Ministry As Difficult As It Ought to Be

A version of this article appeared earlier this year in The Christian Century. Hope you enjoy!



Ministry As Difficult As It Ought to Be

“See our big buildings?” asked the Medical School Dean as he swept his hand across the panorama of the Duke Medical Center.  “Their purpose is production of a handful of doctors who can be trusted to be alone with a naked patient.  Takes us four years.”

I repositioned the Dean so that he faced the less impressive neogothic Divinity School.  “That’s where we teach our seminarians to be in awkward situations with naked, vulnerable parishioners.  It only takes us three years.”

After two quadrennia as a church bureaucrat, slogging in the muck and mire of ecclesiastical trenches — sending pastors to remote, unappealing locations where Jesus insists on working — I’m again teaching in that amazing countercultural phenomenon called a seminary.

I was honored to serve with eight hundred fellow clergy who risked United Methodism in Alabama, though I leave behind a subpoena and three law suits; don’t tell Governor Bentley that I’ve now fled the state.

Being bishop gave me a front row seat to observe ministry in the Protestant mainline that is being rapidly sidelined.  Pastoral leadership of a mainline congregation is no picnic.  My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them.  Now, as a seminary professor, I’m eager to do my bit in the classroom to prepare new clergy for the most demanding of vocations.

Consumer Corrupted Clergy

From what I saw, too many contemporary clergy limit themselves to ministries of congregational care-giving – soothing the fears of the anxiously affluent.  One of my pastors led a self-study of her congregation.  Eighty percent responded that their chief expectation of their pastor was, “Care for me and my family.”

I left seminary in the heady Sixties, eager to be on the front line in the struggle for a renaissance of the church as countercultural work of God.  By a happy confluence of events, the church was again being given the opportunity to be salt and light to the world rather than sweet syrup to enable the world’s solutions to go down easier.

Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership.  Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.

North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving.  Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books.  Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus.  In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.

A consumptive society perverts the church’s ministry into another commodity which the clergy dole out to self-centered consumers who enlist us in their attempt to cure their emptiness.  Exclusively therapeutic ministry is the result.  I saw fatigue and depression among many clergy whom I served as bishop.  Debilitation is predictable for a cleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos. 

The 12 million dollar Duke Clergy Health study implies that our biggest challenge is to drop a few pounds and take a day off.  If you can’t be faithful, be healthy and happy.  I believe that our toughest task is to love the Truth who is Jesus Christ more than we love our people who are so skillful in conning us into their idolatries.

Seminaries, Wake Up

Yet I must say that by comparison, the poor old demoralized mainline church, for all its faults, is a good deal more self-critical and boldly innovative than the seminary.  Our most effective clergy are finding creative ways to critique the practice of ministry, to start new communities of faith, to reach out to underserved and unwelcomed constituencies, and to engage the laity in something more important than themselves.  Alas, seminaries have changed less in the past one hundred years than the worship, preaching, and life of vibrant congregations have changed in the last two decades.

As bishop I served as chair of our denomination’s Theological Schools Commission. Most of our seminaries are clueless, or at least unresponsive, to the huge transformation that is sweeping through mainline Protestantism.  We have so many seminaries for one reason: the church has given seminaries a monopoly on training our clergy with no accountability for the clergy they produce.  Increasing numbers of our most vital congregations say that seminary fails to give them the leadership they now require.  Oblivious to our current crisis, seminaries continue to produce pastors for congregational care-giving and institutional preservation.   The result is another generation of pastors who know only how to be chaplains for the status quo and managers of decline rather than leaders of a movement in transformational faith.  As a fellow bishop said, “Seminaries are still cranking out pastors to serve healthy congregations, giving us new pastors who are ill equipped to serve two-thirds of my churches.”

In just a decade, United Methodists, various Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will have half of our strength and resources – judgment upon our unfaithful limitation of ministry to a demographic (mine) that is rapidly exiting.  After decades of study, finger-pointing and blaming, we now know that a major factor in our rapid decline is our unwillingness to go where the people are and to plant new churches.  Yet few traditionalist mainline seminaries teach future pastors how to start new communities of faith.

My new pastors repeatedly told me: “We got out of seminary with lots of good ideas but without the ability to lead people from here to there.”  “I’ve learned enough to know that something is bad wrong with the current church but I don’t know where to begin to fix it.”  Seminaries produce clergy rich in ideas but impoverished in agency, well-intentioned in care giving but deficient in leadership.

After interviewing a dozen seminarians at one of our prestigious seminaries, I asked my District Superintendents, “How many interviewees could be helpful in the work that we believe God has assigned us in Alabama?”

They identified two of the twelve.  “Seminaries are run by professors whose life goal is acquisition of academic tenure,” said one DS.  “Why ask the seminary to give us innovators who take risks and hold people accountable for their discipleship?”

We found that too many of our pastors want to be John on Patmos, dreaming dreams and seeing visions, when what we badly need is Paul in Corinth, doing the tough, persistent, measureable work required to initiate new communities of faith.  If that much touted moniker “servant leader” means anything, it means someone who is willing to submit to what the institution now needs doing for the common good in this time and place.  Mainline churches who want to be part of God’s future need leadership by impatient instigators rather than patient caretakers for the ecclesial status quo.

Our Board of Ordained ministry habitually asked candidates unrevealing questions like, “What are your gifts and graces for ministry?”

Surprise, the would-be pastors were incredibly gifted.

I got the Board to ask behavioral questions like, “When is the last time you started a ministry?”  “Tell us about your most recent failure in the church.  What did you learn?”  No ventures, no leadership; no failures, no initiatives.

Don’t dismiss my criticism of seminaries as due to anxiety about a dying institution.  Though anxiety is an appropriate response to death, my impetus for concern is Christological.  Scripture renders a living agent on the move. “God never rests!” thunders Barth.  The Lord of the church means to reign over a far more expansive realm than the church.  Nothing in the message or work of Christ justifies a settled, parochial, sedate, care-giving style of ministry that comforts one generation (the average Methodist is 59), cares for aging real estate, and ceases all efforts to get the news to a violent, despairing world that, in Jesus Christ, God is decisively doing something about what’s wrong with the world.

So in this semester’s The Local Church in Mission class rather than have students write a paper on their theology of mission, I’m having them attempt to start up some mission in a church context.  Then they are to tell me what they have learned about the leadership skills they need to obtain if they are to be a pastor in a North American church that finds itself in a missionary situation.

One of my pastors succeeded in planting a congregation in a marginalized, primarily Spanish-speaking community (where we have closed three churches in the past ten years).  I spent a day with her, primarily to urge her to go back to school and finish her seminary education.  During the course of the day she told me that in her previous life she had started three restaurants.  Two failed, one finally succeeded.  I not only understood why God had used her so effectively in this church start but also why I ought to put her in charge of our new church development rather than send her to seminary.

Seminaries have got to find ways to listen to the church’s cry for bold, transformative clergy leaders to serve the church in the present hour or seminaries face a bleak prospectus.

Theological Refurbishment

Seminaries must remember that the most interesting thing about clergy is not that we have acquired savvy management skills or have been given esoteric knowledge that is unavailable to the lowly baptized.  The One who calls and makes clergy, the One who is in ministry and mission rocking the world (whether we are or not) is ultimately the only good reason to be a pastor.  Leadership in the name of Jesus is inherently energetic, transformative leadership that challenges and enables Christians to participate in the ever-expanding Realm of God.  Pastors have the privilege of expending our lives for someone more important than ourselves or our congregations.  We get to serve a people on the move because they are in the grip of a God who refuses to be God alone and leave us to our own devices.

After my prattling about how the sixth century prophets inform our work as pastors, a surly seminarian piped up, “So Jesus explains how you got to be pastor of a large church and a bishop?”  Being a seminary professor is more difficult than it looks.

As I look out upon the students in my Intro to Christian Ministry class, I hear Jesus say, “Hey, I’m doing my part to give your church a future.  I’m giving you all the resources you need to be faithful.”

Then I hear Jesus sneer, “Would you people at Duke try not to bore to death those whom I’ve summoned to give your church a future?”

I agonized with a pastor about what he could do to stop his congregation from self-destruction.  Had he tried a consultant? Yes.  Had he secured a crisis counselor?  Yes.

“I keep thinking that maybe our disintegration is not something I did or didn’t do,” the pastor said, “or even due to our bad history.  I wonder if our demise is caused by Jesus.”


“Maybe Jesus has used our way of being church as much as he intends. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving somewhere else?  Only Jesus can birth a church; maybe he’s the only one who’s got a right to kill it.”

How willing are we clergy to risk service to such a demanding Savior?
Seminary’s grand goal?  Theological education makes ministry in the name of Jesus Christ as difficult as it ought to be.  In sending each new wave of pastors, seminaries have the opportunity to theologically regenerate the church, giving the church and its pastoral leaders some canon of measurement greater than institutional health or cultural relevance.  Seminarians come to us more adept at construal of their world through a-theistic categories, most of them purloined from the reigning social sciences, than theological canons.  Our job is to train the church’s leaders in a rigorously theological refurbishment of the church.

Training people to minister in the name of Jesus is a huge challenge — because of Jesus.  His vision of a new, reborn humanity, the extravagant reach of his realm, the constant outward, Trinitarian momentum, the command not only to belief the faith but also to enact and embody the faith, Christ’s revelation of the God whom we did not expect, Christ’s determination to save sinners, only sinners, all make leadership in Jesus’ name a daunting task.

I received a heated email from a long-time member of one of my churches complaining that during the Sunday service the pastor had prayed for the salvation of Osama bin Laden.  “We don’t pay a preacher to pull a stunt like that,” whined the lay leader.

I called the pastor, explaining to him that his behavior was difficult for the laity to handle, asking him if he had used good judgment to pray such a thing during our national crisis.

With distinct annoyance the pastor replied, “Just for your information bishop, I happen to believe that the Jew who said, ‘Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you,’ is the Son of God.”

In my courses I face a two-fold challenge: responsibility to hand over what we’ve learned in two thousand years of leading in the name of Jesus, indoctrinating a new generation of pastors into the God-given wisdom of the church and taunting would-be pastoral leaders to step up and help the church think, pray, and act our way out of our present malaise.

“Here kid, watch me now,” I say in my classes, “here’s the way my generation tried to serve the church and its mission.  Now, here’s my list of failures and disappointments.  God has sent you to overcome my generation’s limitations in doing church.  Go for it!”

In spite of my best intentions, my classes in ministry sometimes degenerate into techniques for success, managerial tips and tricks, and irresistible, knock down arguments for effective ministry; atheism that ministers as if God doesn’t matter.

Still, my students keep calling me back to the theological wonders that convene us, another benefit of working almost exclusively among those who outrageously believe that they have been summoned, commandeered, called by God to leadership in the Body of Christ.  Whatever God wants to do with the world, God has decided to do it with them.

The paradigmatic story of their enlistment is Exodus 3, the call of Moses.  (We made our entering students read Gregory’s Life of Moses to prepare them for Duke Divinity.)  When summoned to leadership, Moses asks, “Who are you that you should send me?”

Moses cannot represent a deity without knowing the peculiar identity of the God who sends him against the empire.  Nor can we.  The best work we do in the seminary classroom is investigation and reiteration of the identity of the Triune God who, in every time and place, summons the people required to help the church to be faithful, giving them the grace needed to keep ministry as difficult as God needs it to be.

I begin my class by asking students to describe, in less than five pages, how they got to seminary, “My Call to Christian Leadership.”  Reading those papers is a faith-engendering experience.  People jerked out of secure positions in perfectly good professions, bright young things commandeered and shoved into a very different life trajectory, a nurse to whom Jesus personally appeared on a patio.  All I could say, when I finished reading those papers was, “Wow. Jesus is more interesting (and dangerous) than even I knew.”

Will Willimon

21 thoughts on “Ministry As Difficult As It Ought to Be

  1. Dr. Willimon,
    Thanks again for the reminder of what we’re all about. The one thing I really wish seminary might have attended to for myself (and I went through an evangelical-holiness system) was formation as much as information. Fortunately, I happened upon a mentor, by accident, from the Roman Catholic tradition. He constantly led me through a formative process. Forming ministers to be agents of Jesus as well as to withstand all the powers of our consumer culture (especially in the church) ought to be as much a part of the seminary process as teaching us the tradition. We all benefit from reading your books and posts as well.
    Thank you.


    1. Glad that you found yourself a worthy mentor. Read my last blog on mentoring and tell me what you think.


  2. One thing our denomination has done to effectively inhibit hundreds of potential innovative and effective leaders has been the removal of key interdenominational seminaries from the “approved” list. If Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is good enough to produce a Ben Witherington…or a Rev. Jim Smith (my Dad and UM pastor in GA for 35 years now)…or many like myself who are UM, but who have been told by our bureaucracy that our M.Div is not “Methodist” enough, can we really be surprised that Jesus may be removing the UMC’s lampstand from its place in North America??


    1. Well said. I really appreciate the stellar job that Gordon Conwell has done to bring forward a new generation of missional leaders.


  3. There is a conversation that interests me in response to the above cries of kerygmatic frustration. Alan Hirsch captivates and answers this question with his well thought through lament in the absence of the Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist throughout the church leadership structure. He has written several books on the subject and is under a full head of steam as he travels, teaches and proclaims the message he has been given. Below is a link to an article in CT that introduces his most salient points.


  4. Thanks for these words — they are both a challenge and an encouragement to me as I graduate seminary this month. If you have read either, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on David Platt’s book Radical Together and Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion.


    1. Read ’em and found ’em wonderfully challenging. Those books state well why it’s a good thing that God has called YOU into ministry to lead us in a new time and place. Go for it!


  5. Bishop, I agree with your assessment that our seminaries need to be teaching how to start new churches and communities of faith rather than just giving us “good ideas.” At Duke, I don’t know of any classes that are offered on starting new churches or church planting or anything like that. I enjoyed your Local Church in Mission to God’s World class this past semester, but I felt it still lacked much of what you’re talking about here. The “Maintenance to Mission” paper was a great topic, but I didn’t know how to write that paper because I have no experience being a senior pastor. All I have are ideas that seminary has given me.

    So, I propose that you teach or co-teach a course on church planting in the spring semester of 2014 (my last semester). I hope you consider this.

    Parker Haynes


  6. “Just for your information bishop, I happen to believe that the Jew who said, ‘Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you,’ is the Son of God.”

    God bless that pastor.

    I find I have an ambivalent reaction to the piece as a whole, though. I agree whole-heartedly with the call for seminary reform. What passed for “leadership training” when I was in seminary could be called a joke, except that it was traffic and sad rather than funny. I’m troubled, though, by the implied rejection of the insights of the secular world in the areas of leadership and management. Paul certainly borrowed from the non-Christian world around him to inform his ministry; and if God really is present in all of life, then might not God be present in the very best of contemporary secular scholarship on leadership?

    Most troubling to me, though, is the rather snarky assertion that the laity “in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus.” First, I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the deep spiritual yearnings of the world we live in. Second, I think those very matters are of deep concern to Jesus, precisely because they are of concern to his children. Third, and most importantly, how are people to understand any other way of responding to “legitimate biblical need” other than with their checkbooks of they haven’t been equipped with a deeper spirituality, helped to see the One “in whom we leave and move and have our being” as their reason to get out of bed in the morning, found purpose-driven life in loving and serving his children, and been given the gift of inner well-being by the one who said, again and again, “Peace be with you?”


  7. Dr. Willimon – I want to thank you for your insightful words here. Also, I am currently enjoying your commentary on Acts. One issue I believe I am seeing with Pastors these days is that career is valued over calling. You wrote that Seminary Professors are teaching in a way just to attain tenure, while I have seen this same thing in Pastors in various mainline denominations. Job security is held above speaking prophetically to the church. When ministry becomes a career, it ceases to be a calling. In a career, one seeks to attain the highest levels within that organization or at the very minimum remain employed. Success in the modern world/church has been defined in concrete terms (i.e. attendance, giving, and building projects). This thinking is the very antithesis of what it takes to be “successful” in ministry.

    Seminaries are business with fiscal concerns. It is not in the interest of a seminary to discourage students from seeking ministry because these students are paying the bills. Most seminaries would never turn someone away if they can pay. I know this seems overly harsh, but this is the budgetary reality of every business. In some ways is it not even the seminary’s responsibility to determine calling, that is the denomination or church’s job. However, I have seen too many people “passed” through classes who did not understand the basic material of the class. They just wanted to get where they could preach. GIve me a “c” and let’s call it day.

    I have never met you, but your words have influenced me and encouraged me greatly. The segment you wrote on Acts 15 in the “Interpretation” series of commentaries was inspiring and spiritually edifying.

    Blessings in your venture.


  8. “Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus.” Oh really! Glad you are so self-assured! What else does the “Kingdom of God is at hand” leave out? I suspect if pushed far enough we might both agree that pursuing a closer walk with Jesus ( a rule of life, or a “purpose-driven life” in North American speak) leads to a place where God can transforms us through his Holy Spirit which in turn leads to a transformation of the societies in which we live.”Your Kingdom come!” The UK has some examples of thism, doesn’t the USA?


  9. Dr. Willimon, thank you for your spot on assessment. I am current seminary student at one of our UMC Seminaries. Overall, I think this seminary is beginning to see the writing on the wall and is starting to create course work to help mold future clergy into incarnational and missional leaders. That said, it was one of only two UMC seminaries I considered after visiting six of them for many of the reasons you mentioned. It is my prayer that our seminaries began to realize their main purpose is the development of competent clergy entering the contemporary church, not the church of 40 years ago.


  10. Bishop Willimon,

    While I agree with your statements on the failures of seminary, I would like to humbly and respectfully point out a crucial missing element not only in your article, but in many articles discussing failures of our clergy, seminaries and church structures: namely, repentance.

    It may be tempting and to an extent necessary for us to figure out how we have failed in our sacred mission for our broken world. Your assessment of the current reality of our churches are sadly true. However, I do not believe that it is due to a failure in seminary policy or a misguided approach in theological education. While the failures of our seminaries are real, they are more of symptoms than causes.

    The best place for us to begin is our acknowledgement that WE (you and I) have failed and own our responsibility that the degeneration of our church happened in our watch (way before the decline of our membership started). Then, we as a church (and as leaders of the church) must acknowledge that we are quite lost in how to bring ourselves back on the right track. The sad reality you described regarding our local churches apply not only membership declining churches, but membership growing churches and even new church starts. We will be naive to think changes in annual conference policies or approach in theological education can transform our churches while the very people who “screwed it up” are still running the show. We must place less hope in a better analysis and a better pedagogical approach, but in Christ’s transforming grace that calls us first to repentance, then renewal.

    Of course, we cannot simply drop everything and “get out of the way.” Yet, we may do well embracing John the Baptizer’s lifestyle: 1) giving up our privileges, 2) living the life of repentance (and inviting others to join us in the spirit) and 3) anticipate someone whose sandals we are not worthy to tie. As one of the bishops in our connection, would you be kind enough to correct my error in this post? If not, would you be willing to lead us not so much in wise counsel, but in the spirit of repentance?


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