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

Monday, September 12, 2011

Welcome Others as Christ Has Welcomed You

Most mainline protestant churches are in decline, the churches of North Alabama are no exception. But not all. I’ve made it my business to visit our growing congregations in order to learn more about why they are thriving.

I asked a pastor of a congregation that had spectacular growth among young adults what was her most significant act of leadership that encouraged growth.

"I fired the ushers,” she replied. “Those older men were stiff and cold. All they knew how to do is to hand people a bulletin, thus making a horrible first impression on visitors. I fired them, searched for people whom God had given the gift of hospitality, and the rest has been easy.”

I’ve learned that hospitality may be the key factor in a faithfully growing church. One could argue this theologically. Paul tells us that we ought to welcome others in the same way that Christ has welcomed us. A major reason for the crucifixion of Jesus was his practice of radical hospitality, open-handed, table-time conviviality.

“We want church to begin in our parking lot,” declared one of our dynamic pastors. “We’re vetting and training teams of friendly Greeters who meet visitors in the parking lot, welcome them, hand them off to the Hosts who stay close to them in the service, then invite them to lunch afterwards."

The most notable change in church architecture in the past fifty years is the enlargement and the open atmosphere of the narthex, the hallway into a church’s worship space. A hundred years ago our churches received people in a dark, cramped entrance hall. Today churches build spacious, open, light, comfortable “Welcome Centers” as a sign that they desire and expect people who are not seasoned members.

Indeed, I have learned that the main difference between a congregation in decline and one with a future is the difference between practicing the faith for the exclusive benefit of “insiders” (the members of that congregation) or passionate concern for the “outsiders” (those who have yet to hear and to respond to the gospel).

Jesus Christ died for the whole wide world, not just for those inside the church. Therefore, a theological test for the fidelity of a church is hospitality. In our contesting of the Alabama Legislature’s ill conceived immigration law, and I’m rediscovering the radical nature of the seemingly benign Christian notion of hospitality. Our churches really resent any intrusion into their attempts to be obedient to Christ’s mandate to welcome others as we have been welcomed. An evangelical definition of a Christian: Christians are people who know how to welcome people even as Christ has welcomed us.

If your congregation has lost the art of Christian hospitality, let us know. We have learned so much about best practices that our churches have tested and found fruitful in countless congregations.

A major task of ministry in our time and place is to turn our churches inside-out, making them more hospitable and therefore more faithful.

Will Willimon

Remembering 9/11

This week a number of our churches are having various services commemorating 9/11. That day changed many of our lives. I will never forget the Sunday after the tragedy. A few months later I published a book of sermons by campus pastors, The Sunday after Tuesday: Campus Pulpits Respond to 9/11 (Abingdon). Many of us pastors found that making sense out of this senseless tragedy was one of our greatest challenges in ministry.

Our own S.T. Kimbrough, master theologian, historian, poet and missionary, shared with me a hymn that he wrote to think about and to pray after 9/11. I share it with you as an offering from one of our Conference's most distinguished pastors.

The hymn is below. I have also linked a PDF file of it so you may have a printable version.

Will Willimon