Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question

Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question

by Willimon

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As a church leader, it’s easy to make the wrong move and find yourself in a bad position.

“What to teach; How to teach; What to do,” were the three questions Wesley employed at his first conferences.   In sixty previous books Will Willimon has worked the first two. This book is of the “What to do?


As a church leader, it’s easy to make the wrong move and find yourself in a bad position.

“What to teach; How to teach; What to do,” were the three questions Wesley employed at his first conferences.   In sixty previous books Will Willimon has worked the first two. This book is of the “What to do?” genre.  

Many believe the long decline of The United Methodist Church is a crisis of effective leadership. Willimon takes this problem on. As an improbable bishop, for the last eight years he has laid hands on heads, made ordinands promise to go where he sends them, overseen their ministries, and acted as if this were normal.  Here is his account of what he has learned and – more important – what The United Methodist Church must do to have a future as a viable movement of the Holy Spirit.  




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The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question

By William H. Willimon

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-5603-0



It's a typical Sunday morning for Patsy and me. We drive past fallow fall fields, trustworthy GPS coaxing us down rural roadways. Just an hour beyond Birmingham we descend a low hill, autumnal trees part, and we see a little white-frame building that is typecast as everyone's idea of a church. An hour before the service a few pickup trucks are gathered in the church's gravel lot. Spotting an aging Ford parked in the shade, I comment knowledgeably, "The pastor is here."

"This county now has the third highest influx of Spanish-speaking people. That building was built after the fire, in the 1940s. They still call it 'the new church,'" I say, showing off my reading. I ask for a summary of the demographic context and the congregational history when I make a Sunday visit. While my sermon preparation is helped by knowledge of the congregation's past, the sad truth is that most of my congregations have more history behind them than future before them.

Most of our congregations, like the one where I'm the visiting preacher today, were planted a century ago. The community that gave them birth has relocated. Though the people around the congregation have changed, the congregation has remained fixed confined to the same rhythms of congregational life that worked for them decades ago but no longer work today.

That's one of the things people love about a church—it doesn't move. It blooms where planted and, long after it withers, it stays planted. We build our churches to look at least two hundred years older than they are. Inside, the pews are bolted down, heavy and substantial. That the world around the church is chaotic and unstable is further justification for the church to be fixed and final.

One of my younger churches worships in the "contemporary worship" idiom. The pastor complained of boredom: "We are singing the same songs, using the same pattern of worship that we've been stuck with for the past twenty years. Worst of all, we call it contemporary!"

"Why not change?" I asked naively.

"This is a mobile suburban neighborhood," he explained. "Only a couple of my members have seniority on me. The last thing my people want is for church to force even more change. Contemporary has become our hallowed, immutable tradition."

In a time when many feel overwhelmed by change—the government's economic attack on the middle class, high unemployment among young adults, shifting political alliances, soaring debt for the world's biggest military, the demise of once-sound institutions, changing social mores, the information explosion—the church is tapped to play the role of immobile island amid a sea of change.

What is incomprehensible is that we call this stabilityprotecting, past-perpetuating institution "the Body of Christ." All the Gospels present Jesus as a ceaseless peripatetic. Never once did he say, "Settle down with me." No, with vagabond Jesus it was always, "Follow me!"

Consider the first days of Christ's resurrected life. Not content just to be raised from the dead, the risen Christ is in motion, returning to the rag-tag group of Galilean losers who had failed him (Matt. 28:16-20).

And what does Jesus say? "You have had a rough time. Settle down in Galilee among these good country folk with whom you are most comfortable. Buy real estate, build, get a good mortgage, and enjoy being a spiritual club"? No. The risen Christ commands, "Get out of here! Make me disciples, baptizing and teaching everything I've commanded! And don't limit yourselves to Judea. Go to everybody, to undocumented immigrants, everybody! I'll stick with you until the end of time—just to be sure you obey me."

How like the rover Jesus to disallow rest. Refusing to permit disciples to hunker down with their own kind, he sent those who had so disappointed him forth on the most perilous of missions—in Jesus' name, to take back the world that belonged to God. There is no way to be with Jesus, to love Jesus, without obediently venturing with Jesus. "Go! Make disciples!"

The United Methodist Church should rejoice in a new generation of overseers who feel called to administer but also to lead, not simply to manage an ecclesiastical system, but to push, pull, cajole, and threaten that system to become again the Body of Christ in motion. Once bishops were the personification of stability, our link with the past, our assurance that, despite any minor modifications, we were still the same.

Today a growing group of bishops are not simply allowing but also leading change. Their transformative leadership arises from institutional and from theological concerns. Though we have a rapidly shrinking and declining church on our hands, we are also in the hands of a Savior who was crucified because he destabilized the messianic expectations of the faithful and was resurrected and ascended as sign of God's determination not to allow death to have the last word.

Leading and Managing the Body of Christ

Our Service of Consecration for Bishops says succinctly what bishops are for:

You are now called, as bishop in the Church, ...
to represent Christ's servanthood in a special ministry of oversight.

You are called to guard the faith, to seek the unity,
and to exercise the discipline of the whole Church;
and to supervise and support the Church's life, work,
and mission throughout the world.

As servant of the whole Church,
you are called to preach and teach
the truth of the gospel to all God's people;
to lead the people in worship,
in the celebration of the Sacraments,
and in their mission of witness and service in
the world,
and so participate in the gospel command
to make disciples of all nations....

Your joy will be to follow Jesus the Christ
who came not to be served but to serve.

Will you accept the call to this ministry as bishop
and fulfill this trust in obedience to Christ?

My only cavil is that the service's opening verbs—"guard," "represent," "administer," "supervise," "support"—are not active enough to characterize the work of a new breed of UM bishops. Shove, coax, bargain, and beg are more true to what we bishops now do for the love of God.

To perform "the special ministry of oversight," bishops, like all ministers of the gospel, are called. Jesus Christ gets his movement in motion by vocation, calling a group of ordinary people to help him do the work of the kingdom. His saving work was the communal reconstitution of the scattered lost sheep of Israel, not merely an appeal to a group of isolated individuals. Jesus Christ is God's definitive statement to humanity that God refuses to be God alone. Ever the great delegator, Jesus chooses not to save the world by himself. Thus a bishop's work is rarely solo.

"Loneliness at the top is the worst part of this job," an experienced bishop warned me. He was wrong. The Discipline defines bishops as elders who lead a team of elders (the bishop's cabinet) whose primary means of leading the church is through the deployment of a community of pastors (ministerial members of the annual conference) to lead the mission of our congregations and the far-flung ministries of our church.

Not much lonely about that.

Ron Heifetz is right. The greatest "myth of leadership is the myth of the lone warrior." The Cabinet preserves me from this fantasy. The bishop-district superintendent system is a wonderfully team-based, consultative, collegial way of working that offers a maximum of interaction with different perspectives. Information can be unearthed and shared, conflict can be orchestrated, and moves can be interpreted collegially. As Aristotle said, "Feasts to which many contribute excel those provided at one person's expense." The decisions that we made together—and I can't think of a single important decision that was not concerted—were not only better decisions but also ones that had a greater likelihood of being well executed. Never could any member of my Cabinet say of a pastoral appointment, "That appointment was the bishop's idea." Few mistakes were solely mine. Change initiated in North Alabama was never my personal program; the Cabinet contributed, advised, initiated, questioned, criticized, or praised every step along the way.

The most important appointment a bishop makes is the selection of district superintendents; everything hinges upon whom the bishop chooses to manage pastors and churches. A district superintendent (DS) is the glue that holds the connection together, the most active itinerant among itinerating pastors, the administrator of our order and polity, and the main reason we are still able to be an episcopal church. No vision of any bishop has been realized, no episcopal directive is executed without the consent and work of a DS. Nothing moves in The UMC until a DS commits to leading that change.

If you know my past, you know how difficult it is for me to make these laudatory statements about district superintendents. As a product of the antiauthoritarian 1960s, during the first years of ministry I regarded a district superintendent in much the same way as prisoners regard their warden. I've never gotten along well with "A rule is a rule" sort of people. Among the many objections to my being a bishop was, "But you have never even been a DS." My translation: "You lack experience as an unimaginative, rule enforcing, sycophantic, unctuous bureaucrat."

DSs are now at the apex of my great chain of being, not just because of my experience with DSs while I was an active bishop, but also because of Harvard professor John Kotter's seminal book, Leading Change. Leadership and management, said Kotter, are two "distinctive and complementary systems of action." By way of analogy, when Kotter says "leader," were he a Methodist, he would say "bishop" and when he says "manager" I take him to mean "DS."

Though I'm sure that Kotter has heard of neither Bob Wilson nor me, I'm confident that he would agree with our thirty-year-old statement that The UMC is "over managed and under led." Everybody laments the paucity of good leaders. But Kotter warns that strong leadership without good management gets an organization nowhere. While not everyone is both a good manager and a good leader, effective bishops must be both. Bishops are leader managers who lead church managers (DSs) in not only administering but also in beefing up the Body of Christ.

Kotter defines management as "coping with complexity." The twentieth century saw the emergence of highly complex, differentiated organizations that easily became chaotic to the point of self-destruction. We have so many different sorts of UM churches—somewhat interconnected—and in so many different places, served by a diversity of pastors, that careful, comprehensive, coherent management is essential. In 1972 we created a form of church where even the lowest reaches of the organization were required to duplicate the complexity of the highest levels. A complex, bureaucratic process of decision-making and governance consumed huge energy. Every congregation, even the weakest, was required to ape the organization of the church at large. DSs were fated to become the most important persons in the system because the system required so much management. The greatest good produced by management, said Kotter, is organizational "order and consistency," which for the 1972 General Conference were more important than practicality and productivity.

Leadership (bishop), unlike management (DS), is not primarily about order and consistency. Leaders administer change. American churches find themselves in a competitive, conflicted environment where mainline Protestantism has lost its monopoly on the practice of Protestant Christianity. A living God gives churches two choices: grow (that is, change) or die (dead doesn't change).

Change cannot be managed; it must be led. Management (district superintendent [DS]) is needed to cope with complexity; leadership (bishop) is needed for change. Management increases an organization's capacity to move forward by organizing and staffing, developing necessary structures, evaluating and planning, holding people accountable, rewarding people who contribute, and exiting people who detract from an institution's forward movement. Leadership (bishop) helps people move in the same general direction by talking—motivating and inspiring.

Management and leadership are companions. We need both DSs and bishops because we are desperate for the fruits of good management and we are dying for lack of inspired leadership. Yet here's the rub for bishops: while DSs need not be great leaders, bishops must perform both management and leadership functions.

Leaders help an organization articulate and reiterate a vision. A leader of change must not only cultivate and encourage a vision but also do the hard, sweaty, unglamorous management work required to imbed and to instigate that change. I estimate that I spent about 20 percent of my time as a leader and about 80 percent of my time as a manager. Though the 20 percent of me that was a leader was the most consequential part of me for the long term good of the church, my leadership would have gotten us nowhere without the 80 percent of me as manager—going to meetings, selecting the right DSs, reading and responding to reports on ministry, studying the stats for the productivity of pastors and churches, going to meetings, evaluating personnel, holding direct reports accountable, and going to meetings.

Management values control and devalues risk; leadership requires energy and, therefore, inspiration (literally "filled with spirit"). No grand vision is achieved, said Kotter, without "a burst of energy." Managers push people through mechanisms of oversight and control. Leaders inspire people by energetically playing to people's basic need for achievement, a sense of belonging, recognition by others, and the power to live up to their highest ideals. Thus good leaders tend to be inspiring motivators; they know how to assess people's highest values and they enhance those values. They invite others into decisions and give them a sense that they have some control over their destiny. Leaders discover the organization's most successful leaders and then they attempt to recognize and to reward those people in order to add value to the organization.

Bishops who want to be transformative leaders of change must not become enslaved to their management tasks, but they must manage. Later I will describe my struggle to fulfill both functions in service to a church that must either change (grow) or continue to shrink (die).

Because The United Methodist Church needs changing, one of the essential tasks of a leader like a bishop is to identify, to develop, and to motivate transformative leadership in others, particularly in the DSs. Leadership initiative is needed from people at every level, particularly among the managers. Motivation comes through example and communication. The United Methodist Church is blessed by an established, functioning network of churches known affectionately as "the connection." The connection provides the bishop who is leader-manager with multiple opportunities and means of communicating the need for and the means to change. A DS explains and reiterates change to all the churches, always on the lookout for clergy and laity who appear to "get it."

Nelson Mandela remembered an aged tribal chief's maxim for leadership: "A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind." A bishop, as shepherd, creates space for the most nimble to go ahead, praying that the flock will follow the most nimble rather than lag behind with the sluggish and the fearful.

Persons to be considered for the role of DS need not have been in their clergy careers the greatest preachers, the most learned teachers, or the most caring pastors. They must be leaders who have taken opportunities in their churches for risk-taking in order to produce change and managers who are willing to shoulder the responsibilities of supervision.


Excerpted from Bishop by William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Feeling most at home behind a pulpit, Will Willimon’s deepest calling is to be a preacher and truth-teller of Jesus Christ. He is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University Divinity School and retired Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, after serving for 20 years as faculty member and Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Will Willimon has published many books, including his preaching subscription service on, Pulpit Resource, and Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, both published by Abingdon Press.

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