Even more than usual, the Rev. Adam Hamilton seemed to be here, there and everywhere in 2012, earning him designation as the Reporter’s United Methodist of the Year.
Mr. Hamilton, 48, is a megachurch pastor, best-selling author and much-in-demand conference speaker. He’s a board member of one of the UMC’s seminaries (recently stepping down as chair) and played a key role in the lead-up to General Conference, while serving as a delegate and prime-time speaker there.
Through sermons, addresses, books, videos and blog posts, the bespectacled Kansas pastor may reach more United Methodists than anyone else in the denomination.
His bishop thinks so.
“I regard him as the most influential teacher in the UMC today,” said Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Episcopal Area. “While not specifically a credentialed scholar of Wesleyan theology or United Methodist history, he has done more to communicate those subjects to the people called United Methodist than any other living person.”
Mr. Hamilton has critics, including those who say that, as a megachurch pastor, he essentially operates outside the itinerancy system for ordained clergy.
But others note that he could follow the lead of some megachurch pastors and be aloof to denominational life, yet has thrust himself into it.
“I have felt, really since my freshman year in college, a call to renewal of the United Methodist Church,” Mr. Hamilton said. “I have such a strong sense that this church really matters to God and that our approach to the gospel may be the best hope of reaching a generation of millennials who may be the most un-churched generation.”
Mr. Hamilton was baptized a Catholic as an infant and had what he calls “nominal” involvement in a UM church as a young child. He came to faith at age 14, in a Pentecostal church, and soon felt a call to ministry. He enrolled at Oral Roberts University, and there met his wife, LaVon. But while noting his deep gratitude to the Pentecostals who nurtured him in faith, he said that he grew dissatisfied with “the black-and-white, very conservative theology.”
“That’s when I began searching,” he said. “It was my freshman year in college, half way through, that I began reading the United Methodist Book of Discipline. I checked out the most authoritative book I could find.”
Mr. Hamilton said his study of Methodist theology, history and social principles “captured” his heart, and he soon joined a UM church. He would go on to Perkins School of Theology, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
As a young pastor, he founded the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in the suburbs of Kansas City. It first met—appropriately enough, given its name—in a funeral home, with a faithful few.
That was in 1990. The Leawood, Kan. church’s rapid growth and innovative methods drew considerable attention, both in and outside the UMC. These days, Resurrection has some 16,000 members, and averages about 8,600 in worship attendance at multiple sites.
Mr. Hamilton emphasizes the church’s missional efforts, including a partnership with six Kansas City schools attended mainly by low-income kids. But Church of the Resurrection is better known for its size and influence in ways of doing church. Of late, it’s partnered with a handful of small, struggling UM churches, offering the pastors advice through web conferencing, and beaming in sermons by Mr. Hamilton.
To spread his ideas about church leadership and UMC renewal, Mr. Hamilton—often with his close friend the Rev. Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church in Ohio—has created and/or participated in a number of venues, such as the Young Pastors’ Network, the Leading Edge gathering of large-church pastors, the Large Church Initiative and the Leadership Institute.
He’s been a speaker at 26 annual conferences in the last five years.
Mr. Hamilton extends his reach through writing. Along with blogging, he’s a prolific author of accessible books on faith that don’t duck tough questions. They’re published by Abingdon Press, part of the United Methodist Publishing House, and they’ve become a staple for UM Sunday school classes and other small groups.
His books have been published in 18 languages. Rare for a UM author, he’s made the best-seller list of CBA, the Christian retailers’ association. In 2012, Mr. Hamilton passed the 1 million mark in books sold throughout his career.
“Crossing that milestone confirms how his ministry is steadily expanding in reaching congregations, pastors and readers around the world,” said Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House.
Taking the lead
Mr. Hamilton served as board chair of Saint Paul School of Theology, in Kansas City, Mo., through much of 2012. Saint Paul has enrollment and financial struggles, and this fall the board voted to have the school vacate its campus and move to available space at the nearby Church of the Resurrection.
Saint Paul’s president, the Rev. Myron McCoy, argued that the school would save money by not having to maintain aging, not-fully-used buildings and would also attract more students by offering them the chance to study with the ministry specialists at Mr. Hamilton’s church.
It’s a controversial matter, with questions remaining about what will become of the school’s campus and with one prominent former board member accusing the board of failing to share much information until the decision to move was made. Mr. Hamilton remains on the board, but just before the key vote on the move, he stepped down as chair to avoid perceived conflicts of interest.
Mr. Hamilton strongly backs the board’s decision, which was unanimous.
“The move was born of a financial crisis at our seminary and a declining enrollment,” he said. “I think out of that crisis will come the potential for a new model for educating outstanding leaders for the future. . . . We produce great graduates. We will produce even greater graduates.”
Mr. Hamilton garnered much more attention for his role at General Conference 2012. He served on the Interim Operations Team that shaped legislation coming out of the Call to Action initiative, which was itself an effort by UMC leaders to grapple with decades of membership decline in the U.S. He also led the Kansas East Conference delegation.
During General Conference, Mr. Hamilton gave a keynote address, starkly laying out an even-more-downward trajectory if changes weren’t made, including a restructuring of general church agencies. Some young pastors took to Twitter to criticize Mr. Hamilton’s address, which led to a meeting between him and them.
“My job was a miserable job,” he told his younger colleagues. “I got to be the oncologist who told the church that it had cancer. My goal was to scare the hell out of you and say I don’t want this to be your future.”
At General Conference, Mr. Hamilton also took on the issue of homosexuality, introducing with Dr. Slaughter an “agree to disagree” amendment. They won praise from some gay rights advocates, but the effort failed, with most delegates opposing any effort to soften the church’s position that homosexual conduct goes against Christian teaching.
Some measures favored by Mr. Hamilton failed at General Conference. A compromise version of agency restructuring passed, only to be struck down by the Judicial Council as violating the UMC constitution.
Mr. Hamilton acknowledges his disappointment at the overall results of General Conference 2012, but is pleased money was found for recruiting and training young clergy.
“We set aside $7 million at a time when we’re reducing budgets to say, ‘Let’s help recruit an outstanding group of young leaders,’” he said.
No let up
For part of 2013, Mr. Hamilton will have a sabbatical leave from his church, but it’s not as if he’s going off to rest and meditate in a remote cabin. He’ll be travelling for three weeks in Egypt, to retrace the story of Moses for a book—if the security situation allows. If not, he’ll go to Turkey, and retrace some of the journeys of Paul.
For sure, he’s going to England.
“I’ll be retracing John Wesley’s life and ministry, meeting with Wesley scholars, developing a study on his life and teachings,” Mr. Hamilton said.
He’s also planning to finish a book, for 2014 publication, on the theological divides owing to different understandings of Scripture.
Mr. Hamilton plans to squeeze in some conference appearances, and is scheduled as a keynote speaker at the Large Church Initiative in Tampa, this April.
For all the gloom about the UMC’s decline in the United States—including the statistics he shared at General Conference—Mr. Hamilton does not feel the cause is lost.
“If we do all of the right things now, I think 20 years from now we will see the church in a healthy place and having a significant impact for the kingdom,” he said. “I dream and hope and pray that our best days are ahead of us. I’d like to be part of that.”