Episcopal Retirement Address

Here is a speech given by Rev. Julie Holly at Jurisdictional Conference 2012, held at Lake Junaluska this past July in honor of my retirement from the Episcopacy. Julie is a bright young clergy person who graduated from Duke Divinity and is now doing great work leading a congregation in the Birmingham area of the North Alabama Conference.

Will

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My name is Julie Holly.  I am a clergy delegate from the North Alabama Conference.  The eight years I have served as an appointed clergy person have been under the dynamic leadership of Bishop Will Willimon.  Although he is the only Bishop under whose leadership I have served, I don’t need to work with any others to know that Bishop Willimon is one of a kind.

Most clergy begin their new appointments by spending some time to get to know people and try to avoid making any big changes in the first few months.  Not Will Willimon.  He started offering up new ideas before he had all his boxes unpacked!

In his first year, he conducted preaching seminars for young clergy, began reworking the way clergy are appointed and deployed in North Alabama, doubled the number of new church starts, began teaching his popular “Jesus Course” at Birmingham-Southern College, pushed us to act on long-term plans to change from 12 to 8 districts, and of course, published a couple books.

That fall he cancelled our planned bishop’s convocation and led hundreds of pastors in spending a week working on Katrina relief projects.  He shortened our Annual Conference meeting from a four day gathering to a two day gathering, making it easier for lay delegates to be present for the full meeting and making every minute of the meeting productive.  Bishop Willimon made significant changes to the structure of our connectional ministries for the purpose of increasing accountability, productivity, and results.  And this was all just in the first year.

One of the things I really appreciated about Bishop Willimon’s leadership was his encouragement of the clergy to take risks in ministry.  If someone had an innovative, potentially disruptive, controversial idea—he encouraged them to try it.  And he sought out talented clergy—no matter their age, gender, experience, race—and worked to appoint them where they could be fruitful.  It was a great blessing and also a great disruption to the appointment system.  But he likes to be disruptive.

For the purpose of ensuring that North Alabama ordains capable and effective clergy who could be trusted to take the kind of risks Willimon encouraged, he reorganized the Board of Ordained Ministry to change the process for selecting and credentialing new clergy.  Willimon wants the best clergy doing their best work, and he supported us all in prayer. 

I could make all kinds of jokes about how Willimon spent so much time writing and promoting new books.  But he did decline service on General Church Boards so that he could be more present in the Annual Conference and have more opportunities to preach in our local churches.  As he visited local churches, he heard from the laity and listened to their stories of the torture they had experienced under the leadership of uninspiring preachers.  This feedback led to a new requirement that clergy seeking a change in appointment must submit a recording of a sermon, so that no one was appointed without the Bishop having heard them preach.

Fostering greater accountability in the work of all clergy was a major priority for Bishop Willimon. District Superintendents became coaches and overseers of growth.  The North Alabama Dashboard was initiated to give churches, pastors, and the cabinet a clear, real time picture of their congregational health. 

All this work and all the disruptive changes proved effective when we witnessed the turnaround in our conference.  And later, our conference turnaround was validated by being ranked in the top ten conferences in the connection based on the bishops’ top indicators of vitality.

And during all this work within our conference, Willimon was also writing a dozen books and getting into it with Alabama’s Governor and Legislature over new state immigration laws.

Now, enough about Willimon for now, let’s make sure we honor Patsy Willimon—undeniably the better half.  Patsy has blessed the North Alabama Conference through her investment in local folk art and her dedication to the ministry of our Children’s Homes.  And she has been great at smoothing out feathers that her husband has ruffled!  We are very grateful for her ministry in North Alabama.  We will miss both of the Willimons in North Alabama.

Bishop Willimon, despite the shocking things he says that make us wonder about him sometimes, is committed to the mission of Jesus Christ and is a theologically driven leader.  He believes that the body of Christ is a body in motion.

I expect Will Willimon will be remembered by us for the changes he has made, for his focus on vital congregations, and his personal engagement with our pastors.  

I am personally grateful for the opportunities that Bishop Willimon gave me to participate in the life of the church and our annual conference.  My ministry has been heavily shaped by his leadership and the changes he initiated in North Alabama.  The same year I was ordained, I was nominated to serve on the Board of Ordained Ministry and was appointed directly by Bishop Willimon, against the advice of a number of people, to a church in crisis that is now growing.  Thanks to his willingness to take risks and develop new leaders, I have been able to be part of the new life that has happen on our Board of Ordained Ministry and the new life that has grown out of a church in crisis. 

So, I speak for myself as well as for the whole North Alabama Conference in saying thank you to Will and Patsy Willimon for their ministry among us and thanks to the South Eastern Jurisdiction for sending us the right Bishop at the right time.

 

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Dynamic, Difficult, Destructive, Life-Giving, and Creative

The Holy Spirit contemporizes, reveals, and imparts our redemption here and now. Sadly for us preachers, the Holy Spirit seems to be the most neglected person of the Trinity in contemporary theology. We preachers need a robust conviction of the Holy Spirit’s work because we, unlike most academic interpreters of the Christian faith or of Scripture, must stand up and speak a word to God’s people, here, now. The Holy Spirit is the power of God, empowering humanity to know God. The Holy Spirit is God’s agency in preaching, that which makes a sermon work.

The Holy Spirit is not some impersonal force, not some vague sense, but rather has a distinct personality, as portrayed in Scripture. I would characterize that personality as dynamic, difficult, destructive, life-giving, creative but disruptively creative (Genesis 1; Acts 2). In the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus told us to pray for the coming of God’s reign and to not lose heart (Matt 6:10). But not because God was holding something back. It was now but not yet. It is not fully here, not only because a nonviolent God refuses to force or to coerce that reign upon us. (We may still turn away and reject, refuse, and decline.) Yet the Kingdom also seemed distant, even as Jesus stood beside us, because it was Jesus who stood beside us. The nearness of the Kingdom, in Jesus, gave us a close look into what God’s kingdom was really like. Jesus made us pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” now, here as it will be then, there.

Confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome all of our self-imposed resistance, to construct true Christians out of the stuff of us sinners, makes the work of the Holy Spirit the engine that drives all Wesleyan theology. The Holy Spirit is not exotic, optional equipment for a Christian. We depend on the Holy Spirit as much as we depend on air. In fact, John Wesley spoke of “spiritual respiration” to emphasize the necessity of being constantly connected to the Holy Spirit. (See Sermon 45, “The New Birth,” §II.4.) Like air filling our lungs, the spirit of God fills our lives, making us refreshed and ready to do God’s work. Stop breathing God and our spiritual lives wilt. Because our spiritual respiration is not involuntary, unlike our natural breathing, we must concentrate on being receptive to the Holy Spirit through prayer and the sacraments, Bible study, and other spiritual practices that assist us in cultivating life in the Spirit.

It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to work through a multitude of means to make God present to us, to give us not only the presence of God to us but also the power of God working in us.

Thus I met two older women who have begun and sustained a ministry within one of our local jails for youthful offenders. They visit twice a week and volunteer to teach literacy courses to the inmates. They also make sure that every young man’s birthday is celebrated with a cake and presents provided by local United Methodist churches.

“I have really surprised myself,” said one of the women. “I’ve always been a rather shy person, not the type to venture out and attempt new things. Can you believe what God has done for these young men through someone like me?”

It was, for me, a wonderfully Wesleyan testimonial to the effects of the Holy Spirit. I guess the wild story in Acts 2 is true.

From The Best of Will Willimon (Abingdon, 2012.  Check out Will’s novel, Incorporation, a wild ride through the contemporary church – satire and slapstick with serious theological intent.  Available from Cascade Press https://wipfandstock.com/store/incorporation.

A Complicated God

In order to keep God distant and vague (and irrelevant) many people want to keep God simple, uncomplicated, and abstract. These are the dear folk who say, “Well, I’m not sure that I’m very religious, but I do believe in God. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?”

The problem is that once we discovered that God was in Christ, things got complicated not because the church wanted to make the simple faith of Jesus complex and confusing but because we discovered in Jesus that God was at once much more demanding and much more interesting than we had first thought. In Christ, God was reiterated in ways that meant we were forced to expand our notions of God. We could have gotten along quite nicely without the Trinity had John the Baptist not intruded into our settled arrangements with God by shouting, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).Once Jesus showed up—one “conceived by the Holy Spirit,” born of a poor peasant woman in Judea, God in the flesh, teaching, working wonders among us in the “power of the Spirit,” suffering and dying at our hands, rising after three days, returning to the very people who crucified him, breathing his Holy Spirit upon us—well, we had to talk about God in a way that only complex, dynamic Trinitarian theology could do justice. After being met by Jesus, we could never again think of God in the simple, uncomplicated way as we had before.

From The Best of Will Willimon (Abingdon, 2012.  Check out Will’s novel, Incorporation, a wild ride through the contemporary church – satire and slapstick with serious theological intent.  Available from Cascade Press https://wipfandstock.com/store/incorporation.

animate.Faith

animate2Will Willimon recently attended a brainstorming session in Minneapolis for animate.Faith, a resource for adult groups seeking to begin and foster conversations in local communities about the Christian faith. The session brought together leading Christian voices such as Willimon, Jay Bakker, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Phyllis Tickle, Rachel Held Evans, Eric Elnes, and Jose Morales for a “creative jam” and brainstorming session for animate.Bible, a new DVD resource for adult groups.

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Willimon calls Animate, “an exciting new way of introducing the great ideas of the Christian faith in a way that is engaging and informing, as well as entertaining.”

“Here is a great resource for the education and formation of Christians, particularly pitched to those under thirty who may be experiencing the Christian faith for the first time. I had a great time working with the segment on “biblical interpretation,” doing my best to present the material in a way that will be attractive to a new generation of Christians.”

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Those interested can see sample sketches and videos of the first Animate series (animate.Faith) or sign up to get updates on the next one which will be released late this summer on Sparkhouse’s site: http://animate.wearesparkhouse.org/animate/the-course/.

The Ministry of Administration

In the last third of a wonderful Christmas sermon (Sermo CXCVI) Augustine, after an engaging exposition of the Incarnation says, “Just one more thing….”  Hippo’s Bishop then launches into an excoriating diatribe of the, “Gambling, drinking, dancing, theater-going,” and “pagan pastimes” of his flock.  Augustine gives them a tongue lashing they would never forget.  “Don’t do it again!” he shouted, “Heed my warning, and I’ll spare the lash.”

It’s good to be reminded that there was a day when a church leader loved Christ enough rigorously to hold his people to account for their behavior.  Bishops are, in the fashionable sobriquet, “servant leaders.”  Augustine’s sermon reminds me that one of the greatest services we render is church order and discipline. 

Don’t you find it ironic that Benedict will go down in history as the greatest theologian of the Catholic Church?  He is a deeply spiritual man who proved to be utterly unable to administer the church he loved.  Benedict’s managerial incompetence has, albeit unintentionally, damaged the lives of millions of Catholics through his unwillingness to make tough decisions in regard to immoral, abusive prelates and ineffective clergy.  Catholic laity can understand that there have always been instances of immoral, sinful clergy throughout the history of the church. What they don’t understand is a hierarchy with more empathy for the plight of fellow hierarchs who get caught than the victims of their sin.  Catholicism in Ireland, perhaps Catholicism in North America will be left considerably diminished by Benedict’s perhaps well-meaning but definitely disastrous cover-ups and denials of his predecessor’s and his unaddressed administrative challenges.

I have sympathy with Benedict’s plight.  As bishop, l led a number of initiatives that improved the mission and spirituality of our churches.  My most costly work was my attempt to introduce greater accountability among our clergy.  When I removed a clergy person from an otherwise laudable ministry with the marginalized because of accounting irregularities and questionable financial management, there was a firestorm of protest from clergy who love everything about the United Methodist Church except our historically high standards for the behavior of our clergy.  Even laity who say they want ethical accountability in their leaders resist that accountability when it is applied to a popular clergyman who is able to portray himself as a victim of unreasonable superintendents.  All I got for my trouble was a plea from my Episcopacy Committee not to cause trouble, a complaint to the Judicial Council (immediately dismissed) and a lawsuit that went to the state Supreme Court (dismissed on my last day as bishop). 

As bishop I received lots of kidding from fellow divinity school faculty about our Dashboard, our systems of congregational reporting, and our evaluative procedures.  “You are selling out to business culture,” they charged.  I also received much push back from some of our clergy leaders who were threatened by new ventures in clergy accountability.  Divinity School courses in church administration and leadership are the frequent brunt of academic criticism here at the Divinity School, as if such “how to” courses are unworthy of our efforts.  Many of my divinity school students are capable young theologians and earnest lovers of God.  Many of them will fail in the pastorate, not because they have an inadequate scriptural imagination  but because they fail to learn the skills needed, and lack the courage for faithful administration. 

Yet the sad case of Benedict is a reminder to all of us clergy, particularly those of us who serve in the ministry of administration, that administration is an essential ministry of a church that is accountable to standards higher than its own self-preservation. 

Will Willimon

             

Incorporation: Interview with Dr. Jeremy Begbie

Jeremy Begbie is the Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School where he teaches systematic theology with particular attention to the interplay of theology and the arts. He has performed extensively as a pianist, oboist, and conductor. As an ordained minister in the Church of England, he has also spent time as an assistant pastor in West London. Dr. Begbie recently sat down to answer a few questions about Will Willimon’s new novel Incorporation.

What were your first impressions of the novel, or rather, what seemed to be going on in the novel?

JB: Well, at the very least, the novel is an exposé of the corruption at work in every church to some degree. Obviously, this is an extreme example, but we certainly can’t run away from what Willimon uncovers here. It is an uncomfortable book, for all its Willimon-esque hilarity.

Yet while uncomfortable, it is hugely entertaining!JeremyBegbie3

What particularly struck you in particular?

JB: One thing in particular that struck me is that Incorporation is about a church that is not only corrupt, but hugely “successful”. On the outside, the church is wealthy, large, and respected. This should be a chilling reminder to us about the superficiality of our own estimations of what counts as important.

What about this should give us pause?

JB: Well, very few of the characters set out to do what they know to be evil. Many of them seem to just fall into godless ways. It’s not a book about calculating serial killers or child rapists. There is a kind of complacency, rather than a deliberate, knowing, conscious desire to do things known to be wrong. And yet, there is something or Someone that holds them together. In a way, it reminds me of one of Will’s favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor, who openly admits the unattractiveness of many of her characters, but at the same time, compels us to admit that grace is at work among them.

Which characters stood out for you?

JB: My favorite character was Stephen, who gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to be a slightly naïve, wide-eyed, idealistic pastor, with all the idealism of youth, who enters a pretty ugly setting. Admittedly, he’s the only one I really liked.

As a musician myself, I didn’t care much for the musicians, perhaps because I see too much of myself in them and have met too many like this!

What do you think of Willimon as a novelist?

JB: He is excellent – he writes superbly with lovely turns-of-phrases, keeps my attention, and has the ability to capture a scene strikingly. I reckon he should write another one soon.

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Pick up your copy of Incorporation by Will Willimon today.

 

Jesus Getting Down and Dirty: Lent Devotions

This Lent Abingdon Press has published my book, Thank God It’s Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Table.  The book is a sort of companion to my Thank God It’s Friday, which received a gratifying reception from the church.

Thank God It’s Thursday utilizes the last chapters of John’s Gospel to reflect upon the significance of our mealtimes with Jesus.  I hope that you will enjoy these meditations during this holiest time of the Christian year.  And I hope you will check out Thank God It’s Thursday.

Jesus Getting Down and Dirty

            Feet are literally the lowest, earthiest part of the body.  “To put under the feet” was a humiliating gesture of the victor over the vanquished. (Ps. 8:6)  In the ancient world, feet got dirty on dusty roads (Mark 6:11).  Washing a guest’s feet was an act of highest hospitality (Genesis 18:4; Luke 7:44).  Moses removed his shoes in a holy place in order not to defile (Ex. 3:5).  To “fall at the feet” of someone is an act of humility and self-abasement (1 Sam. 25:24; Mk. 5:22).[1]  Just a few days before Maundy Thursday Mary anointed Jesus’ feet (Jn. 12:1-8). Print

It’s a touching gesture, washing of feet.  It’s nice to see the Pope kneel and wash the feet of a young priest Maundy Thursday at the Vatican.[2]  But when Jesus arrives at the feet of Judas, I react with revulsion.  Amid all of Jesus’ high sounding and loving words at the table, I almost forgot.  At the table with the Twelve, there was Judas who a short time from now will by a kiss send Jesus off to a diabolical death.

In scripture, vanquished enemies are put under the victors’ feet (Josh. 10:24; Mal. 4:3).  Here at table, Jesus does a shocking reversal, placing himself under the feet of his worst enemy who also happens to be one of his good friends.

How much easier this gesture if it had been offered to the rest of the Twelve but not to Judas, if Jesus had drawn the line between the passive acquiesce with evil of the Eleven and the active betrayal of Judas.  At least the others got not a dime from their disloyalty of their master.  We wish that Jesus had waited until Judas made his exit before Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet.

No, there’s Jesus tenderly caressing the feet of Judas as if he were the Beloved Disciple at his bosom.  Judas will shortly use those same feet to walk from the meal to sell out his Savior.  Is the foot washing John’s version of Jesus’ abrasive command to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)?   Or it’s John’s way of having Jesus say, as he says elsewhere, “I’ve come to seek and to save the lost”? (Luke 15)  How much easier for us, the remaining Eleven, if Jesus had not given his life (only) for sinners and if he had not stooped down and lovingly washed the feet of Judas Iscariot.

When the Alabama legislature passed a law that penalized our citizens for giving aid, comfort, food, housing, jobs or transportation to undocumented immigrants, many churches of Alabama knew that the immigration law as an attack upon our Christ-assigned work.

As I argued with the governor (and a retired Methodist pastor turned politician who shamelessly defended the law), “Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t allow his people choose between the deserving and the undeserving poor, the documented and the undocumented homeless and hungry.  He commands us actively to love all those in need.”

Some legislators replied, “But these people are illegal.  The church shouldn’t be aiding and abetting law breakers.”

Hey, before Jesus Christ, so far as our relationship to God was concerned, we were all illegal!  His New Covenant, given at table, documented a bunch of illicit sinners as God’s beloved.  At the time I was dooking it out with our right wing, ill-advised Governor I didn’t think about this Judas-foot-washing episode from John 13, but I wish I had.  If Jesus had reason to wash Judas’ feet, in effect aiding and abetting his own murderer, harboring the worst of criminals at his own table, well, he’ll wash anybody’s feet.  Anybody’s — even mine, even the Governor’s, even yours, no matter where your dirty feet have taken you.

Judas receives more attention (13:1-30) than any other person in the story other than Jesus.  Is this a warning to contemporary disciples?  Thus that great Catholic apologist for the faith, G. K. Chesterton dared to call Judas the very first Christian: “Judas Iscariot was one of the very earliest of all possible early Christians.  And the whole point about him was that his hand was in the same dish; the traitor is always a friend, or he could never be a foe.”[3]  Sorry, if your idea of “Christian” is someone who has overcome the problem of sin and now sits at Jesus’ table with clean hands and a spotless conscience.  Watch Jesus wash Judas’ feet and repeat after me: Jesus Christ came to seek and to save sinners, only sinners.

If Judas can be thought of as the first Christian, then that also makes this supper our earliest glimpse of the church.

 

Will Willimon

Thank God It’s Thursday, available from Abingdon Press


[1] Because of the lowly status “feet” became an infrequent biblical metaphor for male sexual organs, but I won’t trouble you with those references.

[2] In 2006 Pope Benedict began washing the feet of a dozen laymen at Maundy Thursday services.

[3] The New Jerusalem (London: Hodder and Stoughton), 286.