The Ministry of Administration

In the last third of a wonderful Christmas sermon (Sermo CXCVI) Augustine, after an engaging exposition of the Incarnation says, “Just one more thing….”  Hippo’s Bishop then launches into an excoriating diatribe of the, “Gambling, drinking, dancing, theater-going,” and “pagan pastimes” of his flock.  Augustine gives them a tongue lashing they would never forget.  “Don’t do it again!” he shouted, “Heed my warning, and I’ll spare the lash.”

It’s good to be reminded that there was a day when a church leader loved Christ enough rigorously to hold his people to account for their behavior.  Bishops are, in the fashionable sobriquet, “servant leaders.”  Augustine’s sermon reminds me that one of the greatest services we render is church order and discipline. 

Don’t you find it ironic that Benedict will go down in history as the greatest theologian of the Catholic Church?  He is a deeply spiritual man who proved to be utterly unable to administer the church he loved.  Benedict’s managerial incompetence has, albeit unintentionally, damaged the lives of millions of Catholics through his unwillingness to make tough decisions in regard to immoral, abusive prelates and ineffective clergy.  Catholic laity can understand that there have always been instances of immoral, sinful clergy throughout the history of the church. What they don’t understand is a hierarchy with more empathy for the plight of fellow hierarchs who get caught than the victims of their sin.  Catholicism in Ireland, perhaps Catholicism in North America will be left considerably diminished by Benedict’s perhaps well-meaning but definitely disastrous cover-ups and denials of his predecessor’s and his unaddressed administrative challenges.

I have sympathy with Benedict’s plight.  As bishop, l led a number of initiatives that improved the mission and spirituality of our churches.  My most costly work was my attempt to introduce greater accountability among our clergy.  When I removed a clergy person from an otherwise laudable ministry with the marginalized because of accounting irregularities and questionable financial management, there was a firestorm of protest from clergy who love everything about the United Methodist Church except our historically high standards for the behavior of our clergy.  Even laity who say they want ethical accountability in their leaders resist that accountability when it is applied to a popular clergyman who is able to portray himself as a victim of unreasonable superintendents.  All I got for my trouble was a plea from my Episcopacy Committee not to cause trouble, a complaint to the Judicial Council (immediately dismissed) and a lawsuit that went to the state Supreme Court (dismissed on my last day as bishop). 

As bishop I received lots of kidding from fellow divinity school faculty about our Dashboard, our systems of congregational reporting, and our evaluative procedures.  “You are selling out to business culture,” they charged.  I also received much push back from some of our clergy leaders who were threatened by new ventures in clergy accountability.  Divinity School courses in church administration and leadership are the frequent brunt of academic criticism here at the Divinity School, as if such “how to” courses are unworthy of our efforts.  Many of my divinity school students are capable young theologians and earnest lovers of God.  Many of them will fail in the pastorate, not because they have an inadequate scriptural imagination  but because they fail to learn the skills needed, and lack the courage for faithful administration. 

Yet the sad case of Benedict is a reminder to all of us clergy, particularly those of us who serve in the ministry of administration, that administration is an essential ministry of a church that is accountable to standards higher than its own self-preservation. 

Will Willimon


4 thoughts on “The Ministry of Administration

  1. Will, once again you are advocate using an entire complement of tools available to ALL members of the flock. I wish you were still here to fight the good fight, but perhaps you can be more effective today. Change scares most people, not just the cowards.


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