Effective United Methodist Churches


December 14, 2017

UMC Bishop Will Willimon Weighs in on What Makes Churches Grow or Decline

Earlier this fall, we analyzed two lists of the United Methodist Church’s largest and fastest-growing congregations in the United States.Among other things, we found that the clear majority of the senior pastors of these congregations were orthodox in their theology, and they were disproportionally educated at Asbury Theological Seminary, a bastion of evangelical Methodism. 

This prompted us to do a renewed series of interviews with some of the pastors of these effective United Methodist Church about what they found has worked well, what they see hindering growth in the denomination, and what other United Methodist pastors may learn from them. 

Retired Bishop Will Willimon left an extended comment in response to the original analysis article.  A prolific writer, he served as Dean of the Chapel at Duke University for twenty years before being elected bishop in 2004.  After eight years as Bishop of the UMC’s North Alabama Conference, he returned to Duke Divinity School, where he is now Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry. 

Given his prominence and the extended nature of the bishop’s public comment, we are re-posting it in full below. 


Interesting article. Thanks for listing these churches. Years ago, my mentor, Bob Wilson, fine sociologist of religion, devised a list of seminaries whose graduates were the most successful at making new Christians. This was part of a study funded by one of the general boards of the UMC. He was prohibited from publishing those findings!

I confess that I was a bit chagrined that in the conference where I was bishop, nearly two-thirds of our new church starts were being led by Asbury Seminary grads.

I doubt that these grads were so successful at new church starts because their theology was “conservative” or “evangelical,” but rather they they [sic] all had a theology for GROWTH.

Asbury then had something like six courses to train people how to start churches. (My seminary has no such courses.) Moreover, Asbury had been successful in imbuing all these pastors with a conviction that Christ expects us to keep reaching out and growing.

When I was serving a church a few years ago, after I ceased being bishop, I had a consultant in to study us and to help us have a future. After studying us the consultant said, “You don’t have a single staff member who has the skills to grow this congregation. Worse, every one of those clergy has a theology for why that’s OK!”

Then, to add insult to injury, he said, “Furthermore, every one of those staff members is a recent graduate of Duke Divinity School.”


As you can imagine, the consultant’s report was ignored and the congregation’s decline continued.

3 Responses to UMC Bishop Will Willimon Weighs in on What Makes Churches Grow or Decline

  1. Bradley C Pope says:

    So it is merely a coincidence that bible based, gospel sharing oriented UMC churches are growing while those that are more secular/culturally oriented are by and large not doing well? Bishop this rationalization will ultimately shepherd the UMC into oblivion. The early church also did not have seminary classes focused on church growth, but they were faithful to what they had been taught and the holy spirit moved. It seems like the approach to appease “itchy ears“ has to fail because there are too many good & competitive quasi secular options for people already. The temptation to fill churches with people rather than fill people with Christ is only human but it won’t lead to a successful UMC as we are seeing.

  2. Eriberto Soto says:

    Thank you for your honesty Bishop Willimon
    I agree with your comments but also believe that a persons theology has much to do with growth also!!

  3. Guenson Charlot says:

    This is so true to Asbury. As a DMin student at ATS, you can’t spend time witnessing and hearing the story of Bishop Kim Sundo and the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul South Korea and not being convicted of the sin of being a disobedient disciple who does not fulfill the Great Commission.

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