Sent to Lead

On top of everything else, I’ve been appointed as pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.  How did I get here (on top of three classes taught at Duke Divinity?)?  I got here the same way any United Methodist preacher gets anywhere – I was sent.

Maria writes Malvolio in Twelfth Night: “Some are born to leadership; some achieve leadership; others have leadership thrust upon them.”[1] All clergy are in Maria’s last category–we are leaders not because of innate qualities or personal preferences but because we were summoned by God and the church and given a job to do for Jesus. United Methodism practices a “sent ministry;” you can’t call or hire a UM pastor–we are sent. Ministry is God’s idea before it is our own; God has seen fit, for reasons usually known only to God, to thrust us into the mission of the Body of Christ in motion.

One of my goals as a bishop was to improve the process of sending pastors. I quickly found that Bishops make poor decisions in the sending of pastors because of three deficiencies: lack of accurate information, lack of creativity, and lack of courage. It is our responsibility to know pastors and churches down deep. It’s the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to give us the guts to act upon that knowledge.

There was a time when some people thought the purpose of a Cabinet was to care for the career advancement of the clergy. Not according to our Discipline and not in the North Alabama Conference. I urged our Cabinet to define our work in this way: The task of the bishop and DSs in the appointive process is to send clergy who can lead the mission of a congregation.[2]

In an early meeting with some of our clergy couples I was asked if I would do better than my predecessor in appointing clergy couples to desirable appointments. They were asking, whether they intended or not, that the church function for the benefit of clergy. I replied that our system is too clericalized already. Clericalism is always deadly to the church. It’s not my job to appoint clergy couples; I secure effective pastoral leadership. When bishops are asked to appoint clergy by criteria other than effectiveness in leading a congregation, we get the lousy results that we deserve.

It is death to a clergy appointment when asked by a congregation, “Why have you appointed this pastor to us?” for a bishop to respond, “Because her husband is a pastor nearby and we were forced to appoint her within a thirty mile radius of him.” Instead, what a joy to look a congregation in the eye and answer, “Because she is the very best person we have to lead the mission of this particular church.”

One can tell that the Discipline’s opening paragraph on appointment making (¶ 430) was written by clergy; in four long sentences, only one even mentions congregations. The responsibilities of appointment making in the Discipline–open itinerancy, physical challenges–while noble, are purely clerical concerns. It takes real discipline for overseers to keep focused on the congregation and its mission. Lay leadership ought to be brought into the process of discernment and asked clearly to define the congregation’s mission leadership needs. When appointment making is exclusively the prerogative of the bishop and Cabinet, we rob lay leadership of their power to accept responsibility for decisions about pastors and to help make appointments work. For our system of sending to function well, laity must have faith that the missional needs of the congregation mean more than the care, feeding, and reward of clergy. When Easum and Bandy studied our annual conference (the year before I arrived), they cited the perceived “protection of clergy” as a detriment to our future.

A skillful DS provides essential pressure upon a congregation, helps it face the facts of its life together, and raises the level of expectation. Expectation is a great challenge in a declining church. Congregational contentment is a fierce competitor with faithful mission. Many people believe that the problem with the appointive system is that pastors are moved too often and stay for too short a term. As I look back upon my appointments of pastors, I have few regrets for the pastors I moved but a number of deep regrets about the pastors I allowed to stay too long in one place.

Pastors may complain, may bear animosity toward the bishop, and congregations may refuse warmly to welcome a new pastor, but no one can undo the appointive will of a bishop. I pray that the appointive authority of bishops is authoritarianism to a good end. From what I experienced, the authority of bishops to appoint pastors is rarely abused and too modestly used. I was constrained, not by the strictures in the Discipline but rather by my own lack of courage, creativity, and my innate clerical desire to please.

So, for about the tenth time in my career, I’ve been sent somewhere that was someone else’s idea before it was mine, sent to a place I had not chosen to go.  Yet I’ve found, in four decades of this sort of thing, the sending of pastors is not only one of the unique aspects of United Methodism, but also a remarkable work of God.

Even though being pastor of Duke Memorial UMC wasn’t my idea.  It’s a great way to go.

Will Willimon


[1] Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, act 2, sc. 5.

[2] In Larry Goodpaster, There’s Power in the Connection (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 71, Larry stated: “The conference does not make disciples, but the conference-level leadership (starting with the bishop) can create an atmosphere of expectation that every local church will thrive and make disciples and be alive.

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2 thoughts on “Sent to Lead

  1. Loved the boldness in this post.

    In most conferences salary packages are one of the biggest factors used when making appointments–often to the detriment of mission. How do you think the appointment process could be revised to break the stranglehold salaries currently have in decision making?

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  2. I would only add one thing to your comments. As a clergy person, I don’t expect a bishop to be primarily concerned with my well being. I say that without any malice. If I want someone to care about me, I simply pray to God. (Though I recognize that God’s care doesn’t mean that I’m exempt from hardship and so forth. One man aptly put it in a prayer: “We are expendable…in a good way…but nevertheless expendable for thy good will.”) If I need some tangible help with that, I will hire a qualified therapist (one that prays). Bishops lack credibility because they spend too much time ruminating about appointments in detached conference offices that are often too far removed from the front lines of ministry. It’s analogous to a general or commanding officer that never spends enough time with the troops, therefore making him/her ineffective in commanding. Everything from morale, skills, abilities, deficiencies, discernment, and just plain wisdom suffer as a result. Bishops must be mobile, acutely familiar with clergy and churches, even more familiar with the people in a conference, and paid on a level more or less equal to an average clergy salary (the current Pope is doing wonders for this model). Conference offices (dare I say even a bishop’s residence, not to mention DS’s) must be mobile–ready and surveying the spiritual front lines so as to make the strategic moves you reference. There is nothing more disheartening to a clergy person or active, mature lay person than to be told to go out to the front line by someone that isn’t familiar with what or where the front line is. We can do better.

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