Episcopal Report for 2009

Vision for the North Alabama Conference:
Every church challenged and equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.

Conference Priorities:
New Congregations
Natural Church Development
Effective Leadership for the 21st Century
Empowering a New Generation of Christians

My Goals for 2009:

  1. Have 95% North Alabama Conference Dashboard reporting for 2009 from all districts.
    We have achieved about a 90% reporting average, lower than we need, but we are on the way. We are just beginning to discover how weekly, real time statistics from all of our churches are empowering churches, pastors, and the Cabinet in our work.

  2. Achieve a 2% increase in Apportionment payments (79% in 2008) to 81% overall.
    2009 has seen a dramatic drop in our shared mission giving in which we lost all of the ground we had gained in 2008. This has been a huge disappointment for me.

  3. Increase the Sunday attendance percentage in our churches by 4%.
    Our statistics have shown an overall 2% decline in attendance. We are perplexed by this, since a number of our churches have shown increases in attendance. This figure may be a function of sporadic reporting from some of our congregations (or more accurate reporting due to the weekly, public quality of our Dashboard!). Average attendance is the single most important measurement of the vitality of a congregation. We are determined to impact this number. The good news is that we are showing a modest increase in overall membership for the first time in decades and a dramatic increase in the number of small groups in our churches.
  4. Increase presence in the Conference to 35 Sunday visits preaching in the churches, 3 days spent teaching and listening in each district.
    This is one goal that I have exceeded in my expectations. I’ve preached in 40 different congregations in 2009, preaching a total of 60 sermons. I have also met for face-to-face conversations with the pastors and staffs of 26 of our most vital congregations. I have had at least four days of teaching and/or listening in every district, including meetings with the pastors of our largest churches. I have conducted six half day sessions on “Reading the Bible Like Wesleyans” to introduce the new Wesley Study Bible that I helped to edit.

  5. Increase the number of trained, certified new church pastors by 6.
    This year we reorganized our new church efforts with a new Director who is also the Superintendent of all of our new church starts. We have completely reworked our process of choosing new church pastors and supervising them. This goal was met, but in a way different that I had planned.
  6. Increase number of churches participating in NCD process to 200 (from 158 in 2008).
    We are just a few churches below this goal and we now have asked EVERY church to take the NCD survey by mid-2010. We are well on our way to accomplishment of this goal. I have also appointed the NCD lead staff member, Lori Carden, as a member of the Cabinet. Our NCD efforts are changing the way we evaluate churches and deploy pastors.

2009 has been one of the most difficult years for the North Alabama Conference, financially speaking. We ended the year with a shortage of about $600,000 compared with 2008 (which was a year in which we saw marked financial progress). Throughout this time of financial stress, my watchword has been “Don’t let a financial crisis go to waste.” We have used this time to make some tough decisions that we probably should have made sometime before. We have tried to see all of this as a God-given opportunity for innovation and adaptation. Dale Cohen has led our talented Connectional Ministries Staff in a complete downsizing and reorganization that now basis our staff in local churches rather than in the Methodist Center. We have one DS is serving two districts. Our greatest cuts have been in administration so that we can avoid making greater cuts in mission and program. Scott Selman and the CFA have given us wonderful leadership.

Our Cabinet has continued to improve our supervisory and appointive process – the First 90 Day Plans, triad interviews by three DS’s of each pastor who moves, weekly monitoring by the DS’s of the Dashboard, as well as closer accountability systems devised by the DS’s are all changing the way that we utilize our clergy. In the coming year I and the Cabinet will be trained by Paul Borden to do local church interventions whereby we will be able to make a decisive, focused, helpful intervention in congregations that seem to be stuck or to have plateaued. Jim Griffith, our new church consultant, has trained the Cabinet to do better interviewing of pastors. All of this is empowering the Cabinet to move beyond the traditional role of making appointments to the new role of making appointments work!

While I continue to be disappointed and frustrated by the slow pace of growth in our Conference, I do think that we have made great headway in making our church more fruitful and productive, in setting up those structures whereby we can be more fruitful, in clearly letting churches and pastors know that they are expected to grow and that they will be held accountable for growth.

During 2009 the Wesley Study Bible was published, along with my Undone By Easter: Keeping Preaching Fresh, and The Early Preaching of Karl Barth. I published eight different articles in various journals and magazines and authored chapters in four different collections on preaching and theology, along with my weekly Bishop’s Emails. I taught and gave lectures in six seminaries, seven colleges and universities, and taught a D.Min. Course for Fuller Seminary on the Theology of Preaching and well as my semester long “Jesus Through the Centuries” course for undergraduates at Birmingham-Southern.

I chair the Theological Education Committee of the University Senate and serve on the Faith and Order Commission. This requires eight meetings a year plus accrediting visits to three or four seminaries each year.

The Cabinet and I are in the process of formulating our goals for 2010. Among the plans for 2010 are for continued innovation in the way DS’s are utilized, with increased overlap of districts, fewer DS’s with more different responsibilities, a new system of organizing our small congregations and our local pastors into clusters that are supervised by trained elders, a complete reorganization, led by Dale Cohen, of our Conference structure, a reorganization that will leave us with fewer committees that are clearly task oriented and focused upon results, much smaller, more accountable committees, and the equipment of the Cabinet to do congregational intervention.

Adam Hamilton will be our key resource person at Annual Conference this year and our focus will be on effective leadership in our churches.

William H. Willimon

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