Welcome to the blog of Bishop Will Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School.  Here you will find articles, sermons, lectures and other offerings from Will Willimon.

Bishops, District Superintendents and Change

Bishop book

My book, Bishop, published in 2012 by Abingdon, contains some of my thoughts and insights from my eight years as active bishop in the United Methodist Church. These are some of my thoughts from the first chapter of that book. Nothing gets changed in the UMC except through the work of District Superintendents. Alas, too may DS’s see their role as custodians of the status quo rather than as agents of change. Here are some of my thoughts on the ways that bishops work with DSs.

Because the UMC 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, even among the managers.   Motivation is accomplished by example and by communication. Bishops share and distribute their leadership functions through frequent, constant communication. The UMC 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.

An important role of DSs is to explain, to reiterate change to all the churches, always on the lookout for clergy and laity who appear to “get it.” Many are called but few are chosen to lead change. A DS must know those people. Thus leadership development is an ongoing role for a Cabinet, not only by the bishop and DSs acquiring new leadership skills but also in cultivating new leadership for our more demanding congregations.

Nelson Mandela, as a boy, heard 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.”[1] 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 sluggards and the keepers of the status quo.

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 of pastors. They must be leaders who have taken opportunities in their churches for risk-taking in order to produce change and mangers who are willing to shoulder the responsibilities of supervision.

Although I managed a large staff in my previous job and had served for a number of years as Director of the Course of Study School at Duke, that contributed little to my leadership. My most significant preparation for being bishop was four years as pastor in a rapidly declining, isolated, demoralized, inner city congregation. Every transformative leadership skill required to give that congregation a future proved to be wonderfully transferable to my work as a bishop in leading a conference.

All ministry is a demonstration of the Incarnation. Ministry is one way in which Almighty God refuses to be relegated to the abstract and the detached but rather locates, incarnates, tabernacles among us. My particular experience of Incarnation was, in the wisdom of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, to be Alabama. From one angle Alabama is an example of the results of bad state government and a string of sad, stupid choices by the voters (many of whom are United Methodists).[2] Where George Wallace stood in schoolhouse door snarling “segregation now, segregation forever,” our current governor stands in the way of government becoming more responsive to its citizens. A 2009 Gallup Poll of political ideology found Alabama the most conservative U.S. state.[3] Our state economy is utterly dependent on US military largesse.[4] Alabama stubbornly refuses to elect or even appoint women to public service, having fewer women leading in public life than any state in the Union.   We have the most regressive tax system in the country supported by a racist, labyrinthine constitution that was conceived in sin to protect the power of white people with economic privilege. Efforts by many UMs to lead change in our constitution and our tax structure have been continually rebuffed, often by better organized, more popular right wing Christians, some of whom are UM. We are one of the most polluted states in the country. The Birmingham mayor (whom I attempted to counsel and support) is now serving a long prison sentence for stealing huge sums from the people.

You would have to be a Christian to understand why Patsy and I considered it a great privilege to be assigned to serve God in such a context. For one thing, being beset by legions of biblical literalists, neo-Calvinist fundamentalists, and Southern Baptist bigots is a golden opportunity to rediscover the vitality and intellectual supremacy of Wesleyan Christianity. I always loved our theological heritage, but Alabama taught me the continuing glorious human implications of divine Arminianism in action. Time and again, when I was leading a sob session of criticism of our UM problems, there was always someone to say, “You Methodists don’t know how good you have it. It took me thirty years to find the UMC and I love it! I never heard of grace until I found you Methodists.”

Sure it’s sad that Alabama stays 48th in factors relating to childhood health, education, and safety.[5] However the sad circumstances of poor children in our state was one reason why Patsy committed so much time and effort to our thriving, excellent network of UM Children’s Homes in Alabama.

I suppose there are places in the world where churches thrash about trying to find something courageous that God wants them to do. Not in Alabama. Having one of the most irresponsible, unresponsive, and corrupt state governments in the country gives us a God-ordained opportunity to reach out to those in need in the name of Jesus Christ.

“If some teenager is to be rescued, if a crack mom is to be saved, in this county, the Methodist Church is the only organized, caring way that’s its to be done,” said one of my preachers. Her church promised God that though Alabama has found so many ways to ignore the poor the UMC will not.

In my better moments, when I became discouraged by the reactionary attitudes of some of our people, God would graciously remind me that Alabama has one of the worst school systems in America, kept down by a self-protective state teachers’ association and underfunded by the nation’s most regressive tax system. I would see our situation as a call for better Christian teaching, not for more moralistic scolding and thank God I got to serve God in Alabama.

Whenever I encountered resistance, I remembered and attempted to incarnate the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was told to ease up on Alabama. In his sermon, “Our God is Marching On,” King vowed, “No, we will not allow Alabama to return to normalcy.”

I pray that normalcy ceased to be an option for the UMC in Alabama once I got my books unpacked and reported for service as Bama Bishop.

Will Willimon











[1] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (New York: Little, Bown, 1994), 22.

[2] The sad story of the contemporary history of my adopted state is documented in Allen Tullos, Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie (Athens: the University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[3] Tullos, Alabama Getaway, 2.

[4] Tullos, Alabama Getaway 3. I can’t figure out why Alabamians so despise the Federal Government – the US military provides much of the only growth in our state’s sad economy.

[5] Tullos, Alabama Getaway, 248.

Being Bishop

Bishop bookThis is the season for Annual Conferences, for the appointment of United Methodist pastors, in short, it’s a season of bishops. Bishop, published in 2012 by Abingdon, contains some of my thoughts and insights from my eight years as active bishop in the United Methodist Church. These are some of my thoughts from the first chapter of that book. The book caused much interest among many denominations but does not seem to have been too well received by my fellow UM bishops even though I lauded our bishops as a key to the future vitality of our church.  

A bishop’s work is rarely solo. “Loneliness at the top is the worst part of this job,” an experienced bishop warned me. I did not find the episcopacy to be lonely. The Discipline makes bishops leaders of 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.

Gil Rendle thinks that we bishops often exemplify Jim Collins’ “genius with a thousand helpers.”[1]

Not much is lonely about that.

Ron Heifetz is right. The greatest “myth of leadership is the myth of the lone warrior.”[2] 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 put it, “Feasts to which many contribute excel those provided at one person’s expense.”[3] 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 executed well. Never could any member of my Cabinet say of a pastoral appointment, “That appointment was the bishop’s idea.” Few mistakes were solely mine. The program of change initiated in North Alabama was never my personal program; the Cabinet contributed, advised, initiated, resisted, criticized, or praised every step along the way.

Therefore 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 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 only reason why 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 much of my sordid past, you know how difficult it is for me to make these laudatory statements about DSs. As a product of the anti-authoritarian Sixties, during the first years of my ministry I regarded DSs in much the same way as prisoners regard their warden. Bean counters, unimaginative enforcers of rules, and schedulers of pointless meetings – except for the few who befriended me as a novice pastor — I couldn’t tell the difference between a DS and the person behind the window at the Department of Motor Vehicles who demanded that I not only have a copy of my birth certificate but also my original Social Security card in order to have the privilege of driving. I’ve never gotten along well with “A rule is a rule” sort of people.

One of the many objections to my being a bishop was, “But you have never even been a DS.” My translation: “you have no experience as an unimaginative, rule enforcing, sycophantic, unctuous bureaucrat.”

DSs have now earned their position at the top of my great chain of being not only 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.[4] Leadership and management, says 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 Kotter has heard of neither me nor Bob Wilson, he agrees with our thirty year old statement that the UMC is “over managed and under led.”[5]   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 changing the church.

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. Huge energy was consumed by a complex, bureaucratic process of decision making and governance. Every congregation, even the smallest and weakest, was required to ape the organization of the church at large. We created a church in which 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, says Kotter, is organizational “order and consistency” which, in 1972 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. Loss of monopoly means that no church can be church as it was even a decade ago. 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 (DS) is needed to cope with complexity; leadership (bishop) 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 to move in the same general direction by talking — motivating and inspiring.

Management and leadership are necessary companions.   Our church needs both bishops and DSs 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 DS’s need not be great leaders, bishops must perform both management and leadership functions.

Leaders help an organization articulate and reiterate a vision. But sometimes, when people speak of “vision” their eyes glaze over and everything becomes hazy, dreamy, and indistinct, in much the same way as when people use the world “spiritual.” A mystical, inspiring but impractical vision may be enough for a person to be called a leader. But 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 twenty percent of my time as a leader and about eighty percent of my time as a manager. Though I will argue later that the twenty percent of me that was a leader was the most consequential part of me for the good of the church, my leadership would have gotten us nowhere without the eighty percent of me as manager – going to meetings, selecting the right DSs, reading over and responding to reports on ministry, studying the stats for the productivity of our 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, says Kotter, without “a burst of energy.” Managers push people through mechanisms of oversight and control. Leaders inspire people by 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 find a way to discover the organization’s most successful leaders and then they attempt to recognize and to reward those people.[6]

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).


Will Willimon



[1] Gil Rendle, Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for the Mainline, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 85.

[2] Ron Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers,(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994),231.

[3] Quoted by Nannerl O. Keohane, Thinking about Leadership, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 60.

[4] John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1996).

[5] Robert L. Wilson and William H. Willimon, Rekindling the Flame: Strategies for a Vital United Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987).

[6] Earl G. Hunt, Jr., A Bishop Speaks His Mind (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), warns that a bishop “must never play favorites,” but must treat everyone equally and fairly. (78)  I’ve never known an effective leader who did not show favoritism. I think a leader has an obligation to “play favorites,” that is, to identify and to empower those who can contribute value to the system.


Bishop: The Body of Christ in Motion

Bishop bookBody of Christ in Motion

This is the season for Annual Conferences, for the appointment of United Methodist pastors, in short, it’s a season of bishops. Bishop, published in 2012 by Abingdon, contains some of my thoughts and insights from my eight years as active bishop in the United Methodist Church. These are some of my thoughts from the first chapter of that book. The book caused much interest among AME’s, Nazarenes, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. Not much response from fellow UM’s. Perhaps it’s insights hit too close to home?

It’s a typical Sunday morning for Patsy and me. We drive past fallow fall fields, trustworthy GPS coaxing us down the rural roadway. Just over an hour outside of Birmingham we descend a low hill, the trees part, and we see a little white frame church, a building that is type cast as everyone’s idea of a church. An hour before the service only a few pickup trucks have gathered in the church’s gravel lot. Spotting an aging Ford Taurus parked in the shade, I comment knowledgeably, “At least the pastor is here.”

“Though this county has lost a third of its population, it now has the third highest influx of Spanish speaking people. That building was built after the fire – in the Forties – they still call it ‘the new church,’” I say, showing off my reading. It is my custom to 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.

The majority of the congregations in my Conference, like the one where I’m the visiting preacher today, are located where they were planted a century ago. In every case, the community that gave them birth has relocated. Though the people around the congregation have changed, the congregation has remained fixed on the same land where it was established and, in many cases, fixed in 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, stays planted. We build our churches to look at least two hundred years older than they actually are. Inside, we bolt down the pews and make the furniture heavy and substantial. That the world around the church is chaotic and instable is a further justification for the church to be fixed and final.

One of my younger churches worships in the “contemporary worship” idiom. The pastor complained to me 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 highly mobile suburban neighborhood,” he explained. “Only a couple of my members have been here longer than I. 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 our young adults, shifting political alliances, soaring debt to pay for the biggest military in the world, the demise of once sound institutions, changing social mores, the information explosion – the church is tapped to play the role of island of stability amid a sea of change.

What is incomprehensible is that we call this stability-protecting, 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. (Matthew 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 a church, 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. I’ll stick with you until the end of time — just to be sure you obey me.”

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

The UMC ought rejoice in a new generation of episcopal leaders who feel called not only to administer the church but also to lead the church, 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. At one time in our church life bishops were the personification of stability, our link with the past, our assurance that, despite any minor modifications, we were still doing church in fairly much the same way that church had always been done.

Today I’m excited that we have a growing group of bishops who are not simply allowing but also leading change. Their transformative leadership arises not only from institutional but also 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 as sign of God’s determination not to allow death have the last word.

Leading and Managing the Body of Christ

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

You have been ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament;

you are now called, as bishop in the Church,

   to reaffirm the vows made at your ordination as elder,

   and 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.


As bishop and pastor,

   you are to lead and guide

   all persons entrusted to your oversight;

   join in the consecration of bishops,

   ordain deacons, and elders,

   consecrate diaconal ministers,

       for service to the Church and to the world;

   and provide for the ministry of Word and Sacrament

   in the congregations committed to your care.


Your joy will be to follow Jesus the Christ

   whom 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?


I will, by the grace of God.


Will you guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline

   of the Church against all that is contrary to God’s World?


I will, for the love of God.[1]

            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, cajole, bargain, and beg is more true to what we bishops now do by the grace of and 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. That’s where we come in, even bishops. We’re all here, doing whatever we are doing for the Kingdom because we’re called, put here, assigned, sent.


Will Willimon




[1] The United Methodist Book of Worship, (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 703.

Resident Aliens at 25, part 2

RESIDENT ALIENSSurprises and Thanksgivings for Resident Aliens 25 Years Later


This year Abingdon Press has released a new edition of Resident Aliens on the book’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Stanley Hauerwas and I have written a foreword and afterword for the new edition. Here is the second part of my foreword. Stanley and I will present at this year’s Alumni Convocation at Duke Divinity School in early October.

Surprises after Resident Aliens was published? Of course I was thrilled that Christians, particularly new and younger Christians on the plains of Canada, or in the outback of Australia, or in a sheep farm in New Zealand, or in a bleak German innercity read the book and found hope for the future. That which Stanley and I tended to speak of as future possibility we quickly discovered was present reality in a Christian commune in Oregon, a house church in Detroit, or even in a once great Gothic Cathedral in England. I’m still amazed by the Baptist pastor at a big church in Atlanta who used the book as a manual for training his deacons. Isn’t God amazing?

I confess that I never understood how anyone could read Resident Aliens and accuse us of being world-hating sectarians. I had no relations with sectarians until Stanley. Whereas Stanley has been deeply formed and blessed by dear, departed John Howard Yoder, looking back, I think I was more deeply influenced by the students I met as Chaplain at Duke who were trying to be Christian in a world that is out to get Christians.

When I said “world” I was thinking of the Pentagon. When I said “church” I was thinking of the poor old bumbling, worldly compromised tart named UMC that Christ regards as his Bride. I therefore can’t take seriously the silly criticism that Stanley and I advocated a withdrawal from “public theology and political responsibility.” I was a United Methodist Bishop, for God’s sakes, the hierarch who, because of a mean immigration law, sued the Governor and Legislature of Alabama! Is that politics enough for you? Besides, how many world-hating-sectarians are paid as much as we two tenured professors?   So there.

Stanley taught me that a compromised church tries to set up the church/world discussion as, “You can either be a responsible participant in modern democracy, doing your bit to make this world a better place, or you and be an irresponsible, sectarian nothing who fearfully withdraws from the world.” Resident Aliens attempted a more nuanced and complex discussion of church/world. Now, after the Obama Administration (whom we thought we were electing to get us out of the Near East) has expended billions of dollars and thousands of lives ending a war that has produced little but greater Islamic hostility, has deported nearly two and a half million undocumented immigrants, has pioneered the use of drones thereby escalating warfare to a new level, is it now time for UMC bishops to stop offering deferential advice to Obama and start attempting to rebuild the church?

Resident Aliens could be read as an extended reflection on politics in the name of Jesus. We attempted to do what Stanley has done throughout his career – to get the church to say “church” whenever the world says “politics.” God has put North American Christians in this world, under an allegedly democratic polity, in a capitalist economy, with state-run education, a military budget, gun violence in the streets, and rates of incarceration unknown in any other country in the world. How then should we live now that God has raised crucified Jesus from the dead?

As Bruce W. Winter shows in his book, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citzens,[1] the first Christians had a complex relationship with the Empire. They showed skill and courage in refusing to participate in some of the rituals and demands of the state, yet unlike some (Philo, for instance) they actively supported the surrounding politeia when it (rarely) showed concern for the needy and vulnerable and through an impressive network of benefaction, Christians showed the pagan state a new politeia, initiating a social revolution the pagan state could never have thought up on its own. Winter says that Christians practiced citizenship when they could (rigid in their refusal to syncretize in matters of worship) and extravagant benefaction always. Resident Aliens merely meant to call contemporary North American Christians to rethink the church/world situation in the light of God’s primary answer to what’s wrong with the world, namely, the poor old church.

I have always believed Resident Aliens to be a very “Methodist” book, in its own way. Who but a couple of Wesleyans could believe that God has graciously provided the means for people, even two people from South Carolina and Texas, to be saints? And who but a couple of Methodists would know cultural accommodation and biblical mushiness when we see it? We Methodists never quite shed our birth as a scorned sect who once had the theological chutzpa to stick it to the established church.   Then one day we Wesleyans woke up to find that George Bush thought he could be both a Methodist and a President. We Methodists had become the establishment, in bed with the Empire, and hating ourselves in the morning. Though Stanley is now an Episcopalian Canon (as we all know, the Episcopal Church is a notoriously sectarian enterprise), I’m more a Methodist than ever and, from what I’ve seen in my privileged look at the underbelly of the Body of Christ, I could argue that Resident Aliens is needed now more than ever.

Since this book was published, Nieburhrian Protestant liberalism petered out or else morphed into a few old guys doing Progressive Christianity, leaving the intellectual battles to be fought by a few intelligent, young evangelicals and orthodox. The North American church continues to beg a hearing from this culture on the basis of faith’s alleged utility in a world that wants other goods than Jesus. Prosperity Gospel preachers transform a crucified Savior into a sure-fire technique for achieving the American dream. The Resident Aliens commendation of Christianity as the countercultural practices demanded by the worship of Jesus Christ got completely out of hand as “practices” degenerated into a meaningless drivel devoid of theological content or Christological control, the latest chapter in our attempt to make relevant the Christian faith without Jesus. My church (Stanley’s ex-church) lost three million more members without noticing. United Methodist bishops, clueless about how to challenge the lies told by ideologues of the left or the right, vow to end Malaria in Africa. The Protestant mainline becomes even more fissiparious in fights over, of all things, sex. When Pietism substitutes love of God for obedience to God, it degenerates into safely personal, suffocating sentimentality. And Stanley and I, who once were Sixties Radicals, are now the tiresome old guys on the Divinity School faculty complaining about the theological antics of the kids. All of which goes to show that if you don’t like something said by a theologian, just be patient; only God is eternal and God eventually takes out all theologians whether their books be good or bad.

Though I’m usually more adept at covering my arrogance, I do believe Resident Aliens struck a chord because God wanted it that way. You know how the God of Israel and the Church loves to summon the wrong people to do outrageous work for the Kingdom. One little book, written on the run by a couple of guys mired in the middle of church as it is rather than as God means church to be, has been used by God to say more than we could say. Thus this book is another illustration of the truth of the Doctrine of Election: God takes back what rightly belongs to God by using a few to bless the many. God graciously elects the wrong people to do the right work for a God who seems to delight in working with the wrong people By the grace of God, Stanley and I lost control of Resident Aliens. Like any Spirit-blessed sermon, our little book, written by two not-so-good Christians, said more than we could have ever said on our own. We made a few pastors’ lives more difficult, we got to see some signs and wonders among Christians in places we had never heard of, and reminded a few congregations of the adventure Jesus meant them to be living.

And it all began on a summer afternoon, outside Duke Chapel, surveying what was left of the Protestant Mainline, with one friend saying to another, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking about the church?” and God doing the rest.

Thanks be to God.


Will Willimon

[1] Bruce W. Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1994). Winter’s account of state/church interaction is contra to that of Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994). See especially chapter 3. Meeks sees the first urban Christians as considerably more at odds with the pagan state.

Resident Aliens at 25

RESIDENT ALIENSResident Aliens at Twenty-Five

This year Abingdon Press has released a new edition of Resident Aliens on the book’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Stanley Hauerwas and I have written a foreword and afterword for the new edition. Here is the first part of my foreword. Stanley and I will present at this year’s Alumni Convocation at Duke Divinity School in early October.

It is tempting to describe the genesis of Resident Aliens as happenstance. Luck is about as much as contemporary North Americans are permitted to claim for the direction of our lives. I sound humble if I say that just good luck placed Stanley and me at Duke on the same week, that we became fast friends, and eventually produced a book that sold more copies than anything we wrote before or since.

Yet as you know, Christians don’t believe in luck; we believe in God, a God who acts, who takes over the lives we thought we were living under the delusion that our lives were our own. What the world calls luck, we are taught to call Providence, the surprising machinations of a living God. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we get to live out stories we don’t write by ourselves. Dorothy Day ends The Long Loneliness with a beautiful passage about how she and Peter Maurin and their leftist buddies were just sitting around talking and someone asked for bread, so they gave bread. Then while they were just talking, cranking out The Catholic Worker in the depths of the Depression,someone showed up and asked for a bed; they provided housing. If they hadn’t, all their talk would have been just talk. And thus began one of the great stories of God reclaiming a portion of New York for good through a bunch of otherwise ordinary leftists. Martin Luther famously claimed that he just drank lots of good Wittenberg beer and the Reformation simply happened. The Acts of the Apostles alleges that Philip was just hiding out in Samaria and next thing he knew, oops, he was baptizing Gentiles and eunuchs.

Christians describe our lives in the fashion of Day, Luther, or Luke, not to give credence to the pagan fantasy of luck but rather to indicate our belief in Providence, those sometimes joyful, often terrifying moments when we lose control of our story, when we find ourselves commandeered by the Holy Spirit, and we are being put to use for greater ends than we intended.

I am bold to believe that Stanley and I came up with Resident Aliens under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Not all of the book can be attributed to the Third Person of the Trinity, of course, but enough of the book was good enough to think God meant this little book to be. I’m sure that we were wrong about lots of things (what joy to be able to say to some unfair critic — and aren’t they all? — “Oh, Stanley wrote that section, not me.”), but at least we gave God enough to work with to enable thousands of pastors and laypeople to say, “Resident Aliens is an apt description of us, our church, and the work that God has now given us to do.”

To those who said that my opening illustration of the first Sunday movie at the Fox Theater as the death of Christendom was the most memorable part of the book, thanks. To those who claim to have seen me making out with Janie Jones during that movie, you’re crazy. Who would waste a John Wayne movie for that which could have been more easily done in the darkened balcony at the Sunday Evening Service at Buncombe Street Methodist Church? (As he began to play “Sweet Hour of Prayer” as background music, our organist always turned down the rheostat during our concluding “Altar Prayer Time,” thus providing the darkness needed for such teen exploits.)

Though I didn’t think of it this way when we were writing the book, I now believe Resident Aliens is mainly a work of ecclesiology by two erstwhile Barthians who weren’t thought to have an adequate ecclesiology. The book announced, though we didn’t put I this way at the time, that sentimental, subjectivist, squeamish Docetism is a greater peril for North American Christians than arrogant ecclesiastical triumphalism. Our line was drawn not between righteousness and sin, or belief and atheism, or liberalism and conservatism, but between the church and the world. We called upon the church to be more deeply, aggressively “political,” as we redefined politics. As Barth had thundered, “Let God be God!” we less boldly suggested, “Let the church be the church.” Resident Aliens is Christianity not only countercultural but also corporeal. While at Yale, reading Barth, Stanley and I heeded Barth’s warning never to, “overlook the visibility of the church, explaining away its earthly and historical form as something indifferent, or angrily negating it, or treating it only as a necessary evil, in order to magnify an invisible fellowship of the Spirit and of spirits,” and thereby attempt to flee the real church into “a kind of wonderland.”[1] Though I think God has given me a greater natural inclination for being Christian than God has given Stanley (growing up fatherless has its advantages), we both believe that there’s no way either of us would have embraced and persevered in this faith without the church embracing us.

As Bonhoeffer said, we must never dream a church that imagines a corporate identity that has never existed. Yet as Bonhoeffer also said, we must resist the tendency to make the Christian life something that is inward and spiritual rather than the sort of objective, personal truthfulness that is primarily visible and historical.[2] Resident Aliens is a demonstration (in my case, thanks to Lesslie Newbigin) of the continuing historicity and necessary visibility of the church. Newbigin criticized the Reformers’ conception of the church as having, “no real place for the continuing life of the church as one fellowship binding the generations together in Christ. It makes the church practically a series of totally disconnected events in which, at each moment and place at which the word and sacraments of the Gospel are set forth, the church is there and then called into being by God’s creative power.”[3]   I hoped to overcome some of that Lutheran and Reformed eventfulness, as well as to counter current frothy “spirituality” with some good old Wesleyan “practical divinity” in my contribution to Resident Aliens. Better books were written in the past two decades about the ideas of Christ, the work of Christ, or the mission of Christ; I am bold to think that this book was a not too shabby rendition of the corporeal, fleshly, sacramental Body of Christ.

Regrets? I wish we hadn’t spent so much time early in the book doing battle with academics of the past, many of whom are unread today. Not too exciting a beginning for our theological polemic. I wish we had given much more emphasis to the specific shape, the content and peculiar quality of the Missio Dei, even though last semester I used Resident Aliens in my Local Church in Mission to God’s World Course and it seemed to work. Of course, we believe that the church is mission. We also asserted, along with Newbigin, that North America is one of the toughest mission fields the church has ever attempted. When asked by the disbelieving world, “Do something missional” (or “political,” “evangelical,” “ethical,” or “useful”) we try to plant and nurture a church.

I wish our Christology had been more self-evident. Stanley’s ecclesiology (in my humble opinion) sometimes tends to hypostasize Christ with his church. I, on the other hand, agree with Barth that, “The world would be lost without Jesus Christ . . . the world would not necessarily be lost if there were no Church.”[4] After doing time as a bishop, sometimes I think Stanley flirts with ecclesiastical romanticism. (He would slap me for that comment were it not for his Christian pacifism.) I join Barth in granting to the church only an “equivocal witness.”[5] As Barth famously quipped, to be in the church is to be a bird always beating its wings against the bars of a cage.[6] After eight years as a bishop, I know more about that cage than Stanley.

A larger dose of pneumatology wouldn’t have hurt the book. Without taking away any of our Catholic, Anglicanesque sacramentalism, I would have liked a bit more robust, wild and goofy Pentecostalism. I regard the worldwide Pentecostal outbreak of signs and wonders by the Holy Spirit as one of the most interesting moves God is making with the church today. When I told my class this year that I was curious if Resident Aliens still had resonance with a new generation of Christians, one smart aleck quipped, “This book was written two years before I was born.”   Still, the book has outlived most of its critics. Through some of my more accessible syntax lots of people were introduced to the demanding thought of Stanley — the most interesting theologian of my generation.

Will Willimon


[1] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV, 653-54.

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church (London: SCM Press, 1952), 48.In these same lectures, Newbigin criticized Barth’s ecclesiology of church as “event” for allowing the eschatological “completely push out the historical.” (49)

[4] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/3, 826.

[5] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, 617.

[6] Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 147


Clergy Coming and Going at Duke Memorial

Duke Memorial United Methodist Church is preparing to participate in one of the most distinctive aspects of Wesleyan Christianity – itinerancy of clergy.   In plain speech this means that the pastor whom the bishop sent to Duke Memorial for a season (all United Methodist clergy are appointed one year at a time) is now handing this church off to a new pastor who has been appointed to serve Duke Memorial. The United Methodist practice of itinerancy is deeply countercultural and demanding of clergy and laity. Some wonder if we will be able to sustain it into the future.

Our appointive (rather than a congregational call) system is against just about everything Americans believe. And yet John Wigger[1] has taught me that Francis Asbury’s great contribution to the formation of Methodism in America was his ability not simply to organize hundreds of Methodist congregations in this new land but also to persuade thousands of American Christians that our way of being the church, specifically Methodist, episcopal polity and the itinerating, appointive assignment of pastors, were gifts of God to the mission of the church. Asbury’s contributions as Methodism’s first bishop are acknowledged in his inclusion in our great Wesley Window at Duke Memorial.

Asbury convinced a Republican culture that the most effective polity was for powerful superintendents to send (usually) unmarried, circuit-riding itinerants to where they were needed to accomplish the mission of the church – a decidedly countercultural practice when compared with those church families that relied on married men who were located where they chose to be. The subordination of family, marriage, and career advancement to the mission of the church makes itinerancy a clergy deployment system that is demanding.

As a refugee from the Sixties, a student on the margins of the Civil Rights Movement’s disruption of American culture, I have loved participating in the odd, risky, requiring-constant-defense notion that the mission of the church is more important than the church’s clergy. I tell students at Duke Divinity that if they think they can stop learning, and stop growing in their ministry when they earn an M. Div. degree, they need to find a church to serve other than United Methodist! When our appointive system works best, it prods congregations and clergy into being all that God has called them to be, taking risks, changing lives for Christ. Most congregations crave continuity and overstress the value of stability, balance, and longevity. The result of these (dare I say, “unbiblical”) notions are staid congregations that fail to adapt and reinvent themselves to reach a future generation. Itinerating clergy give a church an opportunity for fresh leadership, new ways of doing ministry, and openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Methodist itinerancy may be the most demanding and dangerous clergy deployment system in Christendom. I found that one of the greatest challenges of being a bishop and administering the UM appointive system was to honor the risk, danger, and adventure that our ordained women and men sign on for when they become UM clergy.  And did I say that it can also be fun? To have your little life caught up in the larger purposes of God, going where the church says you are most needed, making new friends in Christ, and marveling at the work of God out of the way places can be a great joy.

Although Patsy and I will continue to attend this great church, I will no longer be in a leadership role after our new pastor, Heather, arrives.   Pastoral change can be invigorating for a congregation, as all UM clergy (especially all UM bishops) come from elsewhere and eventually depart. Roger and Ginger labored here for a time, then I came for a couple of months and stayed a year, and now a fresh, young pastor comes to us giving us the benefit of her insights. A stated priority of our congregation is ministry to/with young families. How fitting that the bishop is sending us the mother of young children as our pastor.

While there’s much to be said for longer pastorates, there is also value in short, focused pastorates in which we pastors do the best we can to follow God’s leading and then high tail it out of town under the cover of darkness. Clerical desire for permanence, enduring legacy, longevity, and eternality are aspirations unworthy of those who work with a living, peripatetic, itinerate, always-on-the-move Trinity.

What a joy to have had the privilege of being your pastor. Great days are ahead for Duke Memorial. Pray that God will give us the energy to keep up with a living, demanding, moving God. What fun to be the Body of Christ in motion!

Will Willimon


[1] John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).