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

Saturday, July 10, 2010

More On Numbers: Jason Byassee

***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 Jason Byassee's response to that invitation.

“It’s easy to get people in the building,” the theology professor opined. “Just put a sign out front announcing, ‘Free Beer!’” The joke, of course, hinges on the obvious fact that a body in a church doesn’t make a disciple any more than a body in a hospital makes a doctor. It’s disciples we’re after, not statistics.

The beer advertisement is the kind of comment we theologians have been making about church growth emphases for at least a generation. Will Willimon used to make them too. When I was his student, I remember stories about preachers who had been so faithful to Jesus’ preaching about non-violence, money, and carrying the cross that they’d preached every church they ever served down to a handful of rock-hard disciples too crazy not to leave.

But Willimon’s not a theology professor or university employee anymore. He’s a bishop of a church that has lost a staggering, unimaginable number of people since the height of our numerical success in the mid-20th century. It’s not hard to project similar numerical results out into a future church that does not exist.

I also remember the general criticism bordering on mockery in certain academic quarters when Willimon was elected bishop. “He’ll be asked to consecrate every outhouse from Mobile to Montgomery,” folks said, less knowledgeable about Alabama geography than alliteration. Why’d he want to do it? No other candidate for the episcopacy was looking at a pay cut, a loss in prestige, a curtailment of freedom, moving from a place where Bill Clinton was almost unacceptably right-of-center to life in the thick of Dixie. Stanley Hauerwas had an answer. “Will’s doing this because he loves the Methodist Church.”

Willimon’s emphasis of late on numbers is not some sellout to corporate bean-counting, and it’s certainly not about his ego, which could have found greater fulfillment in any of a number of other ways. It’s that he loves the Methodist Church and he sees a future coming soon that’s none too bright. So what’s he to do? Kill time till retirement, as so many clergy do? Knock out a few more books and let the ship run itself into the shoals? Or use the power the church has entrusted him with, to appoint and oversee and discipline, in short, to lead, to do what he can to make for a better future?

I confess I can’t find a Methodist argument against Willimon’s claim that Wesley insisted on numerical measures as a plumbline of effectiveness. Amidst the spasms of bile heaped on Willimon in this blogstorm, no one has been able to show a Wesleyan argument against Willimon’s claim that numerical growth is a mark of Methodist faithfulness. They’ve attacked him personally, or attacked adherence to Wesley, or suggested bishops be held to the same standard (agreed—and so would Will), or offered red herrings (“What about the poor?” As if anyone is asking only for new rich members) or just whined and kvetched. But they haven’t overturned his claim that numbers mattered to Wesley and their upward trend is a sign of church health.

And as an elder in the UMC this makes me personally quite nervous. I’ve not only not ruled out an appointment in a local church, I actually hope to serve a parish again someday—I miss being a local pastor enough that a day doesn’t pass when I don’t think about it (don’t tell my DS or my bosses here at Duke!). And I don’t much like the idea of my future hinging on whether the church I serve grows. What if I’m sent to an area that’s shrinking in population? Or to a congregation tied up in knots of generations of inter-family hatred? Or that doesn’t care for my sense that American patriotism often tips over into idolatry and votes with its feet after my first Sunday near a July 4th? Or . . . (you get the idea).

But then I remember my time as pastor in a rural parish. And numbers mattered to me. One thing I loved about pastoring a church of 80 members was adding a family of 4 meant 5% growth. That’s huge! On the other hand, numbers could mean bad news that needed attending to. Numbers could mean that this family had slipped from once a month to once a quarter. Or that family, that I thought we could bring in, had fallen off altogether and needed visiting. Or that I really had offended him this time and needed to go apologize. Here, numbers weren’t generic. They were faces, people I’d been called to serve, even love. And if they weren’t there I had to do something about it. Not for my job’s sake, or the Methodist Church’s, but for the Kingdom of God’s and for the sake of these people, beloved of God, anointed by the Spirit in baptism, for whom Christ died.

Finding myself on Willimon’s side of these attacks reminds me of the times I’ve written against church growth as a sign of faithfulness. One friend, a former evangelical megachurch youth pastor in the suburbs, said his old church couldn’t not grow. They opened the doors and minivans full of families of four-to-five came rolling in. So he quit to pastor an Emerging-style congregation in the city. Or I think of the snide things I’ve said about Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, who opened churches in Orange County and the northwestern Chicago suburbs in the 1980’s when you’d have to be a nincompoop not to grow a church.

The thing is, that’s not true. Willow and Saddleback grew because those pastors introduced people to Jesus and to a church lively enough to want to give one’s life to it (and plenty of other attempts in the “right” places failed quickly). And minivans full of families (such as the family I'm in now, but wasn’t when I disparaged them) need Jesus just as much as pierced graduate students living off the largesse of university insurance, parents, and government-backed loans. And not only that: large churches often grow because they’re Wesleyan, even if they don’t know it. They break people into small groups for friendship, discipleship, service, and love. And they notice if folks aren’t there. People don’t go to church because of big parking lots and crowds and coffee shops—trust me, they’re not idiots, they know they could do better for entertainment any number of other places. They endure the headaches at big churches because energetic leadership has made a space, a canopy, in which they and their families can worship Jesus and be remade in his image.

It should sound familiar. We Methodists used to do the same thing.

Jason Byassee

Jason is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School and author, most recently, of “The Gifts of the Small Church.”

For further conversation and insight, visit their blog: