Willimon’s latest may help ordained leaders, but won’t reach others

Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question
William H. Willimon
Abingdon Press, 2012
Paperback, 200 pages

Eric Van Meter

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Bishop William H. Willimon that his latest book is one filled with both passion and contradictions.

One of the most prolific United Methodist writers of his generation, Bishop Willimon has styled himself as an agitator and antagonist, famously referring to bishops as “the bland leading the bland” while he served as dean of the chapel at Duke University. Once elected to the episcopacy, however, he found the new seat of authority too limited in scope.

Most of the stories Bishop Willimon tells about his time as bishop in the North Alabama Conference reflect the same confrontational style that marked his earlier career. The conference he inherited was, to him, a sick and static system with no real sense of mission. He relates his frustration at low expectations for growth among pastors and congregations, as well as the lack of accountability throughout the United Methodist structure.

Bishop Willimon’s answer to these frustrations is to afford more power to bishops as leaders. He builds his argument based on biblical ideas, Wesleyan history, and modern institutional failures. Bishops, he believes, are a supreme gift to the United Methodist Church. They are the ones who should have the greatest power in holding clergy and local congregations accountable for measurable, numerical growth.

As expected, Bishop gives some insight into life in the episcopacy. Although he frequently complains about the institutional structures he must work with, Bishop Willimon also talks about the necessity of teamwork with superintendents and other bishops. He offers a glimpse into the process of making appointments and helping them to work, and he ruminates on the joys of working with pastors who understood and implemented his vision for the church.

Still, Bishop is far from a collection of memories from a wizened veteran. Rather, it is a forceful argument for bishops to courageously claim the authority to lead—and for the UMC to recognize and empower them with greater authority. Although the defeat of some Call to Action proposals at the 2012 General Conference is a setback for Bishop Willimon’s vision, his latest book insists that bishops will play perhaps the most vital role in the renewal of the UMC.

Fans of Bishop Willimon will appreciate his sharp wit and excellence as a writer. He blusters through his subject with the energy and conviction his readers have come to expect.

However, Bishop lacks the same connectivity with rank-and-file United Methodists that mark some of his earlier writings. Rather than address issues of power theologically, it unquestioningly defends ecclesial authority—and makes a plea for that authority to be extended well beyond its current limits. The book’s narrow scope may provide interesting reading to some, but it falls well short of the title’s claim of truly questioning authority in a way that matters to the average United Methodist reader.


The Rev. Van Meter is director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University. Contact him at: eric@astatewesley.org


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I am a member of the North Alabama Conference and have been very supportive of our bishop. Though his leadership style is full of relational deficiency, many of his ideas are on target and he clearly loves the church. I was humored to read here of his annual feedback from the Episcopal Committee that he was "too abrasive", which I wish he had taken to heart as a healthy attempt to help him be a more effective leader, rather than dismissing it in typical fashion. In leadership, many of his ideas are brilliant, though his belittling style is painful to… Read more »


He seems to be on quite a roll lately and the bluster that he has stirred up seems to this new UMC member a testimony to the power, if not total truth, to his recent writings and actions. I'm looking forward to this book even if it isn't – as described by this reviewer – meant for me.


I appreciate the "Reporter" giving so much free press to our Bishop, Will Willimon. He is a visionary and courageous leader. He led the cause for a just immigration law in Alabama. He is not afraid to speak his mind. After all, in his words, "that is what Methodist preachers do." I admire him and have learned so much from him and his "out of the box" leadership style. He is a refreshing leader. His book "Bishop" may not appeal to "all" however, it should appeal to all UM Clergy. We are a part of the same "tribe" no matter… Read more »


What does the reviewer mean by Willimon asking to address the issue theologically or not? Did Willimon quote Hebrews 13:17 "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you." Is the issue of authority our fatal flaw?

I also believe many Methodists confuse power with authority.

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