as a time for self-examination of our own financial practices.

Speaking of our United Methodist Center building, we opened our beautiful building in April, 2005. The total cost of the building was $4,817,420.25. During the planning phase for the new building, the Conference Trustees authorized a maximum internal indebtedness on the new building of $2.5 million. The building has no outside indebtedness (banks or other financial institutions).

As you know, the major reason for the pain at BSC has been the poorly managed accumulation of a large amount of indebtedness, without adequate debt service plans. I am pleased to announce that as of December 31, 2009, the internal indebtedness on our building was $840,676, having paid off, in the past five years, half of our internal indebtedness. That indebtedness will decrease by $75,000 or more per year until the indebtedness has been completely eliminated, a rather remarkable fiscal achievement.

Scott Selman also reports that the cost of operating our Methodist Center has been reduced in recent years due to our four-day work week schedule and staff out placement into local churches. (Conversations are ongoing with Birmingham-Southern College about our offer to of the College of some of our vacant space.)

As is true of a local congregation, so it is true of our Annual Conference – (1.) all money is held “in trust” as the sacred stewardship of our people and (2.) the reason why the church receives money is faithfully to participate in the mission of Jesus Christ.

One of our slogans in local churches is “mission follows money” – people give when they believe that their money is used in mission. One of the reasons why our Conference can be fiscally responsible is that our people believe that when they give to our church, their gifts will be used faithfully.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Blogging Hiatus

While Bishop Willimon is on a blogging hiatus, here are some recent links from Twitter:

Willimon's Podcast on iTunes

And "How Many Methodists Has Will Willimon Ruined" by John Meunier

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sheep and Shepherds in the Methodist Ministry: Andrew C. Thompson

***Disclaimer: this post is not written by Will Willimon.

Bishop Willimon invited Jason Byassee and Andrew C. Thompson to respond to criticism about his focus upon numbers as an evaluating tool in accessing effectivness in ministry for United Methodist clergy and congregations. This is Rev. Thompson's response to that invitation.

One warm autumn evening a few years ago, my phone rang. I had been lying on my living room couch, half-dozing while a Red Sox game played on the television. The cell phone jingle woke me up, and I looked at the display of the incoming call.

It was my district superintendent.

In early September.

Now I was only serving my first pastoral appointment. But I knew enough to realize that a D.S. calling in September probably meant trouble.

The conversation that followed confirmed the worst of the possibilities that flashed through my mind when I saw the incoming call: An associate pastor’s position had opened up quite unexpectedly, and the bishop had tapped me to fill it. He had considered letting the position lie vacant until annual conference the following year, but it was a large church with a lot of ministry going on. The senior pastor at the church was already overloaded, and 10 months seemed too long to leave him without a junior colleague. As a campus minister, I could be moved without causing the “domino effect” familiar to Methodist clergy who get caught up in mid-year moves (a factor the D.S. was frankly honest about, though he was also careful to explain that the bishop’s decision had only come after a careful consideration of the congregation’s needs and my particular pastoral gifts).

All of a sudden the itineracy became very real for me. And the end result of that fateful September phone call was, in fact, a mid-year move. In accordance with the needs of the church in my annual conference, I left a campus ministry appointment where I was finally building momentum after almost 3 years and where I had many friends. And I moved to a town and a church where I knew practically no one.

I gotta be honest. It was tough at first.

But it was also what I accepted when I entered a Methodist ministry. I realized that at the time. And I bring it up in this post because I think that experience helped me begin to think about what it really means for those of us called to be Christ’s shepherds to give the whole of our lives to ministry in the church.

It helped me begin to think about what it means to live a life that is not my own.

The Contentious Nature of Itineracy

As I see it, the itinerant system in the United Methodist Church is seen as contentious by the clergy for two reasons – one practical and the other cultural. The practical bone of contention has to do with fear and mistrust on the part of individual pastors, namely that they and their families will get caught up in the gears of a bureaucratic machine and be sent to a ministry setting not because it fits their gifts & graces but rather because an episcopal cabinet is simply trying to fill slots.

I see this issue of the itineracy process as a real challenge, both for bishops and their superintendents as well as for elders under appointment. I also don’t see any magic pill we can all swallow to make the challenge disappear. Clergy need to continually remind themselves that they are yokefellows in the gospel with every other member of their annual conference as well as with their bishop. Bishops and their cabinets should look upon the fear of their pastors with understanding, realizing that trust in an ecclesiastical polity led by human beings (even human beings guided by the Holy Spirit!) is liable to error and that some their preachers have been on the receiving end of those errors. We all need to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognizing that we have been fitted together as stones in the same spiritual house that Christ is building.

I recently heard a reading of Queen Elizabeth I’s speech to her coastal militia prior to the English struggle against the Spanish Armada in 1588. It reminded me how much strong leadership depends on those being led having the sense that their leaders stand with them rather than simply over them. Even more, that those leaders are willing to suffer and die along with their followers if needs be. I think it would be a real gift to the church for God to call more of us into martyrdom as a witness to the gospel. That may happen in our day, or it may not. But bishops and superintendents do at least have the opportunity to preach before those they lead – as Elizabeth had the opportunity to speak directly to her army – and they should consider addressing (and modeling) the deeply connectional nature of our covenant together. The connection in Wesley’s day was, after all, rooted in the common fellowship of the preachers.

The second contentious aspect of itineracy for clergy is a cultural one. It is related to the time in which we live. And it is, if anything, more difficult to address. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has an insightful view of modernity where he says that the story of modernity is that we have no story except the story we chose when we had no story. (You might want to read that again.) Basically, Dr. Hauerwas means that our culture teaches us that we should be self-made, constructing our lives and futures and even our very identities according to our own felt desires. This deeply embedded idea assumes that we come into the world like baby sea turtles hatched from eggs on the beach – needing no instruction, no formation, no catechesis. We live in a world that tells us to “Have It Your Way,” which is both a Burger King slogan and modernity’s overriding motto.

It’s all wrong, of course. Those of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death (Romans 6). The lives we live now are possible only in his resurrected life. And the stories we inhabit are, finally, his story.

But modernity’s false promises haunt us. And so we find ourselves falling into the rut of the self-created story time and time again. So hear me on this: The reason many of us fear being sent as Jesus sends his disciples is that we’ve bought into the myth that the life we live should be of our own choosing. For those who follow Jesus, I simply don’t think that can ever finally be the case.

Anxiety over the “Guaranteed Appointment”

There’s a lot of anxiety amongst Methodist clergy right now over the possible alteration of the so-called “guaranteed appointment.” That anxiety – like all anxiety – is born out of fear. For the record, I think the guaranteed appointment is a bad idea with no biblical or Wesleyan basis. I know why it was instituted and the good intentions with which that happened. But like so many lamentable parts of our Book of Discipline, it attempts to make a rule out of something dependent on character and virtue. That “something” is our covenant relationships in the annual conference. And while character-building takes longer than rule-making, it is by far the more worthwhile activity.

Trees that do not produce fruit are nothing worth. And shepherds who cannot do the work of shepherding should not be entrusted with sheep. These convictions seem as necessary to the vitality of the church as anything I know related to leadership. Fruits can and must be judged in different ways, depending on the variety of settings in ministry. In fact, a reassurance of that fundamental aspect of episcopal oversight on the part of bishops might allay some of the anxiety we see over the possible change in the guaranteed appointment. But even so, those who continually cry out that they “don’t trust the system” might ask themselves why they assume such a de facto cynical posture and why on earth they’d want to be a part of a “system” that they fundamentally distrust in the first place.

In the end, I think the debate over the guaranteed appointment is symptomatic of our wider struggle with itineracy. That makes me hesitant to speak about it separate from the itinerant system in general, and it certainly makes me hesitant to consider it apart from core Christian virtues of patience, trust, repentance, and love. We have several layers of shepherds and sheep in our church, and we need to realize at every level that flocks only maintain health and grow when they realize that they’re all in it together. And yes, it is an inescapable quality of such healthy flocks that the shepherds are competent for the tasks to which they’ve been given.

Oh, and by the way, that mid-year appointment I was asked to take turned out very well. I experienced the Holy Spirit at the very center of the whole process, in fact. I took that as a sign of providence. And I continue to think that God has got work for the People called Methodists to do.

The Rev. Andrew C. Thompson is an elder in the Arkansas Conference of the UMC. He writes for the United Methodist Reporter and maintains a blog at

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Good News – by the Numbers

We opened Annual Conference this year with our Conference Statistician (and Connectional Ministries Director) Lori Carden, giving us some dismal, rather frightening statistics. Then the next day Adam Hamilton opened his address by saying that if the general church continues on its present path of an aging and shrinking membership, the United Methodist Church will no longer be a viable entity in just five decades. Bad news indeed.

But now the good news: North Alabama has been engaged in a process of visible accountability for congregations and pastors (the Conference Dashboard), has instituted the evaluation process and renewal programs of Natural Church Development in all our congregations, and has cast a new spirit of setting goals for growth.

And here’s even better news: It’s working! In the last two years we have reversed the trend that has afflicted us for the last twenty years. We are showing measurable growth in our numbers for Professions of Faith and for Baptisms. This is because effective pastors and congregations throughout our Conference are making reaching a new generation of Christians into a top priority.

Here are the numbers that Lori has assembled:


Prof. Faith



































The ten year average for POF is 2638. We have surpassed the ten year average over the past two years. Among most Conferences, the goal is simply to slow the decline. North Alabama has dared to pray for more. And it is deeply gratifying to see visible evidence of the Holy Spirit moving among us. Behind every one of these numbers is a family reached, a person saved, a soul that is welcomed and included into the family of faith. And behind every number is a congregation and a pastor who is not threatened by our Wesleyan ethos of accountability and growth but is excited that we are focused on “the main thing” – salvation of the world in Jesus Christ.

“You only count what is important and whatever you count becomes important,” says one of our slogans. By counting every week the new life that God gives us, we are making that new life the engine that is driving our church life. Not content to care for the needs of who is already there, our churches are reaching out to those who are not.

It’s good news by the numbers which is Good News indeed.

William H. Willimon