Clergy Coming and Going at Duke Memorial

Duke Memorial United Methodist Church is preparing to participate in one of the most distinctive aspects of Wesleyan Christianity – itinerancy of clergy.   In plain speech this means that the pastor whom the bishop sent to Duke Memorial for a season (all United Methodist clergy are appointed one year at a time) is now handing this church off to a new pastor who has been appointed to serve Duke Memorial. The United Methodist practice of itinerancy is deeply countercultural and demanding of clergy and laity. Some wonder if we will be able to sustain it into the future.

Our appointive (rather than a congregational call) system is against just about everything Americans believe. And yet John Wigger[1] has taught me that Francis Asbury’s great contribution to the formation of Methodism in America was his ability not simply to organize hundreds of Methodist congregations in this new land but also to persuade thousands of American Christians that our way of being the church, specifically Methodist, episcopal polity and the itinerating, appointive assignment of pastors, were gifts of God to the mission of the church. Asbury’s contributions as Methodism’s first bishop are acknowledged in his inclusion in our great Wesley Window at Duke Memorial.

Asbury convinced a Republican culture that the most effective polity was for powerful superintendents to send (usually) unmarried, circuit-riding itinerants to where they were needed to accomplish the mission of the church – a decidedly countercultural practice when compared with those church families that relied on married men who were located where they chose to be. The subordination of family, marriage, and career advancement to the mission of the church makes itinerancy a clergy deployment system that is demanding.

As a refugee from the Sixties, a student on the margins of the Civil Rights Movement’s disruption of American culture, I have loved participating in the odd, risky, requiring-constant-defense notion that the mission of the church is more important than the church’s clergy. I tell students at Duke Divinity that if they think they can stop learning, and stop growing in their ministry when they earn an M. Div. degree, they need to find a church to serve other than United Methodist! When our appointive system works best, it prods congregations and clergy into being all that God has called them to be, taking risks, changing lives for Christ. Most congregations crave continuity and overstress the value of stability, balance, and longevity. The result of these (dare I say, “unbiblical”) notions are staid congregations that fail to adapt and reinvent themselves to reach a future generation. Itinerating clergy give a church an opportunity for fresh leadership, new ways of doing ministry, and openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Methodist itinerancy may be the most demanding and dangerous clergy deployment system in Christendom. I found that one of the greatest challenges of being a bishop and administering the UM appointive system was to honor the risk, danger, and adventure that our ordained women and men sign on for when they become UM clergy.  And did I say that it can also be fun? To have your little life caught up in the larger purposes of God, going where the church says you are most needed, making new friends in Christ, and marveling at the work of God out of the way places can be a great joy.

Although Patsy and I will continue to attend this great church, I will no longer be in a leadership role after our new pastor, Heather, arrives.   Pastoral change can be invigorating for a congregation, as all UM clergy (especially all UM bishops) come from elsewhere and eventually depart. Roger and Ginger labored here for a time, then I came for a couple of months and stayed a year, and now a fresh, young pastor comes to us giving us the benefit of her insights. A stated priority of our congregation is ministry to/with young families. How fitting that the bishop is sending us the mother of young children as our pastor.

While there’s much to be said for longer pastorates, there is also value in short, focused pastorates in which we pastors do the best we can to follow God’s leading and then high tail it out of town under the cover of darkness. Clerical desire for permanence, enduring legacy, longevity, and eternality are aspirations unworthy of those who work with a living, peripatetic, itinerate, always-on-the-move Trinity.

What a joy to have had the privilege of being your pastor. Great days are ahead for Duke Memorial. Pray that God will give us the energy to keep up with a living, demanding, moving God. What fun to be the Body of Christ in motion!

Will Willimon


[1] John Wigger, American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).


Good Friday Meditation

 On this, the holiest day of the Christian year, we stand before the mystery of the cross of Christ. This week the United Methodist News Service released a story on the meaning of the cross, a story in which two Duke Memorial members were quoted. I send this to you for your reflection in the hope that you will be with us tonight (Organ prelude, &7:00, Service 7:15, childcare provided) as Duke Memorial worships in the solemn Service of Tenebrae (Darkness). Come hear some of the church’s greatest music, sit in the darkness of our beautiful church, and ponder the deepest of Christian mysteries.


Why did Jesus have to die?

By Heather Hahn
April 16, 2014 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Christian theologians wrestle with how best to explain the meaning of the cross and why Good Friday is good.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:23-25, the Crucifixion — “a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” — makes Christianity a tough sell. But as Paul also writes, preaching Christ crucified is an essential part of the faith.

“Christ’s willingness to suffer and die is equally remarkable with his ability to conquer death,” said the Rev. Randy L. Maddox, associate dean and William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School. He is also an ordained United Methodist elder.

“If one seems to challenge his divinity, the other challenges his humanity. One task of Christian doctrine through the ages has been to hold these two together with their full force.”

The importance of the cross

Make no mistake: Crucifixion was a horrific and ignominious way to die. Roman authorities reserved this public form of execution for particularly heinous crimes such as treason and for certain classes of people, namely non-Romans and slaves. Perhaps appropriately, the Latin verb crucio — torture — shares a root with crucifixion.

Yet, the cross tells us something significant about God, said Will Willimon, former bishop of the North Alabama Conference and now a professor at Duke Divinity School and interim pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C.

“God is the God who achieves what God wants through suffering, self-sacrificial love (the cross),” Willimon said.

The New Testament uses a variety of metaphors and models to explain how such sacrificial action redeemed humanity. In Scripture, Christ is described as giving his life as ransom, as acting as the Lamb of God who carries away sin, and as serving as the ultimate high priest who uses his own blameless life to purify the populace.

For many theologians, the cross reconciles two attributes of God — divine justice and divine love.

One of the more influential explainers of atonement was Anselm of Canterbury, who lived in the 11th century. Anselm argued that human sin dishonored God and corrupted creation. By suffering as a substitute for humankind, Christ provided satisfaction to restore God’s honor and purpose for creation.

But over the centuries, Anselm’s theory has drawn plenty of detractors. Many theologians have accused Anselm of treating Jesus’ death almost as a business transaction. Others see Anselm’s portrayal of God as abusive rather than loving.

Willimon said it’s a mystery why Jesus endured such a violent death, but it also makes sense given the nature of human sin.

“We have the cross because humanity is a violent, brutal species,” said Willimon. Among other books, Willimon has written “Thank God It’s Friday” about the seven last words of Jesus from the cross, and “Thank God It’s Thursday” about Maundy Thursday.

“Any God who would love us, must not be a God who shirks from some blood and pain for that’s how we treat our enemies and our saviors!”

What the Wesleys taught

Both John Wesley, in his sermons, and Charles Wesley, in his hymns, used a variety of images to explain what Jesus achieved on the cross — including substitionary atonement. Methodism’s founders also emphasized God’s wondrous love.

“Both John and Charles Wesley set a precedent for Methodists of refusing to limit themselves to only the ‘penalty satisfaction’ model,’” said Maddox, the Duke professor. The Wesleys used a range of biblical allusions, he said, “to stress that Christ not only dealt with the ‘penalty’ of our sin but also brought healing power to deliver us from the ‘captivity’ of sin and enable us to walk in newness of life.”

The Wesley brothers considered one aspect of atonement nonnegotiable, and it is still an essential part of the movement they founded, said the Rev. Jason Vickers, president of the Wesleyan Theological Society. He is an ordained United Methodist elder and professor of theology and Wesleyan studies at United Methodist-related United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

“Whatever it is Christ undertakes in his death and resurrection, however Christ’s death accomplishes salvation,” Vickers said, “we’ve always said that Christ undertakes his saving work for all — not just for the elect, not just for the rich, not just for certain people. He died for all.”

Perhaps the greatest comfort the cross offers is the knowledge that there is no sorrow, pain or despair humans can undergo that God does not know and walk through with us. And because of the Resurrection, we know that sorrow and death do not have the last word.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.