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.