A Holy Agitator: My thoughts from Willimon’s book Bishop

A Holy Agitator. I think that is what I would call Bishop Will Willimon. There are a lot of people who aren’t afraid to speak their mind, but there is no one who quite has the theological mindset of Willimon. As I read through his most recent book Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question, I found myself nodding my head frequently, shaking my head occasionally, and AOL (Amening out loud) often. (I just came up with that, let me know if that is dorky or cool, or a combination of both.)

This is not a book review because I’m not the book reviewing type, but I do think great ideas should be shared, so I’ll share some of what the good Bishop writes, and then add my own commentary. Just so you know I read it on my Kindle, so I’ll put the Kindle location on the quote. I highlighted many passages in the book, so this is just the beginning. I hope you enjoy, learn, and get agitated.

The most important appointment a bishop makes is the selection of district superintendents…Nothing moves in the UMC until a DS commits to leading that change.” KL 259-265

I serve on Congregational Development, which oversees, encourages, and funds new church starts. Notice that we do not start new churches. We can’t. It is not a committee’s job to start new churches. It is up to the DS, who may or may not see themselves as Missional leaders to help locate places for new churches and start them.

South of Tulsa is the growing suburb of Glenpool, OK. Since Glenpool is a more affordable suburb there are many young families moving into the community and some significant shopping centers also being built. What wasn’t being built there? A Methodist Church. Not because we were blind to it. (Cong. Development talked about it for at least 8 years!), but because we weren’t willing to risk it. The previous DS had tried to find a mother church, but no churches stepped up unfortunately, and while this DS did many wonderful things, a new church was not started until this annual conference (at least 3 years too late, but finally) when a new DS made it his priority to start one even without a mother church. He did in his first year what the previous DS did not do in 6. A DS has responsibility to not just maintain existing churches, but to be a catalyst for Missional change. On the subject of new church starts, I believe that each of our 12 DS should be able to answer the following questions: what people groups are not being reached in your district and where are the top 3 potential places for a new church start. And be able to co-dream, vision, and lead how these people will be reached.

Many Boards of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) lack the boldness and the creativity of the Holy Spirit and the clarity of commitment to the mission of the church, preferring to approve clones of themselves rather than to take a risk on more creative candidates. In order to keep a system static, select people who follow instructions, preserve rigid rules, keep information sharing to a minimum, and develop a clergy selection system that privileges experience and credentials over God-given talent and sacrifices creativity for conformity. KL 564

I’ve got a good friend, who when he gets ordained I will consider it one of my greatest accomplishments. I’m the annoying friend who reminds him about BOOM meeting, paper due dates, and other responsibilities so he can get ordained. He is a tremendous, spiritual leader and a visionary pastor and preacher, but he’s not a paperwork guy. I hope that if he didn’t have me around he would still follow through with ordination, but I know it would be more difficult for him. I think the BOOM in Oklahoma is flexible and my experience has been very positive, but I think how the BOOM manages the tension between creativity and conformity in the discernment of someone’s call is critical.

Bishops make poor decisions in the sending of pastors because of three deficiencies: lack of accurate information, lack of creativity, and lack of courage. It is our responsibility to know pastors and churches down deep. It’s the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to give us the guts to act upon that knowledge. KL 661

When bishops are asked to appoint clergy by criteria other than effectiveness in leading a congregation, we get the lousy results we deserve. KL 667

From what I experienced, the authority of bishops to appoint pastors is rarely abused and too modestly used. I was constrained, not by the structures in the Discipline, but rather by my own lack of courage, creativity, and innate clerical desire to please. KL 733

Our job, thank goodness, is not to make the pastors’ marriages turn out right, or to force their children to behave, or even to help them find happiness and contentment in ministry. We must believe that all these worthy concerns are fruit of a life that is lived in service to the mission of Christ. KL 757

The most important work of the Bishop and the DS (collectively called the cabinet) is appointment making. This uniquely Methodist phenomenon makes fascinating gossip and jealous pastors who watch with envious eyes as someone else gets the appointment that they thought they deserved. One of my friends in OK has recently received an appointment in another conference. He is 30 years old working as an associate at a large church, and he received the largest appointment in another conference: a growing church in a suburb averaging around 500 on a Sunday morning. My first thought when I heard that, “I bet there are a lot of clergy in that conference who don’t like him already.” My second thought was, “could something like that happen to me?” My third thought was, “I sure am happy for him.”

Let me announce my perspective/bias. This is probably going to come across as arrogant, and I do not intend for it to be so. I think this is probably what many young clergy think and ask when we have confidence in the gifts God has given us and the call He has placed on us. I am a young clergy who I believe I have been incredibly well equipped for ministry. I learned much as my experience as a PK. I received great formal educations at Oklahoma City University and Asbury Seminary, and I been informally educated by many who have mentored my faith and leadership in our denomination. I have been successful in my two years in pastoral ministry, a very short sample size. (Trinity UMC has grown from 71 to 109 in my 2 years including many new members. On a budget of around $160,000 we have paid over $110,000 on our debt of $150,000, and I believe we are just getting started reaching out to our community.) While I don’t know what they are, I believe God has gifted me and has a grand plan for me. My question and bias is this, “Will I have to wait my turn and slowly ‘climb the ladder? Or will the cabinet be bold and creative when God calls them to make an appointment that fits my God-given gifts and abilities, even if that means that I leap over other clergy who have served in the system faithfully?”

That’s why what Bishop Willimon said resonated so much with me. Appointment-making is not about career advancement but kingdom advancement. As long as the Methodist church is more concerned about the former (Shoot, I care about my own career advancement!) than the latter, then we will continue to decline, suffer, and lose some of our best leaders to other denominations (see Groschel, Craig), conferences, or sadly even professions. When clergy submit to the authority of the bishop and cabinet, our only true hope is not that they know us, but that they listen to the Holy Spirit who knows us better than anyone else truly can. If that appointment makes other clergy jealous, so be it. If that appointment scares me to death, so be it. If that appointment is a community I’ve never heard of, so be it. As long as there is confidence that the Spirit leads the appointment-making and not a list of salaries or average attendances, so be it or as we in the church like to say: Amen.



Filed under Church Plant, United Methodism

2 responses to “A Holy Agitator: My thoughts from Willimon’s book Bishop

  1. Will Willimon

    Wow. I”m honored by your reading of my book and I am so pleased that you, a talented young clergy person, resonated with so many of my ideas. Thanks.
    Will Willimon

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