Cautionary Photographs: the Demise of City Churches

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about some of the things I’m learning as Pastor of Duke Memorial UMC in Durham, NC.  I noted that this congregation is making a valiant effort to have a future.  If we succeed (and the past few weeks have been indeed fruitful and rewarding) we may join a very special group – once large urban United Methodist churches who have a future.  As I noted, United Methodism has closed thousands of city congregations that thrived only a few decades ago.  Why?  The reasons are many, but a basic reason is that somehow United Methodism, as we have practiced and administered our church in ways that were detrimental to countless city congregations.

If you have the courage, click on the images at the Huffington Post site at  There you will see a host of images of now closed, abandoned congregations.  One of my best students, a former attorney, has one of the appalling images of Gary, Indiana First UMC as her wallpaper on her computer.  She intends to keep this image ever before her as she prepares for ministry in the UMC.  I believe that one reason God may be calling her is to do a better job of leading these fragile, essential congregations than we led them in our time.

I know nothing about Gary, Indiana UMC except that I’m sure the Bishop and Conference made a string of unwise decisions about the pastoral leadership of Gary First UMC.  I’m sure that those well-meaning pastors had no training, or were unable or unwilling to get training, to lead an urban church in decline.  Look upon these images of a church of Christ that is now abandoned by Christ and by those for whom Christ died and weep.

When Adam Hamilton gave the General Conference a powerful video in which a faithful woman walked us through a big, beautiful city church that was closing – in the dramatic last image, she locked the door and walked away from an empty church, the General Conference reacted in anger and denial.  A consortium of groups and delegates led us in a complete denial and repudiation of the message of the video – change or die.  The video was the highlight of the last General Conference; the reaction to the video was the most frightening moment in GC.

I’m going to ask the leaders of Duke Memorial UMC to dare to look at these pictures and to ask ourselves questions like, “Are we making bad decisions in our day, are we avoiding risks and using too much caution, that might one day lead to the abandonment of this treasure that has been given to our stewardship?”  Sobering questions.  But utterly essential if our church is to have a faithful future.  General Conference, our Boards and Agencies, have no resources for facing the challenge God is setting before us in our city churches.  I believe that Duke Memorial Church has been given the spiritual resources to enable our church to thrive into the future – but it will not be without risk and hard work.

The first step in finding solutions, in becoming more faithful, is telling the truth.  These pictures of once great churches tell the truth we’ve been avoiding.  Fortunately, Jesus Christ is not only the Way, and the Life, but also the Truth.

Will Willimon

Stanley’s Gifts


        This week Duke Divinity School will honor Stanley Hauerwas as he moves toward retirement.  In four decades, Stanley has reframed theological discourse and has had a marked impact upon the church’s life.  He has also been my friend.  While there will be a number of events related to the twenty-fifth anniversary of our Resident Aliens, I wanted to offer my enumeration of a few of key contributions Stanley has made to the life of the church:

  1. Stanley refocused our theological thoughts upon Jesus.  From his mentor, John Howard Yoder, Stanley learned that Jesus is both the content and the agent of Christian theology and church life.  Jesus is the most interesting thing the church has to say and show to the world and Stanley has kept our conversation arising out of and always referring back to Jesus.
  2. Against the misrepresentations of Niebuhr and mainline Protestantism, Stanley reclaimed pacifism as the way Christians must think and live if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is true.
  3. Stanley reminded us that North American Christians must practice our faith in a peculiarly problematic environment where American, liberal democracy has a myriad of subtle, powerful ways of subverting the church and its witness.
  4. In this thought on ethics, Stanley made the modifier Christian really mean something.
  5. Contentious, combative, never backing away from an argument (just like our Lord himself!) Stanley reminded us that American Christians were engaged in a kind of war for the sake of the gospel and that the peace we had made with American culture was false.
  6. In making the church the content, agent, and test of his thought, Stanley recovered he dignity and power of the church as the unique, irreplaceable point of the Good News of Jesus Christ and thereby restored the adventure of Christian leadership.  For many of us pastors,  Stanley restored risk, hope, and joy to our ministries.

Thanks, Stanley.  God has used you well.

Will Willimon

Insights on Church Renewal from Jim Harnish

The leaders of Duke Memorial got to hear Dr. Jim Harnish, pastor of Hyde Park UMC, Tampa, on the subject of congregational renewal.  Out of the dramatic turnaround Jim led at Hyde Park, here were the insights gleaned on the things that really matter if a church is to grow into the future:

The PAST really matters.

God shapes our future out of our past. It never works to try to be just like some other successful church. You must be true to your core identity as a congregation.  Fortunately for historic congregations, young people like to be part of something that’s been around a while.  One way to begin is to identify the moment in your congregational history that tells our unique story of hope and build from that.  The innovation that you are proposing has got to be seen as building upon who you are as a church at your best.

VISION really matters.

We must be very clear about God’s mission and vision for our church, be able to articulate it succinctly.  What is God calling this church to be at this moment in our history?

Commit to fight the important battles, not those that don’t matter—like re: carpet in the parsonage. Focus on mission-level concerns.  Distinguish between mission (what/why) and method (how).

“If we’re sure next year is going to be 1959, then we’re in great shape. If we think it’s going to be 2014, we have some challenges set before us.”  Warning: the greater clarity you achieve in articulating the vision, the greater the likelihood that you will lose members (some of them quite faithful members) who just can’t commit to the new, clear vision based upon mission.  They have been functioning in a very different congregation.  However, when you are clear about the most important thing you must do (such as welcome more people from more diverse constituencies) then your vision will attract new life for the congregation.

FLEXIBILITY (“surrender” is the biblical term for it) really matters.

The potter needs wet, malleable clay to do what seems best to the potter. We must surrender to God’s will.  If it’s God’s will for us to become a more mission-minded congregation, a congregation less concerned with internal issues and more concerned with external needs, then we must surrender and adapt to God’s will.  The right question is not “Are we ready to grow?” instead, it is, “Are we ready to change in order to grow?”  Death/resurrection paradigm—we have to die in order to live again. This death/resurrection is a continuous cycle in the life of a church, the only way that your congregation can have a future.

FAITH really matters.

This is a spiritual issue. What do we believe? Whom do we trust?  Who is the God we must obey?  God really wants churches to flourish.  Do we know how to pray? Do we do it?

Jim’s church tries never to vote on anything because it divides people. They focus on the mission/vision and the way forward becomes clear.  They move on perceived consensus rather than waiting for everyone to vote to be on board with the forward movement.   It takes a minimum of 5-7 years to change a congregation’s culture.  Your newest members must be called to leadership, for it’s most likely that growth will come through your newest members.

Thanks to Gair McCullough for helping me get these notes together.  And thanks to Jim Harnish for initiating a fascinating conversation within the Duke Memorial Congregation!

Will Willimon

Flawed and fallen folk


An interview published in The Christian Century

Oct 07, 2013 by Lillian Daniel

After publishing 64 books on theology, worship and church leadership, William H. Willimon wrote a novel,Incorporation (Wipf and Stock), about a large suburban congregation, its dysfunctional staff and its narcissistic senior pastor. We wanted to know what led Willimon to try his hand at fiction. Or is it fiction? We asked Lillian Daniel to find out.

Lillian Daniel: What possessed you to write a novel? Has it always been a dream of yours?

William Willimon: Sort of. I’m a lover of novels, ever since a college course in the modern American novel. I love Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann and even dear, sweet, degenerate Marcel Proust. I reread them all.

Pastors must be curious about people. Novels are a natural aid to pastoral work. When you watch Gustave Flaubert dissect a character, it’s a great help in attempting to figure out why the chair of your vestry is so screwed up. Also, as a pastor, you spend a great deal of time with people who are exposed and without adequate protection. Being a pastor is therefore almost like being a novelist without all the alcohol.

LD: You Methodists and your obsession with other people’s alcohol! In my denomination, we would say that being a Methodist pastor is like being a pastor without all the alcohol.

At any rate, your novel is brutal in its critique of ambitious clergy. The main character—the “senior managing pastor”—leads an affluent tall-steeple church that is liberal leaning and light on the gospel. This guy has no theological depth in his sermons or his life. And yet he is beloved by parishioners and admired in his denomination, and his church has all the statistical markings of success. I get the feeling you know this guy.
WW: Are you suggesting that I am ambitious, affluent, tall-steepled and liberal leaning?

I share much in common with the character except that I have more theological depth and have never committed adultery. And yet for all his faults, which are many, don’t you have to admire this character for staying in ministry for 20 years simply because he has the crazy idea that God has called him?

Some have said the novel has “too little grace in it.” I don’t get that. The grace, if you must have that, is in a God who seems not only to love but also call to service such flawed and fallen folk.
LD: I found this novel to be laugh-out-loud funny when I thought it was about a pompous senior pastor somewhere in the South. Then, when I figured out that it was set in the suburbs of Chicago, where I work, I didn’t find it as amusing. Tell me honestly, was that main character based on me?
WW: Did I not make it clear that the character is a man? Also, I don’t believe you have a degree from Princeton Seminary, do you? How could you possibly think you were the model for such a reprobate?

LD: Thank you for that reassurance that one of the most narcissistic pastors in all of literature has nothing to do with me. The main character really is unbearable.

WW: I must say that I’ve been taken aback by those who say, “There are such terrible people in this church—especially the musicians!” I’m rather hurt by that. These are my people! We must have a rather amazing God if God is able to use folk like them to be his body in the world, don’t you think?

LD: Readers will note that there are no women clergy in the book. How come?

WW: There is a woman who is the education minister. In a way, the heroes of the novel—the most prophetic, theologically informed characters—are all women.
LD: The real truth teller and theologian is an older laywoman who attended seminary and perhaps was born too early to consider being a minister. She’s an interesting character.
WW: That character is about the only one in the novel who is inspired by someone I have actually known in my ministry.

LD: When ministers write, we may have to consider issues of confidentiality. In nonfiction, we may have to change a few details in order to protect people’s privacy (and, of course, to make ourselves appear as better ministers). Even when writing fiction, you were probably aware of people whose stories you wanted to tell but couldn’t. Could you have written this novel when you were still a bishop?
WW: I did write the novel while I was bishop, but I didn’t worry that anybody would read it and think, “Hey, that’s me he’s talking about!” On the other hand, I did want everyone to read it and at some point say, “Hey, that’s me—or at least the part of me I try not to show in public.”
LD: Speaking of bishops, there’s a bishop in the novel, and he’s pretty ineffective. The main character of your novel, the narcissistic senior minister, seems to have an unlimited tenure at the church until the wealthy laypeople want him gone. It made me wonder if, when you were a bishop, you could you have dislodged this minister.

Looking at the United Methodist itinerancy system from the outside, it seems like clergy at small churches get moved all the time, but those at large or preeminent churches get to stay forever if everyone seems happy.

WW: I think statistics show that United Methodist pastors don’t move more often than all clergy in general. However, I have seen (and may have overseen) the situation you describe, in which larger-church pastors seem to have longer tenure than pastors of smaller churches. Some of that may be a simple function of how much longer it takes in a big congregation to get to know people and to lead them forward. At Duke Chapel, it took me about eight years before things really began to click with the congregation.

LD: I used Incorporation in a class on leadership. The other books we read were nonfiction books about complex concepts in religious culture. In class, we kept referring to the characters in Incorporation as examples of those trends in the ministry and the church.

WW: I have to say, fiction wasn’t that big a leap for me. We preachers are all “artists” in the same sense that the gospel writers were artists. We are seeking to lure people toward the truth that is Jesus Christ, and we do that with a wide array of literary devices (even though my devices tend not to be as rich and varied as those of, say, Mark or Luke).

I’m beginning work on another novel that is less churchy than Incorporation—and may be a bit more “Christian.” We’ll see.


Lillian Daniel is a narcissistic senior minister in the suburbs of Chicago. She is 63 books shy of her goal of writing 66 books to top William Willimon.


Lillian Daniel is senior pastor at First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a board member for Interfaith Worker Justice, and author of When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough (Jericho Books).  


Sent to Lead

On top of everything else, I’ve been appointed as pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.  How did I get here (on top of three classes taught at Duke Divinity?)?  I got here the same way any United Methodist preacher gets anywhere – I was sent.

Maria writes Malvolio in Twelfth Night: “Some are born to leadership; some achieve leadership; others have leadership thrust upon them.”[1] All clergy are in Maria’s last category–we are leaders not because of innate qualities or personal preferences but because we were summoned by God and the church and given a job to do for Jesus. United Methodism practices a “sent ministry;” you can’t call or hire a UM pastor–we are sent. Ministry is God’s idea before it is our own; God has seen fit, for reasons usually known only to God, to thrust us into the mission of the Body of Christ in motion.

One of my goals as a bishop was to improve the process of sending pastors. I quickly found that Bishops make poor decisions in the sending of pastors because of three deficiencies: lack of accurate information, lack of creativity, and lack of courage. It is our responsibility to know pastors and churches down deep. It’s the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to give us the guts to act upon that knowledge.

There was a time when some people thought the purpose of a Cabinet was to care for the career advancement of the clergy. Not according to our Discipline and not in the North Alabama Conference. I urged our Cabinet to define our work in this way: The task of the bishop and DSs in the appointive process is to send clergy who can lead the mission of a congregation.[2]

In an early meeting with some of our clergy couples I was asked if I would do better than my predecessor in appointing clergy couples to desirable appointments. They were asking, whether they intended or not, that the church function for the benefit of clergy. I replied that our system is too clericalized already. Clericalism is always deadly to the church. It’s not my job to appoint clergy couples; I secure effective pastoral leadership. When bishops are asked to appoint clergy by criteria other than effectiveness in leading a congregation, we get the lousy results that we deserve.

It is death to a clergy appointment when asked by a congregation, “Why have you appointed this pastor to us?” for a bishop to respond, “Because her husband is a pastor nearby and we were forced to appoint her within a thirty mile radius of him.” Instead, what a joy to look a congregation in the eye and answer, “Because she is the very best person we have to lead the mission of this particular church.”

One can tell that the Discipline’s opening paragraph on appointment making (¶ 430) was written by clergy; in four long sentences, only one even mentions congregations. The responsibilities of appointment making in the Discipline–open itinerancy, physical challenges–while noble, are purely clerical concerns. It takes real discipline for overseers to keep focused on the congregation and its mission. Lay leadership ought to be brought into the process of discernment and asked clearly to define the congregation’s mission leadership needs. When appointment making is exclusively the prerogative of the bishop and Cabinet, we rob lay leadership of their power to accept responsibility for decisions about pastors and to help make appointments work. For our system of sending to function well, laity must have faith that the missional needs of the congregation mean more than the care, feeding, and reward of clergy. When Easum and Bandy studied our annual conference (the year before I arrived), they cited the perceived “protection of clergy” as a detriment to our future.

A skillful DS provides essential pressure upon a congregation, helps it face the facts of its life together, and raises the level of expectation. Expectation is a great challenge in a declining church. Congregational contentment is a fierce competitor with faithful mission. Many people believe that the problem with the appointive system is that pastors are moved too often and stay for too short a term. As I look back upon my appointments of pastors, I have few regrets for the pastors I moved but a number of deep regrets about the pastors I allowed to stay too long in one place.

Pastors may complain, may bear animosity toward the bishop, and congregations may refuse warmly to welcome a new pastor, but no one can undo the appointive will of a bishop. I pray that the appointive authority of bishops is authoritarianism to a good end. From what I experienced, the authority of bishops to appoint pastors is rarely abused and too modestly used. I was constrained, not by the strictures in the Discipline but rather by my own lack of courage, creativity, and my innate clerical desire to please.

So, for about the tenth time in my career, I’ve been sent somewhere that was someone else’s idea before it was mine, sent to a place I had not chosen to go.  Yet I’ve found, in four decades of this sort of thing, the sending of pastors is not only one of the unique aspects of United Methodism, but also a remarkable work of God.

Even though being pastor of Duke Memorial UMC wasn’t my idea.  It’s a great way to go.

Will Willimon

[1] Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, act 2, sc. 5.

[2] In Larry Goodpaster, There’s Power in the Connection (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 71, Larry stated: “The conference does not make disciples, but the conference-level leadership (starting with the bishop) can create an atmosphere of expectation that every local church will thrive and make disciples and be alive.



This book came to me just when I needed it. This past June, the bishop appointed me to a church. The congregation had previously suffered decline but had recently experienced some modest growth. A congregational long range plan dictated that they would be at 400 attendance in four years but they had been stuck at 230 for months. As a new pastor, what could I do to help lead this church move in a direction it wanted to go, but wasn’t quite sure of how to get there?

Then I read Overflow: Increase Worship Attendance & Bear More Fruit (Abingdon, 2013). I was fairly sure that any book by Lovett Weems – veteran church observer, founder of the Lewis Center at Wesley Seminary – and Tom Berlin – large church pastor with proven experience in growing churches – would be a good book. I wasn’t disappointed. The last Weems/Berlin book, Bearing Fruit, was a great success, prodding a church that has a studied resistance to noticing and responding to results. Weems and Berlin are sure that we count only that which is important and that whatever we count becomes important. A major reason why many in my church resist counting and accountability to results is that they are unhopeful that we have any means of getting better results. Overflow takes the thought of Weems and Berlin a next step and even more sharply focuses upon the issue of worship attendance as the most important indicator of congregational vitality.

“Nowhere is the challenge of fruitfulness more important than in helping increasing numbers of people experience God through worship,” say the authors. They then set out to succinctly, effectively bolster that claim through some wonderful chapters on the centrality of worship, the need for attentiveness to those whom the church draws to worship and to those whom the church excludes from worship. I first heard the phrase “attendance recession” from Lovett Weems in his description of the alarming drop in attendance that has been experienced by most mainline churches in the past decade. From my experience as a bishop, I was convinced that Sunday worship attendance is crucial, but I also was intimidated by the difficulties in impacting worship attendance.

Overflow attempts to “give people hope that they can improve their attendance” by offering encouragement and practical steps for “planning, implementing, and evaluating worship that can produce greater fruitfulness.” The book exudes encouragement and hope and is packed with practical advice. I immediately purloined the Visitors Questionnaire. Every visitor to Duke Memorial’s Sunday service now receives that questionnaire and most of them complete it. We go over the results of those visitor responses every week and that device is single handedly changing the life of our congregation.

The chapters on worship planning and evaluation, the constant emphasis on accountability, and the consistent call to transformative leadership by us pastors (the last chapter is, “If Churches Can Change, They Can Grow”) make this a book that is essential for every pastor and congregation who believes that the church is meant to have a future. I immediately utilized Overflow in a D. Min. course I taught on leadership at Duke Divinity School and every member of the class seized upon Overflow as the book they had been waiting years to read and a book that they would be putting to use this coming Sunday.

By the way, in three months we have increased our Sunday worship attendance by twenty percent. I’m not saying that Overflow alone caused this dramatic increase. Most of the credit goes to the Holy Spirit. But I am saying that the Holy Spirit used a fine book by Weems and Berlin to teach a new pastor how to be more faithful to the promptings of the Holy Spirit!