Bishop Will Willimon: It's All About Numbers

Although I’ve never heard this comment from a bishop, a pastor, or a church that was growing, a frequently heard comment in response to our Conference Priorities, from those who have limited their ministry to decline is, “So? It’s all about the numbers.”

Though I don’t see much indication that we have become infatuated with numbers (I was miserable at math in school) in our evaluation and deployment of our pastors, in our evaluation and leadership of our churches (most of our churches are still declining rather than growing) some question our historic Wesleyan focus on numbers of baptisms, attendance, membership, giving, and mission. The church is all about Jesus Christ and his mission. Are we now guilty of moving toward an “It’s all about numbers” posture?

_We loaded up our car for our annual family vacation. I had been clear with the family about our time of departure for the beach. Patsy had dutifully loaded the car. I had dutifully been clear about the time of departure. Harriet was there. Where was William?

“That does it. We’re leaving. He knew the time and yet he’s not here,” I said, in love.

“We can’t leave without him,” Patsy asserted. “How can you go on a family vacation without the whole family?”

I responded, “Look, we have one child who obeyed the rules, did as she was told, is punctual and obedient. Isn’t that good enough? Let’s go. Don’t worry about the other fifty-percent of our children.”

“We have two children. We are not going anywhere without everybody,” Patsy commanded, in love.

“One, two, whatever,” I responded. “So? It’s all about numbers! What difference does it really make whether we have all of our children or half of our children? The important thing is the quality of our family interaction on the vacation. This is about love, not numbers!”_

(adapted from the Annual Conference learning session with Mark DeVries)

You have a problem with our caring about the actual fruit of ministry, the results of our work? Take it up with Jesus (or John Wesley) who commanded us to go into all the world (100%) and make (more) disciples.

There is nothing wrong with most of our churches, nothing that they need to do, other than reach more people. There is no more honest, potentially life-giving measure of ministry than the numbers that are found on our Conference Dashboard.

The Sunday after this year’s Annual Conference Patsy and I had the privilege of worshipping at Northwood UMC in Florence. There, Rev. Peter Hawker is leading this church into the first growth they have had in many years. In just three years Peter has transformed Northwood through an emphasis on passionate worship, mission to the community, and risk with the Holy Spirit.

Upon entering the Northwood sanctuary, the first thing that one notices is that the first two rows of pews are filled with children and youth. Peter commented that only a handful of those children “are ours.” Most of the children (a number of whom the church recruited from “meth families”) are children that Northwood recruited for the church. I thought of all the dying congregations who say “we have no children or youth anymore.” Those children are leading Northwood (100 years old this year) into a vibrant future, all because a church decided to find a way to be obedient to Christ’s mission.

“We weren’t willing to enter the Kingdom of God without all of our children, all of them with us,” said Peter.

And I responded, in love, “So? It’s all about the numbers.”


--William H. Willimon

[Adapted with permission from the 'Weekly Message from Bishop Willimon,' 6/16/2009]