At our Jurisdictional Conference this July, I will be submitting an “Area Report” for our Annual Conference. I thought that you might enjoy seeing the report that I will be submitting. Thanks to all of you for a wonderful first four years serving you in North Alabama.
At a recent Annual Conference we modified our vision statement to read: “Every church challenged and equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.” The change reflects our determination to hold ourselves accountable to the Great Commission in every aspect of our Conference life.
From our vision, we have developed Four Priorities: Natural Church Development, Empowering a New Generation of Leaders, New Congregations, and Effective Leadership. We are in a process of aligning every aspect of our church life to these priorities.
Natural Church Development is a proven means of revitalizing congregations and moving them into a mission mode of life. We have trained dozens of Natural Church Development coaches and we are holding every congregation and pastor accountable to the expectation to utilize NCD. Our monitoring of our congregations that utilize NCD shows us the effectiveness of the program. For the first time in two decades we are showing growth in numbers of professions of faith and new members.
We are reorganizing our Board of Ordained Ministry and the process of ordination in order to focus on recruitment of new, young pastors. We are determined to streamline the ordination process and to be more attentive to the fruit of the process – effective pastoral leaders for the Twenty-First Century. We created a three year Residency in Ministry program to equip our newest pastors in leadership skills that are required for growing our church in the future. Faced with an aging clergy membership as well as a shortage of qualified candidates, we are moving into a posture of recruitment. We are devising means of equipping every congregation to notice, name and encourage top candidates for the ministry.
For some years our Conference has been working at establishing new communities of faith. We have led the church for a couple of years in the number of new church starts. Through a process of constant evaluation and assessment, we have reorganized our training for new church pastors and our selection of those called to serve. We are pioneering in the exploration of different models for starting new congregations, stressing the need for multi-ethnic congregations in economically marginal communities. Our success rate for new church starts is considerably above the national average. Our goal is to start a minimum of twelve new congregations each year.
We have found that the path to more effective clergy and lay leaders is through accountability. For the past three years, on our Conference website, we display graphs for every congregation showing patterns of attendance, giving, and baptisms for the past six years. Making these statistics more available for all to see has been a big step forward for us. Beginning this year we are instituting the “North Alabama Conference Dashboard” that will display weekly figures for attendance, giving, professions of faith, and baptisms. Every Monday, every congregation in the Conference will log in and report their figures for that week. District Superintendents will be able to make comparisons and to monitor every congregation’s faithfulness on these bases of the “Dashboard.” We believe this will be a huge step forward in accountability.
Every full time pastor who may be involved in a possible move is interviewed by a panel of three District Superintendents who get a clear picture of that pastor’s productivity and strengths. Every congregation submits a statement of goals and objectives in ministry before consideration for a change in appointment. Every full time pastor who moves to a new appointment in our Conference is trained to devise a “First Ninety Day Plan” that outlines what the pastor will do in his or her first three months in a new parish. Working with the District Superintendent and the lay leadership of the congregation, the pastor will work through the Plan so a tone of transformative leadership will be engendered in the congregation. In four years of these procedures for appointments, we have not had a single appointment that we have had to change due to a poor fit.
In 2006 we reduced the number of our Districts from twelve to eight. This not only led to more efficient oversight of our churches but also gave us nearly a million dollars a year in savings that we were able to put into New Church Development.
Mainly as a result of our economy in administration, we have limited the increase in our Conference budget to about 2% per year, the smallest consecutive increases in the Conference Budget in decades.
While we continue to struggle with a comparatively low rate of apportionment participation, this past year we increased our apportionment percentage by over two percent (for a total of over 82% giving to apportionments). This meant that we raised nearly a million dollars more for ministry in 2007 when compared with 2006. Our goal is to increase our percentage of apportioned giving by 2% each year until we are at 100%.
In 2007 our Camp Sumatanga launched a 4.5 million dollar capital campaign that is ongoing.
We have conducted a Conference-wide study of United Methodist Beliefs, led by our lay leadership.
We have also had good participation from our Conference in the Katrina appeal (over half a million dollars raised), the Nothing But Nets Campaign, and the Central Conference Pension Initiative.
For the past four years we have enjoyed our beautiful new Conference Center on the campus of our Birmingham-Southern College. This 4.5 million dollar facility has been a great help to our work and has provided a wonderful cohesiveness to our Conference.
Patsy and I feel grateful to God for our first four years in the North Alabama Conference. We have learned much and look forward with eager anticipation to our next four years. Christ has given our Conference some exciting new ideas and the people and the resources to act upon those ideas. We are seeing our Conference vision become a reality in the lives of the churches in our Conference. For all this, we give thanks.
William H. Willimon