During his installation March 18 as president of the Center for Congregational Health Bill Wilson said churches and ministers are “in crisis.”
Coming from the man who rode back home to North Carolina from the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Dalton, Ga., charged with helping churches be healthy, that’s a breath sucking observation.
“We’ve got to help congregations figure out how to do church that works,” said Wilson during an interview in his Winston-Salem office, just behind Wake Forest University Baptist Hospital. Baptist Hospital and the Baptist State Convention provide foundational funding for the hospital’s division of pastoral care, of which the Center for Congregational Services is one of four departments.
On the job since September 2009, Wilson, 55, is a North Carolina native. He grew up in Greensboro where his father Bill started Lawndale Baptist Church, which today claims 2,465 members and last year baptized 59. He “hated” to move as a teenager to a Nashville, Tenn., suburb but his dad went there in 1970 to start Brentwood Baptist, today a mega-church of 7,400.
Bill Wilson Sr. came out of seminary in 1955 when First Baptist Church, Greensboro, was starting a new church every two years.
It hired a young seminary graduate on staff for a year to learn how to do church, and then paid his salary a second year while he started another.
The church’s first three church planting interns were Jack Causey, Bill Wilson and Randall Lolley. Causey, active in N.C. Baptist life, retired after many years at First Baptist Church, Statesville and is helping churches through work with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina; Wilson eventually retired from the staff of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and is back leading missions at Brentwood and Lolley was president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary 1974-88 and pastor of First Baptist Churches of Raleigh and Greensboro.
Bill the younger’s own pastoral experience includes youth and recreation ministry at First Baptist Church, Greenville, S.C.; pastor of Farmville, Va., Baptist Church five years; pastor of First Baptist Church, Waynesboro, Va., 11 years and the past six years at First Baptist Church, Dalton, Ga.
So he comes to his role — he said he is compellingly “called” to his role— with a wealth of church experience, in addition to serious training that has expanded his capacities in coaching and evaluation.
He attended Belmont College in Nashville, then worked a year at the Baptist Student Union in Hawaii, before finishing his undergraduate degree at Murray State University, where he met his wife, Kathy.
He earned his Master of Divinity degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In 1979 Wilson was the pastor of the inaugural Centrifuge at Ridgecrest — the once wildly popular student summer weeks at several locations. Contacts there had him doing youth revivals around the country for another year.
Sitting lightly in his office chair, many personal belongings still in his Dalton house where Kathy continues to teach school waiting for the house to sell, Wilson said with many churches spinning their wheels in a culture that discounts them because they haven’t stayed relevant, “vigilantism” among frustrated members is showing its head.
“Frustrated with the church’s inertia, some members are taking matters into their own hands,” Wilson said. “They’ve tried to effect change through the church’s own pathways and can’t get anywhere. So they say, ‘If you won’t listen to us, we’ll have a palace coup.’”
Such feelings are more likely to boil over if a church has no personnel committee, no review process, no way to air a grievance.
Concerned members are labeled “disloyal” if they speak up, so they “have to take the law into their own hands,” Wilson said, and warned that “almost always ends badly. It’s never clean, never healthy.”
The Center for Congregational Health started in 1992. David Odom was its first president, Wilson just its second.
Odom is now in leadership development with Duke University Divinity School.
Wilson is eager to “illustrate what a dynamic, diverse and energizing entity this is; how it does what a lot of other groups can’t do, which is cross many, many boundaries and unify people around the idea of healthy church; healthy clergy.”
Center staff offers six defined streams of ministry: coaching, consulting, intentional interim pastorates, leadership development, spiritual formation and emotional intelligence training.
Consultants provide outside help for a congregation in strategic planning, helping members to consider options, clarify their mission and vision and to retool, revamp and rethink staffing and ministry models.
“We’re not selling a book or program,” Wilson said. “We’re selling leadership.
“This is actually one of my favorite things to do. It’s usually with people with low conflict and high dreams.”
The Center’s staff often is involved in conflict resolution and this may be the area for which the Center for Congregational Health is best known.
Staff helps congregations “which need an outside voice to guide them through the wilderness.” Wilson said this is where the 911 call comes, to say, “We need help.”
“We are in epidemic status, Code Red, DEFCON 4, however you want to say it. We are in pandemic mode in terms of conflict in local congregations,” said Wilson, who has seen a spike in recent months in both the number and depth of conflict.
“Church is reflecting the anxiety in the culture that has to do with political, economic and social turmoil,” Wilson said.
“You can’t turn those voices off when you walk into the sanctuary.”
The economics of congregational giving has created “a huge amount of stress.”
Clergy are taking pay cuts, having benefits reduced and travel limited “while their work load in this climate is escalating.”
Wilson said while pastors deal with more people struggling with job loss they might have a chip on their own shoulder because of their stress; their teacher wives are burdened with larger classes and less security and their church is struggling to pay even reduced bills — all while bearing the unspoken charge that if the church isn’t doing better, it must be his fault.
The Center has trained more than 2,000 men as intentional interim pastors to help congregations through difficult transitions.
Although interims from the Center have been accused of leading churches to disassociate from the Baptist State Convention in favor of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina — and vice versa — it is “absolutely not true,” Wilson said. The Center offers any church a list of men who have been trained as intentional interims, and the church chooses.
The interim is trained to guide the church to make its decisions “but not to influence them,” Wilson said. Instead, the interim guides the church to clarify its identity and help the church go where it decides it wants to go.
“This is an amazing, one of a kind organization,” Wilson said. “No other organization in the country has this particular constellation of services. There is a genius to it that North Carolina Baptists are responsible for and I hope they take great pride in it.”
Wilson said he was not looking for a change from his pastorate in Georgia when the Center search committee called. First Baptist Dalton had just completed a $15 million building project. He had a great staff and the church loved him.
But the job description read as if someone had been reading his mail. It fit him precisely in the areas he likes best; “to help congregations get healthy, do their best, dream their dreams.”
North Carolina Baptists support the work of Baptist Hospital’s division of pastoral care with about $725,000 annually. With a million dollar budget of its own, the Center for Congregational Health receives nearly $200,000 from division funds, but the Center primarily is self-supporting through fees for service.
Wilson and his wife, Kathy, have three children. Jennifer lives in Manhattan, Brent is in Charlottesville, Va., and Ryan is in seminary in Atlanta.