In one of Bishop Will Willimon’s last letters to his constituents in the North Alabama Conference before retiring last month, he wrote, “Our numbers indicate that we have been under led, or led in the wrong sorts of ways. Our indicators of institutional health say that we need to do some things differently.”
He continued, “I am frequently reminded by the Holy Spirit that Jesus was crucified through the leadership of people like me, persons in positions of spiritual authority over others. As bishop, I’m closer to Caiaphas than to Saint Paul.
He closed with the words, “The only hope we have for accomplishing anything in our church leadership is our faith that Jesus Christ really rose bodily from the dead and is on the move utilizing the same sorts of knuckleheads whom he first called and commissioned.”
In response to some questions I sent to him, Bishop Willimon wrote regarding United Methodism’s institutional future: “My inclination is toward pessimism. However, post-resurrection, we Christians are not permitted despair. There is hope for all things, including institutional Methodism!”
He was disappointed that the 2012 General Conference rejected the proposed Call to Action: “I feel the bishops offered the church an opportunity and the church, at least the politicos at General Conference, rejected that offer. I hope that now the bishops will feel free to lead in their annual conferences and not spend so much time attempting to make the agencies and mechanism of the church be productive.”
In reflection on his eight years leading United Methodists in North Alabama, Bishop Willimon said he wished he “had done a better job of enlisting the laity in the renovation of the church. I did a good job with cabinet and younger clergy, but did not find a way of really communicating and empowering the laity to move us from maintenance to mission.” His greatest surprise in those years, he said, was the pushback he received from “clergy who have given decades of ministry to the status quo. The forces of self-protection are very strong.”
The bishop—whose ministry included years as campus minister and then dean of the chapel at Duke University—indicated that his most persistent, severe critics were clergy over 50 years of age who have rationalized that it is normal for the UMC to limit its effective ministry to laity over 50.
Bishop Willimon noted his concern over recent actions by annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences in the West and Northeast regarding affirmation for and potential ordination and appointment of openly gay and lesbian persons. Those actions, he said, can pose a “real challenge in maintaining the unity of the church in doctrine and practice.”
While he empathizes with gays and lesbians who feel excluded from the church, he is even more concerned about the “precipitous decline” in the Western and Northeast jurisdictions. “I wish that churches in these areas would also become concerned about their exclusion of three generations. If their present practices continue, in just a decade these Jurisdictions will disappear.”
I asked what he thought might happen if the Judicial Council strikes down the General Conference action to end guaranteed appointment for United Methodist clergy. “Either way the Judicial Council rules,” he said, “we will still need bishops and DS’s who have the courage to protect the church from incompetent clergy and do the hard but necessary work to address clergy ineffectiveness. In his two four-year terms as a bishop, he stressed John Wesley’s demand for accountability, a hallmark of early Methodism. Bishop Willimon said he is “proud that North Alabama showed that we could honor the mission Christ gives the church more than the protection that the church gives inept clergy.”
Asked about the future of local churches with 50 or less in worship on Sunday morning, he said: “We have more small membership churches than any other denomination mainly because we have so many ways to subsidize them so that they can maintain the illusion of being viable congregations. After a church’s ‘season of ministry’ has passed, should we force well-trained clergy to serve it? Is that not the place for part-time local pastors and retired pastors who wish to serve part time? Since a church can cease to render effective missional ministry in a community, should we not be as willing to close it as we are to terminate a clergyperson who is ineffective?”
Bishop Willimon is one of the most prolific writers in United Methodism, and he plans to continue this ministry. He even has a novel coming from Cascade Press, titled Incorporation. He calls it “a loving embrace of and a satirical smack at the church.”
I asked whether he sees a “pro-active shift” in the near future for the United Methodist Church. Bishop Willimon, who is joining the faculty of Duke Divinity School this fall to help train another generation of clergy, says he feels like Moses on Mount Nebo with nothing more than a vision of the Promised Land.
Yet he ended by affirming, “The Holy Spirit is active. Where there are just a few people willing to follow His lead, there is always hope for us. The new crop of bishops in the Southeastern Jurisdiction indicates to me that more people are really yearning for a brighter future for our church. God just might be doing what Isaiah called ‘a new thing’ among us!” He envisions a church, long after his passing, that will “enjoy the reality of a fully recovered and robust Wesleyanism.”
Just as Robert Burns advised us to “see ourselves as others see us,” the bishop admits to his own sin and believes such confession is an asset for any leader and essential for a bishop of the church. Bishop Willimon urges all to conduct lives of missional service, “playing a part, however small, in God’s incarnation in the world.”
After all, he notes, one does not decide to go into ministry; one is called, and when called, one responds, “Here I am, Lord.”
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: email@example.com.