Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life

Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life

by William H. Willimon


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In Calling & Character, Willimon lays out a clear and compelling picture of the pastoral life, one that will inform both those embarking on ordained ministry and those who have been in it for many years. He lays out specific habits such as study, collegiality, and humor as the day-by-day means of following the difficult and dangerous, yet deeply rewarding, calling of a pastor.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780687090334
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 04/01/2011
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 874,410
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.42(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Calling and Character

Virtues of the Ordained Life

By William H. Willimon

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2000 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-2218-9



The Acts of the Apostles begins in great drama. The risen Christ ascends to heaven (1:611). Yet scarcely six verses later, Peter stands up and admits that Judas, who was "numbered among us and allotted his share in this ministry" (1:17) had collaborated with those who arrested Jesus. If one is looking for betrayers of Christ, one need look no farther than Jesus' own disciples.

Then there is an election of a replacement apostle by asking, "Lord... show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry" (1:24-25). Once lots are cast, Matthias is added to the eleven.

After the excitement of the resurrection and ascension, this seems a pedestrian way to begin the story of the church. The response to the ascension of Christ is a church meeting where a vote is taken. Yet I read this as Luke's way of asserting that leadership is not optional in the church. There is no church without apostleship, without leaders who are chosen on the basis of qualifications (1:21-22) and by divine choice (1:24). Church leaders come both from the "bottom up"—from the ranks of those whom the community chooses to lead— and from the "top down"—as gifts of a gracious God who does not leave the church bereft of the guidance it needs to fulfill its mission. Leaders are not some later bureaucratic invention foisted upon a once democratic and egalitarian church by power-hungry authoritarians. The church is, in this sense, inherently hierarchical, dependent upon the leadership of those who are commissioned by the Holy Spirit working through the church, for its fidelity.

The Matthias episode at the beginning of Acts reminds us that ministry begins in the heart of God, in God's relentless determination to have a people, a family. In order to have a family, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests able to declare the wonderful deeds of the One who brought us from darkness to light (1 Pet. 2:9), there must be leaders.

So, to the murderer Moses, hiding out in Midian, working for his father-in-law, God appears in a burning bush saying, "I have heard the cry of my people. I am going to liberate them. And guess who is going to help me?"

Moses protests. He is not good at public speaking. He has baggage. Yet Moses finds what succeeding generations found. Once comes the call to service, it is futile to wrestle with God. Once God has got in God's mind that someone is a leader, one might as well relent with a deferential, "Here am I, send me."

Ministry is therefore something that God does through the church before it is anything we do. Our significance, as leaders, is responsive. We are here, in leadership of God's people, because we have responded to a summons, because we were sought, called, sent, commissioned by one greater than ourselves that our lives might be expended in work more significant than ourselves. It all begins in vocation. As Calvin noted, God calls, but the church must also call. We believe that in this twofold call to ministry is God's very voice calling leadership to the church that the church could not have through its own efforts. Vocation is just one of God's gracious gifts to the church so that the church might be the church.


That which we call "ministry" is, in the New Testament, diakonia, from which we get the Greek word for "service." This is Paul's favorite title for Christian leaders (1 Cor. 12:4-30). Significantly, it is the same word that is the root for "butler" and "waiter." We pastors sometimes overlook how odd it is that the church designates its leaders by so mundane and lowly a term. No pastor rises much higher than the role of a butler waiting on table. Yet, in the curious topsy-turvy ethics of the Kingdom, this is as high as anyone rises, a servant of those seated at the Lord's Table.

So we begin our exploration of clergy ethics by inquiry into clergy identity. Every "ought" arises from an "is," all imperatives ("you should") are derived from indicatives ("you are"). We cannot judge how pastors ought to behave unless we first inquire into who pastors are. And to know who pastors are, we ought to know what pastors are for.

That the table being waited upon is the Lord's and those gathered are none other than the body of Christ makes all the difference for the diakonoi. Jesus, the one who modeled leadership with a basin and towel, was at some pains to admonish his followers that they ought not to behave like a bunch of power-grubbing "gentiles." "It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant (diakonos), and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave (doulos) of all" (Mark 10:43-44). The mention here of ser- vant and slave obviously indicates we are dealing with a very peculiar definition of leadership.

Later, when Ephesians speaks of the church's leaders as "apostles," "prophets," "evangelists," "pastors and teachers," it says that all of these share the servile function to "equip the saints for the work of ministry (diakonia)" (Eph. 4:11-12). These ministers have as their purpose to "equip the saints," that is, the whole church, so that the church can be about "the work of ministry." The significance of pastors is derived from what needs to happen among the ministers, that is church. As Luther later stressed, all Christians, by virtue of our baptism, are called to be evangelists, teachers, preachers, and healers. But for the sake of good order, the church has found it helpful to designate some from among the baptized to equip and to encourage the evangelists, teachers, preachers, and healers. These equippers of the saints are called "pastors." Even 1 Timothy's high view of bishops is based upon their function to "take care of God's church" (3:5).

Reading between the lines in Acts or the Pastoral Epistles, we know that there have always been moral challenges for the church's leaders. The Christ of the Fourth Gospel warns of unworthy shepherds who care little for the sheep, who are no more than thieves and robbers (John 10:1-10). I have always loved the way the Common Lectionary places this text just after Easter (Easter 4 A), just before Pentecost, as if to warn the church that, though resurrection may be true and though the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to the church, don't be surprised when some shepherd of this resurrected, Spirit-empowered flock lacks the character to be left alone with the sheep.

In contrast to most of the New Testament, 1 Timothy makes explicit mention of the moral qualities of Christian leaders:

Now a bishop [Greek: episkopos; sometimes translated as overseer] must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money (1 Tim. 3:2-3)

First Timothy has no qualms about linking a pastor's public, congregational role with the pastor's responsibility toward marriage and family. Clearly, pastors are to be role models for the church, without separation between public and private, social and personal behavior. When listing the moral duties of pastors, 1 Timothy contrasts "sound teaching" (4:6) with assorted immoral conduct (1:8-11). A pastor who is an unfaithful teacher, indifferent to sound doctrine, is considered by this epistle to be among the greatest of moral failures. In all things, it is clear that Christian leaders are visibly to represent a manner of life and a style of leadership in marked contrast to that of the world.

This countercultural, peculiar quality of church leadership was sorely tested in events that occurred during the fourth century. Imperial persecution suddenly ceased. Christian clergy, once the leaders of a subversive, sometimes persecuted and often just ignored sect on the fringes of the Empire, were about to become representatives of the state. The earlier tensive relationship between church and culture was relaxed. There were some, it was said, who sought ecclesiastical office (note that leadership is becoming an "office" in addition to a vocation) for economic or political advancement.

Perhaps it was this cultural context that gave rise to one of the greatest expositions on the Christian ministry, John Chrysostom's Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood (c. 386). The occasion for Chrysostom's writing on ministry was his being pressured by friends to become a bishop. In giving all the reasons why he was not, at this time, worthy of the episcopate, Chrysostom offers us a wonderful basis for thinking about the character required to be a pastor.

Although he had come from a highly placed Roman administrative family, Chrysostom had become a monk. His main reason why he thought that he should not leave the hermetic life and enter into the public push-and-pull of the episcopacy was his great respect for those who are able to remain holy even while engaged in the demanding work of building up the church. Monks had it easier, said Chrysostom.

In those days, the expectation was that one became a bishop, not at the end of an exhausting and degrading political campaign, but rather as a result of a responsibility bestowed by the church. The episcopacy was viewed not as an office that was sought with savviness, but rather as a burden that was assumed with reluctance.

Chrysostom believes that the peculiar nature of the pastorate, caring for the community of faith, makes the priesthood a particularly demanding vocation. It is the politics of it all that makes the pastoral ministry so difficult. A bishop has somehow got to be a pleasing bundle of polarities, "dignified yet modest, awe-inspiring yet kindly, masterful yet accessible, impartial yet courteous, humble yet not servile, vehement yet gentle." The pastoral overseer must hold all these conflicting qualities together in his person yet will only one thing, "the edification of the Church." Politically, a good priest must have "a thousand eyes in every direction."

In toiling long and hard on his sermons, the priest must at the same time be utterly indifferent to the praise of his hearers, says Chrysostom. He exemplified such homiletical courage when, as Bishop of Constantinople (he finally relented to the entreaties of the church and became a bishop in 397), Chrysostom roundly rebuked the Empress Eudoxia as nothing but a Jezebel, preaching in a fashion that earned him exile not once but twice.

While Chrysostom goes so far as to say that priests are superior even to the angels, because priests have been given the power to loose the bonds of sin, he notes that it is the peculiar burden of the priest to be judged by his parish as if he were an angel and not of the same frail stuff as the rest of humanity. If there is even the slightest bit of stubble in the building of his life, congregational envy, vexed parishioners, or rival clerics will seize upon such moral failings in the priest and the whole edifice will be "scorched and utterly blackened by the smoke."

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) was the Western counterpart to Chrysostom. In the very same year that Chrysostom wrote his Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood, Ambrose wrote On the Duties of Ministers (386). It is interesting that both of these church fathers, at different ends of the Empire, felt the need to comment on clerical ethical problems at the same time. Utilizing the De officiis of Cicero, Ambrose draws up a list of desirable virtues for clergy, augmenting Cicero's book of virtues for pagan governmental officials and applying them to Christian clergy, putting a sort of Christian veneer upon pagan ethics.

My approach is indebted more to Chrysostom, who begins his consideration of the virtues of priests by considering first their vocation. What pastors do is a function of who pastors are. The great ethical danger for clergy is not that we might "burn out," to use a metaphor that is popular in our time, not that we might lose the energy required to do ministry. Our danger is that we might "black out," that is lose consciousness of why we are here and who we are called to be for Christ and his church. It is easy, amid the great demands of the pastoral ministry, to lose sight of that vision that once called us into being as pastors. Periodic refurbishment of our vision is needed. Take this book as an attempt to address the ethical crises of pastors by renourishing the vision by which pastors are called.

Vocation to service, in my experience, is one of the main sources of motivation for constancy in ministry. There are many times in the pastoral ministry when we see no visible results of our efforts, have no sense that people are getting better because of our work among them, have little proof of our effectiveness as priests. In those moments, our only hope is to cling to our vocation, to adhere to the sense that God has called us, rather than we ourselves, that God has a plan and purpose for how our meager efforts fit into God's larger scheme of things. God's vocation is the only ultimate validation of our ministry.

Years ago a friend of mine, Robert Wilson, distinguished sociologist of religion, conducted a survey among some clergy of the Episcopal Church and clergy of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), inquiring into their happiness and satisfaction with ministry. The Episcopal clergy had a much larger amount of financial compensation for their work, lived in larger, better-equipped parsonages, and had more generous pension programs than the clergy in the Church of God. Yet the Episcopal priests were also far less happy and content in their ministry. Many of them showed low morale and deep unhappiness, particularly when compared to the Church of God ministers. Why?

Wilson said that he thought part of the problem lay in differences between how each group conceived of its ministry. The Episcopalians, according to Wilson's interviews, saw themselves as "professionals"—well educated and trained, though poorly employed and compensated, professionals. The Church of God clergy, on the other hand, saw themselves as called, willed by God to work in the Church of God; people sent on a mission.

"You can't pay people to do the things that ministers routinely must do," said Wilson. "They need to think God has called them, or ministry is miserable."

All historic rites of ordination include a general examination of candidates for ministry. It is interesting that ordination begins with so strong an ethical examination and injunction. Ministry is apparently a vocation that is against our natural, cultural inclinations. Therefore the church enjoins us to remember that we are called, that ministry is God's idea before it is ours, to seek God's help to be faithful to God's calling.

Recently, a group of Christian and Jewish ethicists and theologians issued a formidable group of essays collected in Clergy Ethics in a Changing Society. As a whole, the volume is a testimonial to the frequently heard charge that today's clergy are confused about who they are and what they are supposed to be doing. Generally speaking, clergy ethics is described in these essays as a personality disorder among pastors, with little reference to church, Scripture, or tradition. Exceptions are the essays by William May on "Images of the Minister" and Rebecca S. Chopp on "Liberating Ministry." Chopp's essay is interesting mainly because she is a liberation theologian and her essay therefore has a point of view and some unashamed commitments that give her interesting opinions about our allegedly "changing society." I do wonder, though, if an emphasis upon "liberation" as a guiding metaphor is inappropriate to the practice of Christian ministry. The notion of "liberation" as a basis for ethics tends to build upon the Western notion that we are most fully ourselves when we have the fewest obligations to others.

None of the essays in Clergy Ethics refers to the rites of ordination, a curious fact since, if one wants to know who clergy are and what they are supposed to be doing, one might consult those ecclesial statements made to and about clergy when the church ordained them. The lack of reference to rites of ordination leads to a depiction of clergy ethics as essentially self-derived, something constructed by pastors themselves in their attempt to be moral. Martin Marty's title for his essay typifies the problem: "Ministers on Their Own."

My friend Stanley Hauerwas was recently asked at a clergy conference about the moral confusion of contemporary clergy. Hauerwas said something to the effect that, "You have these people who get out of seminary thinking that their job is to 'help people.' That's where the adultery begins." What?


Excerpted from Calling and Character by William H. Willimon. Copyright © 2000 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.

Table of Contents


CHAPTER TWO The Character of Clergy,
CHAPTER THREE The Pastor in Community,
CHAPTER FOUR Crossbearing and the Clergy,
CHAPTER FIVE New Creation,
APPENDIX National Capital Presbytery Code of Ethics,

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Calling and Character : Virtues of the Ordained Life 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ThinkNeil on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Willimon's book is similar to several other books he has written on the topic of ordained ministry. He makes some good points and has some good illustrations within the structure of community, cross and new creation (which he borrows from Richard B. Hays Moral Vision of the New Testament). Willimon is a good partner in trying to understand what the pastoral calling is about, but especially if you stop before the final chapter it sets a very tough standard for ordained leaders (the grace flows more freely in the final chapter using the image of new creation).
Guest More than 1 year ago
Willimon's approach to the vocation of the clergy as positive and life-giving, is a refreshing and inspiring examination of the task of faithfully living as a clergy-person. Willimon seeks to develop the virtues of the pastoral life, while underscoring the challenges facing the clergy and those called to leadership in the Church.