Monday, December 19, 2011

Gifts at Christmas

Christmas is a time of giving. One of the great gifts of the North Alabama Conference is Urban Ministry. This year we celebrated the 35th Anniversary of this vital ministry to the community (West Birmingham) that has the lowest median income in the entire state with a poverty rate of over 40%. Urban Ministry serves more than 7000 each year through the Community Kitchen, Food Pantry, Homelessness Prevention and Emergency Services programs. Then there’s the Urban Kids after-school and summer learning program, the Joe Rush Center for Urban Mission (which offers exterior house painting), and West End Community Gardens (17,000 volunteer hours were given by people this year!).
Since 2010, Urban Ministry has offered Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing, a new program under the care of social worker Jeff Bowman. Jeff administered approximately $90,000 this year to assist families at risk of homelessness with rent, utilities, and housing, helping more than 250 individuals avoid homelessness and achieve long-term housing stability.

Visit and you will see all the good that is being done in the name of Christ and our church.
As you can imagine, this has been one of the toughest years ever in finding funds for Urban Ministry. Our new director, Rev. Melissa Patrick, has been cultivating Urban Ministry's friends and supporters in a wonderful way. Most of the people served by Urban Ministry didn’t need to be hit by the spring storms to be in dire straits; they were living on the edge of desperation long before the storms without anyone to help except Urban Ministry.
This Christmas please join Patsy and me in sending a gift to Urban Ministry. You can be sure that your gift will be used wisely and widely by an accountable, proven ministry, one of the best creations of our Conference and one of the best ways to show our active compassion for our sisters and brothers at this sacred time of the year.

Will Willimon

Urban Ministry, Inc., 1229 Cotton Ave., S.W., Birmingham, AL 35211.
Call (205) 781-0517

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Union Chapel UMC- What My Eyes Have Seen

Pastor Christopher Herbert is leading some dramatic changes at Union Chapel UMC. Most of our small membership churches are in serious decline – but not all! A key to the small congregation having a viable future, from my studies of our small congregations, is the pastor’s leadership toward growth. There is nothing amiss in a congregation being small – there is everything wrong with the idea that churches have no part to play in the growth of the Kingdom of God. After seeing some of the great growth at Union Chapel, I asked Christopher to comment on what is happening there and he gave testimony to a church where “the light shines.”

Will Willimon

How can I describe a whole church that is serious about God’s mission? How can I describe these things that my eyes have seen?

How do I describe the church wrapping its arms around an unwed couple with a child and saying, “you are our family now”? Their wedding was a few weeks ago and now while the father is working to provide, the mother doesn’t miss church and serves others because of the love that they were shown.

How do I describe the many families that have decided to, in love, teach others that “playing church” must not be in the cards. How do I describe other people in the community and beyond telling me that they hear of the great things happening at Union Chapel (this doesn’t happen unless our folks go out and spread the good news of Jesus and His church that seeks to honor Him).

How do I describe a place where older people have decided to pour out blessings on the next generation? How do I describe younger people being respectful of older people, and listening intently to their wisdom? How do I describe the launch of a prayer shawl ministry and a majority of those attending those meetings are from other churches, backgrounds, or denominations? These are just a few things that my eyes have seen and any words I have right now seem inadequate in describing what is happening.

My eyes have seen God’s people do indescribable things before and it’s always beautiful. I realize that I’ve been blessed in the past and I’m so blessed today. It is always a blessing to be in ministry with people who just want to hear God say, “WELL DONE”.

All Glory is God’s Glory as we grow.

The light shines!

Until the nets are full,

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Power of Connection

“The North Alabama Conference is a model of how to respond to a natural disaster and how to keep responding over the long haul.” That’s what a fellow bishop said to me the other day.

I agree. I couldn’t be more proud of our sustained, active response to the spring storms. We have been hosts to hundreds of UM work teams every week since the storms. We have purchased and equipped staging areas and housing for these volunteers, and we continue to handle hundreds of cases. I asked Nancy Cole, who has been responsible for designing an excellent system of response.

Will Willimon

As Coordinator of Disaster Recovery for the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, I could write any number of stories of survival and heroism during the April 27 tornado outbreak in Alabama. It has been an amazing time of strength and courage on the part of the people of Alabama. As a United Methodist Clergy who has a unique perspective on this tragedy, it has been the power of our United Methodist Connectional system that has been so impressive to me.

The first Sunday after the storm, Bishop Willimon asked to preach in a church whose pastor was impacted by the storm. Forest Lake United Methodist in Tuscaloosa had 37 members who had lost their homes and/ or businesses. The pastor was in the hospital very ill as a direct result of the storm. Bishop Willimon preached and I served as liturgist this first Sunday after the storm. Our presence was one of the first examples of our Connectional system at work. Also present in that service was Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR's Assistant General Secretary for disaster response in the United States. He addressed the congregation about the various ways UMCOR would be in partnership with us throughout our response and recovery phases. Our District Superintendent was also present that day. The Bishop and District Superintendents were available to all of our churches who had been impacted by the storm and are still very supportive of the recovery efforts.

Further power of our Connectional System became evident as UMCOR trained Early Response Teams began to pour in our state from all over our country. Early on in the disaster, I served as the Southwest District Coordinator of Disaster Response. This District includes Tuscaloosa. We had over seventy UMCOR trained teams from all over the country come to Tuscaloosa during that time. We had many other teams throughout our state as well. I could never say enough about the professionalism, the expertise displayed, and the genuine heart for ministry that was exhibited by the teams of Methodist people who wanted to be the hands and feet of Christ to us.

I have been so proud of the way our Conference has responded to the tragedy, beginning with our Bishop, his Cabinet, and Conference staff. Early on, a Disaster Response Center was set up at our Conference Center with volunteers pouring in from throughout the area to answer the 1-800 phone lines and direct incoming teams to areas that needed help.

Now, with the help of recovery teams throughout the Methodist Connectional System which include UMVIM trained teams, we have organized for the long haul. We could not have come this far in our recovery without the help of the UMCOR staff and consultants. Every one of them has helped us in some way. I am so grateful for our United Methodist Connectional System and how it has been the power that has fueled the Methodist response to recovery in Alabama.

*Rev. Nancy Cole is serving as Conference Disaster Recovery Coordinator and Natural Church Development Coordinator.

P.S. Rev. Clay Farrington and Nacole Hillman are leading a remarkable revitalization of our Conference Youth Ministry. Are the youth at your church participating in some of the great upcoming events? Click here to learn how your youth can be engaged. - WHW

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Word Made Flesh

It’s a story so strange we could not have dreamed it up by ourselves, this story of how God was incarnate in Jesus the Christ. An embarrassing pregnancy, a poor peasant couple forced to become undocumented immigrants in Egypt soon after the birth of their baby, King Herod’s slaughter of the Jewish boy babies in a vain attempt to put an end to this new “King,” From the beginning the story of Jesus is the strangest story of all. A Messiah who avoids the powerful and the prestigious and goes to the poor and dispossessed? A Savior who is rejected by many of those whom he sought to save? A King who reigns from a bloody cross? Can this one with us be God?

And yet Christians believe that this story, for all its strangeness, is true. Here we have a truthful account of how our God read us back into the story of God. This is a truthful depiction not only of who God really is but also of how we who were lost got found, redeemed, restored, and saved by a God who refused to let our rejection and rebellion (our notorious “God problem”) be the final word in the story.

Jesus the Christ (“Christ” means “Messiah,” “The Anointed One”) was a human being, a man who was born in a human family, attended parties (he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard by his critics), moved constantly around the area of Galilee, ran afoul of the governmental and religious authorities, taught through short, pithy stories (“parables”), did a number of surprising and utterly inexplicable “signs and wonders,” and eventually was tortured to death in a horribly cruel form of capital punishment which the Romans used against troublesome Jews and rebellious trouble makers. A few days later Jesus’ astonished followers proclaimed to the world that Jesus had been raised from the dead and had returned to them, commissioning them to continue his work. (This aspect of the story has always been somewhat of a reach for those who prefer their gods to be aloof, ethereal, and at some distance from the grubby particularities of this world.)

While these are roughly the historical facts of Jesus from Nazareth, as is so often the case, the raw facts don’t tell the whole story. From the first many knew that Jesus was not only a perceptive, challenging teacher (“rabbi,” teacher, was a favorite designation for Jesus) but was also uniquely God present (“Emmanuel,” means “God with us”). In a very short time Paul (whose letters are the earliest writings in the New Testament) could acclaim crucified and resurrected Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, the Christ, the one who was the full revelation of God. Jesus was not only a loving and wise teacher; Jesus was God Almighty doing something decisive about the problems between us creatures and the Creator.

This is the story we Christians name as “Incarnation.” It is a strange, inexplicable story that we happen to believe is true, the story that explains everything, the key to what’s going on between us and God. It is the story that we encounter each year at Advent, that season of reflection and penitence before Christmas.

It’s Advent. The church gives us the grace of four Sundays to get ourselves prepared for the jolt of once again being encountered by the Word made flesh, God with us.

Happy Advent.
William Willimon

Monday, November 21, 2011

When “Mine” Becomes “Thine”

S.T. Kimbrough, a great treasure of our Conference, is the foremost living scholar on the hymns of Charles Wesley. S. T. called my attention to Wesley’s hymn, “Happy the Multitude,” in which Wesley says that we Christians should banish “mine” from our vocabulary. On this week of Thanksgiving, pray with me this prayer, Wesley’s poetic response to Acts 4:32, “The multitude of them that believed, were of one heart, and one soul; neither said any of them, that aught of the things which he possessed, was his own, but they had all things in common. Neither was there any among them that lacked.”

It’s good to be reminded that our faith was born in the miracle of religious conversion that led to economic transformation as those who had previously been taught that their possessions were “mine” became born again to see that all we have is God’s (“thine”).

One of the most miraculous transformations that God works in the heart of the Christian is, in a culture of consumption and material aggrandizement, is the transformation from seeing the world as essentially “mine” to “thine.”

1. Happy the multitude
(But far above our sphere)
Redeemed by Jesus’ blood
From all we covet here!
To him, and to each other joined,
They all were of one heart and mind.

3. Their goods were free to all,
Appropriated to none,
While none presumed to call
What he possessed his own;
The difference base of thine and mine
Was lost in charity Divine.

4. No overplus, no need,
No rich or poor were there,
Content with daily bread
Where all enjoyed their share;
With every common blessing blessed
They nothing had, yet all possessed.

S.T. Kimbrough, The Unpublished Poetry of Charles Wesley (Nashville: Kingswood, 1992), 2:295–96.

Happy Thanksgiving.
William Willimon

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Transformational Ministry

The Reverend Mary Bendall has been leading a remarkable ministry at Tuscaloosa First. She and Ken Dunivant are working a remarkable transfromation of this historic, beloved congregation, leading it into the future. Having visited "The Bridge" on a number of ocassions, having met with the worship leaders of this dynamic, contemporary service, I asked Mary to relate what she has been doing, how she has been leading, and the things that worked. Here is Mary's response.
Will Willimon

Approach to Pastoral Ministry: My job is not to personally do every task of ministry. But rather to develop people who in turn create a really great community of faith. I believe there is a significant difference in those two approaches. It was tough at first to realize and accept that I am not the one anymore who gets to teach every class, or set the table or arrange the bread and juice, or make the bulletin board, or offer every prayer, or light every candle. I try as much as possible to be clear on what my responsibility is as the pastor, and what is the responsibility of the people of the church. I think that as pastors we can inadvertently hold the church back when we operate with the mindset that we have to have our hands in everything. I’ve learned that a church becomes a place where people want to be only when pastors spend time developing people, and then releasing the ministry to them. I think people don’t join churches, or attend them, because of the band/choir or the preacher. When we clergy are having down-feeling days we are tempted to believe that we are doing something so great that people are coming to see us. Dangerous, misguided thought. Actually, I feel like people join churches, or get up early on the weekends to attend a church, because of two things: the people of the church were warm and seemed real (or at least not as horrible and hypocritical as the last time they tried church) and, secondly, they walk out of worship having encountered the Holy even if just for a fleeting moment. A moment in worship with the God who changes lives. That’s worth coming back for.

Strengths-Based Ministry Emphasis
: I believe that serving and leading from our God-given strengths is a pretty good way to do things. Five years ago we began lifting up and naming strengths and why knowing your strengths matters. I began to actively help church members identify and develop their talents and strengths. Just having the conversation helps people to connect the dots that a life of faith is about doing also, not just being. In other words, as great as it is to come to worship on Sunday mornings, what matters most is what you do with yourself and who you are becoming because of your faith. When my language shifted to that I began to see a difference in our church. This September we begin our 15th round of Ministry by Strengths classes. At the end of the six-week class I have individual strengths conversations with each person in the class about what they sense from God about their next steps in life and ministry and serving. Beyond taking the Ministry by Strengths class we expect people to find a place to serve and to continue to grow. I intentionally have conversations with church members about their strengths and how they are using them. And because of that, they in turn have those same conversations with one another, and that is really where you see some good fruit. Church members having conversations with other church members about calling and fruit and life and strengths and God. That is good stuff. Having had close to 300 people in our church take the class, we have been able to start to shape the culture around the idea that God call us to serve in the area of our greatest natural strength. We used to have one designated day where people could sign up for a ministry. That worked well for several years. We discovered that we really had a need for a mechanism that would help someone new get involved right away. We created ServeLINK – our catalog of serving opportunities. It contains descriptions of almost all of our ministry/outreach/mission/serving opportunities. It is on our website ( and people can simply register whenever they would like to. Printed copies of ServeLINK are also available throughout the church, along with brochures about the major areas of the church. All new members are given a “new member packet” which contains the brochures and a copy of ServeLINK. This helped us expand our recruiting by giving the congregation the opportunity to sign up 24/7. We also created GroupLINK which is where they can sign up for classes and small groups.

Worship Design:
The area of worship design is one of the most important things that we do. Sunday morning is our greatest opportunity to connect with people. (For all intents and purposes, it is my “game day” – yes, I’ve lived in Tuscaloosa too long ;)) But we really only have one shot to get it right, to create an environment where people can connect with God and each other. Sunday morning is very important. As Robert Schnase observes in his Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations, one hour of passionate worship affects all other hours of the week. I have found that the best way to make Sunday morning rich and meaningful is to empower teams of church members to design and implement it. Pastoral duties are mine, but everything else is done by the people of the church. I lead the Bridge design team which is comprised of the leaders of each of the Bridge ministry teams. We have met just about every Tuesday night for the past six and a half years. It is the reason the Bridge works. It is labor intensive and demanding. It requires advance planning and teaching church members how to design worship. It is not always the quickest way to plan worship, but we have seen time and time again it is a really, really good way to do it. At our weekly sessions, we work together to design, imagine, dream, create, implement and then evaluate each and every Sunday. Watching people move from attending a worship service to becoming the leader of a team that implements the service, and watching them discover their strengths, build upon those strengths, and then put their own blood, sweat and tears into making the Bridge work is a beautiful thing.

Measuring Results:
I count and measure and name everything. I have learned in my D. Min. program the value of measuring. It was once said at a class that “you measure the things you can so that you can experience the things that cannot be measured.” Counting is huge. You can ask our team, sometimes they wonder about my constant reminders to get accurate numbers on things. I count vertically and horizontally. I track our worship attendance of course and look for trends. But, I also count horizontally – I track what is happening to people the longer they are part of this place. In my mind, high vertical numbers with low horizontal numbers is a problem, so I work to set up opportunities and processes for people to come in to the church and then move horizontally, so to speak, into deeper involvement and serving and ministry. And then into leadership roles. Every number is a person, a story, a life. To me, that is worth keeping up with. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a privilege, truly.

Rev. Mary Bendall
Tuscaloosa First UMC

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Turn Around

After serving well as a member of the Bishop’s Cabinet, Lori Carden was appointed to our beloved but troubled congregation in Columbiana. Lori is leading a dramatic rebirth there. I asked her to share some of her leadership insights with the rest of us. One thing that makes this narrative remarkable is that I ordained Lori! Only a couple of years ago!

Will Willimon

Dear Bishop,

Upon reading your request I thought to myself, “He wants to know what is working? Well heck, working is what is working.” I humbly submit that I don’t have grand initiatives to carry us forward for years to come. My ministry has been more fundamental than that. I am simply working!

I set personal goals for myself. I make a minimum of nine contacts each week. I send three personal emails or cards, I make three phone calls and I make a minimum of three personal visits each week. In the book “Making a Good Move” by Michael J. Coyner this is part of what is known as “paying the rent”. If I stay focused in accomplishing this each week, then by the end of the year, allowing for two weeks vacation, I will have made a minimum of 450 contacts with my flock per year.

I spend time in prayer for my people. Don’t just blow this off as some pious statement. Seriously, I spend an hour each week with the directory in hand, looking at the photos, thinking of the people, asking God to bless them and to give pastoral discernment as to how to love them and lead them.

I took time to listen to as many people as possible. This was difficult because much of what I heard was repetitive. The opinions were strong and divided. It was very very hard for me not to offer rebuttals, take a side, and offer promises or to jump into a fix-it mode. Pastors need to use their ears not just their mouths. We have to check our defensiveness at the door. I possess a strong personality, so this took much prayer. After I had listened to them, I found most of them to be happy to listen to me.

I held a “state of the church dinner” and spoke to all of them at once. I called for complete transparency in all activities and works of the church. I spoke plainly and deliberately. I told them I was not there to worry about “hurting feelings” or who “might get mad and leave” but to lead us in Christ’s mission. I named the elephants. This takes a tedious balance of courage and humility. I spoke and watched as eyebrows raised and heads nodded in affirmation. They then knew that I was not afraid of much and was there to care for the good of God’s church first and foremost. The people here welcomed such candor and it seemed to bring us closer. I will hold these dinners twice per year.

I expect much and we do much. We must never underestimate God’s people. Let’s face it; our churches are filled with brilliant people and specialists of every kind. Pastors don’t know it all. It is our job to offer direction for people to engage their gifts. However, pastors have a large role to play in helping churches own and shape their identity.For example, I was told that this church pretty well shuts down for the summer, giving people “a break” and that it always has. I asked what I thought was a good question, “What are we breaking from?” I was told that the leaders were tired. My response was that we need fresh leaders and servants. I met with people and declared that we were not doing any less for the summer than any other time of the year. We kept our Wed. night children’s program going. All teams and councils met as usual.

I raised the bar. Now, worship attendance did drop again for summer this year as I had been warned, but people now know that the church doesn’t stop. I have great expectations and hopes for next summer’s attendance and involvement to be even better. It takes time to change the norms of a church but it can be done. Dare to declare and direct people! Pastoring is not for wimps!! At the end of the day this church enjoyed doing more for Christ and community. The people must never be underestimated. Just challenge them to be the great gifted people that they are

I began to teach an “Adult confirmation” class that teaches people what it means to be a Christian who is part of the UMC. Long time members and new members of all ages, our oldest is 87 our youngest 24, meet together for several sessions learning about our heritage, our theology, and our mission.

Staffing adjustments and changes were necessary. Not easy work but vital work. Just do it! Though we now have a great team for which I am most grateful, I know that it is never concrete. People come and go. Life happens. It is so sad when churches fail to recognize this fact of life and fearfully fail to address staffing matters.

As I prepared to answer your request I met with four of our key leaders and asked, “What is working with my leadership and what is not?” All noted the following;

1. My leadership is gutsy, honest and speaks truth. The State of the Church dinner was a hit!

2. I am present with presence. I teach, I visit, I preach, I counsel, I have office hours. I play with kids in VBS. (I had six people thank me for coming to VBS. Can you believe that?)

3. I equip by modeling. Then I trust people to do it better than I did it.

4. I lead. As one guy put it, “We know who the leader is without a doubt.” I also praise people when they earn praise.

5. I speak the name of Jesus and of the power of the Holy Spirit. I do a great deal of sermon preparation and preach directly from the text. Not topics with textual passages thrown in, but text with relevant correlations thrown in. There is a difference! So many people have thanked me for “preaching from the Bible”.

As far as any constructive criticism that was offered, each one said, “Just please, don’t give up and don’t stop and take care of yourself.” I asked them to hold me to account on taking my day or two off each week. I need that accountability.

I am serving a church that has been taught that as long as the district apportionments and pastor’s compensations were paid that they were doing enough. I will not take a raise in pay until annual conference apportionments are paid in full. (Even though I need the money to pay off my seminary debts) I am working to educate the people on the good that connectional giving affords. They don’t need a heavy hand on this matter but a healed and fresh perspective.

Pastors have been given the task of holding up and onto our identity before God’s people. As I tell my children, “Remember who you are whose you are”.

This is one of our basic yet most essential tasks as pastors.

Loving the Challenge,

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Ancient Theory for New Math

Paula Calhoun is leading an amazing congregational relocation, a virtual new church start at Stepping Stone UMC. A beginning to Paula's ministry has been her work in Scouting. I got to help the Boy Scouts of America celebrate their one hundredth anniversary. (I was a scout during their fiftieth.) Paula shows how scouting can be a means of evangelizing a new generation.

- Will Willimon

Albert Einstein said: “If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts.” I’m neither a physicist nor a mathematician—far from it! But I believe a theory can be used or practiced in order to change the facts.

I’ll give an example. I’m hesitant to use the ‘e’ word, but I’ll say it: evangelism often raises the anxiety level in Christian disciples. We believe in the concept and especially the theology; it’s the practice that sometimes provokes our pause. But to quote Einstein again: “God always takes the simplest way.” Looking back on God’s story, relationship multiplies or increases, including people and blessings. Or, to put it another way: relationship equals evangelism. It’s an ancient theory from a God who scores high in math! (See God with Abram and Sarai, aka Abraham and Sarah[i], or more recently: Jesus and a Woman of Samaria[ii], The Holy Spirit and the Apostle Peter at Pentecost[iii]).

Please hear me—I’m not there, yet. But I’m beginning to see multiplication in a more simple way and I believe facts can be changed by relationship—with God, with self and all others. One means of relationship can be exercised through scouts: Cub, Boy, and Girl Scouts in all their age groups.

I’m sure most of you are way ahead of me on this; so please join the conversation. After all, I grew up in a rural area of Alabama where scouting was not offered. I don’t know why. My parents drove me into town for piano lessons. My sisters took dance lessons. But we didn’t know to ask, “Why doesn’t someone—why doesn’t our church—start a scout troop?”

My entry into scouting came as an adult through the local church. I wouldn’t call the introduction a positive encounter. Standing in a dank fellowship hall smelling of mold and brittle crayons, I listened to stories of the large scout troop that once met there. I could still hear the faint echo of their feet and voices. But it was their feet that brought on the trouble and another “r” word—ruin.

The church council chair loved a pretty tile floor and every week, rain or shine, the fellowship hall floor got tracked up in some way: smudges in the wax finish, sandy grey mud from the parking lot or a few blobs of pizza sauce from the monthly Pack meeting (scouts and leaders practice clean-up, but it’s not a perfect process). And so, the church powers charged with carrying out the Gospel moved a new and not-good-news policy into being: “There will be no scout troop in this church.”

Standing there listening and looking at the spotless, now cracked tile floor in an empty space that leaked life far too long: I wondered if scouts and the ‘new rule’ started the decay and decline. Or—did the decay and decline prompt the thoughts and conversation that grew to fever pitch over a floor that could be mopped!

Thankfully, I came across another church and another and another that celebrate the scouts hosted by local churches. Does it sometimes get messy? Well, do our homes get messy if people live and grow there? Of course! But what a relief to experience life! Movement. Voices. Touch. Smiles. Laughter. And good work. Work that teaches and shapes, supports and guides.

Maybe we’ve hit on a revised theory: S = R = G = G x G. I confessed I’m not good at math! Let me put it another way: ‘Scouts equal Relationships that equal Gospel that equals Grace that multiplies Growth.’

It’s true we never begin with the end at heart, as in: let’s start and support scout troops so that we can grow our church. You can probably think of a good term for that kind of motivation. However—practicing relationship through scouting often prompts us to grow in a variety of ways, including new people, new disciples.

How do we work or practice the theory in order to change the facts? We start with simple gifts and servant ministry. If scouts meet at your local church, contact the leader and ask how you can help; go to one of their meetings or share a fireside event at their next camp-out (your presence is a wonderful gift!). If you enjoy serving in the kitchen, bake cupcakes or cookies for their next meeting. Prepare or help pay for their next pizza party…and if the floor doesn’t shine, grab a mop and make Jesus smile!

If your church already shows hospitality to scouts, here’s a salute to your generous grace! Not involved yet? Invite or begin a new troop in order to practice an ancient, but simple theory: relationship multiplies people and blessings. Act quickly to help change the facts. I look forward to seeing you September 2012 at The Methodist Encampment (more info coming soon)!

Paula Calhoun

Monday, October 24, 2011

God and A Church on the Move

I had the privilege (Just six years ago.) of receiving Sherry Harris into our Conference after her great seminary run at Vanderbilt. She had a great ministry at Vestavia, UMC, then in June was appointed to our dynamic Wesley Memorial in Decatur. I’ve watched Sherry utilize the Transition Teams approach to her First Ninety Days, a program of pastoral beginnings that has been pioneered in the Northwest District. In less than three months, Sherry has been able to give dynamic leadership to Wesley Memorial, in great part because of her careful, energetic strategies as a new pastor. I asked her to give a brief narrative of her work. - Will Willimon

As I reflect on the First 90 Days of my new appointment at Wesley Memorial UMC in Decatur, Alabama, I realize the connecting theme is movement. Thanks to the leadership of Superintendent Mike Stonbraker, the Northwest District has a process to allow both the receiving church and new minister to “hit the ground running” and get moving! Wesley’s transition team was invaluable as we met together to share the vision and the needs of the church before our first Sunday together. Like many of our churches, Wesley Memorial found its neighborhood changing demographically while 85% of the membership moved into different areas of the city. The choice was clear: Should Wesley Memorial relocate the church closer to its current membership or find fresh ways to be the church in a changing neighborhood? After months of prayer and discernment, the congregation decided to stay put and move out into their community in brand new ways. It was a faithful and bold decision.

The scriptural record reveals to us a God of movement who always reaches out to humanity in transforming love. God’s church must do the same, so Wesley Memorial decided to go back to the basics together. Wesley 101, a sermon series and bible study (adults, youth and children) based on The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: Radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk taking mission and service and extravagant generosity, energized an entire congregation.

The results have been amazing. Fueled by extravagant generosity giving is on the increase for both the budget and special projects. After realizing our campus signage was confusing to first time guests, all of Wesley’s buildings now have large and user friendly signs. Radical hospitality continued with an update of the church’s nursery and parent pagers to provide even better child care. Members of the congregation decided to take a risk and volunteered to serve in Scout Reach, a program to bring the benefits of scouting to boys in deprived neighborhoods who ride the school bus to Wesley Memorial every Monday afternoon. The church community garden provided fresh produce to church members and those in need and there are plans to widen its impact even more in the next year. Three new Sunday school classess are in the works and over a dozen new people have committed their membership to the community of faith at 1211 Westmeade Street SW. Worship continues to grow in passion and in numbers.

As the minister of a church on the move, I am humbled by the energy and momentum I witness each and every day. But the power behind Wesley’s movement into the community is best described by a new member of the church. When asked why he wanted to join Wesley Memorial, he replied, “My wife and I believe the Spirit is on the move here and we want to be a part of that movement.” I thank God each day that I am allowed to serve a church willing to take risks and move forward in the Name and Spirit of Jesus Christ. I look forward to seeing where God will lead the church named Wesley Memorial UMC in the months and years to follow.

Sherry Harris

Monday, October 10, 2011

Unnatural Gratitude

Christians are made, not born," said Tertullian. No Christian virtues are innate. Nothing about following Jesus comes naturally. Therefore, so much that the church does for us is formational, educational, and transformational.

Take the virtue of gratitude. Don’t let anybody tell you that gratitude is innate. Why else would parents need to instruct their child, "Say thanks to the nice lady for the candy – or you will be punished?"

A primary task of the church is to take otherwise normal, innate, American tendencies and to re-form them in the light of Jesus.

What comes naturally in our culture are words like "mine," and "I earned it and deserve it."

Thus I found to be one of the most moving worship moments in Duke Chapel was when, as people come forward at Communion, we taught communicants to hold out empty hands for the blessed bread. What’s natural is tight–fisted gripping of what we think is ours. What’s Christian is open-handed generosity.

It’s natural for us to grip what we’ve got rather than to give. Americans and American churches are keeping a larger percentage of their income than in previous decades. About a fourth of our congregations find it impossible to part with about 13% of their intake for the benevolent, mission, and administrative work of the church. It is completely natural for people to say, "Let’s keep most of our money here in our church, why pay our share of Connectional Giving?"

This is unsurprising in a culture that has a too expansive view of what’s "mine." What is remarkable and can only be attributed to the activity of the Holy Spirit is that three-fourths of our congregations expend more than a fourth of their income on those outside their church. Amid all the legitimate needs they have within their congregation, they know that the purpose of the church and its ministry is beyond the bounds of the congregation.

Thus, one of the requirements listed for a District Superintendent in North Alabama is to tithe. Clergy lead congregational giving through their own giving. Actually a tithe is a job requirement for every follower of Jesus!

The church teaches us in various ways that most of what we have came to us, not through our hard work, but as a gift of God, grace. We have what we have in trust. We are assigned responsibility for others beyond our immediate family. None of us is a self-made person. We’re all connected in a web of Christ-given responsibility.

These are strikingly unnatural truths that only a loving church can teach. Thus on Sunday at your church, the offering may well be the most demanding (and revealing!) act of worship.

Will Willimon

Every week you can see the spiritual health of your church by logging into the North Alabama Conference Dashboard. There you will see the most reliable indicators of spiritual vitality, not only your church’s participation in Connectional Giving but also professions of faith, baptism, attendance, and service to those in need.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Passing of a Preacher

When you enter the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham - one of Alabama's great institutions - you are welcomed by Fred Shuttlesworth. You will be welcomed to this shrine of the Civil Rights Movement by a preacher. Fred bragged that his head was harder than the batons of the Birmingham police. For decades this straight talking, hard headed preacher not only preached but enacted the justice of Jesus Christ. In so doing, Fred was a model for all later generations of preachers in Alabama.

Fred was not known as widely as some Civil Rights activists, mainly because he never stopped being a pastor who daily cared for an active congregation. He was a preacher first, a political activist second, basing his challenges upon his pastoral convictions. We knew him as a man who changed our state for the better by standing up, speaking up, and acting up for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Reading some of the spurrious biblical interpretation that appears on our Conference website in our current discussions about our state's Immigration Law, interpretation that picks out a couple of Bible verses (often from Romans 13) and uses it to justify all sorts of nontheological subserviance to the state, I give thanks that we live in Alabama. That is, we live in a place where, in a time when horribly unjust laws had been duly passed by our government, a few hard headed, straight talking preachers stood up for the higher law of God. What a blessing to serve God in a place where God raised up a faithful witness named Fred.

Will Willimon


We’ve had a lively debate around our Conference related to the Alabama Immigration Law. My objections to the law are based upon biblical convictions and are shared by many of our leaders, particularly those who have an evangelical passion to reach the world in the name of Jesus. One of these leaders is John Bailey, who leads missions at our Asbury UMC in Madison. I thought John had a thoughtful meditation on the theme of our “illegal” status before God, a status that has been rectified by the cross of Jesus.

Will Willimon

The recent debates over Alabama’s immigration law have revealed divisions among Christians. Many people who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior have taken up ranks on both sides of the issue. It is always disconcerting to see how, once again, the followers of Jesus are divided over an issue that touches the core of what Jesus calls us to be. I often wonder if we are fully aware of what it really means to be a Christian. I have a dear friend who likes to ask this question about everything we face as Christ followers. His question is this, “what does the Good News of Jesus Christ have to say to us in this issue?” Looking at all things through the lens of the Gospel gives us the perspective we need to have as Christians in whatever we face. It is worth asking what the Gospel has to tell us as we consider the debate over Alabama’s immigration law.

It will be good for us to remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about making good people better, strong people stronger or nice people nicer. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a self improvement program. The Gospel is about Jesus coming to live among us to set the captive free, make the weak strong, raise the dead to life and to proclaim the lawbreaker innocent. (See Isaiah 61:1-2 and Luke 4:18-19) The Gospel tells us that we were all enemies of God, far removed from God’s love and mercy. God, in the person of Jesus Christ came that we may move from enemy to child and even friend of God. What is more, Jesus sends His followers into the world in the same way He was sent. (See John 17:18) This is a foundational truth that I am afraid that many who profess the name of Jesus have either forgotten or have never fully understood. This foundation is critical, because if the foundation is not right, everything that is built upon it will be wrong.

One of the arguments being put forth by those who advocate for Alabama’s immigration law is that the people the law is focused on are illegal. This fact is not up for debate, these people are indeed here illegally. What the Christian must ask, then, is how he or she will view these lawbreakers? Do we look at them as ones who are impacting our way of life and should be excluded? Or, do we look at them in the same way that God views us, as lawbreakers who will be treated with mercy, compassion and Grace? I submit that your understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ may impact how you view these lawbreakers in our midst. If you understand the Gospel to be about making good people better, you may view the illegal with scorn and contempt and be pleased to see them sent home. If you understand the Gospel to be about God reaching out to a lost, rebellious and lawbreaking people with overwhelming mercy and compassion, you may grieve to learn that fellow lawbreakers are being treated poorly at the hands of those who profess Christ. I encourage all who profess the name of Jesus as Savior and Lord, to seriously consider your understanding and experience of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and look at this law through the Gospel lens.

John Bailey

John is a certified evangelist and provisional Deacon in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is appointed to serve as Director of Missions at Asbury UMC in Madison.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dream Sabbath

While leading the rebuilding of our beloved Woodlawn Church in Birmingham, The Reverend Matt Lacey has also led a revitalization of our Conference mission work, a vibrant tradition of the North Alabama Conference. I have marveled at all of the ways Matt, a true missionary among us, has led us. Grateful for Matt’s work in immigration ministry, I asked him to be our representative in the work of Dream Sabbath. Here is how your congregation can be part of this ministry this October.

Imagine the future of children in the United States being taken away, often through no decision of their own. Being stripped all their hard work, education, friends, and dreams, often through a decision that someone else made when they were too young to understand. This is the story of many children in this country who are undocumented.

The United Methodist Church is part of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, a group of more than thirty national organizations representing Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, and Islamic faith communities. The Coalition is sponsoring Dream Sabbath, an opportunity for people of faith around the country to express support for the thousands of young people who were brought to this country as infants or children and who, though not documented residents, have nevertheless worked hard to succeed in school and to be good citizens of their communities.

The Dream Act is a proposed federal law that would make it possible for these young people to earn legal status if they complete high school or get a GED and then enroll in college or university or serve in our Armed Forces. You may have seen some of these young people, known as the Dreamers, when they held peaceful vigil outside the federal courthouse here in Birmingham and attended the August 24 hearing on the bishops’ challenge to Alabama’s new immigration law, HB 56. They are an impressive group of teenagers who are taking a risk by speaking out publicly and telling their stories, stories that sound very much like those of any teenager raised to believe in “the American Dream.”

However your congregation may feel about Alabama’s new law or about our immigration laws generally, Dream Sabbath is an opportunity for us to share in prayer and worship what it means to respond to these young people through our faith.

Dream Sabbath events can take place anytime, but I’m asking you to schedule a time between now and October 16 for your congregation to participate in this interfaith initiative. It may be through a themed worship service or an element of worship – a sermon, a story, a prayer, a litany, a meditation, a bulletin insert.

The Interfaith Immigration Coalition has prepared a number of materials you can use in planning your service. You can find them on the Coalition website, If you would like to have one of our local Dreamers come to your service to share their own stories, let me know.

PLEASE help us support the Dreamers by doing three things:

1. Plan an opportunity between now and October 16 to lift up in worship your concern for these young people;

2. Invite your state and federal legislators to be a part of your worship service


3. Go to the Coalition website and register your congregation’s participation in celebrating Dream Sabbath, or send an e-mail to Anne Wheeler at or post your participation at so we can share word of your service with others.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Tool for Learning About and Building Your Church's Story

Ben Padgett is working with me and the Cabinet to improve our ability to motivate and equip our pastors and congregations. One of the things Ben has done is to develop the leadership potential of the North Alabama Conference Dashboard. I asked Ben to share his thoughts in this message. - Will Willimon

North Alabama Conference Dashboard
A Tool for Learning About and Building the Church Story

The North Alabama Conference Dashboard is a great new tool that our Conference has given us for leading the congregation in ministry. The Dashboard is a great way for pastors to tell the story of their church. As eyes fall upon the Dashboard numbers, a story comes to mind. The congregation knows the story and the Dashboard can prompt people to verbalize the story. If the Dashboard is left on a computer monitor and filled in only through obligation then the result may well be a report card with little or no positive application. However, the following is a step-by-step means of moving from report card to tool for knowing and using the story of a particular church.

Keep the church’s Dashboard numbers up to date by reporting every week.

Choose three to five persons from the congregation who will meet with the pastor at least once a week.

Three criteria for choosing these persons:

· They are interested in the purpose of their church.

· They will speak out.

· They know the story of their church.

The meeting:

· Begin with prayer. Request the Holy Spirit be present and guide those present.

· Provide each participant a print out of the latest Dashboard for the church. [NOTE: The Dashboard was created as an online tools and is best viewed on a computer in order to have full access to all the graphs.]

Describe each section of the Dashboard. If you are uncertain about how to do this you can make a copy of the instructions from the Conference web site and the group can learn together.

The pastor becomes the student.

The group is asked to look at the numbers and graphs and tell the pastor what story the numbers tell about their church.

The pastor, or a member of the group, jots notes as they discuss the story.

Each participant may see a different story represented by the numbers and it is important that all the stories be heard. There is no reason to attempt agreement; mutuality will develop as the story develops.

The pastor may share with the group that the story of the church is actually a collection of stories of the church. There are as many stories as there are members because there are that many perspectives.

The pastor’s leading is limited to convening the group and letting it be known that she wants to know the story of the church.

· Avoid interpreting the numbers for the members; let the group interpret the numbers for you.

· Avoid leading the conversation. Allow the group to do the talking.

· The pastor is seeking to be led rather than to lead.

· The pastor’s leadership is keeping the focus on the Dashboard story rather than the content of the story.

The movement of the process may be fast or slow but it is the same for either:

Does the story of the numbers describe that the church is being the church God desires them to be in their community?

· If “Yes” how shall we celebrate in the church and in the community?

· If “No” what needs to change?

This leads to actions to be considered by the elected leadership of the church and pastor. Remember, this group may share and suggest but only appropriate elected committees, councils, Boards, and Conferences can officially make changes.

· What needs to change?

· Who will be responsible for the changes?

· When and How will the church start the changes?

Develop means of keeping the membership involved and informed of the progress of the process.

Keep the numbers conversations going with the Dashboard each week.

Weekly attendance tells a story.

· This story is immediate and will become a portion of a trend.

· Talk about positive and negative change in the numbers.

Trend numbers may tell a very different story.

Changes are discussed in terms of:

· What happened at this point?

· How did the church respond?

· Have we recovered?

· How will we recover at this point?

· How will we keep this trend going?

· How can we grow this trend?

Keep the conversation going.

Pastor and group must meet and talk about the story.

· Pastor must use this as forming his or her vision.

· Church may use this in forming its vision.

This all falls under the United Methodist Church vision of “making disciples for the transformation of the world.”

Ben Padgett