Here is a speech given by Rev. Julie Holly at Jurisdictional Conference 2012, held at Lake Junaluska this past July in honor of my retirement from the Episcopacy. Julie is a bright young clergy person who graduated from Duke Divinity and is now doing great work leading a congregation in the Birmingham area of the North Alabama Conference.
My name is Julie Holly. I am a clergy delegate from the North Alabama Conference. The eight years I have served as an appointed clergy person have been under the dynamic leadership of Bishop Will Willimon. Although he is the only Bishop under whose leadership I have served, I don’t need to work with any others to know that Bishop Willimon is one of a kind.
Most clergy begin their new appointments by spending some time to get to know people and try to avoid making any big changes in the first few months. Not Will Willimon. He started offering up new ideas before he had all his boxes unpacked!
In his first year, he conducted preaching seminars for young clergy, began reworking the way clergy are appointed and deployed in North Alabama, doubled the number of new church starts, began teaching his popular “Jesus Course” at Birmingham-Southern College, pushed us to act on long-term plans to change from 12 to 8 districts, and of course, published a couple books.
That fall he cancelled our planned bishop’s convocation and led hundreds of pastors in spending a week working on Katrina relief projects. He shortened our Annual Conference meeting from a four day gathering to a two day gathering, making it easier for lay delegates to be present for the full meeting and making every minute of the meeting productive. Bishop Willimon made significant changes to the structure of our connectional ministries for the purpose of increasing accountability, productivity, and results. And this was all just in the first year.
One of the things I really appreciated about Bishop Willimon’s leadership was his encouragement of the clergy to take risks in ministry. If someone had an innovative, potentially disruptive, controversial idea—he encouraged them to try it. And he sought out talented clergy—no matter their age, gender, experience, race—and worked to appoint them where they could be fruitful. It was a great blessing and also a great disruption to the appointment system. But he likes to be disruptive.
For the purpose of ensuring that North Alabama ordains capable and effective clergy who could be trusted to take the kind of risks Willimon encouraged, he reorganized the Board of Ordained Ministry to change the process for selecting and credentialing new clergy. Willimon wants the best clergy doing their best work, and he supported us all in prayer.
I could make all kinds of jokes about how Willimon spent so much time writing and promoting new books. But he did decline service on General Church Boards so that he could be more present in the Annual Conference and have more opportunities to preach in our local churches. As he visited local churches, he heard from the laity and listened to their stories of the torture they had experienced under the leadership of uninspiring preachers. This feedback led to a new requirement that clergy seeking a change in appointment must submit a recording of a sermon, so that no one was appointed without the Bishop having heard them preach.
Fostering greater accountability in the work of all clergy was a major priority for Bishop Willimon. District Superintendents became coaches and overseers of growth. The North Alabama Dashboard was initiated to give churches, pastors, and the cabinet a clear, real time picture of their congregational health.
All this work and all the disruptive changes proved effective when we witnessed the turnaround in our conference. And later, our conference turnaround was validated by being ranked in the top ten conferences in the connection based on the bishops’ top indicators of vitality.
And during all this work within our conference, Willimon was also writing a dozen books and getting into it with Alabama’s Governor and Legislature over new state immigration laws.
Now, enough about Willimon for now, let’s make sure we honor Patsy Willimon—undeniably the better half. Patsy has blessed the North Alabama Conference through her investment in local folk art and her dedication to the ministry of our Children’s Homes. And she has been great at smoothing out feathers that her husband has ruffled! We are very grateful for her ministry in North Alabama. We will miss both of the Willimons in North Alabama.
Bishop Willimon, despite the shocking things he says that make us wonder about him sometimes, is committed to the mission of Jesus Christ and is a theologically driven leader. He believes that the body of Christ is a body in motion.
I expect Will Willimon will be remembered by us for the changes he has made, for his focus on vital congregations, and his personal engagement with our pastors.
I am personally grateful for the opportunities that Bishop Willimon gave me to participate in the life of the church and our annual conference. My ministry has been heavily shaped by his leadership and the changes he initiated in North Alabama. The same year I was ordained, I was nominated to serve on the Board of Ordained Ministry and was appointed directly by Bishop Willimon, against the advice of a number of people, to a church in crisis that is now growing. Thanks to his willingness to take risks and develop new leaders, I have been able to be part of the new life that has happen on our Board of Ordained Ministry and the new life that has grown out of a church in crisis.
So, I speak for myself as well as for the whole North Alabama Conference in saying thank you to Will and Patsy Willimon for their ministry among us and thanks to the South Eastern Jurisdiction for sending us the right Bishop at the right time.