This summer our church will elect bishops, those who will lead our church in the ministry of oversight.
Everyone agrees that we currently suffer a “crisis of leadership.” Our numbers indicate that we have been under led, or led in the wrong sorts of ways. Our indicators of institutional health say that we need to do some things differently.
But I remind you that the first and most enduring “crisis of leadership” is named “Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ not only assaulted our definitions of “God” and “Messiah,” but also disrupted and challenged our notions of leadership. From the first he predicted that the people in charge would reject him. Those early predictions are quickly validated by the response of the authorities to Jesus.
From the first Jesus recruited odd leadership, surprising us by whom he called to lead his movement. Those whom the world regarded as marginalized, ill-equipped, poorly informed, not particularly spiritual or moral, Jesus named as “disciples,” confounding the worldly wise, promising these losers glory in his coming Kingdom.
I’ve read dozens of books on leadership, have even written a few myself. Books on leadership tend to say, “Here are the personal qualities you must have, here are the skills you must acquire if you want to lead.” In the world, leaders must be omniscient and omnipotent, capable and courageous, competent and creative. Leaders in Jesus’ name must simply be obedient to his, “Follow me.”
As bishop I am frequently reminded by the Holy Spirit that Jesus was crucified through the leadership of people like me, persons in positions of spiritual authority over others. As bishop, I’m closer to Caiaphas than to Saint Paul. Therefore I have found it a salubrious practice to have close by me King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written by King to someone just like me.
The only good reasons to be in any sort of ministry are theological. Sometimes we do theology reading books or listening to sermons and sometimes we do theology by getting our hands dirty, diving into the fray, attending to the Body, and working with God for the People of God. The only hope we have for accomplishing anything in our church leadership is our faith that Jesus Christ really rose bodily from the dead and is on the move utilizing the same sorts of knuckleheads whom he first called and commissioned.
When I, mid-year, appointed a pastor to a church that had been in unmitigated decline for two decades — right after removing a pastor whose ineffectiveness was exposed in his first three months at the church — and when I congratulated the pastor for effecting, in a scant three months dramatic growth in attendance, membership, and giving, the pastor replied, “Thanks for having the courage to appoint me here. I’ve made a startling theological discovery in the past couple of months: we have a God who is more able even than I believed.”
One reason why so many of our churches praise a rather trivial, allegedly concerned but essentially inactive God is that they haven’t attempted anything so bold and brash that they risk utter, embarrassing failure unless the first Easter women were right and Jesus Christ really has risen from the dead. Hesitant, circumspect practice of ecclesiology leads to a limp and trifling Christology.
My life as bishop has been a rebuke to those theoretical academics who succumb to the docetic temptation to disdain concern with administrative, managerial structures of the church — Jesus Christ is really, fully, completely human; disembodied faith is not faith in him.
But being a Chalcedonian Christian I also must affirm that the mission of the church is utterly impossible without a Jesus who is really, fully, completely divine. His Body, though crucified, is where the fullness of God chooses to dwell. There is no God hiding behind the Incarnation, holding anything back from humanity. Jesus actually is God coming for us, God in motion, more God than we can handle, God refusing to be vague or insubstantial, God with a body, God so near as to demand human response. Any weakening of the divine in Christ results in indecision and uncertainty, a fatal equivocal, indistinct, vagueness that is the death of leadership in Jesus’ name. Just as some wish that Jesus had not come as a Jew, had not refused self-defense and violence, had not turned his back on wealth and worldly power, had not said so many unkind things about religious leaders like me, many wish that Jesus had not made the poor old United Methodist Church his Body, his answer to what’s wrong, an outbreak of the Kingdom of God, his people saved from the world in order to be his means of saving the world.
What God expects the church to do among suffering humanity can’t be done by humanity alone. The Kingdom of God is not devised by human efforts, even very skilled leadership. Any God who is less than the one who raised Jesus from the dead is no match for the deadly challenges facing The United Methodist Church. What God means to do among us is more, so much more, than even a well- functioning organization. So if God was not in Christ, reconciling the world, then being bishop is the dumbest of undertakings.
As my episcopacy wanes I feel much like Moses on Mount Nebo. I’ve gotten a privileged, late career glimpse of the Promised Land. I’ve seen Methodism’s vital future. I’ve been able to participate, here and there, in what I believe will be the tomorrow of our church. (It only took God 400 years to get around to rescuing the slaves from Egypt so who am I to lament that I got so little accomplished in eight years as bishop?) If I live until 2050, which seems unlikely, I may enjoy the reality of a fully recovered and robust Wesleyanism. I believe that the patterns of episcopal oversight that I and some of my fellow bishops have begun shall bear fruit. If I’m wrong, you’ll have to come to the basement of Duke Chapel where I’ll be buried in order to mock me in my error.
Those who say, “Willimon, you are not a good leader,” have their point. I readily admit to many of my leadership liabilities (though I’ve discovered that some of what my critics label as leadership liabilities are, through the work of the Holy Spirit, God-induced assets). My only justification for being bishop is similar to that of any Methodist preacher — God put me here. I’m as surprised by God’s call as my critics. All Christian authority is open to question because it is authority that rests upon Christ’s still-disputed sovereignty.
I think I’m obeying God’s will in my episcopacy, but like any disciple who struggles with self-deception, only God knows for sure. To lead in Jesus’ name means to be able to admit to sin, a great asset for any leader, utterly essential for a bishop.
Still, in responding to Jesus’ vocation, in attempting to conduct my life more in service to the needs of the church than my personal preferences, in trusting Jesus’ faith in me more than my doubts about my abilities, Jesus’ crisis of leadership becomes a grand adventure, leading not as the world leads but as Jesus commands.
For the good of the church (I hope) and for my great joy (most of the time) I got to play a bit part in the great drama that is God’s incarnation in the world, God’s loving determination not to work alone. It’s a vocation I didn’t deserve but I shall always be grateful I got called. Thanks, church.