Bishops, District Superintendents and Change

Bishop book

My book, Bishop, published in 2012 by Abingdon, contains some of my thoughts and insights from my eight years as active bishop in the United Methodist Church. These are some of my thoughts from the first chapter of that book. Nothing gets changed in the UMC except through the work of District Superintendents. Alas, too may DS’s see their role as custodians of the status quo rather than as agents of change. Here are some of my thoughts on the ways that bishops work with DSs.

Because the UMC needs changing, one of the essential tasks of a leader like a bishop is to identify, to develop, and to motivate transformative leadership in others, particularly in the DSs. Leadership initiative is needed from people at every level, even among the managers.   Motivation is accomplished by example and by communication. Bishops share and distribute their leadership functions through frequent, constant communication. The UMC is blessed by an established, functioning network of churches known affectionately as “the connection.” The connection provides the bishop who is leader-manager with multiple opportunities and means of communicating the need for and the means to change.

An important role of DSs is to explain, to reiterate change to all the churches, always on the lookout for clergy and laity who appear to “get it.” Many are called but few are chosen to lead change. A DS must know those people. Thus leadership development is an ongoing role for a Cabinet, not only by the bishop and DSs acquiring new leadership skills but also in cultivating new leadership for our more demanding congregations.

Nelson Mandela, as a boy, heard an aged tribal chief’s maxim for leadership. “A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”[1] A bishop, as shepherd, creates space for the most nimble to go ahead, praying that the flock will follow the most nimble rather than lag behind with the sluggards and the keepers of the status quo.

Persons to be considered for the role of DS need not have been, in their clergy careers, the greatest preachers, the most learned teachers, or the most caring of pastors. They must be leaders who have taken opportunities in their churches for risk-taking in order to produce change and mangers who are willing to shoulder the responsibilities of supervision.

Although I managed a large staff in my previous job and had served for a number of years as Director of the Course of Study School at Duke, that contributed little to my leadership. My most significant preparation for being bishop was four years as pastor in a rapidly declining, isolated, demoralized, inner city congregation. Every transformative leadership skill required to give that congregation a future proved to be wonderfully transferable to my work as a bishop in leading a conference.

All ministry is a demonstration of the Incarnation. Ministry is one way in which Almighty God refuses to be relegated to the abstract and the detached but rather locates, incarnates, tabernacles among us. My particular experience of Incarnation was, in the wisdom of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, to be Alabama. From one angle Alabama is an example of the results of bad state government and a string of sad, stupid choices by the voters (many of whom are United Methodists).[2] Where George Wallace stood in schoolhouse door snarling “segregation now, segregation forever,” our current governor stands in the way of government becoming more responsive to its citizens. A 2009 Gallup Poll of political ideology found Alabama the most conservative U.S. state.[3] Our state economy is utterly dependent on US military largesse.[4] Alabama stubbornly refuses to elect or even appoint women to public service, having fewer women leading in public life than any state in the Union.   We have the most regressive tax system in the country supported by a racist, labyrinthine constitution that was conceived in sin to protect the power of white people with economic privilege. Efforts by many UMs to lead change in our constitution and our tax structure have been continually rebuffed, often by better organized, more popular right wing Christians, some of whom are UM. We are one of the most polluted states in the country. The Birmingham mayor (whom I attempted to counsel and support) is now serving a long prison sentence for stealing huge sums from the people.

You would have to be a Christian to understand why Patsy and I considered it a great privilege to be assigned to serve God in such a context. For one thing, being beset by legions of biblical literalists, neo-Calvinist fundamentalists, and Southern Baptist bigots is a golden opportunity to rediscover the vitality and intellectual supremacy of Wesleyan Christianity. I always loved our theological heritage, but Alabama taught me the continuing glorious human implications of divine Arminianism in action. Time and again, when I was leading a sob session of criticism of our UM problems, there was always someone to say, “You Methodists don’t know how good you have it. It took me thirty years to find the UMC and I love it! I never heard of grace until I found you Methodists.”

Sure it’s sad that Alabama stays 48th in factors relating to childhood health, education, and safety.[5] However the sad circumstances of poor children in our state was one reason why Patsy committed so much time and effort to our thriving, excellent network of UM Children’s Homes in Alabama.

I suppose there are places in the world where churches thrash about trying to find something courageous that God wants them to do. Not in Alabama. Having one of the most irresponsible, unresponsive, and corrupt state governments in the country gives us a God-ordained opportunity to reach out to those in need in the name of Jesus Christ.

“If some teenager is to be rescued, if a crack mom is to be saved, in this county, the Methodist Church is the only organized, caring way that’s its to be done,” said one of my preachers. Her church promised God that though Alabama has found so many ways to ignore the poor the UMC will not.

In my better moments, when I became discouraged by the reactionary attitudes of some of our people, God would graciously remind me that Alabama has one of the worst school systems in America, kept down by a self-protective state teachers’ association and underfunded by the nation’s most regressive tax system. I would see our situation as a call for better Christian teaching, not for more moralistic scolding and thank God I got to serve God in Alabama.

Whenever I encountered resistance, I remembered and attempted to incarnate the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was told to ease up on Alabama. In his sermon, “Our God is Marching On,” King vowed, “No, we will not allow Alabama to return to normalcy.”

I pray that normalcy ceased to be an option for the UMC in Alabama once I got my books unpacked and reported for service as Bama Bishop.

Will Willimon











[1] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (New York: Little, Bown, 1994), 22.

[2] The sad story of the contemporary history of my adopted state is documented in Allen Tullos, Alabama Getaway: The Political Imaginary and the Heart of Dixie (Athens: the University of Georgia Press, 2011).

[3] Tullos, Alabama Getaway, 2.

[4] Tullos, Alabama Getaway 3. I can’t figure out why Alabamians so despise the Federal Government – the US military provides much of the only growth in our state’s sad economy.

[5] Tullos, Alabama Getaway, 248.

One thought on “Bishops, District Superintendents and Change

  1. Dear Bishop Willimon:

    I just finished reading “Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question” last week. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it was an amazing read. I have already quoted in my preaching “…Jesus’ neighbor love was a command, not a suggestion” (125). I was inspired also by the story of how you and Mrs. Willimon learned of going to Alabama by a 2:00 A.M. phone call. In general, the book has inspired me a great deal and helped energize my ministry. I have always held myself accountable by logging all of my visits, phone calls, office hours, services, and events into a personal journal. Your “dashboard” has inspired me to strive to do more for Jesus and make sure my journal has plenty of entries every week. Although no one sees the journal but me, we know that God sees all. Thanks for sharing this candid and inspirational account of your episcopate with us. It is an amazing read which reminds us what we are all about and that we need to “do” ministry while the harvest is so plentiful.

    Rev. Barry A. Allen
    D’98, D’99
    Full Elder, S.C. Conference


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