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.
One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed teaching in the Duke Doctor of Ministry Program is the privilege of having a hand in the work of some of our most able pastoral leaders. The Reverend Dr. Ken Evers-Hood was a student in the program and was one of the first of many to do some significant publication arising out of his Doctor of Ministry work.
While in one of the first Duke D.Min cohorts back in 2011 Ken studied irrationality and game theory with our new Dean, Greg Jones, and with Duke’s behavioral economist, Dan Ariely. In 2016 Wipf and Stock published a version of his D.Min thesis as The Irrational Jesus: Leading the Fully Human Church.
Here’s Ken’s big idea. While classical economics offers beautiful, econometric models for how people should behave, behavioral economists like Dan Ariely study how people actually operate. What Ariely finds over and over again is that people are not only irrational but we are predictably irrational. Being a pastor and a leader who works with churches in conflict Ken realized there was something similar between Ariely’s work and his own. Having attended Princeton Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity Ken noticed that we academics can sometimes offer such beautiful and articulate theological models for how people ought to behave in the church, but, as every pastor knows, the blessed humans who show up on Sunday morning can be…a little different, downright irrational, even.
In The Irrational Jesus Ken offers something of a field guide to the predictable irrationality that shows up in the church. In the first section Ken explores how, in our full humanity, we don’t simply perceive the world as it is, but because of the particular way God shaped our brains, we interpret the world through what Dan Ariely refers to as thinking fast and thinking slow. The fast parts of our brains operate largely on automatic using cognitive heuristics, or shortcuts, to process vast amounts of information quickly. Most of the time this works okay, but now and again these interpretive devices create blind spots called cognitive bias.
Did you know it feels about twice as bad to lose something as it does to get it in the first place? This “loss aversion” helps to explain why even good changes freak out our dear, beloved congregants. Confirmation bias leads us to seek out the facts that support our opinion and ignore or discount facts that don’t. This is why even fair-minded people can read the same Bible and come away with entirely different perspectives…because they aren’t really reading the same Bible. People cherry pick, and the divisions that split us up stem from the different parts of the orchard we pick from. (UMC, take note!) Ken has the guts, or foolishness depending on your perspective, of speculating on Jesus’ fully human and divine nature.
The second section, The Irrational Paul, explores game theory. Paul often uses gameful metaphors and refers to disciples as being like athletes, but Ken thinks there’s more to it than this. One of the tools behavioral economists use to study people are economic games like the prisoner’s dilemma and the public goods game. There are patterns to them that these people optimistically refer to as games. For his thesis work here at Duke Ken actually studied over 100 Presbyterian elders playing different versions of a public goods game. In the most interesting version the elders could reward or punish others in the group anonymously. Now, I don’t know what Ken learned from all this, but it made me glad I’m United Methodist where we only have kind and loving people who would never punish one another in a meeting!
The last section of the book Ken puts everything together and focuses on leaders and the decisions that we make. Most of the time we judge a decision by its outcome assuming good decisions lead to good outcomes, but this isn’t always true. Sometimes, even good decisions can head south on us, and other times we can make a terrible decision but luck out. Not satisfied with his Duke D. Min, Ken earned a certificate in Strategic Decision Making and Risk Management from Stanford, where he merged what he knew about irrationality with a tool they use called a decision quality chain. While outcomes are important, Ken points out the only thing we can really control and improve is our decision making itself. He received an Innovation Grant from Duke’s Leadership Education in 2016 to offer this teaching to middle governing bodies in the church. And now we get some if it, too through Ken’s book.
Ken is preceptor in my Introduction to Christian Leadership course. If you are a pastor who is interested in honing your leadership skills and in getting your good ideas out to a wider audience through publication, you ought to consider the Duke D.Min. Write me at email@example.com and let’s talk about whether the Duke D.Min would be good for you.
Recently I read a terrible book, God and Donald Trump by Stephen E. Strang. Donald Trump has committed no sin, no sexual indiscretion, told no lie, and abused no ethnic group that Strang cannot justify, dismiss, and excuse. He pushes the preposterous notion that Trump is a different person than the one who has been through three marriages, run a gambling empire, stiffed contractors, dodged the draft, and lied repeatedly. Strang believes that Trump is the chosen instrument sent by God to save America. When confronted with Trump’s many sins and his refusal to repent of those sins, Strang excuses with, “we didn’t elect him to be a pastor to America but our Commander in Chief.” The ten minutes Strang spent with Trump changed his life.
Most troubling of all, Strang claims that he is a Pentecostal Christian.
While there may be purported reasons—economic, political, personal—to support a man like Trump, there can be no specifically Christian reasons. I predict that Strang and his Prosperity gospel friends who have attempted to advocate for Trump as Christians will reap a bitter harvest in the future when their constituency realizes that their pastoral leaders have allowed politics to trump theology, their commitment to the political right, to hijack their calling to teach the Bible to their flocks.
I find it revealing that, while Strang touts Trump as God’s answer to what’s needed in America, in God and Donald Trump Strang hardly ever refers to Jesus Christ. Whoever Strang’s generic “God” is—the godlet who motivates and blesses Donald Trump—it is not the God who has fully, perfectly self-revealed in Jesus Christ. I think it wise that when Strang attempts to provide biblical justification for Trumpism, he refers to various passages from the Old Testament, always using the generic “God” rather than referring to Jesus. It’s clear that Strang is more concerned with America than with the church of Jesus Christ. Strang’s book attempts to baptize a man and his family who have had minimal connections with the church or the practice of the Christian faith so it’s wise from Strang to keep Jesus out of it. Jesus Christ, in his person and his work, is a rebuke to Trumpism. Strang’s attempt to invoke “God” to justify Xenophobia, border armament, immigrant bashing, gambling, dirty talk, and adultery may be good politics but it’s terrible abuse of the Bible.
Tonight a group of my Christian friends (like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Michael Curry) are showing the world what true Bible-believing Evangelicals look like. They are having a service and a march to the White House in the name of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. We devised a statement, “Recovering Jesus Christ,” which is our attempt to demonstrate how Christians think in the present crisis. “Jesus is Lord. That is our foundational confession.” The statement attempts to move from specific biblical, Christological affirmations to a range of rejections and affirmations that are related to our faith that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world and all other competitors are not. The current President is never mentioned in our statement because we’re preachers who think our highest vocation is to preach Jesus rather than to ingratiate ourselves to politicians of the right or of the left.
I’ve just returned from a day with a dedicated group of pastors and church leaders in Greensboro where we discussed the implications of “Reclaiming Christ.” We left that gathering with renewed dedication to minister in our churches by speaking and acting in the name of Jesus Christ, the name above all other names, the way, the truth, and the life.
Years ago, I heard a great biblical scholar say that Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, insures that we are unable “to make God mean anything we would like God to be.” Time and again, in the church’s life, Jesus Christ has broken free of the clutches of those who have attempted to use him to bless their human schemes and programs. He will have his way in the world, no matter who is in the White House. That’s a good thing to remember in a time such as this.
I came across this sermon from a few years ago, preached at Yale University. I’d like to think this is some of my best work, and I hope you enjoy.
Rick Lee James, a music minister in Ohio, and I just had a great conversation about race and the Christian faith related to my Who Lynched Willie Earle? I thought you might enjoy listening in.
Growing up in South Carolina wise people said, “You can always tell when a politician’s guilty as charged when he attacks the newspapers.”
This past January Donald Trump did something unprecedented in the American presidency; he told his two thousandth lie. Of course there’s a connection between Trump’s prevarication and his animosity toward the press. In an earlier complaint about the President’s lack of veracity (“To Tell the Truth,” April 20, 2017), I noted that we can be thankful for many in the American media who keep telling the truth in a time of lies. In that post I gave Alabama’s John Archibald particular praise. I got to know John when I was bishop in Alabama. After a particularly inspiring piece of reporting (on Alabama’s corrupt state government), I took him to breakfast to praise him for his work. Without John’s truth-telling about Roy Moore and Robert Bentley, Alabamians would have been clueless about the corruption in state government. Without John’s columns on immigration in Alabama, the Episcopal and Catholic bishops and I would have never won our suit that overturned Jeff Session’s draconian, unconstitutional immigration law.
It was recently announced the John Archibald was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.
Dana Canedy, administrator of the Pulitzers, cited Archibald’s “lyrical and courageous commentary rooted in Alabama but has a national resonance in scrutinizing corrupt politicians, championing the rights of women and calling out hypocrisy.”
Of course, that which particularly pleases me is that John is the son of a United Methodist minister. His father gave a courageous witness in the Sixties. John has readily acknowledged how his father taught him right from wrong, the importance of speaking the truth to power, and showed him what courage looks like the face of a corrupt culture. When many Alabama Christians were championing the cause of Roy More last fall, in a December column John rebuked them writing, “The church was the single most defining part of my life, and that of my family. My dad, Robert Archibald Jr., was a United Methodist preacher. And so was his dad, Robert Sr….” John has steadfastly stood up for the little guy, the oppressed and the dispossessed – lessons he seems to have learned in his dad’s churches.
Among the columns cited by the Pulitzer Prize Committee were two John wrote in support of the #MeToo movement, including those who came forward in the Roy Moore scandal:
“This is a moment, I keep believing. It’s a cultural awakening and the start of a change. We fail when we say boys will be boys. We hurt when we question what a woman wore when she was assaulted. Those who blame the victims – who call them whores and tramps and sluts – are as guilty as those who commit the acts. It’s not just about the past. It’s about the future. So forget about politics, for now. This is bigger than that.”
Among the many disturbing aspects of Trumpism is that there are Christians who excuse and even defend Trump’s regime. It’s a shame that many Christians are dependent upon secular reporters to tell the truth that we ought to be hearing from our pulpits. Jesus Christ is not only the way and the life but also the truth. Church is where we come not only for comfort, consolation, and support but also for truth.
Some of us believe that amid the lies, the sex scandals, and the sleaze and the apostasy of churches and clergy who excuse it, this could be a great opportunity to recover a sense of the difference that Christ makes in our assessment of and participation in the world. Jesus Christ is Lord and all other presumed lordlets of the right or of the left are not.
Congratulations, John Archibald. You may be embarrassed by my praise. But can’t your poor old church, so beset by failure and compromise, be forgiven for taking pride that we had a hand in helping God produce a teller of the truth in a world of lies.
I’m sharing a word with you from A Sermon for Every Sunday. May it encourage your proclaiming work!
(Nashville, TN) – Abingdon Press is pleased to announce Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism by William H. Willimon has been selected as a finalist in the ECPA Christian Book award program’s Ministry Resources Category.
In Who Lynched Willie Earle? Willimon encourages preachers to see American racism as an opportunity for Christians to honestly name our sin and engage in acts of “detoxification, renovation, and reparation.” Preaching that confronts racism powerfully communicates salvation from the sinful narratives of American white supremacy. It hears black pain, naming white complicity, and offers a Gospel-centered critique of American exceptionalism and civil religion.
“Will Willimon’s books are inspiring, creative, humorous, prophetic, and edgy. That’s in part how the author makes the lynching of Willie Earle in 1947 so relevant today,” noted Paul Franklyn, Associate Publisher at Abingdon Press. “We are honored to be a finalist and pleased to be recognized by the ECPA for this important work.”
The Christian Book Award® program recognizes the highest quality in Christian books and Bibles and is among the oldest and most prestigious awards program in the religious publishing industry. Finalists and winners are selected in eleven categories: Bibles, Bible Reference works, Bible Study. Ministry Resources, Biography & Memoir, Christian Living, Faith & Culture, Devotion & Gift, Children (ages 0-8), Young People’s Literature (nonfiction), and New Author. The winners will be announced May 1, 2018 at the ECPA Awards Celebration at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
Abingdon Press is the primary publishing imprint for The United Methodist Publishing House and has a tradition of crossing denominational boundaries with thought-provoking and inspirational books. Abingdon Press titles include a wide array of quality Bibles, Bible studies, small group studies, Christian living, devotional, academic, professional, and reference titles published each year to enrich church communities across the globe. Visit AbingdonPress.com.