Great Teachers, Great Students

Last year I had the privilege of team-teaching a course on the Psalms for Preaching with Dr. Stephen Chapman.  If you are a preacher, you ought to have Dr. Chapman’s award winning theological commentary, First Samuel as Christian Scripture.  His determinedly Christian theological interpretation of this Old Testament book is breathtaking and immediately applicable to the challenge of formation of the congregation by the scriptural word.  You will be challenged and invigorated by Chapman’s readings of First Samuel.  His treatment of the call of Samuel, of the sagas of David and Saul are unforgettable and are perfect preparation for preaching.  Reading this unabashedly theological commentary will give you a sense of some of the excitement that occurs when Dr. Chapman is at the lectern in the classroom.

(There’s a great video interview with Stephen at

As a student at Yale, Stephen Chapman became interested in First Samuel while taking an Old Testament course with Dr. Ellen Davis.  A few weeks ago I sat in on Dr. Davis’ Doctor of Ministry class, “The Old Testament, Violence, and Leadership” at Duke Divinity School.  She and Dr. Sarah Musser artfully interpreted some troubling biblical texts in such a way that enabled our DMin students to make some surprising connections between the ancient text and our contemporary church contexts.

A distinctive feature of the Duke Doctor of Ministry program, from the first, has been the active participation of some of Duke’s best faculty like Stephen Chapman and Ellen Davis.  Our guiding goal in the Duke DMin is to mine the riches of the Christian theological disciplines in order to expand the leadership capacities of today’s church leaders.  Well-equipped pastoral leaders are those who are best able to orchestrate and instigate change to enable the church to thrive into the future.  We believe that the major way to better pastoral leaders is through great theological teachers.

If you are a church leader who wants to strengthen your own leadership capacity and would like to study with professors like Drs. Chapman and Davis, let me hear from you at

–Will Willimon

A New Book from Duke’s Doctorate of Ministry Program

Some of my most rewarding teaching experiences have been in the Duke Doctor of Ministry program.  This summer I took over as Director of the program.  I’m excited about this opportunity to lead what has become one of best Doctor of Ministry programs in the country.

A remarkable aspect of the Duke program is how many of our students have successfully published books from the theses which they wrote as part of the Doctor of Ministry work.

This month, Jeff Seaton, a United Church of Canada pastor, published his book, Who’s Minding the Story?  I advised Jeff as he wrote his thesis and knew that it would become a much-discussed contribution to the conversation over liberal church decline in North America.

I wrote the foreword to Who’s Minding the Story?  Here’s an excerpt from what I had to say as an invitation into this remarkable work of contemporary theology and ecclesiology:

Some years ago I participated in an extensive sociological study of trends in mainline Protestantism in the U. S.  We were just beginning to notice that liberal, mainline Protestantism was in trouble.  The only specific insight that I remember from the study was theological: mainline, liberal, American Christianity is in trouble because our clergy have given people a theological rationale for godlessness.  This theological critique came from sociologists!

While we were sleeping, without intending to do so, we gave people the intellectual ammunition they needed to steer clear of the church and its claims in order to descend more deeply into their subjective selves.  Personal experience with a wide array of churches in the intervening years has confirmed the validity of this thesis.  Liberal Christianity in North America is in freefall for lots of reasons – low birthrates, a graying membership, our churches stuck in areas of declining population, we failed to reach the waves of new arrivals from other cultures, and a host of sociological, anthropological factors.  However, a more important element in our demise may be theological.

We failed to keep our eye on the ball, to keep the main thing, the main thing, to take care of business, to mind the store.  I could pile on a few more tropes, but I’ll let Jeff Seaton put forth the most apt metaphor: Who’s Minding the Story?

The disestablishment and disenfranchisement of liberal, Protestant Christianity has been more apparent in Canadian churches than in churches I have served south of the border.  For us Americans, the Canadian Christian situation is not only disturbing but also an important warning.  

Jeff has given us a straight-talking, revealing book that puts its finger on our wound – our flaccid, vague Christology has robbed liberal Christianity of anything to say to the world that the world cannot obtain more easily without all the baggage incurred by claiming that a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly is the truth about God.  Thousands of Canadians seem to be saying, “If it’s not about Jesus, why bother?”

Building upon the thought of fellow Canadian Charles Taylor, Jeff illuminates our situation.  e are paying dearly for our intellectual mistakes.  Democratic, subjective, vague Liberalism has proven to be an inadequate means of thinking about the thick, demanding, odd story that is the gospel of Christ.

Jeff demonstrates how the oddness and peculiarity of the Christian story does not easily translate into the stories that the world tells itself.  Little about the gospel is innate or available to modern people without the substance and agency of Christ.    

I hasten to add that Jeff’s is a very helpful, hopeful book.  Jeff is not only a seasoned pastor who writes from the trenches but also a member of a new generation who sees the intellectual, theological challenges ahead of us in a way that is different from us old guys.  

Reading Jeff’s book gave me hope for the future and a provided a way of recommitting myself to the distinctive, odd, wonderful story of Jesus Christ, reconciling God’s world to God.

–Will Willimon

Let me hear from you if you are thinking about applying to the Duke Doctorate of Ministry at

Reflecting on Bishop Goodson

The most formative afternoon I spent in Alabama was the afternoon I worked through the papers of Bishop Kenneth Goodson.  That afternoon consecrated me as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church and gave me my marching orders.  I kept a portrait of Bishop Goodson in my office in Birmingham to remind me of my responsibilities, particularly in regard to racial reconciliation.

One reason why I felt privileged to serve in Alabama was because it was the site of some of America’s most significant history: the Montgomery bus boycott, the attacks on the Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Selma’s “Bloody Sunday.”

I was honored to serve in a place where Alabama Methodists had to come to terms with their own racial history and take action to address their past racial sin.

Now William E. Nicholas, professor emeritus at United Methodist-affiliated Birmingham-Southern College, and an active member of the conference Archives and History Committee, provides a wonderful treatment of Alabama Methodist racial history in his new book Go and Be Reconciled: Alabama Methodists Confront Racial Injustice: 1954-1974, published by NewSouth Books.

Bishop Goodson (1912-1991), unlike his cautious predecessors, stepped up to the task of merging the long segregated Methodist conferences in Alabama.  Nicholas makes Ken the hero of his story.  Goodson rallied the handful of white Methodist whom God had led to struggle with integration in the 1950s.  A number, like the legendary Dan Whitsett of Sylacauga First Methodist, had crosses burned in their yards by the resurgent Ku Klux Klan.  Andrew Turnipseed was among a number of pastors who were run out of the state.  His daughter, Marti Turnipseed, was expelled from Birmingham-Southern after joining a lunch counter desegregation sit-in. Rev. John Rutland courageously preached on racial reconciliation, only to have sheriff “Bull” Connor (who ran the Birmingham police state), one of his parishioners at Birmingham’s Woodlawn Methodist Church, stand up in the pews and shout him down.

Goodson arrived in 1964 to oversee both the North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida conferences who were in swirling controversy with strong resistance to racial integration. Dr. Nicholas describes Goodson not only as a person with remarkable skills as a preacher and overall communicator but also as a most effective administrator of change.  One of the best parts of being bishop in Alabama was hearing some wonderful Ken Goodson stories.  We got to live in the house that was purchased as the episcopal manse for the Goodsons, the same house where clergy remembered searching for bombs in the shrubbery some evenings after one of Ken’s preaching visits in churches.

On March 7, 1965, Goodson was in Selma for the dedication of a new church. While he was speaking, the “Bloody Sunday” attack by state troopers on voting rights marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge occurred just a few blocks away from the church. Goodson recognized the magnitude of the event and quickly arranged a Methodist-to-Methodist meeting with Gov. Wallace. Wallace had been adamant about keeping the bridge closed to demonstrators, but now asked Goodson for advice.

The photo of Ken Goodson that I kept on my office wall in Birmingham.

Goodson met with racist Methodist Governor George Wallace and urged him to show restraint against protestors and, after Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” issued a pastoral letter to be read from all pulpits on April 4, 1965.  In the letter Goodson asked Methodists to commit themselves to the “elimination of those injustices that bar any of our people from full participation in all rights of citizenship.”

In a session of the 1971 Annual Conference, with Goodson preaching and presiding, the North Alabama Conference approved merger by a vote of 429 to 428.

I particularly appreciated that Nicholas’ book is honest in its assessment that many black Alabama Methodists felt that the merger was more of an absorption, mere “tokenism.”  And yet Nicholas believes Goodson’s accomplishments were remarkable and would have been built upon had he remained in Alabama another term rather than moved to Virginia to be bishop there.

Bill Nicholas’ book has done us a great service.  I blurbed the book as remembering, “A time when Alabama Methodists did the right thing in regard to race, sort of.”  Reading Go and Be Reconciled led me to fondly remember Ken Goodson who preached the sermon at my installation as Dean at Duke Chapel, whose robe I wear (gift of Martha Goodson), and whose presence I feel whenever I preach in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School.

Bishops can make a difference in addressing the racial divide in the American church, but only when we are willing to be courageous, to push for what’s right.  Let Ken Goodson be a model for all of us.

Will Willimon

Irrational Leadership

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 and let’s talk about whether the Duke D.Min would be good for you.