Hauerwas and Willimon, The Holy Spirit, part 3


This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. May this book be used by the Holy Spirit to address that!

We’ve Got an Advocate

That the Holy Spirit incorporates us into Godʼs very life is not only found in the letters of Paul. In the gospel of John, Jesus promises that though he will return to the Father he will ask the Father to send the “Advocate, the Paraclete,” who will be with us forever. That “Advocate” is the “Spirit of truth” whom the disciples will recognize because, “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be with you.” (John 14: 17) The Advocate is sent to “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14: 26). The Spirit has distinct work to do: to make us one body, the Body of Christ.

That the Holy Spirit is here called “Advocate” indicates that in Christ we are more than simply accepted by God or even justified by God. The Advocate continues to plead for us, represent us to God in ways greater than our ways and speak in our behalf to God better than we could speak up for ourselves. At the same time the Advocate is God representing God to us, revealing God to us in ways that we could not have come up with on our own.

That the Holy Spirit “will teach you everything and remind you” of all that Jesus said is immensely reassuring. None of us is born Christian. We must learn the faith and, in the Holy Spirit we see that God loves us enough to teach us all we need to know to be with God. Jesus commands us to do some extraordinary things in his name but never commands us to attempt to obey him by ourselves. Jesus tells us some astounding truth that is easy to forget. Therefore the Advocate reminds us. Here is truth we cannot teach ourselves, truth that is not only a great mystery to us but also truth that we, in our human sin, cannot attain on our own. Therefore the Advocate is a truth-teller.

We know a person who suffered a great wrong at the hands of another. She was justifiably angry at the injustice perpetrated against her. In an encounter with her wrongdoer her rage boiled over and she was in the process of, “Giving him a piece of my mind.” In that moment she, “remembered that Christ commanded us to forgive our enemies. I said, ʻLord, Iʼll try to do what you want me to do, but youʼll have to help meʼ.” We believe her remembrance was the work of the Advocate, the true eternal truth-teller, the Teacher, the Living Reminder otherwise known as the Holy Spirit.

We spend most of our lives outside of the sacred precincts of the church. Thankfully, the Advocate is with us “forever,” at all times and places, helping us to be the disciples Jesus calls us to be.

The love that is Trinity is a wonderful but also a harsh and dreadful love, a love that (we learn in Christʼs resurrection) cannot be destroyed. Christʼs church is given the extraordinary opportunity to participate in the love that is God in a world that knows not God.

The Holy Spirit rests upon bodies, first on the crucified body of Jesus, then on the often full-of-holes and beaten Body of Christ, the church.

A little church in Alabama had been saving for a decade at last to build its own church and to enable the congregation to move out of the rented space where it worshipped. A couple in the church had raised four foster children. One Sunday, during the prayers of intercession, the couple said that social services had asked them to take on three more children who had become homeless. They asked the church for prayers,“to help us find a larger place to rent so we can take in these kids.”

With that, one of the oldest members of the congregation blurted out, “We donʼt need to pray for that. Letʼs give them our building fund money!” There was applause. That Sunday the church gave the entire building fund to enable the family to have a larger home. We believe that such a miracle is attributable only to having ordinary people pray, “Come! Holy Spirit!”

The Holy Spirit is the agent of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is present, often hidden, in the church. The Holy Spirit is the way that God keeps actively loving us in time, the way that the Trinity keeps showing up to us, keeps pointing us toward the truth embodied in the Crucified. By Godʼs love, we live in the Age of the Spirit, that new time in which the church exists and testifies to the world that our time is not our own. God has taken time for us and the sign of that divine intrusion is the Holy Spirit at work in the church that is lives and works in the world.

God through the Spirit draws us into the life of the Trinity making possible a people who would otherwise not exist. The Spirit must have a body on which the Spirit can rest. That body turns out to be called “church.”

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

To pre-order:


Hauerwas and Willimon, The Holy Spirit, part 2


This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, the latest collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. In this book, we attempt to lure fellow Christians into the riches of Pneumatology, thinking about the Holy Spirit. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Pentecostal Embarrassment

The Holy Spiritʼs lack of prominence in contemporary theology is odd given that the movement generally known as Pentecostalism is the fastest growing form of Christianity. Charismatic Christianity has grown exponentially over the last century. The movement which many think began in 1906 in modest circumstances on Azusa Street in Los Angeles has exploded into a world-wide phenomenon producing some of the most lively churches in South America and Africa.

Of particular note is the Holy Spiritʼs special relation with the poor and the dispossessed. The sermon that Jesus preaches in Luke 4, claiming that the Spirit is upon him to preach good news to the oppressed, deliverance to prisoners, is taking form in worldwide Pentecostalism today.

The charismatic, Holy Spirit induced movement has not been restricted to Protestants. In 1967 during a retreat at Duquesne University a number of the participants were “reborn” in the Spirit. It was not long before the movement spread to the University of Notre Dame spawning summer meetings that for a number of years attracted thousands. This Catholic charismatic movement has generally had the support of the Popes and bishops.

Charismatic forms of Protestantism have often received a different response from the churches. In fact, the “enthusiasm” of the charismatics may be one of the reasons the Holy Spirit does not have, at least among mainstream Protestants, the same status as Father and Son. “Enthusiasm,” (infused with God) was a frequent charge against John Wesley and his Methodists.

Some fundamentalist churches ostracize members who claim to have received charismatic gifts, seeing such claims as dangerous undercutting the authority of Scripture and disrupting congregational order. As mainstream Protestantism loses the social and political status it once enjoyed, unable to attract new members, it becomes fearful about the future. Mainline Protestants sense that just identifying themselves as Christian is enough of a threat to secular culture; they are anxious not to be counted with Christians who speak in tongues, perform signs and wonders, believe in miracles, and are possessed by the Spirit. “Progressive Christians” know that many of their secular friends think that Christianity can no longer be rationally defended. That some Christians in the name of the Holy Spirit claim to be possessed by God in a way that seems irrational to modern, Western people only reinforces the secularist suspicion of the absurdity of Christianity.

In a field education seminar, Will had a student present a case study in which a parishioner asked her pastor, “What does the United Methodist Church believe about speaking in tongues.”

The pastor was rather pleased with himself to respond, “Oh my God, donʼt tell me youʼve gotten into that!”

She reported that she had experienced glossolalia, ecstatic speech, during a session of her Bible study group.

“Perhaps you are still dealing with grief over the death of your daughter,” said the pastor.

“I am. Is that what causes this?” she asked.

“Perhaps you ought to seek professional help,” persisted the pastor.

“Thatʼs why I came to you,” she concluded.

We find this a rather brutal policing of the Holy Spirit to assume that a report of

unusual spiritual gifts should be responded to with, “You are insane.”  

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

To pre-order:


Sad Truth about United Methodist Racial Diversity



 From the Pew Research Center comes the sad truth about racial diversity in American churches. Some years ago I said that my own beloved United Methodist Church has shown little intention of taking the costly, painful steps that might lead to greater racial diversity; we prefer slogans about diversity to actual racial inclusiveness. Years ago Lyle Schaller said that the more a congregation talks about “diversity” and the less it talks instead about “evangelism,” the less diverse that church is.

During the four decades of my ministry, the UMC we spent millions to subsidize mostly failing ethnic minority local church, we have an elaborate, rigidly enforced system of racial quotas for our leaders, and a higher percentage of ethnic minority bishops than any other church. And yet, as you can see, we are at the bottom of the list in actual inclusivity of membership.

This data shows that the UMC is actually less inclusive than we were four decades ago. I think the data confirms my contention that racial inclusiveness is exclusively a local church issue; it is not solved by Annual Conference and General Conference measures. I pray that the UMC will use this dismal data from Pew as encouragement to dedicate ourselves anew not to being more inclusive in our hierarchy but inclusive in our Sunday worship. I bet we would have to reform our training of clergy, our deployment of clergy, our worship and hymnody. There is no painless way for us to move from being one of the most racially exclusive church to a church that more faithfully mirrors the mission of Christ.

The UMC’s location at the bottom of the diversity index is an affront to our tradition, our theology, and our fidelity to Jesus Christ. How ironic that we will probably spend more energy at the next General Conference talking about sexual orientation than about our now well-documented racial exclusivity.

Will Willimon

If a religious group had exactly equal shares of each of the five racial and ethnic groups (20% each), it would get a 10.0 on the index; a religious group made up entirely of one racial group would get a 0.0. By comparison, U.S. adults overall rate at 6.6 on the scale. And indeed, the purpose of this scale is to compare groups to each other, not to point to any ideal standard of diversity.

Seventh-day Adventists top the list with a score of 9.1: 37% of adults who identify as Seventh-day Adventists are white, while 32% are black, 15% are Hispanic, 8% are Asian and another 8% are another race or mixed race.

Muslims (8.7) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (8.6) are close behind in terms of diversity, as no racial or ethnic group makes up more than 40% of either group.

Although U.S. Jews (90% white) and Hindus (91% Asian) are not very diverse, especially compared with Americans overall, the five least diverse groups in the index are all Protestant denominations. Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (a mainline denomination), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (an evangelical denomination) and the United Methodist Church (the largest mainline church) are all more than 90% white.

Hauerwas and Willimon, The Holy Spirit, part 1


This Fall Abingdon Press will publish The Holy Spirit, a new collaboration by Stanley Hauerwas and me. We hope the book will be read by pastors and their congregations that they may have a fresh encounter with the Holy Spirit. It’s been said that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected aspect of the Trinity. We hope that our book, in some small way, helps to change that neglect!

The Holy Spirit as God

When we talk about the Holy Spirit we are speaking about God. You may find this an odd remark with which to begin a book meant to introduce the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. After all this is a book written by Christians for Christians. However throughout Christian history and particularly in our own day Christians have had difficulty remembering when they say Holy Spirit they say God.

God as Father, Son, and….

Surveys show that nine out of ten Americans say they believe in “God.” But weʼre not sure that the God in whom so many Americans believe is the God designated by “Holy Spirit.” Actually, when Christians say Holy Spirit they are not merely saying “God;” they are saying Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who are the one God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. Often when you are third in a list, for instance, a list like the Apostles Creed, it can seem that third is an after-thought.[1]

Thus the general presumption is that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit—well, what does the Spirit do? Too often the Spirit is associated with our feeling that we have had some sort of “experience” that is somehow associated with God or at least a vague feeling that seems to be “spiritual.” Human experience is a questionable place from which to begin thinking about God. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience are often cited by United Methodists as constituting authority in theological argument. Some even claim that John Wesley was big on experience as a source for theological reflection. Subjective experience is no place to begin thinking about the Holy Spirit. Such thinking can result in a dismissal of what the

Bible says about the Holy Spirit and an unfortunate degradation of Christian doctrine. So we say again: to believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in God. To have had experience of the Holy Spirit is to have had an experience of something other than yourself.

Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

[1] See Jason Byasee’s book in the Belief Matters series, The Trinity (Nashville: Abingdon 2015).

To pre-order The Holy Spirit:


The Best of Times for Church Leaders

“We are dying and our pastor hasn’t a clue what to do about it. If our next pastor refuses to lead, we’re history,” lamented a layperson as we stood in the gravel parking lot of a little Alabama church.

A consultant told one of my churches, “Your church staff is intelligent, spiritually astute, but don’t know how to do the things that need to be done to give this church a future. Worse, they have a well-developed theology to justify their lack of leadership.”

At the risk of nostalgia — when I entered the pastoral ministry in South Carolina four decades ago I was clear that I was being sent onto the frontlines of a war. Jesus demanded the acquisition of leadership skills – truth-telling, pain-inducting, coalition-building, constant communication – that are rarely innate and few seminaries teach. I had to figure out how not only to maintain but also to move the church. When I became a bishop years later, it seemed that many pastors had reverted to maintenance and care-giving – safer work than the leadership of change.

It’s a truism that no human institution endures without change. As G. K. Chesterton said in defense of tradition, if you want a fencepost to stay the same, you’ve got to repaint it every year. Refurbishment and transformation are even more pressing for the church. Had I the time, I’m sure I could demonstrate – through appeal to Scripture and church history – that there’s no way to remain the church without continual renovation and risk because of Jesus. Leading is only necessary for an institution that needs to go somewhere or that lives under external mandate. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the nascent church by focus upon the leaders of the church. What Jesus demands of disciples can’t be accomplished without someone being given the burden of leadership (ordination).

“Just be with your people, be present, listen, and love them,” responded one of my pastors to a consultant’s criticism that little appeared to be happening in his church. I was moved by the pastor’s sweet response.

“That’s not good enough,” the consultant shot back. “It’s arrogant for you to refuse to acquire the necessary skills and practices required to serve the needs of the church here and now. ‘I’ll just be present with you’ means ‘I refuse to submit to serve you as leader.’ Hey, we’ve learned why churches thrive and be more faithful.   You’re ordained to lead.”

I surveyed seminary graduates whom I had taught recently. I asked, “What should we have given you that we didn’t?”   Nearly all of them responded, leadership. “I graduated from seminary with lots of great ideas but without skills in how to execute those ideas,” said one. As I see it, we are the first generation of pastors in a century to be forced – by the demands of a living God and our changed cultural context – not only to care but also to lead. The good news is that an increasing number of pastors are eager to grow beyond earlier disparagement of leadership resources as mere symptoms of “institutional anxiety” or facile, faddish “church growth quick-fixes.”

There are more resources for church leaders than have existed at any time in the history of the church.   Having taught M.Div. and D. Min. courses in leadership (I know, “those who can’t, teach”) and having field tested dozens of church leadership books (desperation forces one to read), I’ve got some favorites. For a church leadership book to make my A-list, it must: be congruent with my ecclesial tradition and congregational culture, be explicitly driven as much by theological commitments as by organizational and sociological insights, honestly tackle the tough, necessary work for mainline Protestant Christianity to have a future, and be unashamedly specific and practical.

I’ve been prodded and poked by the many books of Bill Easum, Paul Borden, and Tom Bandy, recommending them to fellow pastors: “Here is pastoral leadership on steroids.” Easum’s Go Big: Leading Your Church to Explosive Growth (2006), or Bandy’s, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers: Ministry Anytime, Anywhere, by Anybody (1995) are hard-hitting, fast-paced shoves to be more assertive pastoral leaders. Paul Borden (Hit the Bull’s Eye: Aiming Real Leaders at the Mission Field, 2003 ) nails pastors for wasting time with internal congregational hand-holding rather than externally engaging North America in mission, mission, mission. I wrote the foreword to his Hit the Bull’s Eye, admitting how Borden challenged my own tendency merely to keep house in the congregation because I didn’t want to do the hard work of standing up to and moving out into a world that thinks it’s already Christian, sort of. Though Easum, Borden, and Bandy have distinctive emphases and differences, their kicking-butt-and-taking-names approach is a life-giving shove to all-too-cautious and diffident pastors who may have unwittingly reduced ministry to chaplaincy to inwardly focused churches.

And yet, these popular church-growth gurus, though published by mainline church publishing houses, often sound if they are speaking to churches other than mine. Their ecclesiology tends to see the church as a hindrance to real mission and evangelism (defined mostly as harvesting converts who have assented to “the message”). As a pastor said of one of Borden’s books, “First become a conservative, non-hierarchial, non-connectional, sort of Baptist church with a pastor who is absolutely cocksure self-confident about his or her vision and goals, and the rest is easy.”

I have found some church leadership books of enduring significance: Anthony Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture and Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (2003), answers the often heard criticism (from writers like Eugene Peterson) that church management books favor commercialized quick fixes devoid of theology. Tony has a gift for focusing on the essentials and for giving pastors the confidence to lead. His own pastoral experience shows; he is convincingly mainline (he’s a UCC pastor, consultant and contributor to the Christian Century). When I wrote my textbook for ordained leaders, Pastor (2002), wanting to condense leadership wisdom for future pastors, I leaned heavily on Tony’s insights.

Tony’s pastoral leaders are collaborative, humble enough to change, motivational without dominating, constantly teaching, eager to use acquired influence to do the tough work required to be a faithful, living church and confident that the Protestant mainline is a gift of God to North American religious life. A pastor leads congregational change by daring to ask the right questions, framing the problem in a theological perspective, and patiently, small-step-by-small-step moving people in the same direction. Tony tells us not only what ought to be done but how to do it by spelling out strategies like, “maintain disciplined attention,” “give responsibility back,” and “don’t over value consensus.” His What’s Theology Got to do With It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church (2005) is a little gem of theology put into practice.

Though her more recent books seem less theologically disciplined by theology, Diana Butler Bass’s The Practicing Congregation (2004), dares to confront the changed religious landscape faced by mainline churches. Some pastors’ leadership styles are dated. The theologian who urges, “Just be present with your people,” or “Don’t worry about reaching others; just be open and welcoming” Is clueless that we live in culture rapidly becoming post-Christian. It’s no longer enough passively to “be the church” in expectation that the world will see our liturgical and ideological superiority and spontaneously join in. While I benefited from her honesty and her passionate focus on younger people, I have heard some clergy use (abuse?) Bass’s insights as an excuse not to focus on leading staid congregations into a better future; why bother to reach out to the world if the world is dead set against us?

Many pastors in my church family trust Lovett Weems. His Church Leadership (rev. ed. 2010) has become the book that a wide array of seminaries use for leadership training. I’ve enjoyed watching Weems incite mainline pastors to notice numbers like attendance and membership growth. Weems’ refusal to bless decline as a theological virtue is no small feat in United Methodism, I can tell you. I wonder if Weems’ prescriptions are radical enough to address our current congregational challenges — he stresses caution and leadership that is respectful of and aligned with a specific congregation’s culture and tradition. Yet his advice is always sound and pastors find immediate help from Weems’ interpretation of secular research on organizational management (greatly revised from his 1993 first edition). Weems gives pastors the chutzpa to notice the numbers (without the courage to quantify, leadership is impossible) and to plan for growth. With words more gentle than mine Weems shows that pastors who are comfortable servicing the spiritual needs of one generation or social class and who are focused mainly on internal congregational maintenance rather than faithful mission, are attempting to serve a 2016 church using a 1950 Christendom mindset.

Gil Rendle’s Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (2010) is similar in tone to Weems. Though much less a “do this and you will get that” sort of leadership book, Rendle does a fine job of convincing mainline churches that we must move from a presumption of power to a position of active mission to all of God’s beloved, hurting people. The old cultural props are gone and that’s OK; what’s not OK is leading as if nothing has changed.

The foundation for that change of mind is Darrell Guder’s The Continuing Conversion of the Church (2000). While Guder probably didn’t think of his book as a pastoral leadership book, it really is. Guder forces us pastors see ourselves as lead missionaries in God’s mission in the world. A major reason why we pastors must read books about church leadership is that we now lead our congregations in the challenging mission field of North America.

More in line with the how-to-fix-it leadership genre is Molly Baskette’s thoroughly likeable and immediately useful, Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too. (2014) Molly renders church leadership as less an onerous burden than a fun adventure. She tells how her church started growing, collected more money, did more mission, attracted a more diverse and younger congregation and — she is U. C. C.! Earlier, Kirk Hadaway (an Episcopalian) Behold I Do a New Thing (2001) gave rout to the lie that liberal, mainline churches must succumb to slow death. I love the way that Baskette, and Hadaway before her, refuse to throw up their hands and throw in the towel, forcing us pastors to dispose of the alibi, “But what can anybody do?”

I enjoy telling seminarians, “You have been called by God and the church to leadership in the best of times. We’ve tried some things and learned a great deal. After decades of blaming, alibiing, and denial, we now have lots of practical, proven tools to help us to be faithful to our vocation.”

I not only believe that, I’ve seen it in action. What a great time to be a pastor

William H. Willimon’s forthcoming novel, I’m Not From Here, appears soon.