Annual Study Conference

Annual Study Conference

This past week I attended our annual Synod Study Conference in beautiful Canmore. Our keynote speaker was the Rev. Dr. William Willimon, a U.S. Methodist bishop from Alabama. He is considered one of the top twelve preachers in the English-speaking world and a prolific author. I had never met him before, and was quite surprised by his Southern accent. He delivered two lectures on the topic of “Worship as Pastoral Care.” In addition to the main content of his message, Willimon regaled us with his bottomless well of stories, anecdotes and folktales. Here are a few of his pearls of wisdom that I jotted down:

After 911, people in the U.S. were jolted and in grief. They went to church seeking comfort and to alleviate fears. The church cares in the name of Jesus, and people don’t always want that kind of care.

There is a temptation to ‘run errands’ for people in our culture where ‘desire’ is jacked up to ‘needs,’ and needs are jacked up to ‘rights.’ ‘Desires’ become a bottomless pit; we live in a supermarket of desires. It is dangerous to ‘care’ for such people when there are no limits. Drowning people tend to drown their saviours.

Shepherds were business people—they fattened sheep up for market. Caregivers are considered honourable people. However as preachers, preaching sets the goal of our care. Our care isn’t always what people want.

‘Detoxification,’ that is baptism. What does it mean to have this revived as the primary metaphor of ministry?

What does it mean when all or most of our prayer requests are for health needs? Isn’t it curious that the worst thing that can happen to folks is ‘bad health’? Why can’t people accept that the aging process is normal and that we are mortals? Jesus never mentioned good health in the Lord’s Prayer, which is our model prayer. There is a danger among Christians of ‘good health’ becoming idolatry.

The sermon, according to Martin Luther, is a ‘cutting into the soul.’ Preaching the sermon is a countercultural act in that we say what the world wants kept quiet.

In our culture, ministry and the Gospel get reduced to being therapy. The Gospel can be therapeutic, but it should not be reduced to that. As Lutherans, we believe that nobody gets saved by our performance.

Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bishop Willimon stated that in preaching the risen Christ walks among his people—that should be our goal in pastoral care too.

You’ve got to worry about the Church where Mother’s Day is bigger than Easter.

In worship, we are with our people in the most intense way as pastors. Worship is at the centre of our life in Christ. This is at the heart of the matter, and gets most explicit about how God has got us and how we worship and serve God.

A lot of people are in pain today because they’re ignorant. It takes training to pray and to confess the Trinity. Lutherans, surmised Willimon, may be in a stronger position to do this than other denominations on account of our catechetical tradition, along with our hymnody, liturgy, and educational institutions.

Thriving congregations today have at least sixty percent of their membership in small groups.