Our Adam Hamilton Obsession

Photo by wesmagruder
This blog post is primarily for United Methodist Church geeks. I’m afraid it won’t make much sense to some of my new Muslim readers or to Christians who are part of a different tradition. In case you’re interested and want to read anyway, all you need to know is that the UMC has been worried about its decline for some years now, culminating in a frantic attempt to restructure everything back in April 2012 at our big quadrennial General Conference. This attempt failed, and ever since, United Methodists have been sounding off about what we need to do to survive. Boy, that’s a gripping introduction, isn’t it? …

As the United Methodist Church slowly drifts into the sunset of its vitality, the last few efforts at resurrecting the denomination are being heard. And, not surprisingly, one of those leading the charge is Adam Hamilton, pastor of the mega-Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas and best-selling author. His books pretty much keep the United Methodist Publishing House in business.

It appeared that Adam used quite a bit of his political and personal capital to endorse the Call to Action legislation at General Conference 2012, which proposed major changes to UM structure; I think he felt like this was his responsibility as a leader. He had some leverage and, seeing the danger of a declining church, he tried to make a difference.

I don’t blame him for this attempt. I certainly would expect it from someone in his position.

The problem is that we in the denomination, as a whole, are responsible for over-idolizing Adam and Church of the Resurrection (COR). Adam pops up everywhere in UM circles – in magazines, at conferences, in videos. He and the church are considered a success by every dashboard indicator that we have. I am absolutely certain that every bishop would kill to have an Adam and COR (or three or four or twenty!) in their annual conference.

And those of us who are laypeople and colleagues largely go along with this assessment. Adam’s church is a good model of ministry, mission, and hospitality. It makes a difference in the surrounding community. Adam is a great communicator and his message is positive, life-affirming, and Jesus-centered.

But I think it’s not too much to suggest that the denomination is obsessed with Adam and Church of the Resurrection. We are proud of him; his church makes us proud to be United Methodist. We try to get his name out there as much as possible, because he gives us a great public face.

Most United Methodists consider Adam and COR an unqualified success story, and a model that ought to be imitated. In fact, most of us UMs have internalized the idea that, if our church were doing everything right, it would be just like COR. If we were doing everything right in our own local churches, we believe that membership would be growing into the thousands, our budgets would be growing into the millions, and we would be asked to pen books on church growth.

When this doesn’t happen, we pastors tend to blame ourselves. Since we tend to give Adam the credit for COR, we pin the blame for our own tiny, low-tech, declining congregations that look nothing like COR on ourselves. We see ourselves as inferior preachers and lousy communicators. In other words, we just don’t have the chops like Adam Hamilton.

I know this is the way pastors think. I am one myself, and I distinctly remember the day in one of my earliest appointments when I finally realized that I was not Adam Hamilton. I was depressed for weeks.

There are many, many problems with this kind of thinking, of course. It should be obvious that we must not compare ourselves to others, that this is a path that will only lead to self-abuse, frustration and discouragement. It should also be obvious that different pastors have different gifts, and that we all cannot expect to be dynamic speakers and fantastic administrators.

And it should be obvious that the success of COR is a very unique situation, given the context and timing of Adam’s arrival in Leawood. This is what happened in a particular place and particular time. There is no way that we should expect that this style and brand of church could – or should – be duplicated anywhere.

But it’s also possible that we are idolizing the wrong kind of ministry. Where did we get the idea that a mega-church is necessarily doing anything at all right? Where did we fall into the trap of thinking that bigger is better? Why in the world have we succumbed to the secular criteria of relevance and efficiency?

Look at it this way: why does everybody know who Adam Hamilton is, but hardly anybody knows Lorenza Andrade Smith? See what I did there? Do you know who she is? She is an ordained UM pastor to homeless people in San Antonio. She lives on the street herself. I have no idea what her “numbers” would be, and up to this point, she hasn’t written any books. She doesn’t do any podcasts, and she has never organized any leaders’ conferences.

But she is someone to be admired. Her ministry is perhaps the most Christ-like in the entire denomination, because she is actually doing what Christ did. Why don’t we lift up her ministry for emulation? Why isn’t her work the gold standard in the UMC? Why don’t young pastors feel badly when they realize that they aren’t going to be on the streets like Lorenza, but instead will be speaking comfortably to thousands of people every week?

There are pastors like her at work within our denomination, with and without clergy credentials, who deserve to be emulated, precisely because they eschew popularity, fawning crowds, grateful applause, and offering plates full of fat checks (and I’m not suggesting that Adam Hamilton desires these things). These unknown, unappreciated, and unnoticed ministers, in fact, are actually in the process of saving the soul of the United Methodist Church.

Because they are pursuing the forgotten pilgrim’s way of Christ.

Because they are resisting the devil’s temptations to turn stones into bread, perform diving tricks off steeples, and accept the world’s adulation (see Matthew 4:1-11).

Because they aren’t in it for the sake of being relevant, or changing the culture, or leaving a heritage.

They don’t care about reviving the numbers; they only care about resurrecting the old Methodist emphasis on putting faith into action. And in 2012 America, “faith in action” means standing in solidarity with people who have been forgotten, discarded, and abused, and offering them the concrete love of God.

That’s the only way forward now, regardless of what happens in General Conferences, or at Adam’s church. The future does not consist in growing big churches, raising up young hip, rock star leaders, or restructuring any organizations.

The only future worth imagining is one in which we act a lot more like Jesus.

(Important Disclaimer: I do not know Adam Hamilton personally, and despite the headline of this post, I do not have anything against him. I am absolutely positive that he is a great guy – a man of God, in fact — and I’d like to meet him someday. I hope that Adam continues to be exactly who he is, but I also wish that the rest of us would stop trying to be “Adam Hamilton” and become pilgrims on the way of Christ, even if that means doing ministry in lonely places.)

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37 comments

  1. Don Queen

    excellent post Wes Magruder…I’ve thought the same things along my journey as a Methodist…maybe if the congregation would worry less about what other people think of them and just do the ministry they’re called to do, we’d all be better off…

  2. Rev. Paul McKay

    This is so very well said, Wes, and thank you for saying it. In my own blog I always try to lift up people like Lorenza, who are out in the trenches and modeling their very lives on the life of Christ, without recognition or fanfare. There are scores and scores of those Methodists (and so many kazillions of unheralded Christians of all stripes) in this country and around the world who very well may not measure up to somebody’s corporate-model “dashboard” criteria. I’m sure some readers will take your writing here as an attack on the goodness and integrity of Hamilton, in spite of your gently critical tone. He’s a great preacher, leader and servant and a man of impeccable integrity, and certainly an important voice that needs to be heard in our denomination. But his isn’t the last word on anything, nor the only important voice that needs to be heard, and it concerns me that people do lionize him to the extent that they lap up anything he says or does. There can be no “one model fits all” for clergy or churches, though some people, as you so well point out, seem to to want to make the Hamilton model the one “brand” for all. (I put brand in quotes because I’ve noticed a trend lately where church leaders here and there are starting to talk about the Methodist “brand,” the ultimate corporate descriptor.) Thanks again for your thoughts here.

    • wesmagruder

      Thanks, Paul. No, I don’t mean the article as an attack on Hamilton at all, but rather on what we have done to him or made of him, myself included. I agree that he is a great leader, and do indeed want him to continue to succeed. I also want every other UM pastor to succeed, and I hope that none of us feel “less” simply because we’re not pulling in the big numbers.

  3. Dan Franks

    Two weeks ago I attended a church in Colorado that had recently had their pastor resign. He was prayerful, studious, contemplative, but not the flamboyant preacher the congregation desired. What a pity that there is not a place for a pastor with those qualities as well as the dynamic preacher.

  4. Scott Weber

    In actuality, you are very much like Adam Hamilton, maybe not in such grand a scale. You are Wes Magruder a dynamic think outside of the box kind of Pastor that captured the hearts and minds of his congregation. You helped build a small contemporary service into a large thriving service with an identity all it’s own. I would like to think that most people who joined our Church during your tenure here did so because they really liked the Church, but to be honest, In my opinion they were there to hear you. What kind of crazy interesting sermon series were you going to do next, what kind of silly costume might you wear, what crazy stunt might you do. Let’s face it, Pastors are entertainers, and you my friend are a very good one. You make Church fun, and in doing so people remember your message. Now that you are leaving, a lot of people will feel lost, some may leave. Unfortunately this comes with being a Methodist, one facet I’m not particularly fond of, and although this is not the case in your departure, it would have been at some point. Rotating appointments are part of what I feel hurts the Church more than it helps. I understand your calling and you must go where God and your heart lead you, but never underestimate the work and the impact you had on a congregation at First Rowlett. You will be truly missed on Sunday mornings. Our hearts and our well wishes go with you on your new faith journey. I’m sure our paths will continue to cross…Thank you my friend!!!

  5. Creed Pogue

    Rev. Smith is separated from her husband. Her son has converted to Islam. She appears to spend a fair amount of time traveling to various rallies and conferences. “Living on the streets” means that she is claiming a space in overcrowded homeless shelters that could go to someone else who truly has no other options at the moment. I am not so sure that is an example to be emulated.

    I don’t think you needed to tear down Rev. Hamilton to try to build up Rev. Smith. Considering that Rev. Hamilton started Church of the Resurrection in a funeral home (reason for the name), I would think he should be applauded. I think many laity would be very happy to serve in a church pastored by someone like Rev. Hamilton.

    • Rev. Paul McKay

      Creed Pogue, I’m tempted to go all snarky here and tell you that you need to go back to school to learn how to read and comprehend what you read. What Wes says here in no way can be legitimately construed as “tearing down” Adam Hamilton. I know for a fact that even Adam Hamilton would not read it as an attack on him and his success–he’s way too smart to read it that way–but would see it for what it is–as legitimate, constructive criticism of many people’s misguided attempt to make Hamilton’s ministry and church a sort of fix-it model for ministry and all the church’s problems. And talk about tearing somebody down! What you have to say about Rev. Smith and her personal life amounts to borderline character assassination and shows your woeful lack of anything like class or taste. And I doubt seriously that she’s taking up any homeless shelter beds that someone else might have. You might want to go back and read, real slow, what Wes actually said in his blog posting, not whatever you set out to project onto what he actually wrote.

      • Creed Pogue

        Gee, Rev. McKay, I really appreciate your bedside manner!

        Seriously, Wes does denigrate Rev. Hamilton as a model. So do you. That is your right. I think that is really off-base but you have the right to think as you will. But, Wesley reminds us that we are judged by our fruits.

        What really set me off with Wes was the uncritical lifting up of Rev. Smith as an example to emulate when there are some major issues in her walk. I am not sure how you can say that she isn’t taking up a shelter bed when she is staying in shelters! I just stuck to the facts. I have some other suspicions that would flow from those available facts but I don’t know their veracity for certain. How much time is she actually spending in Texas?

    • wesmagruder

      Seriously, Creed Pogue? Are you just trying to draw me offsides? Let me say it clearly then: I do not wish to tear down Adam Hamilton. His ministry is awesome and awe-inspiring. I sent him a link to this column so that he could comment himself if he likes, and I hope he does.

  6. Mark T. Moore

    What is strange is that every pastor who has thought about these things should come close to agreeing with you but it is apparent that many pastor’s never think through the issues, which is very disturbing to say the least. If the pastor hates to think how can members of a community of faith really expand their ability to think critically and courageously? This is a huge issue that strikes at the very core of what it means to be a Christian.

  7. Kevin B

    So well said. Just came back from a day or two off after two solid weeks of torment and bickering, wondering why I can’t have a staff under me who could handle this stuff… And yeah, now I’m wondering why I’m not trying to be like Lorenza.
    Gonna go pray and pray more and reconsider some things now. (Sigh)

  8. journeyingrick

    as a former UMC pastor, gone for a decade or so, a. i didn’t know about adam hamilton, b. i didn’t know about the call to action, c. i don’t care about either of those things, d. you are right on target about why it’s not about being big and slick and successful and why that makes pastors and laypeople focus on all the wrong stuff and then feel inadequate, e. lorenza is also not magic, she’s just doing what she’s called to do; don’t let her doing what she does make you feel inadequate either.
    my thought is: hey, everybody, do what YOU’RE called to do.

    • wesmagruder

      Amen, Rick. Yes, that’s the point. We are called to do and be different kinds of ministers. What I would like to challenge the denomination as a whole is to recognize the great diversity and variety of gifts and callings.

  9. christinemyh (@christinemyh)

    I think sometimes we hold up leaders to create a false dichotomy in our own discussions, particularly regarding the polarity between faithfulness and evangelism. Whether we’re holding up Adam Hamilton as an example of growth or Lorenza Andrade Smith as an example of faithfulness (incidentally, I have heard her name all over the place, so she’s probably not a great example of an unknown person walking a Christian path), we tend to try to make a caricature of them to support our own feelings on the best way to judge the effectiveness of a UM pastor.

    The catch, in my opinion, is that I don’t believe God is choosing a side as to whether evangelism or faithfulness is more important, and I believe we do a disservice to leaders when we attempt to emulate a two-dimensional interpretation of who they are and how they’re doing their ministry–or when we arrogantly label their efforts/successes in pejorative terms.

    I wish we’d get to a place in which we could humbly realize God calls our church body to both evangelism AND faithfulness, and the two are not meant to be separate. We can and should look to leaders for examples and encouragement, but ultimately God gives each of us a set of skills and passions, and it is with those that we are to try to perform what ministry we can. Being particularly talented at or strongly preferring one aspect of ministry doesn’t make that the most important aspect for all, but it also doesn’t fully justify a pastor who only plays to his/her strengths. Success in Christian ministry is never fully realized or accomplished; it is something we simply continue to strive toward.

    I like to imagine that our connectionalism means we’re all on the same team, and we can learn from each other, encourage each other, and celebrate accomplishments of others even as we struggle to help those in a difficult place.

    • wesmagruder

      We don’t need to idolize anybody, do we? Ironically, the whole Methodist movement was built around one strong dynamic personality, a guy named John Wesley. But it has lasted because of the relationships, the discipleship structures, the attention to putting faith into action, and an emphasis on lay leadership.

      • christinemyh (@christinemyh)

        It is probably a question of degrees, but there is a big difference between esteeming someone highly and believing that it is something almost magical about them in particular that has caused life to hand success to them. It is easy to look at any successful career and only see the glossy result while ignoring the struggles, doubts, passions and clarity along the way. When we do that we show a lack of respect for them and hamstring our ability to learn from them.

        I do agree that we don’t need to idolize anyone–but neither do we need to tear someone down in order to make our own efforts appear more successful. There are plenty of people in the world who need Jesus. Idolizing–or denigrating–our colleagues doesn’t help us move forward in what we’re really called to be doing in the world. You are right to call us to refrain from idolizing anyone, but I think the solution is not to hold up a counter-idol but to round out our understanding of all our clergy as connected, but unique.

  10. RevAmy

    I have heard both Adam and Mike Slaughter (from Ginghamsburg UMC) say that they believe the era of the mega-church is over and that places like COR will not be replicated in coming decades. Last year at COR’s leadership institute Adam told multiple stories of little churches (all under 50 in attendance) making important changes to increase vitality. I appreciated his effort to illustrate his points with distinctly un-COR-like churches. I think he is trying to find ways to deflect the dream others have of becoming “the next Adam Hamilton.”

    You tried in multiple ways to soften your criticism above but the bottom line is you are still picking on Adam, or using him as a negative example. Its all a part of the package of his fame, I understand, but for all the ways his name gets tossed around, I would hate to be in his shoes.

    As individual pastors and as a denomination, I think we need heroes. I appreciate you pointing out that we need a diversity of spiritual heroes but I don’t agree that learning from COR is “idolizing the wrong kind of ministry.” Perhaps its the “idolizing” in any form that is the problem. We grow in faith and ministry when we can see through others (as if they were a window) to God’s love at work in the world. And that can happen whether they are preaching a gospel word to 5,000 at a time or sleeping on a park bench and making friends with the homeless.

    • wesmagruder

      I really don’t mean to pick on Adam, but instead on our own proclivities to idolatry, envy, jealousy, and the like. I am the chief of sinners when it comes to those things.

      This is part of American pop culture’s tendency to create celebrities or icons, of which Adam is clearly one for us Methodists. My question is — should we have celebrities of this sort, and if so, what is our relationship to them? What goes into making a religious celebrity? And why do our celebrities tend to be on the extremes — either extremely mega-churchy successful, or extremely Mother Teresa-ish?

      And what does the existence of these celebrities do to the ordinary rank-and-file elders, deacons, and lay preachers out in the extremely ordinary mission field?

      • RevAmy

        Interesting questions. Seems that “celebrity” spiritual masters have been a part of the church at least since people flocked to the deserts to see and hear the first monastics in the 3rd and 4th centuries. That leads me to think that humans have something inside of us that needs tangible, flesh and blood (dare I say incarnational) examples of virtue. I trust that God uses our built in needs to reach/shape/change us, so God can use very well an example like Adam Hamilton to inspire, comfort, teach, reach, reform, re-energize,and re-awaken lots of ordinary mission fields. Whether a certain person’s celebrity status is good or bad all depends on what we are admiring and wanting to emulate in them. Which, I grant, is what you were trying to point out in the first place. I also wonder how much control Adam, or Lorenza, have over the virtues and vices, successes and failures that people see in them.

        Wes–as someone who’s notoriety is increasing (and the more the UMR tweets/reports about your blog, the more it will increase) is there something here you worry about for yourself?

      • John Leek

        Were United Methodist pastors and laypeople discouraged by the celebrity status of Francis Asbury (easily among a handful of the most famous people of his time)? Were Baptists discouraged by the success of Billy Graham? God seems to use folks in leadership throughout history. I don’t see COR or Adam Hamilton as a part of any problem. I actually think we need to lift up MORE people for recognition and inspiration.

    • wesmagruder

      Great article. I like the emphasis on leaving a footprint in your community. That is important work. And I think the emphasis on the congregation is exactly what Hamilton would want.

  11. Hershel Daniels Junior

    I disagree about the foreseen future of the United Methodist Church by this offer and or COR. I was at Tampa and you had a grand alliance there to stop the change this year but 4 years from now? We are church that has 1/3 of its members on the front line of fighting for Christ in Africa – 4 million members and it will grow and change this Church forever.

  12. F H

    Dear pastor Wes. I am a muslim and I read your post. I personally don’t see the article as being critical. It is an honest and thought provoking message. Sometimes we lose sight of the significance and great impact of simplicity and humility. We each have a calling and we respond in different ways because each one of us is unique. As long as the intention is pure, God’s pleasure and blessings will be attained. I am truly inspired by you. May the blessings and guidance of God be on all of us.

  13. Robert Lopez

    Some wonderful points in the article. I know Lorenza personally and only know Adam from afar. I think we need both. Adam is and has done some amazing things in ministry and we should rejoice and learn from that. Lorenza is also doing some ground breaking work. She has a beautiful spirit and has great passion for her ministry. We should rejoice and learn from her as well. God knows we need more folks doing great ministry for God in the church, especially UMC. Lord raise up more Adams and Lorenzas.
    Robert Lopez

  14. Jaime

    Maybe don’t blog about a man whom you have never met, and a church you have not been a part of – just a thought.

  15. Cindy Johnson

    Lorenza, Is my younger sister and I know she is a wonderful follower of Christ. I have learn a lot from her. I love Lorenza

  16. Joel Karr

    Creed,
    What does Rev. Smith’s seperation and son’s religion have to do with her ministry?
    If her goal is to raise awareness of homeless, wouldn’t it make sense she goes places and talks about her experiences? If she is ministering to homeless, what would you suggest would be a better way to connect with them?
    She may not be the best Methodist elder who has given up an appointment to live on the streets with no compensation, medical benifits, retirement, or parsonage. There may be other Methodist elders who have done a better job ministering to criminals while they were incarcerated,sitting on a toilet in a jail cell. You might find other preachers who have converted more immigrants to Methodism as they were riding on top of a train with a bunch of illegals. But you can’t deny that her heart is 100% in this and she is doing the best job that she can.
    A very smart preacher lady once set me straight when she said ” instead of getting upset with how other people are helping, you should get upset with how you are not helping”.

    • Creed Pogue

      We need to judge by fruits as Wesley told us. Considering the issues that exist for Rev. Smith, we should be willing to evaluate them with clear eyes not rose-colored lenses. All bloggers write to get attention. Maybe Wes wasn’t intending to tear down Rev. Hamilton to build up Rev. Smith but that is what he did.

  17. John Leek

    I think it’s possible that the title “Our Adam Hamilton Obsession” and the darkened portrait of him are helping give the impression folks are finding of an attack on the man, even if that isn’t your point in the post.

    • Creed Pogue

      John Wesley asked his preachers, “Have ye fruits?” Part of my concerns about Rev. Smith is how much ministry is getting done versus how much is being talked about? Obviously, a lot of ministry happens at COR even while Rev. Hamilton does a lot of traveling and writing.

  18. Joel

    I’m still not getting the fruit reference. Is that saying judge her by the number of people she has converted to Christianity compared to the number that Adam Hamilton has converted?
    But if her calling is both to minister to homeless and bring awareness to their plight, isn’t she fulfilling that?

    If you give Adam Hamilton credit for the work that COR does when he is not present, isn’t it fair to give Lorenza Smith credit for the ministry that other people have done after hearing her preach, talk, and advocate for homeless?

    I guess my defense of her work is hijacking the point of this blog post, which is (from what I got out of it) that every preacher has a unique set of talents that gives them the ability to do a good job. Instead of comparing themselves to another preacher or church, they should focus on using their talents to do the work they have been called to do. They can be successful at what they do in a mega church, a medium sized church, a micro church, or not church at all.

    • Creed Pogue

      If you’re spending a lot of your time at conferences and rallies, then you aren’t ministering to those “living on the streets.” I am all in favor of different models for pastors in the pulpit. It may not have been Wes’ intention to denigrate Rev. Hamilton but obviously I’m not the only one to see that result. Regarding Rev. Smith, I mentioned her other issues because we talk about fixing the boards in our eyes rather than complaining about the splinters in someone else’s eye or to heal ourselves. Many of us are involved with various ministries to help the homeless and fufilling Matthew 25. Many of us struggle with various imperfections and stumbles on our walk. Rev. Smith’s model is not sustainable. It also should not be emulated.

  19. Pingback: How Methodists Could Become More Missional | Missional Monks

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