Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Women in Ministry in North Alabama

I keep a picture in front of me in my office in Birmingham. It is a picture of Patsy’s grandmother, Bessie Parker, the first the first ordained woman in South Carolina Methodism, ordained in 1956. Bessie Parker was a mentor and she performed our wedding. Perhaps more importantly, she was a remarkable leader in the growth of churches in South Carolina.

In 2006 we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women as elders in United Methodism. In the last five decades, women clergy have been leading our Conference in some remarkable ways. For instance, The Reverend Clauzell Ridgeway Williams, only two years out of seminary, is working a near miraculous transformation at Sweet Home United Methodist Church in Gadsden. Clauzell is growing a church that has not grown for decades. The Reverend Deborah Moon founded a new, very special church while she was still in seminary, Genesis Church in Guntersville. She now serves a thriving church, Goshen United Methodist Church. Deborah is relentless in her determination for a church to grow and to reach out to the world in the name of Jesus. The Reverend Mary Bendall has created and leads “The Bridge” services at First United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa. This means that Mary is preaching to one of our largest Sunday morning congregations -- a congregation that has been created under her leadership. The Bridge is doing some remarkable things in pioneering worship and outreach. We sent the Reverend Julie Holly to our Discovery Church, a new church that was in a great deal of difficulty. Julie, using new web based resources for communication, as well as her interjected leadership is giving Discovery a rebirth ministry.

One of my frustrations, in utilizing women clergy leadership, is that we have a comparative small number of women clergy in North Alabama. This means that we really need our talented clergy serving as effective pastors. My job, and the job of the District Superintendents, is to get every church the best leadership it needs to be faithful to the mission that Jesus Christ has given that congregation. This means that in calling women to Conference leadership we have at times been frustrated because we do not want to rob congregations of effective clergy leaders.

Nevertheless, our Conference is being lead by some remarkable women clergy leaders. The Reverend Elizabeth Nall has established a new level of Children’s Ministries in the North Alabama Conference, wonderfully fulfilling our Conference Priority of reaching a new generation. Elizabeth has established a network of children ministry leaders throughout the Conference that are providing training, events, coaching, and some transformative ministry.

Our Pastoral Care and Counseling has been lead for the past five years by an ordained deacon, the Reverend Dr. Sheri Ferguson. Sheri not only sees herself performing a physiological, therapeutic service for us, but also in leading congregations. Her Healthy Congregations program has been an invaluable resource for the Cabinet and has saved many of our congregations.

The Reverend Sherill Clontz, pastor of New Life United Methodist Church, has served admirably as our Conference Secretary. Now she will also serve as Associate District Superintendent of the Northeast District.

The Reverend Lori Carden has made our Conference a leader in Natural Church Development (NCD). Within a short time Lori will have reached her goal of having every congregation benefiting from the fruits of Natural Church Development. Lori is an extraordinary leader. She will now be serving on the Extended Cabinet to help the Cabinet utilize insights of NCD in better understanding the congregations under our care.

Nacole Hillman is administrative assistant to the Director of Connectional Ministries and the support staff for all of Connectional Ministries. She is the delightful voice on the end of the phone whenever anyone calls the office. She helps scores all the NCD surveys and is passionate about working with the Youth volunteer leadership in the conference.

This year I have brought Ms. Danette Clifton into the Episcopal Office. Danette, as you know, has made our Conference website a standard within the larger church. Danette also helped invent and is now helping to lead our North Alabama Conference Weekly Benchmark Dashboard. Danette is a master educator and essential part of getting our message out to our pastors and churches.

The Reverend Deb Welsh has assumed leadership in our outreach to the innercity of Birmingham by serving as Director of the Joe Rush Center for Urban Mission and Volunteer Recruitment for our beloved Birmingham Urban Ministries.

I have learned much from the insights of the Reverend Sherri Reynolds, pastor of Eulaton UMC in the Cheaha District, and the Reverend Paula Calhoun, pastor of Alexandria UMC in the Cheaha District, who are masters at energizing and growing the small membership church. I am going to be preaching at Alexandria on Palm Sunday, because I wanted to be there to learn more about the transformation that is taking place and to thank them for their exemplary leadership on the connectional giving.

These women are bringing extraordinary leadership to our Conference leading us to growth in our ministry together.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Words about the Cross

We’re entering the season of Lent, time of focus upon the
cross, so this seemed to me a good Lenten exercise for us preachers. During Lent
you might be interested in a couple of my previous books, Thank God It’s Friday:
The Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross and Sinning Like a Christian: The
Seven Deadly Sins for Today, both published by Abingdon, both available from

Imagine being asked to stand before a grand gathering of the good and the wise and being asked to make a speech about goodness, beauty, the meaning of life, the point of history, the nature of Almighty God or some such high subject and having no material at your disposal but an account of a humiliating, bloody, execution at a garbage dump outside a rebellious city in the Middle East. It is your task to argue that this story is the key to everything in life and to all that we know about God. This was precisely the position of Paul in Corinth. Before the populace of this cosmopolitan, sophisticated city of the Empire, Paul had to proclaim that this whipped, bloody, scorned and derided Jew from Nazareth who was God with Us.

As Paul said, he had his work cut out for him because preaching about the cross “is folly to those who are perishing,” foolishness and stupidity. A cross is no way for a messianic reign to end. Yet what else can this preacher say because, whether it makes sense to us or not, “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Cor. 18, 21)

Tailoring his manner of speech to his strange subject matter, Paul says that he chose a foolish sort of preaching that was congruent with his theological message:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that our faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corin. 2:1-5)

This is probably our earliest, most explicit statement on the peculiarity of Christian preaching, and one of the few places in the New Testament where a preacher turns aside from the task of proclamation to discuss the nature of proclamation now that God has come as a crucified Messiah.

A crucified Messiah? It is an oxymoron, a violation of Israel’s high expectations for a messianic liberator. In order to bring such a scandal to speech, Paul eschewed “lofty words or wisdom,” the stock-in-trade of the classical orator. Rather than avoiding the scandal of the cross or attempting to sugar coat its absurdity in order to make it more palatable, he limited his subject matter so that he knew, “nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” His manner of presentation, his delivery was “weakness,” “fear and trembling,” a rather peculiar demeanor for a public speaker. Why? So that nothing might move his hearers, nothing might convince them but “the power of God.”

For God the Father to allow God the Son to be crucified, dead and buried is for God to be pushed out beyond the limits of human expectation or human help. The cross is the ultimate dead end of any attempt at human self-fulfillment, human betterment or progress. Hanging from the cross, in humiliation and utter defeat, there is nothing to be done to vindicate the work of Jesus or to make the story come out right except “the power of God.”

Paul says that he attempted to preach the gospel to the Corinthians in just that way. Rather than base his proclamation on human reason, common sense, or artful arguments, he spoke in halting, hesitant “fear and trembling” so that if they were to hear and to understand, to assent and to respond, it would have to be solely through “the power of God.”

Paul says to the Corinthians that the cross is moria, moronic foolishness:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.'Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom. God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." (I Corin. 1:18-25)

When Christians are asked to say something profound about ourselves, to say something about the nature of God, this is what we say – “cross.”

Will Willimon

Monday, February 08, 2010

Growing the Church, One Small Group at a Time

One of the most impressive areas of growth for us is in the area of involvement in small groups in the church. Small group involvement is important for two main reasons: 1. The Wesleyan movement was, in great part, a small group movement. John Wesley creatively utilized small, face-to-face groups to ignite his revival. In the groups, evangelical passion was wedded to Wesleyan accountability. Small groups are a very “Methodist thing.” 2. Studies show that churches grow through the increase of the number of small groups in the church and an increase in lay membership in these groups. In fact, part of the remarkable transformation at Helena UMC, is explosion of small groups being led by Paula Jones there. Mike Edmondson and Paula tell me that there is no vital, dynamically growing church that does not have at least 65% of all its adults involved, sometime during the course of a year, in small groups.

Elizabeth Nall, is our Conference leader and coach in educational small group work, particularly among parents and children. Elizabeth, in reporting our documented gains in the number of United Methodists in small groups in North Alabama says, “Small group formation is where faith development is deepened through study and relationships. There is potentially as much or more opportunity to reach people through small group participation in our churches as through our worship experiences.”

John Tanner, the pastor from Cove UMC (I call Cove the “Research & Development department for the North Alabama Conference”), credits small groups as the major factor in his congregation’s dramatic growth. At Cove (1030 Total professing members - 1050 was their average weekly worship attendance) a total of 950 people participate in small group ministries every week. John estimates that about 70% of Cove’s members participate in weekly small groups.

I have participated in teaching in a number of small group settings at ourCanterbury UMC. Oliver Clark leads a fine adult educational ministry at Canterbury that is small group based. Of Canterbury’s 4804 members, 1,428 attend regular small group meetings. An estimated 328 people are involved in Canterbury small groups who are not otherwise related to the church. Small groups, for many people, are the door through which people enter the church.

At Helena UMC, they have set a goal to give birth to at least a dozen new small groups every year in order to keep their forward motion. Elizabeth Nall says, “As a Christian educator, I believe that ii is essential to be intentional about faith development in small groups as we remain passionate about worship. There is ripe opportunity to make disciples for Jesus Christ through these small group encounters.”

This past Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010, Elizabeth and our Conference Adult Ministries Team arranged for Debi Nixon, Adult Discipleship Coordinator, from the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, to lead our conference in a discussion on small group ministry at Canterbury UMC.

Nixon discussed the Wesleyan and Biblical concept of small groups, how to start them, maintain their health, and the purpose and the goal of small group ministry through sharing the story of Church of the Resurrection - another church which chose to grow by "growing smaller" and focusing on small group ministries. Top leadership in our conference guided nineteen breakout sessions during the event encompassing more specific discussion in small group areas that our North Alabama local churches are using with success.

I am so glad so many of our churches gained important insight from Saturday’s Growing Successful Small Groups event. If your church needs guidance in strengthening your small group ministry contact Rev. Elizabeth Nall or (205) 226-7993.

Will Willimon

Ray Crump, who leads our relief warehouse in Decatur, has just reported to me that United Methodists of North Alabama ”are responding to the crisis in Haiti in a way that I have never seen in all my 50 years of ministry and relief work.” Ray and his volunteers are shipping tons of supplies to Haiti nearly every week. Thanks for this wonderful outpouring of Christian concern.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Episcopal Report for 2009

Vision for the North Alabama Conference:
Every church challenged and equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.

Conference Priorities:
New Congregations
Natural Church Development
Effective Leadership for the 21st Century
Empowering a New Generation of Christians

My Goals for 2009:

  1. Have 95% North Alabama Conference Dashboard reporting for 2009 from all districts.
    We have achieved about a 90% reporting average, lower than we need, but we are on the way. We are just beginning to discover how weekly, real time statistics from all of our churches are empowering churches, pastors, and the Cabinet in our work.

  2. Achieve a 2% increase in Apportionment payments (79% in 2008) to 81% overall.
    2009 has seen a dramatic drop in our shared mission giving in which we lost all of the ground we had gained in 2008. This has been a huge disappointment for me.

  3. Increase the Sunday attendance percentage in our churches by 4%.
    Our statistics have shown an overall 2% decline in attendance. We are perplexed by this, since a number of our churches have shown increases in attendance. This figure may be a function of sporadic reporting from some of our congregations (or more accurate reporting due to the weekly, public quality of our Dashboard!). Average attendance is the single most important measurement of the vitality of a congregation. We are determined to impact this number. The good news is that we are showing a modest increase in overall membership for the first time in decades and a dramatic increase in the number of small groups in our churches.
  4. Increase presence in the Conference to 35 Sunday visits preaching in the churches, 3 days spent teaching and listening in each district.
    This is one goal that I have exceeded in my expectations. I’ve preached in 40 different congregations in 2009, preaching a total of 60 sermons. I have also met for face-to-face conversations with the pastors and staffs of 26 of our most vital congregations. I have had at least four days of teaching and/or listening in every district, including meetings with the pastors of our largest churches. I have conducted six half day sessions on “Reading the Bible Like Wesleyans” to introduce the new Wesley Study Bible that I helped to edit.

  5. Increase the number of trained, certified new church pastors by 6.
    This year we reorganized our new church efforts with a new Director who is also the Superintendent of all of our new church starts. We have completely reworked our process of choosing new church pastors and supervising them. This goal was met, but in a way different that I had planned.
  6. Increase number of churches participating in NCD process to 200 (from 158 in 2008).
    We are just a few churches below this goal and we now have asked EVERY church to take the NCD survey by mid-2010. We are well on our way to accomplishment of this goal. I have also appointed the NCD lead staff member, Lori Carden, as a member of the Cabinet. Our NCD efforts are changing the way we evaluate churches and deploy pastors.

2009 has been one of the most difficult years for the North Alabama Conference, financially speaking. We ended the year with a shortage of about $600,000 compared with 2008 (which was a year in which we saw marked financial progress). Throughout this time of financial stress, my watchword has been “Don’t let a financial crisis go to waste.” We have used this time to make some tough decisions that we probably should have made sometime before. We have tried to see all of this as a God-given opportunity for innovation and adaptation. Dale Cohen has led our talented Connectional Ministries Staff in a complete downsizing and reorganization that now basis our staff in local churches rather than in the Methodist Center. We have one DS is serving two districts. Our greatest cuts have been in administration so that we can avoid making greater cuts in mission and program. Scott Selman and the CFA have given us wonderful leadership.

Our Cabinet has continued to improve our supervisory and appointive process – the First 90 Day Plans, triad interviews by three DS’s of each pastor who moves, weekly monitoring by the DS’s of the Dashboard, as well as closer accountability systems devised by the DS’s are all changing the way that we utilize our clergy. In the coming year I and the Cabinet will be trained by Paul Borden to do local church interventions whereby we will be able to make a decisive, focused, helpful intervention in congregations that seem to be stuck or to have plateaued. Jim Griffith, our new church consultant, has trained the Cabinet to do better interviewing of pastors. All of this is empowering the Cabinet to move beyond the traditional role of making appointments to the new role of making appointments work!

While I continue to be disappointed and frustrated by the slow pace of growth in our Conference, I do think that we have made great headway in making our church more fruitful and productive, in setting up those structures whereby we can be more fruitful, in clearly letting churches and pastors know that they are expected to grow and that they will be held accountable for growth.

During 2009 the Wesley Study Bible was published, along with my Undone By Easter: Keeping Preaching Fresh, and The Early Preaching of Karl Barth. I published eight different articles in various journals and magazines and authored chapters in four different collections on preaching and theology, along with my weekly Bishop’s Emails. I taught and gave lectures in six seminaries, seven colleges and universities, and taught a D.Min. Course for Fuller Seminary on the Theology of Preaching and well as my semester long “Jesus Through the Centuries” course for undergraduates at Birmingham-Southern.

I chair the Theological Education Committee of the University Senate and serve on the Faith and Order Commission. This requires eight meetings a year plus accrediting visits to three or four seminaries each year.

The Cabinet and I are in the process of formulating our goals for 2010. Among the plans for 2010 are for continued innovation in the way DS’s are utilized, with increased overlap of districts, fewer DS’s with more different responsibilities, a new system of organizing our small congregations and our local pastors into clusters that are supervised by trained elders, a complete reorganization, led by Dale Cohen, of our Conference structure, a reorganization that will leave us with fewer committees that are clearly task oriented and focused upon results, much smaller, more accountable committees, and the equipment of the Cabinet to do congregational intervention.

Adam Hamilton will be our key resource person at Annual Conference this year and our focus will be on effective leadership in our churches.

William H. Willimon