Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Letter to the Bishop

I post this now because I hand-delivered it to the "Bish" on Thursday. (There were even diagrams. I don't know if they will show up in this post, though.)

Bishop William H. Willimon
North Alabama Conference
898 Arkadelphia Rd.
Birmingham, AL

March 31, 2009
Dear Bishop Willimon,

As I finished reading your latest weekly letter (“The Sending of Pastors,” March 30, 2009), I was happy to see your request for feedback. There is an enormous need for communication between the leadership of this conference and the “rank and file” pastor. In the days following the Birmingham First appointment, I engaged in a flurry of e-mails with pastors in my district (Southwest). We all seem to have the same questions and complaints.

The first and foremost complaint can be summed up by my new “motto” – “Everybody wants to ‘start a conversation’ but nobody wants to sit down and talk anymore.” It seems “Start a Conversation” is the new catch phrase around the Cabinet table. I’m not sure what this phrase is “code” for; perhaps it means “I’d like to phrase a thoughtful response to your questions, so please put it in writing.” However, most of us are afraid it means something more sinister. There seems to be the fear that any feedback calling into question your decisions might reflect negatively on the pastor.

Throwing caution to the wind, I write in hopes that the phrase is code for something good. It has always been my experience (you may remember, I have sent you a few e-mails) that you do respond well to the written word. As a matter of fact, one of your e-mail responses I even considered an answer to prayer. I write this letter with the same spirit, and the same hope for response.

I whole-heartedly believe the changes you and the Cabinet seek to enact are positive ones. We have long needed criteria other than a “salary ladder” for making appointments. Placing the local church needs in front of the pastor’s need is also, I believe, the proper prioritization. While the ends may be better, the means leave something to be desired.

As we front-line pastors have discovered, wholesale changes cannot be made in a church (or even in a conference?) without much communication and information. While you send weekly e-mails, maybe what we need to do is just sit down and talk. I think some good two-way conversation, in which you and the Cabinet listen to the feelings of all us pastors in the 40-60 age range, would do wonders.

My feedback covers three areas: where we (your pastors) are in relation to the changes being enacted, the StrengthsFinder assessment, and salaries.

The Roller Coaster

In Gil Rendle’s book, Leading Change in the Congregation (Alban Institute, 1998), he describes the “Roller Coaster of Change” (Chapter 5, pp. 105-131).

You can see the downward slope is filled with all sorts of negative feelings. These are necessary, Rendle says, “The fact is that in order to make the transition into the new goals or plans of the congregation [or conference?], people first need to do the work of letting go of what has been.” (p. 114) As I hear my sisters and brothers in the ministry, I believe we are all on the downward slope. We may buy into the changes, but we have some mourning to do first. Many of us mourn the fact that just as we learn how to operate in the system, the rules change! Many of us mourn the fact that just as we enter what used to be the prime of our ministerial life, younger clergy are being given the appointments normally given to men and women our age. In short, lots of us just don’t know what’s going on anymore! It scares us and discourages us.

Here is the most important piece of feedback I could give you now – Rendle’s suggestion for the “Appropriate Leadership Response.” In responding, it is important to know which side of the roller coaster you are talking to! On the left is the “letting go” and all its negative manifestations. On the right side is all the hope, looking forward, and the positive manifestations the leader hopes for. So, which half are you and the Cabinet talking to?

A common mistake leaders make, according to Rendle, is to always speak from the right side of the roller coaster: “Leaders in congregations [and conferences?] quite often tend to hear the feelings and issues on the left half of the roller coaster and respond by talking to people about the hopes and actions on the right side of the roller coaster.” This is a problem because the two sides speak different languages – the left side speaks “feelings” and the right side speaks “logic”.

The appropriate leadership response to a congregation (or group of preachers?) on the left side of the roller coaster is listening. “Leaders and members who are on the left half of the roller coaster need to be listened to, not convinced,” Rendle says (p. 120). It is not easy for left-side people to deal with logical persuasion when they are dealing with feelings. I think perhaps the Cabinet has done a lot of talking and persuading, but how much listening have you done? It looks like your letter of March 30 was probably written from the right side of the roller coaster, but we left-side preachers won’t hear it! We just want you to listen to us!

This is Rendle’s diagram of the appropriate leadership response:

Rendle is careful to point out that “Listening is listening. It is not agreement. Listening means being able to be clear about the concerns people are raising and being able to demonstrate that the concerns have been heard, considered, and perhaps resolved” (p.120). I think, if you will take time to listen to us, hear some of our valid points, mourn with us over our losses, we might be able to help these positive changes come about.

Notice at the bottom of the slope is the “decision to stick with it (or leave).” We all must go through that point. If we are to climb the next hill with you, then we must decide to “stick with it.” In order to do that, we must be listened to!


Much has been written about the StrengthsFinder. I just have one question about that: How will the Cabinet match a pastor’s strengths to the proposed church?

In Buckingham’s follow-up book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work (Free Press, 2007), he talks about how difficult it is to know how one’s five strengths translate into workplace performance. Indeed, that’s what the whole book is about! Yet, the Cabinet seems to think it is just a matter of matching one list to another.

For example, mine are: Intellection, Input, Learning, Competition, and Adaptability. What kind of church would be good for me?

We might be at the point Buckingham predicts: “When it comes to the strengths movement, we are stuck in the first stage. We know how to label. We don’t know how to move beyond a label and actually put our strengths to work” (p. 11).

The StrengthsFinder is probably as good a way as any to discover what our strengths are, certainly it is more quick and efficient than some other ways. But, while there has been a lot of “label” talk, there has been little talk about how this will be put into action.


If you no longer consider salaries in appointment-making, shouldn’t we create some kind of system in which salaries don’t matter?

I agree that salaries are not the best way to make appointments, but, for years they have been the only means of rewarding pastors for a job well done. Could we find another way to reward pastors, if we are indeed throwing out the “salary ladder?”

If salaries are not considered, then a pastor is as liable, even if he or she has served long and well, to receive a pay cut as a pay raise. For instance, if my skills and fruits are needed one year at a $60,000 salary, and next year at a $40,000 salary, how am I supposed to understand that? Am I being punished? Rewarded? What?

It seems that, therefore, some sort of system should be worked out whereby those with those with equal experience make about the same (within a reasonable range, allowing for changes in church’s financial strength, pastor’s performance, etc.). That way, salaries really could be ignored in the appointment process.

I know this is an enormously complicated issue; but, is anyone working on it? Here’s an idea: What if the salary went with the pastor, rather than the church. “Pastor Sally,” with 10 years local church experience makes “X amount” wherever she goes, within a certain range. She might make more than “Pastor Joe” with 10 years local church experience because her churches (or the Annual Conference) have given her certain “performance raises.” Then, when she is appointed to a new church, they pay her the salary that she earns, rather than what they paid the pastor before her.

If there were such a thing, then salaries really could be ignored in the appointment process. I don’t pretend to know how it might work, but think about it!

There are a lot of feelings and ideas out there. If you take one thing away from this letter, please let it be this: stop ‘starting conversations’ and start listening! Please!

In Christ,
Rev. Earl Freeman
First UMC
Carbon Hill
(205)924-4409 – church
(205)924-4478 – home
(205)275-2545 – cell

p.s. – If I were writing by hand, I would sign as large as John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence. I suppose all the phone numbers and the e-mail address above is the digital equivalent.


  1. Thank you, Earl, for sharing your thoughts with us (as well as the Bishop). You have articulated many concerns that I have heard from others, but you did so in a way that shows commitment and respect for the changes that we need to make.

    As someone who is both relatively new to the minsitry (10 years) and over 40, I find myself looking at all this from a strange--or at least different--perspective. I see both opportunity and loss in the changes. I see "younger" people being given chances they would have never had before and I see "older" people grieving the loss of opportunities. I don't grieve the loss of the old system, yet I see the impact of that loss on others and I grieve for them.

    I wish I could have seen the diagrams, because I think there is much wisdom in the roller coaster metaphor Rindle uses. And it seems to me not only do we need to attend to the loss and grief of those on the right side of the curve. But we also need to celebrate their successes as much as we celebrate the successes on the right side!

    Thank you also for extending the conversation to us. I believe there is great value in listening to one another! In the process, I think we are all changed and that is a good thing!

    I had the priviledge of hearing Gil Rendle at the GCF&A training in January. Your post has not only encouraged me to buy the book you mentioned, but to also pull out my notes from the training and refresh myself on what he said. His observations on change are also very applicable to the changes we are experiencing at New Life!

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  3. Wow, Earl, this is extremely articulate. Thanks for sharing it with us and with Bishop Willimon. You say it boldly and say it very well.

    I do think it's very good to distinguish between feeling and logic, between listening and bold direction, both of which can be accomplished in a most effective scenario. I do think people need to be heard, and at least in local church life I've discovered it's a pretty big key to effective change.

    The relational and emotional dynamics of change are very important. Otherwise, in any organization the system is stressed because it feels as if ideas are imposed on them.

    Keep up the good work on your new blog. I'm adding you as a follower and putting you on my blog's list too.