Real Change Pastoral Leaders

This year’s Annual Conference had as its them “New!” It is a great challenge truly to “make all things new” as Scripture enjoins us to do.

Brad Spencer from Canterbury gave me a wonderful book on leadership, Real Change Leaders, by Jon R Katzenbach. I have found it a most stimulating read for those of us who are charged with the leadership of the church and its congregations. “Real Change” is change that is deep, lasting, and genuinely changes the direction of an organization. On page 13, Katzenbach lists the common characteristics of real change leaders of an organization. I think that we pastors could benefit by measuring our own leadership by these characteristics:

  1. Commitment to a better way and strong belief that the future is dependent upon the change-particularly their being a part of it.
  2. Courage to challenge existing power bases and norms
  3. Personal initiative to go beyond defined boundaries – they break/alleviate constraints and think outside the box
  4. Motivation of themselves and others
  5. Caring about how people are treated and enabled to perform – understand that institutions are both economic and social organizations
  6. Staying undercover – keeping a low profile – grandstanding, strident crusading, and self-promotions are ways to undermine rather than enhance credibility
  7. A sense of humor about themselves and their situations – enables RCLs to help others stay the course

Whenever I visit a congregation where significant, Spirit-filled change is taking place, I see at least five of these characteristics in the pastor who is leading that change.

Prayer for the day: Lord, help us to be better leaders, so that we might follow your leadership into your promised future. Amen!

Will Willimon

Beyond the Boundaries

The majority of United Methodist Churches in North Alabama are small churches and they are in precipitous decline. All indications are that the decline will accelerate over the next decade, despite our efforts, and despite the mandate of Jesus Christ that we, as his disciples, are to go and to grow. By my estimates, we produce about twenty new small churches every year in North Alabama, as once medium-sized churches shrink.

History shows the small congregations are wonderfully resilient. They survive. To be honest, one reason United Methodism has more small membership churches than any other denomination is that we have so many ways of subsidizing and supporting small churches, long after any other denomination would have forsaken these small congregations.

However, one of the main reasons that small churches survive is that many so restrict their view of the ministry of the church, scaling down their expectations for discipleship, that clergy and laity find it easy to meet the meager expectation that many people have for the small church. If your definition of the church does not extend beyond the bounds of the nurture and care of the people in that congregation, then it doesn’t take much pastoral leadership, or much time and effort, to meet those expectations.

Now if we move from our scaled down, limited expectations for the church, to Jesus’ more expansive expectations, many of our small congregations look quite different. The major reason why our small congregations are not growing, and the major reason why most small churches are almost exclusive tied to those of us in the over fifty generation, is that they have limited their ministry exclusively to the boundaries of their congregation. Many of our small churches are “church family,” as we like to say. That family feel of the small church becomes the very reason why a small congregation eventually dies.

Veteran church observer, Penny Marler, has studied small congregations. She notes that it is very difficult, virtually impossible, for a long established small congregation to grow — mainly because it restricts it’s ministry to its own people. A congregation may think of itself as a loving and caring group of people, but if you visit there on a Sunday morning, or if you should try to join, you have the impression that they are unfriendly, focused inward, and closed. Their vision of the church is restricted to those people whom God gave them thirty years ago. They restricted their ministry to the members of the church, and their families. As those members age, as the birth rate declines, so does these churches.

Alas, too many of us pastors have bought into this view of ministry. We believe that the purpose of their ministry is our ability to care for the people within the congregation exclusively. We pray for the sick, we visit the infirm, we focus upon the needs of the congregation, without praying for, visiting, or encountering anyone beyond the bounds of the congregation. And the congregation comes to value a pastor exclusively on that pastor’s performance within the congregation. Death is the result.

The writer to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus Christ as the one who went “outside the camp.” Jesus Christ was crucified, in great part because he went beyond the boundaries. He reached out, touched, and embraced the untouchables. He was constantly pushing out beyond the boundaries, expanding the notion of God’s kingdom and God’s people. In fidelity to Jesus Christ, we must stop propping up small congregations who have decided to limit their vision of the church to those who happen to have been given to them by a previous generation. And pastors, who have come to limit their definition of ministry to those within the bounds of a congregation, have got to grow in their definition of what God has called them to do as evangelical leaders of the church. Any congregation that limits its ministry to itself will not be with us long into the future. This appears to be a law of church growth and decline. More importantly, it also seems to be an implication of following a Savior like Jesus!

William H. Willimon

What If Wesley Was Right?

Last week, I delivered the keynote address for the Oxford Institute of Wesley Studies at Christ College, Oxford University. A copy of my remarks follows:

What if Wesley was right? That is, what if Wesley was right, not about everything he believed, but what he most essentially believed? Particularly, what if Wesley was right in what he believed about God – a Triune God who intrudes, makes new, transforms and empowers? What if Wesley was right about the transformative, miraculous power of grace? If Wesley was right, in what he believed about God and what he believed about transforming grace, then in what ways might we contemporary followers of Wesley be wrong? In what ways does Wesley judge us and challenge us today, if Wesley was right?

What If Wesley Was Right?

Silly question. We’re here because we all believe that Wesley was right, not right about everything, to be sure (“beware of panegyric, particularly in London”), but right about the things that matter. And if Wesley was right, about what he was most right about, then perhaps we should be uncomfortable. I suspect that some of you are here tonight, not so much because you believe Wesley was right, but rather because you think he was interesting. You have a Wesleyan affinity, you are part of the “Wesleyan tradition,” you are curious about Wesley, or you find him useful in explaining something else that interests you more than Wesley: “Wesley, the organizational genius of the eighteenth century,” or “Wesley, the Tory for all seasons,” or some other merely academic interest. As a sometime academic myself, I have some admiration for those of you who can muster enthusiasm for such matters. But not much.

What if “our Old Daddy” (Asbury’s somewhat mocking title for Wesley) was not just interesting but also right? We may be uncomfortable because if Wesley was right in what he thought and taught, then we may be wrong. To ask, “What if Wesley was right?” is to allow ourselves to be challenged by Wesley’s grasp of reality. And if we should be so engaged by him, interrogated by him, and if we find ourselves thinking about God with him, why, we might again become theologians ourselves. We might again believe that there is nothing more important to talk about and no one more important to listen to than God.

So if you have a mainly archeological interest in Wesley as a set of ancient texts – a man who was remarkable rather than a man who was right – I hope I have nothing to say to you tonight.

If Wesley was right, then a conference about Wesley can be dangerous as we endeavor to protect ourselves against Wesley by talking about him rather than daring to allow him talk to us. (Wesley’s dreaded “almost Christian” comes in many forms.)

To answer, “What if Wesley was right?” we need to think what Wesley thought. The most challenging task of thinking with Wesley is that we must become theologians. That is, we must begin where he began. To read Wesley is to be in the presence of a man who has been assaulted by the living, speaking, active, interactive personality of the Triune God. To read Wesley’s Journals is to be with a man who is driven, moment-by-moment (even the most mundane), thought-by-thought (even the most trivial) by a robust, resourceful God. (Only a man who had the stupidest idea of luck – which Wesley did not – or the most extravagant notions of particular providence – Wesley did – could rely upon casting of lots as a method of intellectual discernment.)

What if Wesley was right about God?

Wesley was more medieval than modern theologian. That is, he inherited the robust Trinitarian faith that had been worked out in the early centuries of the church. God is not an idea, an abstraction, a source of meaning, a wholly other, a general concept, or a technique to help us make it through the day; God is the One who presently, directly speaks, creates, intrudes, convicts, enlightens, demands, commands, passionately loves, continually transforms. Wesley’s biblical interpretation is a sort of anti-interpretation in which he assumes that God speaks through scripture, every word of it. Rather than assume that the task of the interpreter is to make the text more meaningful to sophisticated, modern people who drive Volvos, Wesley seems to assume that the task of the text is to make the interpreters’ lives more difficult.

As Wesley wrote to his father, at the heart of the Methodist movement is an “habitual lively sense of our being only instruments in His hand, who can do all things either with or without any instrument.” Much of American popular religion is instrumental – religion valued on the basis of its alleged personal or social utility. Wesley assumes that the reader is instrumental to the biblical text.

What respectful, deferential, intellectually constrained Deist could write so sensuously?

Rise my soul with ardor rise,

Breathe thy wishes to the skies;

Freely pour out all thy mind,

Seek, and thou art sure to find;

Ready art thou to receive?

Readier is thy God to give.

Friend of sinners, King of saints,

Answer my minutest wants,

All my largest thoughts require,

Grant me all my heart’s desire,

Give me, till my cup run o’er,

All, and infinitely more.

Wesley assumes a God of plentitude, a God who is extravagantly, abundantly revelatory (my cup run o’er, All, and infinitely more). Most of us have been trained to – when we’re thinking about God – to assume deprivation. We lack enough information about God to speak with any authority about God.

Since the Son hath made me free,

Let me taste my liberty,

Thee behold with open face,

Triumph in thy saving grace,

Thy great will delight to prove,

Glory in thy perfect love.

Since the Son hath bought my peace,

Mine thou art, as I am his:

Mine the Comforter I see,

Christ is full of grace for me:

Mine (the purchase of his blood)

All the plenitude of God.

If Wesley was right about God, then we are wrong. We hear Wesley from within a dysfunctional family where death is normal. John Milbank accuses contemporary theology of dying under the grip of a “false modesty” in which theology finds it impossible to declare anything with conviction. We say that are so respectful of the ineffable mystery of God. In reality, we are reluctant to speak about God for fear that in the process we might discover a God who says something definitive and authoritative to us. Spent Calvinism, sliding into a renovated Deism, has triumphed. Silence is what you get when you know everything about God except that God is love. God is all distant concept, abstraction, and essence (Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity) and never speaking, revealing, troubling subject. We’ve got just enough God to give our lives a kind of spiritual tint without so much God as to interfere with our running the world as we damn well please.

I have just listened to the taped sermons of sixty of the preachers who are under my care. Many of their sermons were lively and engaging and most congregations would hear them gladly on a Sunday. Yet in a depressing majority of these sermons there was little indication that the content of the sermon or the engine driving the proclamation was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Other than that, they were fine sermons.

One sermon began well enough, the Second Sunday of Christmas, Luke 2, young Jesus putting the temple elders through their paces, abandoned by Mom and Dad. After reading the text, and noting Jesus’ amazing ability to stupefy professional scholars, the preacher then sailed off into a veritable shopping list of things we needed to do. We were told that we must resolve, in the coming year, to be more proficient in study of God’s word. We should strive to “increase in wisdom and in statue.” We ought to spend more time with our families (despite Jesus’ abandonment of his own family).

Note how quickly, how effortlessly, and predictably the preacher disposed of a story about Jesus and transformed it into a moralistic diatribe about us. Moving from a text that simply declares what Jesus did and, by implication, who Jesus is, the preacher moved to a moralistic rant on all the things that we need to do if we (lacking a living, active God) are to take charge of our lives and the world.

This is what Barth condemned as “religion,” defined in Romans as “a vigorous and extensive attempt to humanize the divine, to make it a practical ‘something’, for the benefit of those who cannot live with the Living God, and yet cannot live without God….”

Of course, most congregations that I know love such moralistic Deism. The subtext is always, You are gods unto yourselves. Through this insight, this set of principles, this well applied idea you can save yourselves by yourselves. Whether preached by an alleged theological conservative or would be liberal, we’re all Schliermachians now. Theology is reduced to anthropology because unlike Wesley, we’re obsessed with ourselves rather than God. God is humanity spoken in a resonate, upbeat voice backed up with power-point presentation. Our noble Arminianism really does degenerate into Pelagianism when the divine gift of divine-human synergism loses its divine initiation. My image of us United Methodists on Sunday morning is that we come to church with pencil and pad ready to get our assignments for the week, not from God but from the preacher: “This week church, work on your sexism, racism, and be nice to sales clerks. Come back next week and I’ll give you another assignment.” God thus becomes the patron of politics of the right (IRD) or the left (NCC) in a last ditch effort to give God something useful to do.

Wesley’s much touted “Catholic spirit” was right to draw the line at extending the open hand of fellowship to Deists. (I define Deism, with James Burtchell, as the theological equivalent of safe sex.) Though Wesley might have been wrong in his belief in the reality of witches; he was right in his belief that the Deists’ disbelief in witches was not to be trusted because of their truncated theological imaginations.

Reaching out to speak to the world, we fell in face down. Too troubled by our expectations of what our audience could and could not hear, we reduced the gospel to a set of sappy platitudes anybody could accept and no sensitive, thinking person could resist. “Open minds, Open hearts, Open doors.” Our testimony got reduced to whatever the market could bear. In the process of such “preaching,” distinctive Christian speech was jettisoned and the discourse of instrumental, utilitarian, therapeutic Deism is the dominant homiletic mode. Finney’s pragmatism triumphs. A-theistic, simplified wisdom now dominates popular preaching (Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”) because preaching is no longer an expression of the peculiar actions of a Triune God. People on top, well fed, well empowered people always love Wisdom Literature because of its lack of a God who either judges or redeems. Well fixed people always want therapy more than salvation. We thus violated Barth’s “first axiom of theology” – the First Commandment, “thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Today the Methodist movement, at least in it North American and European vestiges, suffers from the debilitating effects of a truncated theology. We are attempting to revive a church on a too thin description of God. Whereas Wesley’s robust Trinitarianism produced a vibrant, experimental, missional, adaptable ecclesiology that rejoiced in radical manifestations of the work of the Holy Spirit among ordinary people, today a virtually deistic view of God has rendered a dispirited, ossified ecclesia that in so many ways appears to be organized as a defense against the Holy Spirit. I marvel at Wesley’s determination to deal with all organizational and missional questions from a theological point of view. Wesley was open to development and to change of the very structures he had created because he was determined to worship a living God whose perichorietic, trinitarian nature demanded a certain sort of institutional embodiment.

Church growth guru, Paul Borden spoke to our pastors. Borden is creating a virtually new, bourgeoning denomination among once dispirited American Baptists in California of all places. When asked, “What qualities do you most desire in pastors who are employed to start new congregations?” Borden replied, “They must be joyfully Trinitarian and orthodox in their theology, stressing the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ.” I thought I was hearing Wesley.

Ecclesiologically, when the name “God” designates a stable, abstract essence rather than an active, reaching Trinity, then internal maintenance displaces external mission. The ministry that once was sent now becomes almost exclusively settled and parochial. The church that once planted congregations in thousands of places in order to follow Jesus everywhere is left behind by Jesus as we maintain and subsidize thousands of little churches that have long since ceased to bear any of the visible marks of the church and Jesus moves on to his next area of conquest.

Wesley’s “conjunctive theology,” (Ken Collins) in its complexity and tensive holding together of seemingly disparate emphases (knowledge and piety, sacramentalism and evangelism, faith and good works, justification and sanctification, personal holiness and social holiness, reason and enthusiasm, etc., etc.) is just the sort of sweeping intellect that is produced by the worship of a complex God for whom Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, these three, are one.

If Wesley was right, then the best thing about John Wesley was the three-personed God who met Wesley at Aldersgate and elsewhere. As I read him, Wesley didn’t so much love the poor as he loved the God who for our sakes became poor (Phil. 2:6-10). He was not so much an organizational genius of the Eighteenth Century as a man who experienced first hand the reality of the Incarnation. Methodism, Wesley kept contending, was solely a miraculous work of God. He was not so much a great pastoral theologian as someone who was trying to figure out what had happened to scores of ordinary Eighteenth Century English people after God had gotten to them in the miraculous movement called Methodism.

But if Wesley was right, then the Trinitarian God may not be done with the Methodist movement yet, then God may find a way to meet us again in the present age. When you’ve got a resurrected Christ, we always have more future than past. God give us more theologians and fewer historians. Limp, static, inoffensive and uninspired merely contemporary views of God can be judged and corrected by our encounters with Wesley who brings us into encounter with a living God. When I read Wesley, I find that one of the Trinity’s prominent attributes is not order, righteousness, or even love – it’s momentum. Wesley’s God is truly God in action, intruding everywhere. So whereas Dr. Whitehead emphasized, in his funeral sermon for Wesley, the pacifying, steadying effect upon the general population, tonight I celebrate the potentially dislocating, disruptive effect of his robust view of a living God.

Thus Wesley may be able to rise up and speak to us yet — for he believed in an active, personal God who can kill and make alive, who refuses to be silenced, who loves to make a way when we gave up hope that there was a way. If Wesley was right.

Transforming Grace

My friend Hauerwas is fond of saying that when contemporary Anglicans talk about the Incarnation, they don’t know what they are talking about and when Methodists speak today of grace we know even less. Without the personality of a Trinitarian God to give it specificity and content, “grace” becomes a vaguely benign spirit of divine beneficence toward an already benign humanity. Today, we’re more inclined to “accept our humanity” than to worship a God who means radically to change us and to enlist us.

For Wesley, grace was the constant, moment-by-moment active working of God in us that gives us a different life, indeed a different world, than we would have had if God had left us alone. Without God we wretched sinners can do nothing, thought Wesley, with God we being-sanctified saints can do all things. Wesley took the Moravian one-time experience of spiritual enlightenment and made it a lifetime process of daily awakening to what grace can do among us. Responsible grace (thank you, Randy Maddox). As early as 1734, Wesley preached the “one thing needful” as a soul that was being transformed by constant encounter with a living God.

A transformed life is the anthropological result of a theological claim — “The best of all is God is with us.” A Trinitarian God never stops being Creator pro nobis, transforming everything that God touches. One of the most memorable impressions of Dick Heitzenreiter’s The People Called Methodists is his depiction of the Spirit-induced heroism of ordinary Methodists. For Wesley, the transforming Holy Spirit was more than personal and subjective; it was corporate and ecclesial. Wesley delights to report the transformative work of the Holy Spirit on thousands of ordinary folk, even more than his delight in chronicling the results of the Holy Spirit on himself. Transformed lives confirmed Wesley’s pneumatology.

At Aldersgate, Wesley experienced verification of the truth he had heretofore preached. As Heitzenrater puts it, at Aldersgate, “A long tradition of propositional certainty of faith met the power of a personal experience of the faith.”

Robert W. Cushman first told me that it was not so much Aldersgate that transformed Wesley but rather field preaching. Field preaching was against just about everything Wesley had been educated to be for. I love Wesley’s surprise at the response God gave to his field preaching. About the same time as Jonathan Edwards was marveling at “the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton” (1737), Wesley was stunned by the effect of his field sermons at Bristol. When I read Wesley’s written Sermons I share Wesley’s shock that anybody got moved by his preaching. I find little to account for his homiletic effect other than a God who loves to raise the dead and to speak despite us.

As you know, Wesley’s full embrace of both forgiveness and radical personal transformation sent both Lutherans and Calvinists through the roof. On the cross, Jesus didn’t just do something about our guilt; Jesus defeated the kingdom of Satan and established the Kingdom of God; Jesus recreated the world and us, making us into a new people who had a fresh start in life. What Lutherans and Calvinists thought wrong was Wesley’s extravagant assertion that something radical was done not only for us but also is being done in us to sever our desires from their evil affections and to infuse us with robust craving to live a life of love toward God and neighbor.

Don’t you find it revealing that Wesley expended so much theological energy defending his notion that human beings could actually contribute something to their salvation. We must spend our time defending the divine side of divine/human synergy. It’s not radical for us to think that we save ourselves by ourselves. What’s radical is to assert a God who is able to work signs and wonders. In my own efforts to prod denominational renewal, I would say that disbelief in a God who is able to do among us what God demands from us is the biggest impediment to renewal. The Enlightenment still holds our imaginations captive and that captivity is killing us.

Our conference is concerned with matters of ecclesiology, missiology. May I begin the conversation by stating my belief that the God who transforms lives formed the basis of Wesley’s ecclesiology? A sent ministry is what you get with a God who loves to go on “processions” (as the Fathers put the sending work of the Trinity). Why do we contemporary Wesleyans wring our hands over our alleged lack of an ecclesiology when, seen from one angle, that’s all Wesley did – ecclesiology. His vision of God being so great and so lively as massively to transform the lives of ordinary Eighteenth Century English people is an ecclesiology worth having – if Wesley was right.

Our great challenge, in ecclesiology is that we’ve made salvation personal and subjective (William James has won). For Wesley salvation was always corporate. His elaborate, detailed attention to the life of the Body of Christ is a rebuke to our religion-as-subjectivity. The wrong turn we took in frontier revivalism nurtured under William James, brought to flower in capitalism, now running shamelessly among us as evangelicals wreak havoc in a church that once embodied holiness. Pragmatic evangelicalism has fostered theological minimalism. Everything is reduced to “the message” – some trite expression suitable for a bumper-sticker. Rather than transformation, preaching’s goal becomes communication and acceptance of “the message” rather than life-changing encounter with Jesus the Messenger, becomes the goal of preaching.

A bestselling book of the past year says it all: Leaving Church. Our God dis-incarnate determines that we all must disembody our faith and leave church in order to follow the governmentally approved ordo salutus – saving ourselves by descending ever deeper into our subjectivity. Because of our limp theology, our anthropology becomes too stable, and the purpose of our preaching is adjustment, confirmation rather than conversion. Preaching thus becomes another means of self-cultivation as well as a well reasoned defense against true transformation.

Wesley’s ecclesiology has proved difficult for us heirs of Wesley to maintain, not because Wesley was too strict or too obsessive but rather because his was an ecclesiology that requires a certain sort of God to sustain it. (Wesley’s lively Trinitarian God of constant processions.) Only a person who has a most extravagant notion of the miraculous power of God could devote nearly one-fourth of his first collection of Sermons to expositions of the Sermon on the Mount, taking with direct seriousness the ability of God to produce people who could live the lives assumed by the Sermon on the Mount.

Heavenly Adam, life divine,

Change my nature into thine:

Move and spread throughout my soul,

Actuate and fill the whole:

Be it I no longer now,

Living in the flesh, but thou.

Holy Ghost, no more delay,

Come, and in thy temple stay;

Now thy inward witness bear

Strong and permanent, and clear;

Spring of life, thyself impart,

Rise eternal in my heart!

If Wesley was right, then we have some serious theological work to do. Wesleyan theology is a gift of God to make Wesleyan ecclesiology and Wesleyan mission as difficult as they ought to be. We’re in great need of theological, Christological refurbishment. If Wesley was right about God, grace, mission and the church, then we’ve got lots to talk about, at least two weeks’ worth. Thank God we’ve got someone as interesting as the Wesley to converse with.

Not long ago I disposed of an hour recently with a man who has a nationwide ministry in which he tries to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals. This he claims to do with a combination of prayer and exorcism. I of course assumed that his ministry was bogus. Still, I told him that if Wesley was right, then even stranger things than him are possible with prayer.

Go with me to a dilapidated ex-warehouse that is today the Church of Innerchange at the interchange of I-20 and I-459 outside Birmingham. There, in a ministry that ranges from Bible study to paint ball tournaments, the Innerchange Church ministers to hard living blue collar people. I’m there on a Sunday.

Before you speak, we’ll show a video clip,” the pastor told me. (I don’t approve of multimedia homiletics, believing that preaching ought to be done the way Jesus did it – stand and deliver without aid of technology.)

So just before I speak, a voice on the video says, “Why do you come to the Church of Innerchange?”

A young African-American man looks into the camera and says, “I met Pastor Mike. I told him I had a drug problem that I hadn’t been able to shake. Pastor Mike told me, ‘That’s good. It’s a sign that you know something’s wrong in America. Lots of people aren’t smart enough to know that God intends us for a better world. But drugs won’t get you what you want. Let me show you Jesus. I’ve been here ever since. One year, drug free. I couldn’t have done it without Jesus and Innerchange.”

A young woman, holding a small child says, “One night my husband beat me so bad that I didn’t leave the trailer for a week. I was so ashamed of how I looked. But the baby needed milk so I put on these sunglasses and a lot of makeup and went to the store. There, at the vegetable section, this woman comes up to me, takes off my glasses and asks, ‘What happened to you honey?’

“I lied and told her I had a car accident. ‘A man did this, didn’t he?’ she said. ‘I know what that’s like. Let me take you somewhere where you and your baby will be safe. She brought me to Innerchange. This is the family I always knew God wanted me to have.”

Through my own tears and inability to stand up to preach, I mumbled, “So, Wesley was right!”

Bishop’s Podcast now available! Bishop Willimon invites you to listen to the first two episodes of his new podcast. Click here for information. There will be a new podcast posted each Thursday.

Watered Down Christianity

I’ve said it before, I say it again. Few writers are as tough on us clergy as Soren Kierkegaard, that melancholy Dane. However, few writers better remind me of the high calling to which we clergy have been summoned.

Kierkegaard, here in his Journals, notes that in his day clergy had moved from being powerful people in their societies to “being controlled” by the surrounding culture. The result was a desperate attempt on the part of the clergy to be useful, to get a hearing, to appear to be relevant to whatever it was that the culture wanted. Thus was Christianity “watered down,” according to Kierkegaard.

The good news is that the situation now calls for clergy who are as tough on our selves as the gospel is tough on humanity. Lacking the former crutches and accolades of the culture, we now must get our courage strictly from the gospel itself. We clergy must begin by applying the gospel to ourselves, before we apply it to others.

“Even then,” says Kierkegaard, “things may go badly”:

As long as the clergy were exalted, sacrosanct in the eyes of men, Christianity continued to be preached in all its severity. For even if the clergy did not take it too strictly, people dared not argue with the clergy, and they could quite well lay on the burden and dare to be severe.

But gradually, as the nimbus faded away, the clergy got into the position of themselves being controlled. So there was nothing to do but to water down Christianity. And so they continued to water it down till in the end they achieved perfect conformity with an ordinary worldly run of ideas – which were proclaimed as Christianity. That is more or less Protestantism as it is now.

The good thing is that it is not longer possible to be severe to others if one is not so towards oneself. Only someone who is really strict with himself can dare nowadays to proclaim Christianity in its severity, and even then things may go badly for him.
–Kierkegaard, Journals [1]

Still, all things being considered, being a pastor is a high vocation, a great way to expend a life. The way of Christ is narrow and demanding, but it is also a great gift, even “in its severity.”

These are my thoughts, thinking with Kierkegaard looking over my shoulder, as I begin this week of ministry.

Will Willimon



God is doing great things through North Alabama’s ordination process. The entire probationary process has been changed. Commissioned probationers are now Residents in Ministry and the probationary process is now called Residence in Ministry (RIM). Mentors are trained coaches. Instead of seeming to be a series of hoops to negotiate, the group process will actually have purpose, meaning and consistency.

Each year of the residency process is now organized around a specific theme chosen for its practical application and usefulness in the professional development of new clergy. The first year of the residency process is built around workshops and seminars focused on ministerial identity. The focus in the second year of residency is ministerial leadership – all those skills pastors wish they had learned in seminary. The focus of the final year of residency is on integration and building a bridge that connects the experience of residency with the life of an ordained pastor.


North Alabama wants more effective clergy. We want our clergy to be more than just prepared and available for service. We want and need clergy who produce a deep, striking or vivid impression.

An example of pastors who are more effective is the recent urban/rural mission trip organized by two of our younger clergy. The youth of two different races and cultures (i.e. inner-city Birmingham and rural Appalachia) served together in each other’s neighborhoods. They not only did mission but grew in their understanding of “who is my neighbor” as well as made friends with some unlikely people. Go to
( to read the full and vivid story.


Why in the world would anyone want to come to North Alabama to serve as an ordained minister? Sure you get to serve under Bishop Willimon. But the best reason (sorry Bishop!) is because God is doing great things here!


If you have either read this far or skipped down to the last part of the blog, then you may wonder to whom Bishop Willimon would be willing to turn over his blog. Well, my name is Amelia Sims and I have been given the wonderful opportunity to be the director of this new RIM program. As an ordained elder, I have been through the process as well as the have authority and experience to make this the best RIM program that will positively impact the effectiveness of ministers, churches and Christians in North Alabama.

God is working in North Alabama. Impressive ministry is happening here. You may be intrigued or want to know more. Maybe you are struggling with a call to ministry. Perhaps you are in the midst of college or seminary and are unsure where God is calling you to serve. You may see your own gifts, graces and strengths as needing a place to thrive and become impressive. If you want to know more about God’s work in the most and least likely places in North Alabama, just drop me an email at

In Christ, Amelia Sims

Great Managers

The Cabinet and I have read a book together. The book is published by the Gallup Organization and is the result of a massive study of middle level managers and how they contribute to effective organizations. Seen from one perspective, District Superintendents are middle level managers. First Break All the Rules is a guidebook for how managers can help their employees be more successful. I thought that you might enjoy seeing my notes on the book, which I distributed to the Cabinet at one of our meetings.

(Marcus Burkingham and Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules, Simon and Schuster, 1999, the Gallup Organization.)

Talented and gifted employees need good managers. (Substitute “District Superintendent” for “Manger” in this book. I think it works amazingly well.) How do the world’s greatest managers, find, focus, and keep their most talented employees? The manager is more important than any other factor in building a productive work place. It is better to work for a good manager in a bad company than to work for a bad manager in a good company.

Basic Questions by the employee that reveal the quality of management: Do I know what is expected of me at work? Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my job right? Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best everyday? In the last seven days have I received recognition and praise for good work? Does my supervisor care about me as a person? Is there someone at work who encourages my further development?

Every manager wants to get a positive response to these questions with every employee.

Great managers honor the unique differences with different individuals. Rather than bemoan those differences, they try to work with them, to try to accentuate their virtues, rather than work against them. People don’t change much. Don’t waste time trying to take out what was put in, rather strengthen what was put in. The manager reaches inside each employee, one employee at a time, and releases that employee’s unique powers. The manger’s role is a catalyst role, the one who speeds up the interaction between various substances in a situation. The manager becomes a catalyst to enable this situation in which an employee finds herself to be a learning and growing situation. Good managers become catalysts in four ways: they select a person, set expectations, motivate the person, and develop the person. These are the manager’s most important responsibilities.

You select a person. This demands clear-headedness. You must know how much of a person can you change. You must know the difference between talent, skills, and knowledge. You must know which one of these can be taught, and which cannot. You must know how to ask the questions that cut through a candidates desire to impress and reveal his or her true talents.

You must set performance expectations. You must balance the need for standardization, with the organization’s need for creativity and flair.

You must be able to motivate. The main thing you have to invest is your time. You should spend as much time with your best people as your strugglers.

You must be able to develop the employee. We need to be masters at teaching and growth. You must combine closeness with sobriety of judgment about the person.

These are the four core activities of the catalyst role. If managers get distracted from these main activities, the organization will suffer.

Those of you who know the role of managers (District Superintendents) in United Methodism can see the possible connections with this book. Forgive me for saying, in a book a few years ago, that the United Methodist Church is “over managed and under led.” Leaders tend to be strategic thinkers, they look outward, look at the competition, look beyond today. Managers tend to look inward, toward the performance of the organization, in unleashing each employee’s ability to perform. Managers are absolutely essential. Without managers, the all-important catalyst role will be neglected.

I thought you might enjoy these insights from a management book and that you might join us in our rethinking of the role of the District Superintendent.
William H. Willimon

Rules of Transformative Leadership (Continued)

Last week I introduced Tony Robinson’s Rules for Transformative Leadership. A number of you report that Tony’s rules have provided some helpful insight into your own pastoral leadership style. This week I list the final five of Tony’s rules for pastors who would be more than mere managers:

1. Don’t overvalue consensus. Pastors tend to want to bring everyone along with all congregational moves. But intransigent individuals should be given the dignity of not approving of and not participating in every ministry of the church. Not everything needs to be put to a vote. Sometimes we need to ask members who have grave reservations about some course of action to trust those who want to move. Things can be evaluated later. If we wait until everyone is on board, we disempower those who are ready to take risks, and risk takers are usually in short supply in most churches. There may even be rare, difficult times when a pastor must be willing to split a congregation, be willing to let dissident, obdurate members disaffiliate with the congregation. Pastors are called to a ministry of reconciliation and peace making, yes. But we are also called to ministries of transformation, rebirth, and renewal. In order for something to be transformed, its old form must give way to the new, and that can be painful but the pain must be endured, expected, even welcomed, if there is to be new life.

2. Count the yes votes. We sometimes worry too much about those who are not yet ready to move, or may never be ready to move than we worry about those who are bored, frustrated, and disheartened when too little takes too long to happen in the church. I confess that I tend, as a preacher, to hear the voices of the two sermon critics long after I have forgotten the praise of the dozen who like my sermon. Sometimes we need to let the enthusiastic lay leaders go ahead, counting the yes votes. Rarely will a majority support a new ministry from the first, particularly if the new ministry requires risk. One caveat: never launch into a church building program if the vote is 52-48!

3. Create a new working group for a new job. Established structures tend to protect the status quo. Established boards love to say, No. If there is a new ministry to be done, you probably ought to create a new committee, composed of those who feel called to this work, to do the job. Ask the established boards not to stand in the way of new movements within the congregation, promising them an opportunity to help with later evaluation of the initiative.

4. Change by addition, not subtraction. It is easier to get approval to begin a project than to kill an established ministry. Why mobilize the supporters of the established program against you by declaring it dead and ready for burial? Go ahead with new initiatives. If the new program succeeds, people will gradually rally around it. People are more likely to let go of the old if they have something new to embrace.

5. Be persistent. Change, no matter how obviously needed, inevitably provokes resistance. Resistance, particularly where the matter is our devotion to and service of God, can be deep and unrelenting. Constancy is one of the essential virtues for Christian ministry, as we shall underscore in this book’s last chapter. Robinson advises, “Don’t give up too soon.” Studies indicate that it takes about five years before a pastor has gained the trust of a congregation to make significant, threatening change. For many women pastors, it seems to take even longer. Count on a couple of more years before you see significant fruit. In a mobile society, where transiency is the norm, pastors must be in for the long haul if they are to be truly transformative leaders. Those of us (United Methodists) who cherish a proud tradition of pastoral itinerancy may need to admit that a long pastorate has become a countercultural witness in a culture where everyone is on the move.

In visits to countless congregations, and in my own pastoral experience, I have come to the rather frightening conclusion that pastors are a decisive element in the vitality and mission of the church. To be sure, as we have said repeatedly, the pastor is not to assume all ministry in the church. The baptized are the chief ministers in the name of Christ. Pastors are to lead through service rather than dominance. The Holy Spirit is the source of all ministry. But having said all that, we still must say that the pastor is decisive. The pastor’s mood and attitude sets the tone for the congregation, conveys hope and energy to the people, hurts and heals, binds and releases. Sometimes, as a pastor, I wish it were not so, but it is. What Jesus wants for the church must become incarnate in a pastor or, in my experience, it does not happen.

I recall a distinguished church growth consultant who, in a workshop on congregational development, spent more than an hour listing all of the factors that were relevant to the vitality and growth of a congregation. There must have been more than two score of such factors listed. Then he led us in discussion. The first person to speak was a layperson who asked, “But don’t you think the pastor is a key factor in all of this?”

The consultant replied, “Oh, certainly. If the pastor’s leadership is lacking, you can discount everything that I have listed on the board. All of these factors contribute to growth. But if the pastor is inadequate, none of the factors that I have listed make any difference.”

William H. Willimon

Rules of Transformative Leadership

In previous emails I have noted that we pastors must conceive of ourselves as transformers rather than mere managers. Fidelity to Christ means a willingness to change, to be transformed. Pastor Anthony Robinson helpfully lists ten “rules of leadership” that are particularly applicable for pastors who serve congregations where people are resistant to change. [i] They are a good list of working principles for pastors who want to be transformative leaders within the congregation. I’ll list five of Tony’s rules this week and five in next week’s email:

1. Give responsibility back. When a layperson says, “Somebody ought to be doing this,” Robinson says he learned, as a pastor, to say, “That sounds like just the thing God may be calling you to do.” We must, in our pastoral leadership, help the laity reclaim that baptismally bestowed ministry.

2. Expect trouble. Too many pastors see themselves exclusively as peacemakers, reconcilers. Most of us pastors like to be liked, enjoy pleasing people. But conversion is inherently part of the Christian faith. The call for relinquishment of one belief and the embrace of another can produce conflict. People do not give up power easily. Sometimes, the congregation is dependent upon the pastor to ignite needed changes within the congregation. I vividly recall a morning after an unusually stormy board meeting. I sat in my study wondering what went wrong. Had I pushed too soon? Should I have been more patient? Ought I to have been more careful in my advocacy of a controversial position? Then I turned to the work at hand, preparation for next Sunday’s sermon from the Gospel of Mark. As is typical of Mark, the text was a story of conflict. Jesus preached. The congregation reacted in anger and rejection. It was as if a light went on in my brain, as if a voice from the text which asked, “Now what about your situation do you find surprising? Jesus encountered trouble. Are you a better preacher than Jesus?” Trouble comes with the territory when the truth is involved.

3. Value small steps. It is a virtue to have a long range vision, but it is essential for the pastor to realize that one gets there by a series of many small steps. There appears to be something inherent within the nature of the gospel that values small things – the widow’s coin, the pearl of great price, the few seed that fell upon good soil – small things that the world regards of low account. Robinson urges us to remember — as we have the one-to-one conversation, as we teach the only two children who showed up for Sunday School, or visit the one sick person — that the Exodus from slavery began with one step toward the Promised Land.

4. Plan. If you do not know where you are going, almost any road will take you there. Laity complain about the wasted time and dissipated energy that result from having no long range vision for the congregation, no means of holding ourselves accountable, no way to know when we have actually accomplished something and ought to celebrate. Planning helps keep a church on course, enables a pastor to prioritize pastoral time and focus energies in a commonly conceived direction.

5. Identify the vital few. Who are those who like to get things done? Who in the congregation can be counted upon to make things happen? You may not be able to rely on the officially elected leaders in order to initiate transformation. Sometimes the traditional leadership structure has too much at stake in preserving the status quo. Don’t tackle too many things at once; stick with the few things that are essential and possible. Give the congregation a few victories to celebrate rather than risk constantly being overwhelmed with many defeats.

Next week I’ll list Tony’s final five rules of transformative pastoral leadership. Let’s each of us measure our ministry by Robinson’s rules and rate our own effectiveness as pastoral leaders.

Willimon H. Willimon

[i] Anthony B. Robinson, “Lessons in Leadership,” Christian Century, (December 15, 1999), pp. 1230-1231.

Leadership Is About Change

Lovett Weems has written a helpful book on leading change in the local church — Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003). Over the next few weeks, I will focus on some of his insights that are of relevance to pastoral leadership. Here are some highlights from his book that grabbed my attention and stimulated my thinking about pastors as leaders of change in the congregation:

Leadership is about change. However, change is also one of the toughest tasks that leadership faces. “People don’t want change. They just want things to get better,” says R. M. Kanter. Though organisms can adapt, they adaptation is very slow, and there is an actual inclination of all groups to resist change.

However, as people of faith, we have no option but to change, because change is part of God’s will for us. We believe in conversion. One of the attractions of religious institutions is that they help people to change.

Nancy T. Ammerman says, “The most common response to change, in fact, is to perceive as business as usual.”

Radical change is rare. Today’s management experts say that leaders need to reject revolution in favor of more gradual change. If change-oriented leaders are not careful, they can impose more stress on an organization than they can bear, and end up destroying what makes that organization viable. Leaders must emphasize continuity and constantly monitor just how much change an organization can bear, even as they are leading for change.

Bill Shore says, “Leadership is getting people to a place they would not get to on their own.”

Unfortunately, I fear that most of us pastors think of ourselves as caregivers to the congregation, maintainers of the status quo, rather than agents of change. Weems is calling us to another perspective on our vocation, a perspective that is informed by our theological commitments..

William H. Willimon


One of the most frequent questions I get is, “You say that we must do a better job of evaluating clergy effectiveness. How is it possible to define ‘effectiveness’”

I believe that those of us who are charged with the ministry of administration must get better at evaluating and rewarding clergy effectiveness. Thus the book that was read by the Cabinet, Marcus Burkingham and Curt Coffman,First, Break All the Rules (Simon and Schuster, 1999, the Gallup Organization), stimulated our thinking. One of the most important responsibilities of managers (read: District Superintendents) is to evaluate performance. Here are some of my notes from the book:

Managers make a mistake to believe that some outcomes defy definition.

A manager wants to turn talent into performance: There must be accuracy, standards must rule, don’t let the creed overshadow the message.

Focus upon each person’s strengths, work around his weaknesses, and don’t try to perfect them. Conventional wisdom says that “you can be anything you choose to be, there is a real you awaiting to be discovered and developed, within you.” This conventional wisdom is wrong. Conventional wisdom then says to identify your weaknesses and fix them. You can waste a lot of precious time on this. A bad relationship is not one in which your partner does not know you, it is one in which your partner knows you quite well and wishes you were utterly otherwise. The less effective manager believes that he or she is a mentor. This means that he is constantly in the role of a critic, a rearranger. Great managers help an employee to identify talents and then to develop those talents. They manage by exception. They spend most of their time with their best people.

Managers identify talents by watching an employee’s behavior over time. They want to manage the talents, to the requirements of the role. An aggressive person is matched to a role that requires someone who lights a fire.

We must manage by exception. Beware of all application of rules. Treat each employee according to his or her needs. New managers invest in their best. They spend most of their time with their best people. If you spend too much time with your strugglers, it is a sign that you are into control, rather than coaching and teaching. The manager’s best role is that of a catalyst, turning talent into productivity. Try to figure out better ways to unleash the distinctive talents of the person.

What about fairness? Fairness does not mean treating everyone the same. The better performance, the more time the manger spends with that person. This becomes an incentive. You cannot learn about excellence by studying failure. Be as good about describing excellence as you are about describing failure. Observe your best people and learn!

Poor performance must be confronted, directly and quickly. Sometimes there is poor performance because of “mechanical causes” – the employee lacks certain tools to get the job done. Personal causes are also a problem. Both are difficult to solve. Some performance problems are more difficult to identify and rectify.

Is the performance problem trainable? Once a weakness is perceived in an employee there are only three possible courses of action: Devise a support system, find a complimentary partner, or find a different role. Manage around the weakness so the employee can focus on his or her strengths.

You succeed by trying to capitalize on who you are, not by trying to fix who you aren’t.

The Peter Principle.We promote someone up to their level of incompetence. The Peter Principle believes that the way to reward someone for good performance in a role is to promote them out of that role! Every signal we send tells the employee not to stay in the same role too long. It doesn’t look good on the resume. Keep taking the “next step” this is the way you “get ahead,” and “get respect.” Sooner or later he steps into the wrong role. He can’t go back without great humiliation.

This system is built on false assumptions: Each rung on the ladder represents a slightly more complicated version of the previous rung, it creates conflict by limiting prestige to the next rung, what about alternative career paths. Create meaningful prestige on every rung of excellence. It assumes that varied experiences might make the employee more attractive.

Excellence in each role this requires a distinct set of talents. Good performance in one role does not guarantee good performance in another. Talents must not be confused with skill. The notion that “higher is better” is a damaging distraction. Legions of employees trying to scramble on to increasingly smaller rungs.

Create heroes in every role. Make every role a model. Anyone performing in an excellent way needs to be publicly recognized. There must be graded levels of achievement.

(I think this is a major challenge for our church. Too often we think that the only way to award effectiveness and achievement is to move effective clergy to bigger churches and higher salaries. But our closed appointment system is limited in its ability to ‘advance’ everyone. We have got to create incentives and rewards at every level of clergy deployment.)

The most effective people are those who look in the mirror at themselves, discover their talents, and learn to match those talents to their role. They are not those who look to the organization, climbing up the ladder, give them their job satisfaction.

The employee is the star. It is up to the employee to take charge of his or her life and career, make choices accordingly, and find the sources of satisfaction. The manager can’t do this.

(I fear that our system sometimes encourages clergy to think of the District Superintendent as the key to ‘advancement’ and job satisfaction, rather than satisfaction being a gift of God and a gift of knowing that you are doing God’s work wherever you are serving.)

Prestige must be spread throughout the organization. Therefore the employee is more free to pick roles that will bring lasting satisfaction.

Performance feedback sessions are important. These help the employee think about style, about talents and non-talents. There should be four of these a year. If you can’t do four a year, you have too many employees! It is important that some time alone be spend with each of your people.

People should be evaluated on the basis of performance outcomes.

Removing an employee from a role is one of the hardest of jobs. We need to get to know our employees, to risk friendship. It is hard to give bad news to a friend, but friendship is a good way to really get to know someone. There must be an uncompromising focus upon excellence, with a genuine need to care. Tough love.

Any performance is unacceptable which merely hovers around the average with no movement forward. The notion of talent frees the manager from blaming poor performance on the employee. Not all behaviors can be changed. Not all poor performance is the employee’s fault, due to laziness or lack of engagement. It is a matter of miscasting.

“This isn’t a fit for you, let’s talk about why.” Or, “You need to find a role that better matches your talents.”

“To care” means to set the person up for success. This is how firing can be a caring act.

Each human being is different, and those differences are the power that can be harnessed in an organization, and the manager is the means of doing it.

– Notes by Will Willimon