Sent to Serve: William Willimon on Being Bishop

By Mitrovich, George | The Christian Century, May 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sent to Serve: William Willimon on Being Bishop


Mitrovich, George, The Christian Century


WIDELY PUBLISHED author and preacher--and CENTURY editor at large--William H. Willimon will step down this summer after eight years as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He will return to teaching at Duke Divinity School, where for many years he was dean of the chapel and professor of ministry. I asked him about his experience as bishop and some other topics.

As you leave the episcopacy after eight years, what do you consider your greatest achievement?

Perseverance. That's a cardinal virtue for any form of ministry, including the episcopacy--the willingness to serve where one is sent with the conviction that God is present, working through your ministry to accomplish God's purposes, even when one doesn't get observable results.

What was your greatest failure?

Well, I failed to communicate our conference's new values of accountability and growth in every level of our church. We didn't start enough new churches, and we failed to significantly increase professions of faith. I also failed to stamp out children's sermons. The list is long. Still, if someone doesn't have a long list of ministry failures, it's a sign that one has failed to comprehend the truly outrageous demands that Jesus puts upon us. For reasons known only to the Holy Spirit, God blesses some of our efforts and sometimes God doesn't.

What would you have done differently?

I wish I had moved more decisively as bishop in my first years. Then again, I seemed to have moved too fast for many of my critics. (Our church overstresses the need for stability and continuity.) I should have found a way to activate and utilize lay leaders more effectively; most of my successful communication was among clergy. I was criticized for being too "blunt," for being too "severe" in my criticism, but I think I could have been more clear and consistent in my message. It's odd that some of my most notable inadequacies as an episcopal leader are the same as my weaknesses as a preacher.

Are the appointing powers of a bishop consistent with democratic ideals?

I love living in a democracy, but I find little support in scripture for the practice. Bishops have power to send pastors because all ministry in the name of Jesus is "sent." Ministry in any form is always God's idea before it is ours. It's too much to expect pastors willingly and eagerly to go to some of the places Jesus is trying to save. So we have bishops to remind everyone that God so loved the world (and not just me and my friends)--including the remote reaches of Alabama.

The appointive system is one of Wesleyanism's great contributions to the mission of the church--God forgive us when we bishops allow the church to degenerate into a kind of clergy club, honor seniority rather than effectiveness in clergy and fail to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Was it a mistake to guarantee church appointments to clergy?

It's a mistake to fail to hold every pastor accountable for the results of his or her ministry. Nothing in the discipline requires a bishop to overlook a pastor's incompetence or to protect clergy from the truth. God uses some clergy for the advancement of the kingdom and not others. We discharged about 30 clergy while I was bishop--everything from early retirements to the threat of a formal complaint for ineffectiveness. Fortunately, very few of our clergy are truly, demonstrably ineffective. Sadder still than our failure to remove our few ineffective clergy is our failure to appoint effective clergy where they can best lead the mission of the church.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

If you as bishop determined that following ordination a minister recanted doctrinal vows he or she had solemnly pledged to honor, would that be grounds for dismissal? …

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