The Sending of Pastors

I’ve had numerous inquires from other Bishops and Conferences about the changes we have made in the appointment of pastors. For the next few weeks I’ll be describing some of those innovations.

United Methodism is noted for its practice of “a sent ministry.” You can’t call or hire a United Methodist pastor – we are sent to churches. How do the Cabinet and I make appointments?

The first thing that we consider is the health and well-being of a congregation. There was a time when some people thought the purpose of the Cabinet is to care for the career advancement of the clergy! Not according to our Discipline and not in the North Alabama Conference. The main task of the Bishop and District Superintendents is to send clergy who can lead the mission of each congregation.

Long before a decision is made to make a pastoral change, the District Superintendents survey the churches in their district trying to determine how things are going. Every week we note the Benchmarks on the North Alabama Dashboard. The most immediate indicator is the trend in worship attendance but other important indicators of vitality are the number of baptisms, the number of new members, and especially the number of those new members who are joining through profession of faith. These numbers are a revealing indicator of the spiritual health of a congregation.

A church’s Natural Church Development (NCD) score sharpens our knowledge of a congregation. Understanding a church’s greatest barrier to growth (referred to as the Minimum Factor) and its strength for growth (referred to as the Maximum Factor) gives a DS the insight needed to determine if the current pastoral leadership is capable of leading a church to greater healthfulness.

Of course, one of the greatest ways to assess the health and the well-being of a church is through direct observation as DS’s engage with the church through visits, through interaction via email, phone calls, or at training events and through prayer. I also listen to and respond to a sermon from every full time pastor who may be moved.

Only about 12% of our churches experience a pastoral change in a given year. We have definitely moved to longer term pastorates. However, when the indicators show that a pastoral change would strengthen the mission of a congregation, our goal is to move into that change through accurate, deep knowledge of what God is doing (and wants to do!) in your congregation. We are determined to do our best faithfully to know and to assess the mission and performance of our churches, pioneering these methods in the North Alabama Conference, we believe that we are changing the face of United Methodism in our practice of sending pastors.

Will Willimon

On October 13, from 10:00 a.m – 2:00 p.m. at the United Methodist Center we are having a great conference on Urban Ministry and ministry with the marginalized in urban settings, led by my friend, Gary Mason from Belfast, Northern Ireland. When I visited with Gary a few years ago, I was so impressed by the connections between what he is doing in Belfast and what we are attempting in Birmingham and elsewhere. Please join us by registering with Rev. Matt Lacey on our Conference website.

2 thoughts on “The Sending of Pastors

  1. Couple notes Interesting blog, strategy for Birmingham formed in Belfast Ireland. I plan to get the word out to some UMC friends in Arkansas. Speaking of which I hope you keep the Oct 5 issue of Christian Century near at hand. Letters there in the section Authentic Misery about the film Winter's Bone is something I hope to contact you about later. Friends in Texas have contacted recently singing the praises of Hauerwas. Came across an old review where someone named you two the tobacco Road Luminaries. That and much more. All the best as you charge on.


  2. In a culture that values career advancement and an institution that appears to have career advancement, how do you train pastors to not care about career advancement?Is it all aspects of career advancement we ought not care about, or only those dealing with finances?Are all forms of career advancement incompatible with congregational advancement? Is it helpful to frame the issue adversarily?


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