Impacting Church Attendance

I have often noted the importance of Sunday attendance as an indicator of a congregation’s vitality. Each week I correspond with those pastors who, according to the weekly Dashboard reports, lead churches who show the largest gain in attendance. Attendance, as a percentage of total membership, is one of the most important measurements of a congregation’s spiritual health. (Do you know your church’s AVM number? The Conference Dashboard can tell you.)

I’ve asked dozens of pastors to share with me something that they have done that may account for a sustained rise in attendance.

While I’ve earned much in these conversations, here are a few insights on how our churches are finding ways to grow participation:

  • An increase in the AVM number (attendance as percentage of membership) is a sure sign of congregational confidence in and responsiveness to pastoral leadership. Last year Bill Brunson and Wade Langer (Trussville UMC) have set specific goals for increasing their AVM number, carefully monitoring their progress each week, and they got specific results.
  • Mike Skelton (InnerChange) and Mike Edmondson (Helena) both stress the need for a culture of hospitality.
  • Mary Bendall (Tuscaloosa First) has initiated a fine program that trains greeters and hosts to begin the welcome of guest in the church parking lot.
  • Do something to show expectation and determination to grow the church. Any growing congregation is a testimonial to a pastor and a congregation who have determined to grow rather than to decline and have asked God to show them how. Calvin Havens at Friendship in the Northwest District has a congregation that has exploded with young adult growth. Calvin says that a big factor is deciding that “the church exits for those who are not here as much as it is for those who are here.”
Will Willimon

Is your congregation growing? Is its AVM increasing? You can find out exactly how well your church is doing this week by logging on to the Conference Dashboard.

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Jesus is Better than Politics

Knee deep in the church’s response to the crisis in Haiti, overwhelmed by the determination of United Methodists to respond to the suffering there, I received an unsolicited email from the folks at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) complaining about the President’s health care plan. (Victims of Obamacare, By Mark Tooley, 1.28.10) Thousands of you are on the IRD’s unsolicited email list. From time to time I hear from you, upset about something that the IRD is upset about. They tend never to be concerned about anything that concerns the church – like the suffering of sisters and brothers in Haiti, the content of our preaching, the quality of our discipleship, the orthodoxy of our theology.

The email tirade was fairly typical for the IRD – snide, caustic, right wing conservative, devoid of any reference to the Bible or Jesus. Mr. Tooley is a good enough writer but he is utterly innocent of any theological interests. And so is the IRD. Note their title: Religion and Democracy. They never talk about Christ and they seem to think that politics and government is the answer to everything. The IRD seems to be a group of people who worship “religion” and “democracy” whereas the United Methodist Church is trying to worship and to obey Jesus. Emails from the IRD could as easily be released by Mormon Glen Beck or some Islamic Society as by any Christian church. Though their main function is to attack mainline churches, “church” is not in their name. Right wing politics appears to be their church.

Of course, I’ve been critical when left wing politics plays a greater role in our conversation as a church than scripture or Jesus. But standing there, trying to get those water purification systems out of Alabama and into Haiti, wading through the hundreds of health kits that Alabama Methodists produced in one week, with our Conference website jammed with Methodists attempting to give money to Haiti, I was once again reminded of the irrelevancy of the IRD. They may have generous funding from a few right wing fanatics, they may have some interesting things to say about politics, and Mr. Tooley may be (in certain moments) a good satirist, but they don’t have much to do with being the church. Jesus Christ ought to control the church’s imagination – not politics left or right.

I hope that you will keep this in mind the next time you receive an email from the IRD. We’re United Methodist Christians. We have more important things to worry about than the purely infatuations that worry the IRD. In a world that worships politics as divine, we have more important things to do than politics.

This week of Thanksgiving, as you give thanks to God for the gifts of religion and democracy, be sure to give thanks that we are saved neither by religion nor democracy but rather by the work of Jesus Christ!

Will Willimon

Accentuating the Positive

It is unsurprising that there is much failure in the Christian church. After all, we are attempting to worship and to serve a crucified savior.

It is also unsurprising that we have many dispirited pastors and churches – after all, leadership in an organization that has as its mission the conversion of the world, the rescue of sinners, the worship and service of a true God, is hard, countercultural work subject to much resistance. Christianity is a minority movement that has, from its inception, had friction with the surrounding culture.

What is surprising, considering the mission of the church, is that we have churches (like Haleyville UMC and Canterbury UMC) and pastors who are positive, fulfilled, excited, and fruitful. A few of our pastors and churches failed to participate at the full, fair level of expectations in our shared giving. We all know all of the reasons and excuses they give for their failures.

However, nearly two-thirds of our churches and pastors paid 100% of their apportionments and showed their full, fair commitment to our mission.

Nearly half of our churches have not made a new Christian in two years. These churches are dying and are failing to fulfill the mandate of Christ.

However, about a third of our churches made four thousand new Christians last year.

As those who deploy our clergy, the Cabinet and I need to continue to identify, to learn from, and to effectively utilize those pastors who have shown (as demonstrated on the NAL Conference Dashboard!) a remarkable ability to lead God’s people. We also need to note those congregations who want to grow and who can grow and spend most of our energies with them.

In a declining institution there are always some people who have influence in the institution simply because they are negative. “See? I told you this wouldn’t work,” they say.

Therefore our prayer as church leaders ought to be, “Lord, give us eyes to see all those faithful ones who are being obedient to you, who are daring to trust your promises, and who are offering their gifts to you in your service and whom you are blessing with fruitfulness and growth. Amen.”

Will Willimon

North Alabama Conference Innovations Leading The Way For The UMC

I’ve been at the Council of Bishops in Panama this past week. At our meeting we heard the final report of the Call to Action Project, an assessment of widespread structural, governance, financial, and leadership issues that must be addressed in order for the United Methodist Church to be effective in its mission.

When I first read the full report, my reaction was “This is obvious. We’ve been doing most of this in North Alabama for the last four years.” But upon reconsideration, I realized that it is important for our church to rally around the obvious work that we need to do and get on with that work now. I also realized that the North Alabama Conference’s work has had far reaching implications in the General Church.

Our Conference leadership decided, a half dozen years before the CTA Steering Committee, that “as a Church we have pursued self-interests and allowed institutional inertia to bind us in ways that constrain our witness and dilute our mission.” Through our Priorities, radical changes in budgeting, transformation of Connectional Ministries, the weekly Dashboard, reorganization of the Districts and the Cabinet, and the augmented process of consultation, evaluation, and accountability related to pastoral appointments we have been busy taking specific measures to address the obvious need for change. We are much better focusing our energies upon solving the issues that the CTA cites: decades of membership and attendance decline, decline in baptisms and professions of faith, less ministry fruitfulness, an aging demographic of members and leaders, and financial stress. We have also been enacting what the CTA says our whole church must do: “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 congregations of the North Alabama Conference should be gratified that our innovative leadership is being noted and followed by the rest of the Connection. I see the CTA report as not only giving the Council of Bishops a much needed agenda but also as confirmation, by the General Church, that our Conference leadership is indeed leading us in the right direction.


Will Willimon

Below are some of the highlights of the CTA report. Note how well these emphases align with our North Alabama Conference Priorities:

Key Drivers of Congregational Vitality include:

  • Effective pastoral leadership including management, visioning, & inspiration
  • Multiple small groups (study, fellowship, and service) and programs for children and youth
  • A mix of traditional and contemporary worship services
  • High percentage of spiritually engaged laity who assume leadership roles

    *Approximately 15% of the 32,228 U.S. churches scored high in vitality based on the vitality index established by the study.

“Leaders, from bishops, clergy, and laity across the connection, must lead and immediately, repeatedly, and energetically make it plain that our current culture and practices are resulting in overall decline that is toxic and constricts our missional effectiveness”, according to the committee findings.

The CTA Steering Committee will present a set of five interdependent initiatives.

  1. Starting in January 2011 and continuing for ten years, use the drivers of congregational vitality as initial areas of attention for sustained and intense concentration on building effective practices in local churches.
  2. Dramatically reform the clergy leadership, development, deployment, evaluation, and accountability systems.
  3. Collect, report and review, and act on statistics that measure progress in key performance areas in order to learn and adjust approaches to leadership, policies, and use of human and financial resources.
  4. Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming a) responsibility and public accountability for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, participation in servant/mission ministries, benevolent giving, and lowering average age of participants in local church life, and b) establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.

Consolidate program and administrative agencies, align their work and resources with the priorities of the UMC and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations, and reconstitute them with much smaller competency-based boards of directors in order to overcome current diffusive, redundant, expensive, and independent structures.

Ministry to Our Senior Methodists

North Alabama United Methodists honor our elder United Methodists with one of the most generous pension and insurance programs in the country, our extensive Superannuate Homes Program provides housing for retired Elders and spouses, and the Reverend Don Neal’s office provides extensive supportive services for our retired clergy.

Most notable of all, The United Methodist Retirement Homes of Alabama and Northwest Florida is a national leader in ministry to the elderly.

In November the Rev. Wray Tomlin, the Executive Director Emeritus for The United Methodist Retirement Homes, will retire after more than 30 years of service among us.

Ray came to Birmingham from the Tennessee Conference in 1978 to lead our Methodist Homes for the aging in its ministry of meeting “the needs of God’s Older Children by providing a retirement community environment of abundant life, combined with the care of qualified professionals.” At the time of his arrival the United Methodists had two homes. Today, under Ray’s leadership, we have 13 facilities for elder care under the Methodist Homes for the Aging organization. There are more than 1600 residents and more than 800 employees that offer 6 care levels from “independent cottage living” to assisted living, to skill nursing care to Alzheimer care units.

Our goal has been to provide a safe, secure environment whereby our seniors can continue to make significant contributions to our church and Ray has helped us to achieve that goal.

A number of years back Rev. Tomlin put together the “Fountain of Love” program and began to ask churches and individuals to assist in enabling some of the Homes for The Aging residents who with loving care were outliving the financial resources they had saved for retirement. Today the “Fountain of Love” program continues to help many residents stay in one of our United Methodist Homes long after most or all of their financial resources are depleted or gone.

Although Ray officially retires this fall, I have no doubt that he will continue to be concerned for this marvelous program he has helped create and has guided so wisely. Likewise, his example and dedication to the ministry of caring for God’s Older Children will be an example for the church for many years to come

Well done Wray! You have made us a nationally recognized leader in ministry to seniors. It’s our way of honoring our past by preparing for the future care of our honored elders.

Will Willimon