Q & A: A gadfly bishop reflects, and candidly

It’s fitting that the latest book by Bishop Will Willimon would be released as General Conference tackles its biggest reform agenda in decades. Bishop Willimon has been a UMC gadfly since long before he became a bishop. That happened in 2004, after he’d spent 15 years of as Dean of Duke Chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University.

A prolific author, his new book is Bishop: the Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question (Abingdon Press; foreword by Adam Hamilton). It’s folksy and funny, yet impassioned and challenging. Think Mark Twain crossed with Karl Barth. Bishop Willimon tells stories from his time as leader of the North Alabama Conference, but also analyzes the office of bishop itself. He takes a lot of shots in Bishop, including at himself, but the book may surprise some with its optimism.

Bishop Willimon, 65, retires as bishop on Aug. 31. He answered questions posed by managing editor Sam Hodges.

You had a good gig at Duke. Why, in late middle age, did you agree to be a bishop?

I left Duke for the only good reason for a Methodist preacher to be sent anywhere: I got called by God and the church to take on this ministry and I was sent to Alabama. It’s a great joy to have your life commandeered by a living, demanding God!

You co-wrote the best-selling Resident Aliens, about how Christians need to be counter-cultural agents. Yet as bishop, you put in a metrics “dashboard” to measure churches, and this book reflects your extensive reading in leadership books, including from corporate America. Is there a contradiction here?

The dashboard is a counter-cultural effort to resist sociological determinism and defeat by mediocrity. The dashboard was created out of an evangelical conviction that Jesus Christ saves all of humanity—not just the segment over 59 years old, predominately white, and upper middle class that too much of Methodism has been content to keep house with. The contradiction is for a movement to call itself “Wesleyan” and be content with the majority of our congregations in decline.

As you make clear in Bishop, you pushed growth—not just “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” but “making more disciples.” What is your answer to those who say you made it all about “putting butts in the seat”?

That’s a crude statement, though I’ve heard it before, usually from those who seem to have failed to read the gospels where Jesus had compassion for the “multitudes,” where Revelation says that in the end, “myriads upon myriads” will be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. In North Alabama we have shown that the UM church can grow, but only if our churches are led by pastors who refuse to rationalize death and mediocrity.

In addition to adding the dashboard, you “exited” a lot of pastors, shook up the cabinet and changed how Annual Conference is done. What are the results of all this change after eight years? Is the North Alabama Conference growing, and is it more vital beyond growth?

We’ve been making about 4,000 new Christians each year. Alas, we have about 8,000 deaths each year so we show a net loss. However, we have seen increases in professions of faith, baptisms, number of children and the number of young pastors. It’s tough to turn around a church where the median age has been allowed to creep up to 59 years old, but we’ve shown that with God, all things are possible, even revitalized UM churches!

What was the biggest thing you didn’t understand about being a bishop until you were one?

I had a good bit of experience throughout the church, so that helped lessen the surprises. I suppose I underestimated the depth and ferocity of the contentment with the status quo and the way that those who have built a system, and profit by the present system, will resist changing the system. “Plan B,” as well as most of the attacks upon the bishops’ proposed Call to Action, show that doing what we have always done and getting the same results will be defended no matter what. The good news is that our church is calling some bishops and appointing some pastors who have the courage and the determination to lead Holy Spirit-induced change.

What was your low point as bishop?

Meetings of General Conference: two weeks trapped in a grim meeting where I’m not allowed to talk!

High point?

Ordaining new clergy. God continues to call women and men into the most hazardous, but adventurous, the most intellectually demanding and spiritually invigorating of vocations. Sometimes—as I would annually ask ordinands to be loyal to the UMC, to preach the gospel for which Jesus was crucified, and to vow to go wherever the bishop sent them—I would want to stop and shout out, “Are you people crazy?”

You favor term-limits for bishops. Yet on the whole, you argue for strengthening the position—really letting bishops lead. Explain.

Eight years is long enough to serve in one Annual Conference—at least it was for me. We need bishops who will come to the episcopacy, give it everything they’ve got, make some tough decisions, shake, rattle and roll, and then move on. I think bishops ought to fulfill the demands of the episcopacy for a time, then return to the best job in the whole world—being a United Methodist elder!

You have some issues, to say the least, with Council of Bishops gatherings. One is the presence of retired bishops there.

Our church needs new ideas, fresh initiatives. We overdo the stabilizing values of continuity, wisdom, and preservation of the past. It’s absurd for there to be as many retired bishops as active bishops present. I haven’t met too many pastors who insist that their predecessor should be present (and talking!) at every important meeting of the church.

You’re pretty high on the current group of bishops, particularly the institutional reformers, such as Palmer, Schnase, Jones, Huie. Why?

After decades of denial and inaction, we’ve got a flock of bishops who are determined, innovated, well coached by folks like Gil Rendle and Lovett Weems and moving from denial to creative action. If the General Conference fails to give the bishops what we have pled for in the CTA and elects instead to just continue the dysfunctional general church structure, it will have missed a golden opportunity. But I have confidence that, no matter what the General Conference does or doesn’t do, hard headed, creative leaders like Schnase, Jones, Huie, and Palmer will continue to press on.

As for the Call to Action initiatives—specifically consolidating general church agencies and ending guaranteed appointment—do you think they’ll prevail at this General Conference?

Most of the people who attend General Conference benefit from the status quo. That doesn’t bode well for innovation.

Some of your toughest language in Bishop is about General Conference itself. How would you sum up your critique?

Too long, too expensive, non-productive, legislative rather than spiritually-driven, generally the wrong people doing the talking and voting. And now, no more cookies! I could go on.

You note in Bishop that you encouraged your pastors to read Alabama history. Why?

For the same reason that they ought to read [John] Wigger’s book on Asbury: Our past both inspires us and shames us into the future.

You and your wife, Patsy, will soon be leaving Alabama. What’s next?

After his retirement, Bishop Will Willimon and his wife, Patsy, will return to North Carolina, where he’ll teach at Duke Divinity. PHOTO BY BEN WILLIAMS, COURTESY NORTH ALABAMA CONFERENCE


I will be teaching at Duke Divinity—courses in leadership and in homiletics. Those who can’t, teach!

Bishop makes clear that you are, for all of your criticisms, hopeful about the UMC. What one or two things give you the most hope?

I’m hopeful because, well, after the Resurrection of Jesus, none of us is able to tell God what can and can’t be done. We have a God of the living, and not the dead.

I’m also hopeful because time and again, as a bishop, I was delighted to discover that God has called just the right people to lead the United Methodist Church into a bright future. God has given us all that we need to be faithful to God’s commands. Of course, we have not always been bold and faithful in calling and empowering those people to lead us, but that’s our problem, not God’s. And Scripture teaches that time and again, God refuses to be stumped by our inadequacies. Therein is our hope.



              A quotable bishop

       Excerpts from Bishop, the new book by Bishop Will Willimon of the North Alabama Conference:

      The ten minutes it took me to remove two of my DSs from the ministry because of their violation of their marital covenants did more for clergy integrity than weeks of workshops.


 A bishop could now declare (as at least one has) that the Resurrection is hooey and suffer less censure than if he had questioned the wisdom of forming the membership of every committee by quotas for gender, ethnic, geographical, and clerical/lay representation.


We have hundreds of congregations, thousands, without any discernable mission other than the care and comfort of their members.


If we really want an inclusive church, let’s start counting the number of new African American UMs we attract each week.


 Of course, we should remove so-called guaranteed appointment for our clergy. First, let’s remove unaccountable, lifetime tenure for bishops.


Our church puts about sixty times more money into clergy pensions, caring for retired clergy, than it puts into youth ministry. . . . The way we use our resources is a commentary on our theology, a sign that our past is more valuable to us than our future.


 Our beloved church is in need of critique and disruption in the service of transformation and renovation—and there is no way to do that without being willing to generate sometimes painful friction.


 Our church is full of people who think of themselves as theological liberals but who are organizational reactionaries.


Empathy causes clergy to go limp. One of the most debilitating aspects of Council of Bishops meetings is our recent practice of devoting a vast amount of time cloistered  in small “covenant groups.” These support groups have no connection to any “covenant” to which I have assented. Their purpose is to provide an opportunity for bishops to compare notes on surgeries and health crises, become closer friends, and bellyache.”


 Sad to say, it is easier to push the preposterous notion that our church is going to eradicate the world’s killer diseases than to focus on the boredom that is killing our churches.


 One of my DSs asked every congregation to do just one thing: make one new Christian this year. Too small a goal? The DS pointed out that it’s a goal unreached by over half of UM congregations.


It isn’t that our church is doing too little, it is rather that we are attempting to do too much in too many places and our busyness is robbing us of our ability to do the things most needful at this particular place and time.


You would have to be a Christian to understand why Patsy and I considered it a great privilege to be assigned to serve God in ’Bama. For one thing, being beset by legions of biblical literalists, neo-Calvinist fundamentalists, and Baptist bigots is a golden opportunity to rediscover the vitality and intellectual superiority of Wesleyan Christianity.




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