First-Year Bishop: Dispatch from Birmingham: In My Job I Get to See Moribund Churches. I Also Get Blindsided by the Undeniable Fidelity of God's People

By Willimon, William H. | The Christian Century, September 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

First-Year Bishop: Dispatch from Birmingham: In My Job I Get to See Moribund Churches. I Also Get Blindsided by the Undeniable Fidelity of God's People


Willimon, William H., The Christian Century


ON MY LAST Sunday in Duke Chapel, after I'd preached to a full church and received a standing ovation after my sermon, a sophomore came up to me and said, "Thanks for abandoning us. What am I supposed to do for spiritual guidance now?"

I told him that God was calling me to a new ministry in Alabama and that whoever replaced me would be great.

"Say," the student continued, "are you going to be doing much preaching in your new job?"

"Sure will," I reassured him. "I'll be preaching two or three times every Sunday."

"That's good," he said. "I've heard that you are hard to follow and that your sermons are poorly organized, so now you'll be able to work on that."

"Who said that about my sermons?" I demanded.

"Everybody at Duke," he responded.

I said with infinite earnestness, "Look kid, are you open to a move to Birmingham? The Lord is putting me in a morally vulnerable situation, where everyone either respects me or fears me too much to tell me anything. Would you be willing to come to Alabama and every now and then tell me the truth?"

I've just completed my first year as a bishop of the United Methodist Church. I've got 630 pastors to appoint. Our systems of accountability and evaluation are poor, however, so only the Lord knows what they're actually doing for the kingdom. Through my conference lost an average of 2,000 members every year for two decades, no clergy were removed for incompetence. But then, most live just above poverty, in someone else's house, no matter how good they are.

One of the most difficult parts of my job has been to ordain these people--who have promised God to go where I send them, subordinating family, upward mobility, personal choice and home ownership to that one promise. The last day of annual conference, a pastor came up to me with tears in his eyes. "Bishop," he said, "I can't go where you are asking me to go. This move could destroy my marriage. My daughter is a high school senior. I can't do this."

"Were you at the service of ordination Sunday night?" I asked. "Remember, you promised God that you would go where I sent you. It's a heck of a way to run a railroad ... but it's our way and we pray it's God's way too. You promised. Start packing."

I've learned a lot in this first year. First, attend to the local. If United Methodism has a future, it lies in being more local and parochial. I am consecrated to be an officer of the general church, but most of what I've seen of that is not that invigorating. At our last Council of Bishops we spent a great deal of time wrestling to get an appointment with a United Methodist named George Bush. President Bush gave our handful of representatives less than ten minutes before turning them over to Karl Rove. What else has to happen to indicate that we bishops have lost social significance?

The good news is that most of what bishops do is mundane. That's one reason Chrysostom gave for why he ought hot to be a bishop. He enjoyed, as he said, serving a creative God in more interesting ways. More good news is that most of what the Trinity does is mundane too. And local. After all, the Word was made flesh in Bethlehem before it went to Washington, London or Paris.

The great genius of Protestant Christianity is in the living, breathing local communities of faith, congregations that struggle to embody that which they profess in places that only Jesus could love. God is forcing me to take the side roads and attend to the local and the particular, to eat copious barbecue and to lie awake at night worrying about the kingdom of God at Alabaster, Alabama.

I've been led to another, contradictory insight: No church is the fullness of church by itself. Jesus is too demanding, the Trinity too exasperatingly rich for any one church, congregation or denomination to do justice to God. United Methodists call that "connectionalism." When I despair over the condition of a congregation, the Lord reminds me that he never puts all of his theological eggs in one basket. …

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