What Willimon’s Mission Class Did to Me
By Zack Christy
I am currently a rising third year student at Duke Divinity School. This past spring semester I had the opportunity to take a class taught by Dr. Willimon called, “Local Church in Mission.” I feel that God has called me to ministry in the rural church and I believed that I had a good grasp on how to engage the church in missional activities, so naturally I believed that taking Dr. Willimon’s class would just be a refresher in what I already knew. However, God has a funny way of putting us in situations that are uncomfortable, and He always has a way of knocking us down a peg when we believe that we are on top. Such was my experience in Willimon’s mission class; I can tell you now that I have never been more frustrated, terrified, challenged, excited and humbled before by one class, or experience.
I had never heard Dr. Willimon speak before this class. I did know that he had previously been a Bishop in Alabama, but that was about all I knew of him. I am the son of a United Methodist minister and I don’t know why I believed that gave me an understanding of how to lead a church in mission, but I thought that it did. Coming into the class I had in my mind that if I was really nice to my congregation, and if I took really good care of them first, the mission would follow. From my untrained observation of my father, this is how I saw mission beginning. Though, through this class I was able to interview my father, and was somewhat astonished that this was not the case, even though Willimon had been practically yelling it for the better part of a month.
This class frustrated me because it confronted me with the truth; if the church is not in mission then it is not the church. I don’t know why this struck me so, it seems like common sense, but I really needed to hear this truth. Somehow I had gotten in my mind that my first and foremost responsibility as pastor was to take care of my congregation. However, as was stressed to me over and over and over again in Willimon’s mission class, this is not what it means to be the body of Christ. Mission is never something that is easy, it is mostly messy. Mission is not something that is at the periphery of Christian life, a missional life is Christian life. Mission is the result of well-trained Christians, and is done out of recognition of baptismal vocation.
I was terrified by this class because it made me realize that God has called me to help train these Christians. This class stressed to me that God has called me to be one of the ones that reminds these people of their baptismal vocation. I am still terrified, because ministry would be so much easier if we were not called to work for the kingdom of God. Ministry would be so much easier if we were called to maintain status-quo. However, Willimon reminded me that God will not let anyone off this easy. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Willimon state that he didn’t know how most clergy don’t just die of boredom from being congregational caregivers.
As much as I was terrified by this class I was excited by it as well. How amazing is it that we don’t worship a dead God? How amazing is it that through participating in the Christian life we are never allowed to be bored? Coming into this class I fear that I was dangerously close to falling into a belief that I was entering the clergy profession. I believe that this is easy to do when we are constantly within the walls of the academic kingdom that is Duke Divinity. We begin to believe that when we get out of school that we will have some special tools to give congregations that we have and they need. But as was stressed to me over and over again in Willimon’s mission class, we are not called to be professionals; we are people called and willed by God, we are people sent on a mission.
I am thankful for the ways in which this class challenged me. I am grateful for the ways in which I have been called in this through this class. More than any of this though I am glad for the ways in which this class reoriented my view of the ministry. I feel that I was very close to walking towards being a congregational caregiver, and while that is a part of the ministry, it is not the only part. I hope that my colleagues felt the same call in their lives.