Monday, February 27, 2012


I’m honored that Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I thought I would share some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.

Really now, Lord Jesus, is our sin so serious as to necessitate the sort of ugly drama we are forced to behold this day? Why should the noon sky turn toward midnight and the earth heave and the heavens be rent for our mere peccadilloes? To be sure, we’ve made our mistakes. Things didn’t turn out as we intended. There were unforeseen complications, factors beyond our control. But we meant well. We didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. We’re only human, and is that so wrong?

Really now, Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we may not be the very best people who ever lived, but surely we are not the worst. Others have committed more serious wrong. Ought we to be held responsible for the ignorance of our grandparents? They, like we, were doing the best they could, within the parameters of their time and place. We've always been forced to work with limited information. There’s always been a huge gap between our intentions and our results.

Please, Lord Jesus, die for someone else, someone whose sin is more spectacular, more deserving of such supreme sacrifice. We don’t want the responsibility. Really, Lord, is our unrighteousness so very serious? Are we such sinners that you should need to die for us?

Really, if you look at the larger picture, our sin, at least my sin, is so inconsequential. You are making too big a deal out of such meager rebellion. We don’t want your blood on our hands.
We don’t want our lives in any way to bear the burden of your death. Really. Amen.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Raising Up a New Generation of Leaders

One of our church's great challenges is finding qualified pastoral leaders for our churches in the future. As you know, United Methodism historically has some of the highest educaitonal and character standards for our new pastors of any church. Our rigorous educaitonal requirements are expensive to maintain. But we think our congregations are worth it.

You may also know that we have the lowest percentage of young clergy (only about 4.5% under 35) of at any time in our history. Each year, when I ordain new clergy, I ordain close to a million dollars in educational debt along with them -- money they have had to borrow to prepare for our ministry. It grieves me that most of our precious conference resources go into financing yesterday's church -- clergy pensions for older clergy, subsidies for maintaining congregations and institutions that trived in the past but not now. Ought we be surprised that we have trouble obtaining a future for our church when so much is expended on our past?

Patsy and I have therefore established clergy scholarship funds at two of our seminaries (Emory and Duke) and I have pled for more assistance for our newest clergy. I am therefore so excited about a recent gift that we received from two dedicated laypeople, Jim and Betty Tucker, who are members of Central UMC in Decatur. A generous series of gifts by the Tuckers will enable grants to be made to seminarians who are serving in the Northwest District. It will provide aid to students with expenses incurred while going to seminary. Jim Tucker has seen first hand how even generous scholarships are not enough for seminarians, particularly those who are serving student appointments while in seminary. Mike Stonbraker, Jim's District Superintendent, has been a great leader in cultivating new, young leadership for our church. (Mike also wants me to tell you that Jim is a Marine, Mike forbidding me to say "retired Marine.")

Jim Tucker has been a successful business person in Decatur and is not only a loyal member of Central, but is also grateful for the high quaility pastoral leadership who has served Central over the years. He knows that fine pastoral leaders like Gary Formby, his current pastor, required quality seminary training. We are so grateful to Betty and Jim for leading the way with their generous gift.

God means for us to have a bright and vital future, I'm sure of that. But we must do our part. As I've often said, with Jesus Christ, we have more tomorrows than yesterdays, for we serve a living, resurrected God who leads us into the future. Let's go with him!

Will Willimon

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A New World, and Its Detractors

One of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed, in the Council of Bishops, is the bishops’ “Call to Action.” The bishops have heard the plea of the UMC for leadership to do throughout our connection that which has already been done in all of our vital congregations – simplify and focus our structure and realign our resources, so that more emphasis is placed upon mission and upon fruit.

Our Council President, Bishop Greg Palmer (a student of mine at Duke and someone who spoke at our SBC21 meeting last year) states what we hope to achieve through these measures: “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” 

All of the proposals – a long overdue restructuring of general boards and agencies, shared accountability for ministry by sharing of results from the Conferences (using the North Alabama Dashboard as the model!), a set-aside bishop to coordinate the work of the bishops, and cost cutting measures – have one goal: vital congregations.

I wondered if the Bishops’ proposals went far enough, if were being appropriately rigorous in our focus on mission, but when I read fellow South Carolinian, Tim McClendon’s attack on the bishops’ plans, I realized that we were on the right track.[1] Tim dismisses our dreams as a mere “business model” that “is a smoke screen to hand more power over to the Council of Bishops,” praising our church as organized like the Federal Government![2] Our church is now imperiled, says Tim, by an insidious power grab by the bishops. We’re afflicted with a power-hungry episcopacy who wants a set-aside bishop, a “quasi-pope,” says Tim. 

Tim has no proposals for church revitalization other than to require bishops to work more in their annual conferences (failing to note that the Discipline makes us superintendents of the whole church). He shouts that bishops ought “to be set-aside in their annual conferences!” saying, “We all know how little time bishops actually spend in their annual Conferences.”

I’m sorry that Tim thinks his conference has an absentee bishop, but I don’t think anybody would say that in North Alabama. Tim’s prescription for better leadership by the bishops is for us to spend more time staying in the homes of our people and “making personal connections” -- which Tim thinks is the chief requirement for effective leadership.

Note that Tim has little concern for the whole point of the Call to Action: vital congregations. His unfocused, rather predictable plea for the status quo, his unconcern that most of our congregations are in decline, and his disinterest in accountability for fruitfulness is the same sort of resistance we encountered a few years ago in North Alabama. Thank goodness that our conference had people who, unlike Tim, resonated with the bishops’ call to “Make Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World,” or we wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I’m so thankful that when I said that we could do better, that we were going to remove impediments to growth and fidelity, no one trembled in fear at a power-grabbing bishop!

In my eight years as bishop, I’ve heard no one anywhere complain, “Bishops are too powerful.” The complaints, from those who care about our church’s future is, “Bishops have got to step up and lead,” and “Someone must take responsibility for giving our church a different future than the one to which we are doomed through our present way of doing business.”

I am confident that there enough frustrated United Methodists -- who have languished at unproductive board meetings, who have watched helplessly as one congregation after another quietly slips into death, have prayed that someone would cast a vision and move forward – that the Call to Action and its proposals by the bishops will be gratefully received by General Conference. If we listen to those who ignore our plight and protect their status quo, we deserve the bleak future we’ll get.

Of course, I might think like Tim if I had not been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to be in ministry in North Alabama. I urge Tim to see first hand what a conference looks like that takes more seriously Jesus’ mandate to make disciples than it attempts to plod along doing ministry as usual. There’s a reason why our conference was at the top in the percentage of Vital Congregations – the Holy Spirit has helped us to let go of some old ways of doing things, to hold ourselves rigorously, publicly accountable for the actual results of our ministry, and to focus our financial resources on vital congregations rather than on defense of unproductive structures, pastors, and congregations.

We’ve got a long way to go, but at least we are on the way. All that the Council of Bishops asks of the church is permission to go forward, to bless the general church with some of the practices and values that we have pioneered in North Alabama, and to give us what we need to be faithful to your call for us to lead the church.  

Will Willimon  

 [1] “Restructuring proposal is bad medicine for UMC,” Tim McClendon, United Methodist Reporter, Nov 8, 2011.
 [2] “Our polity is based on the separation of powers,” an a-theological view of our polity indeed

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Our Spanish Speaking Churches in the Aftermath of HB56

The fastest growing ethnic group in United Methodism are Spanish-speaking Methodists. North Alabama Methodists have invested huge resources in establishing nearly a dozen new congregations in the past few years. These new churches have become spiritual dynamos of our conference, leading our conference in baptisms and professions of faith – until HB56, our state’s notorious immigration law.

Though almost all of our fledgling United Methodist Christians were documented, in just two months we saw our congregations decimated and all of our prayerful work destroyed. Not only did nearly all Spanish-speaking Methodists have an undocumented person in their home or nearby but also the law -- designed (in the words of one of its authors) to tell undocumented people to get out of Alabama -- created a climate of fear.

In a discussion between me and Sen. Scott Beason on the ultra-conservative “Laura Ingraham Show,” even Ms. Ingraham called this law a heinous attack upon the free exercise of religion, and an “embarrassment,” and chided Beason. (Fortunately, District Judge Blackburn struck down the part of the law that caused so many in the church immediate concern.)

The Reverend Dr. Thomas Muhomba (himself a thoroughly documented immigrant to our country, along with six other leading North Alabama pastors), who heads our ethnic ministries, has given us a frightening report of the effects of HB56. Rev. Bart Tau tells us that on the first of September, there was a mass exodus of children out of schools in his area. While many of the children were citizens, their parents were not. One family, whose daughter is an honor student at a Methodist college in Florida, cannot come home because she is undocumented and fears traveling in Alabama. Bart says that many parents have left Alabama fearing deportation that would require them to abandon their children, making them wards of the state.

Rev. Tau says, “Our churches need to remind our Hispanic brothers and sisters of our Lord’s love and care for them as His children in this very scary time. For those that decide they must leave, we can help them to deal with the details of a move and transition. We can pick them up and bring them to church, so they don’t have to drive and risk arrest. We can help them afford legal counsel when they need it, and we can help them by taking care of their kids if they are detained. A simple Power of Attorney can give a legal resident or citizen the ability to manage the affairs of a person who is separated from their family and their possessions. We need to show our love and support by standing beside our Latino families in a very tangible way.”

At Riverchase, an established congregation that has led the way in birthing and partnering with an Hispanic congregation, Rev. Fernando Del Castillo (who despite our expensive legal efforts was deported a few years ago, my first experience with difficult immigration laws) states that HB56 fostered anxiety, fear, and panic among his people . “Four of our families have already moved to different states, leaving behind businesses, jobs, houses, and dreams.”

In Huntsville at Iglesia de la Communidad, Rev. Roblero Macedonio’s church reports that his congregation lost ten families who had to move to other states. Macedonio says that though his congregation has all but disappeared, he vows to “continue preaching the word and growing more disciples for the transformation of the world.”

By the way, nearly everyone I spoke to asked us to pray for the law enforcement officials who have been forced by our government to attempt to enforce the law. They are hopeful that the lawmakers will listen to the pleas of the business groups, school leaders, and police and sheriffs who have pled for revisions in the law.

And that’s just what we pray for too. Our Governor and legislators have admitted that the law needs change and they have promised that they would make changes in the law this legislative season that begins this week. We fully understand that when the law was devised, not all of them could know the nefarious implications of the law upon our businesses and schools.

I hope that by pointing to the effect of this law upon our churches, the lawmakers will consider the well-being of all of our people, particularly those who are attempting to practice the Christian faith in Alabama.

Will Willimon

Monday, February 06, 2012

Highest Rate of Connectional Giving in Two Decades

I am happy to report to the North Alabama Conference that we received 82.86% of the 2011 Conference budget through connectional giving this past year. This is our highest collection rate over the last 19 years (from 1993 – 2011)! Personally I am thrilled that my last year as bishop I got to witness this wonderful result. This rate of giving is particularly noteworthy considering our huge response to the Easter week storms of 2011. (By my conservative estimate, our churches gave about two million dollars in relief for victims of the storms, which makes our nearly 83% participation remarkable.)

Congratulations to the Southeast District for the highest collection rate of 89.54%. The Northwest District finished with 89.39% and the Northeast District finished with 88.07%. (These were three of the most storm-devastated districts.) The vast majority our congregations participate fully in Connectional Giving, a testimony to their pastoral leadership and our attempts to contain Conference costs, particularly administrative costs.

Connectional giving accounts for only about 11% of a congregation’s income. If fewer than twenty of our larger churches that failed to participate in mission giving had participated, we would have received nearly a million dollars more. Any church that does not participate in connectional giving at 100% invariably shows a deficit in its spiritual life and clerical leadership. We will continue to work with these pastors and churches in the coming year, reminding them of the mandate under which we work – a vital church participates in Christ’s mission in the world.

A pastor’s leadership is the key to connectional giving, so as I mention our faithful congregations, I want to note their faithful pastors. Peter Hawker and Minnie Stovall are leading a dramatic turnaround at Anniston First, putting them at 100% for the first time in years.

Some of our churches that were heavily damaged by the storms like Canaan (Ted Bryson), Lakeview (John Purifoy), Hackleburg (George Gravitte) were, despite their loss, full participants in connectional giving!

There are many pastors and churches who deserve to be recognized but I’ll highlight a few of the many that made remarkable progress over previous years’ giving: Wesley Memorial (Sherry Harris), Edgemont (Chris Montgomery), Morgan (Eddie Bolen), Christ (Paul Lawler), St. James (James Fields), Camp Branch (Frankie Jones), Hoover First (Rachael Gonia), Cullman First (Mitchell Williams), and Spring Hill (Clauzell Williams).

Obviously, there were many more who deserve accolades for this great year in connectional giving. Alabama, according to surveys, has some of the most generous givers in the nation. We have been determined to improve our Conference’s rate of participation in connectional giving and, with the hard work of our pastors and churches, we have!

William H. Willimon

We Believe in Social Righteousness

John Wesley preached “practical Christianity.” Few United Methodist practices illustrate our practical Christianity more vividly than our Social Principles(which have their roots in the “social creed” of our church which dates from the early Twentieth Century). The Discipline defines these principles as our most recent official summary of stated convictions that seek to apply the Christian vision of righteousness to social, economic, and political issues. The God whom United Methodists worship combines love with justice, is not only gracious but also demanding, not only died for you and me but for the whole world. There is for us no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include personal transformation of sinners.

The Social Principles are a thoughtful effort on the part of a succession of General Conferences to speak to the pressing human issues in the contemporary world from a Wesleyan biblical and theological foundation. They are intended to be instructive, to teach contemporary United Methodists the best thought and practice on selected subjects, and they are also meant to be persuasive, urging the church on to higher righteousness. The Social Principles call all members of The United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied examination of our life together and our personal lives in the light of the gospel.

Our struggles for human dignity and social reform have been a response to God’s demand for love, mercy, and justice in the light of the Kingdom. We proclaim no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include the personal transformation of sinners.

The Social Principles begin by addressing issues in “The Natural World” – ecological concerns, energy resources, technology and space exploration, next “The Nurturing Community,” beginning with the family, moving to marriage (we’re in favor of it), divorce (we’re against it but recognize that it sometimes is a “regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness”). There is a discussion of homosexuality (an argument that has consumed much time and attention in recent meetings of the General Conference), as well as a long paragraph on abortion (I suspect that this paragraph is trying to please everybody by saying next to nothing). There are also extensive discussions on “The Economic Community,” “The Political Community” (the person who said that the church ought to “stick to saving souls and stay out of politics” wasn’t a United Methodist!), and the “World Community.” We have churchly opinions on just about everything.

Frankly, some of these sections show the challenge of asserting the primacy of Scripture and at the same time attempting to speak on many topics for which Scripture has no apparent concern. The theological underpinnings of our social teachings are not always clear. Even though these principles are our collective wisdom on social, public, political matters, the Discipline’s scant attention to personal, individual sin, when compared with this extensive and detailed treatment of social sin is odd. Wesley certainly held the personal and the social together. But we live in a curious age in which, if we think of sin at all, we focus more on the sins of Congress or the corporate board room than sins committed by individuals in a bedroom. Sometimes it’s safer to love a whole neighborhood than to love our individual neighbors. It’s always sad when we United Methodists show our conformity to the world rather than God’s calls to help transform the world. In the great Wesleyan tradition, there is no clear demarcating between the personal and the corporate, the social and the individual. The light of Christ penetrates every somber corner of our lives, personal and corporate, and we are under obligation, as followers of Christ, to let that light shine.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)

Today United Methodists have over 80 hospitals, 64 extensive child care networks, and 214 retirement communities and nursing homes for the elderly. We have over a hundred colleges and universities in the United States and about the same number elsewhere. United Methodist agencies like UMCOR are first on the scene of disaster and calamity with emergency aid and relief. I don’t see how our Conference would have made it after the terrible spring storms last year without the millions of dollars of aid through our fellow UM’s and UMCOR.

All of this is the institutional result of our Wesleyan theological commitments to faith and good works. (John Wesley not only dispensed theology but also claims to have dispensed medicine to over 500 persons in London each week.) The term “organized religion” is not to us an insult. We believe that love is less than fully incarnational when it fails to organize and institutionalize.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus is confronted by a rich young man who asks a theological question (Mk. 10:17-22) about the inheritance of “eternal life.” Jesus responds to the man’s question by urging him to obey “the commandments.” When the young man says that he has obeyed all the commandments, Jesus adds yet another, telling him to “go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Maybe it would take a Wesleyan to notice, but did you note that Jesus responds to a rather theoretical, theological question with ethics? Jesus somehow connects “eternal life” with obedience – “go…sell…give to the poor”?

It is our conviction that the good news of the Kingdom must judge, redeem, and reform the sinful social structures of our time.

Adapted from William H. Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: An Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.