Thoughts from Reading William Willimon’s Latest Book “Bishop”

In a few short days, United Methodist from across the United States will gather at jurisdictional conferences. The main purpose of these gatherings is to elect episcopal candidates who will serve as an annual conference’s resident bishops. During this cycle of jurisdictional conferences, 11 new bishops will be elected. My jurisdiction, Southeast, will elect five new bishops.

As a United Methodist pastor and an outside observe to the jurisdictional process, I hope that these gatherings will be a time of deep prayer and discernment regarding the role of the episcopacy. This shouldn’t be just a time of election, but a time to rediscover the importance of the episcopacy in the life of our denomination and what it means for our churches to be led by a bishop.

For delegates who are preparing to attend jurisdictional conferences, I hope they will take time to read the thoughts of retiring North Alabama Resident Bishop William Willimon found in his book “Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question.” The book casts a vision that sees a bishop as a strong leader who promotes a vision of mission and vitality for the denomination. Indeed, we need bishops who are led by the Spirit and desire to move forward in mission with Christ.

In what can be described as a memoir of sorts, Willimon looks back at his eight yeas in Birmingham, Ala., but does so in a way of guiding a vision of what the episcopacy should look like. Willimon believes that a bishop should be a strong voice for change and restructuring in the denomination. He writes of wanting bishops “who are determined to serve God’s future rather than maintain our institutional past” (159). To do this, Willimon believes that bishops must hold clergy accountable, promote a vision of mission, and who guides us in the truth of our beliefs.

Willimon is right. We need strong bishops. The United Methodist Church needs bishops who promote accountability and fruitfulness, both among churches and clergy. We need bishops who promote a vision of mission that is aligned with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We need bishops who are not afraid to teach our doctrines. Bishops are a strong and needed voice in leading the church forward in a vision of serving Christ.

However, bishops are not alone in this effort and they are not the only voice. A bishop cannot inspire change on his or her own. A bishop needs help from the clergy and laity to promote accountability, vision, and deep change. Willimon focuses much of his time of the role of the episcopacy, so there was little attention paid to how clergy and laity can partner with a bishop in promoting change in a congregation. I would have liked to have seen this discussed more. Laity have an important role in promoting change and asking the questions that seldom get asked. Clergy must lead the mission and direct a vision of engagement in their local congregations.

Willimon’s words are appropriate and should be read by those who are concerned about the future of the United Methodist Church, and the church universal. You will not agree with all of his suggestions, which I do not. However, by the end of the short book you will find yourself in agreement that we need visionary bishops who desire the church to be moving forward instead of looking behind. On that, we can all agree with Willimon.

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What is True Relevancy?

Every pastor and church leader is reminded of one unfortunate truth. That is that young people are leaving the church or not coming to worship. We are having a difficult time, regardless of the denomination, in reaching the current young adult generation.

There have been suggestions, answers, and attempts to solve this problem. Each come with their proclamations that this is the way that God has ordained, that it will bring young people in, and will change the direction of the entire church. While these attempts have all been different, there has been some commonality. For the most part, the attempts to reach young adults have focused on the idea of relevancy.

The search for relevance in the church has been true to the word’s definition of seeking “social applicability.” In reaching young adults, the church has sought for ways to make the message of Christ applicable to their needs and to make worship entertaining and enjoyable. The church has sought to become more politically aligned with young adults, regardless if they are conservative or liberal. It has attempted to create worship spaces that are more comfortable, such as doing away with pews and adding more comfortable seating. As well, it has tried to use things young adults are interested in and tried to make them Christian in nature.

While these ideas, and others, were developed with the purest intentions, none of these gets to the heart of what it means for the church to be relevant. These ideas are contextual in nature, which means that these ideas seek to engage the larger culture, but they are not relevant. True relevancy is much deeper than marketing schemes, outreach strategies, and worship space design. It is about a vision that guides our ministries and the mission of the church. True relevancy is about a deep engagement with the Triune God that seeks to cultivate practices that produce a worshipful way of life.

It is only when we are seeking a deep relationship with God that we can be relevant. The message of the Good News of Jesus Christ is relevant to the needs, issues, and concerns of a broken world. It is the church’s mission to share this message with the world.

True relevancy, then, is about truth. In our postmodern world, we have a difficult time with a statement that is based on a certain set of beliefs being true. The Christian faith is based on a certain set of doctrines, which we hold to be true, such as the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. In reaching younger generations, we have shied away from our historical roots and our doctrines to make the church more acceptable. This is the wrong approach. When we take time to teach the depths of our doctrines, and why we believe these statements, we see that these truth statements say much to us today, about how Christ is at work today, and about the mission and life of the church. As pastors, if we desire to be truly relevant then we must be willing to teach what we believe and why we believe what we do.

True relevancy is also about relationships. The church that is truly relevant, or vital, is the one that is encouraging its members to be in small groups. These formation groups foster relationships and create opportunities for accountability. We are not Christians in isolation, but in community. We need the support of others, and the church must be a place that promotes relationships. As we become a culture more defined by social media, I believe the church’s advocacy of small groups will be one of its most defining cross-cultural messages. That is because with small groups we are reminded of our need of community, our need for relationships, and our common bond with one another.

True relevancy is about a life led. We cannot proclaim to be “relevant,” if we are not willing to be followed by Christ. Leaders must be disciples as they seek to disciple communities in faith. How we live our lives matters. Our actions is the greatest indicator of what truly guides and motivates our lives. The church that desires to be truly relevant is the one that doesn’t just preach the Word, but also lives it out. It must be a both/and. We need both the verbal proclamation of the Word, and the Word lived out in community in the shared experiences with others.

My deepest desire is for the church to be truly relevant. That is our hope. It will only come when we are true to our faith in Jesus Christ and not when we are seeking to be like the world for the sake of numbers.