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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: The Joy of Ministry

May 23, 2011

Ministry, in any of its forms, is always God's idea before it is ours. While we pastors may come to enjoy our clerical vocation, we do it first of all not because it causes us bliss but rather because it is the job to which God has called us. God loves to summon people to painful, impossible tasks.

Service to Christ and his church begins in Christ's call. That's why reflection upon ministry in any of its forms begins with baptism - the laying on of hands is a baptismal gesture that only later, and regrettably, became almost exclusively associated with ordination. All Christians are "ordained" through baptism to share in Christ's ministry in the world. A few of the baptized are designated by the church to equip and to mobilize their fellow Christians to share Christ's ministry - these are called clergy.

All Christian leadership begins in God's determination to have a people in motion helping God retake God's world. For those of us in ordained leadership in our church, sometimes the great challenge is to believe in us half as much as God in Christ believes in us; though laity can be forgiven for watching us pastors in action and thinking lots of things before thinking, "gift of God."

My former boss at Duke, Nan Keohane, defines leadership as "providing solutions to common problems or offering ideas about how to accomplish collective purposes, and mobilizing the energies of others to follow those courses of action."[1] This is as good a global definition of leadership as I know -- except for one missing element -- God. A faithful pastor allows God the Father to define our common problems, asking Jesus Christ for the grace to find solutions that are compatible with the Christian view of reality, and then assists the Holy Spirit in mobilizing the energies of fellow disciples to do the work. All Christian leadership is under obligation to keep our leadership theological rather than a-theistic (attempting to lead as if God were not).

When Rowan Williams was made Archbishop of Canterbury the press asked if he had doubts about accepting the new post. Williams replied, "You'd be a maniac not to have doubts.....it's a job that inevitably carries huge expectations and projections,... you live through other people's fantasies in a way, and to try and keep some degree of honesty, clarity and simplicity in the middle of that is going to be hard work - so that frightened me a lot."[2] Fear and trembling come with the summons to ministry of leadership of the church, fear of God's demands, apprehension of the church's fantasies and expectations, dread of your own limits.

Considering our present obsession with leadership, it's odd that the New Testament has so little to say about the subject. For instance in one of the few places where scripture bothers with bishops, the First Letter to Timothy says:

Now a bishop must be worthy of reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. (1 Timothy 2:2-3)

Well, at least I am the husband of one wife.

While I take comfort that First Timothy has modest ethical expectations for bishops, these days, it isn't easy being bishop. The Bishop of Rome continues to twist in the wind due to almost daily revelations of sex abuse by priests under his care. The Archbishop of the Church of England isn't doing so hot either - he's just been forced to make another public apology. Both I and the Pope could learn from Williams' skilled self-flagellation before the media. My heart goes out to the Archbishop.

Though I'm far from the depth of his intellect, like Rowan I came to the episcopacy from academia and, like him, have difficulty being comprehended. I am also an anti-establishmentarian now forced to prop up and to defend the establishment. And like the good Archbishop I can't find a way fully to please either conservatives or liberals.

But being a specifically Christian leader has never meant first of all to be easily understood, popular and well liked, or pleasing to peoples' expectations. It means first of all to serve God, to work to move forward God's purposes, and earnestly to try to do what God wants before serving what we want.
It's a vocation full of peril, failure, and frustration to be sure. But I'm happy to report, after four decades of my own attempt at ministry, and from what I've observed (particularly in the past four weeks in Alabama) that it is a profession full of great joy. It is a joyful thing to feel that ones life is being used by God for godly endeavor.

I spent some time a few weeks ago, attempting to help a young woman discern if God might be calling her into the United Methodist ordained leadership. That morning I had spent some time at one of our disaster relief centers, working with Methodists attempting to help people after the storm. I had seen some of our pastors leading some remarkable work in some very difficult situations.

I said to the young person exploring vocation, "I don't know at this point whether or not God is calling you into ordained leadership. But you need to pray that God will call you into the pastoral ministry. It's a great way to go!"

-- William H. Willimon

[Taken with permission from the Bishop's Blog, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, originally posted 5/23/11]


[1] Nannerl O. Keohane, Thinking about Leadership (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010), 19.[2] Shortt, Rowan's Rule, 240.

 

 


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