Monday, April 30, 2007


The Cabinet and I have been pondering our role as personnel officers of the church. It is our job to recruit, evaluate, and to place clergy. We believe that there is much that we can learn about personnel matters from those in business or other organizations. Hal Nobel, Superintendent of the Northwest District, has recently read Jack Welch’s book on leadership, Winning. Welch is the turn around king of American business. Hal shared with me some of the insights that have relevance for our Superintendents and as pastors:

Think of yourself as a Gardener, a watering can in one hand and fertilizer in the other." This is what I am doing here in my District and I understand you to be saying in Cabinet meetings. There are some great metaphors about gardening, watering, fertilizing in the scriptures. And then there’s Jesus’ parable of the unproductive fig tree that speaks of grace as cultivating, watering, fertilizing one more year, and then if there is not fruit, cut it down.

These are the one-liners in the book that excite me:

1. Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team, using every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate, coach and build self-confidence.

2. Leaders make sure people not only see the vision, they live and breathe it.

3. Leaders get into everyone's skin, exuding positive energy and optimism.

4. Leaders establish trust with candor, transparency and credit where credit is due.

5. Leaders have the courage to make unpopular decisions and gut calls.

6. Leaders probe and push with curiosity that borders on skepticism, making sure their questions are answered with action.

7. Leaders inspire risk taking and learning by setting the example.

8. Leaders celebrate the achievements of others in the organization.

Here are some quickies from the sub-heading "On Hiring-Inspiring"

  • Hiring good people is hard. Hiring great people is brutally hard. Yet nothing matters more in winning than getting the right people on the field, then guiding them on the right way to succeed and get ahead.
  • Before you even think about assessing people for a job, they have to pass through three screens:

1. Integrity - People with integrity tell the truth

2. Intelligence - Candidate has a strong dose of intellectual

3. Maturity - The ability to handle stress and setbacks, and enjoy
success with equal parts of joy and humility.

  • Then the passion - a heartfelt, deep and authentic excitement about work.
  • When you actually interview somebody for a job, make sure every candidate is interviewed by several people. Over time, you will find that some people in your organization have a special gift for picking out stars and phonies.

    Will Willimon

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


One of our talented young candidates in ministry, Christopher Barnett, is at Oxford University writing a dissertation on Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard, the “Solitary Dane,” had some tough things to say about pastors of his day. He firmly believed that pastors are not called to run errands for members of the congregation or to be the freelance therapist for everyone in need. Pastors are, in Kierkegaard’s words, primarily “servants of the truth.” We must cultivate an attachment to the truth, which is Jesus Christ, and to speak that truth no matter what.

Here are some of S.K.’s demands for pastors. I’ve been meditating upon them this week and have found them helpful, and sometimes painful!

  • Pastors who can split up the “crowd” and turn it into individuals.
  • Pastors who are not too much occupied with study and have no desire whatever to dominate.
  • Pastors who, though able to speak, will be no less able to keep silent and be patient.
  • Pastors who, though they know people’s hearts, have no less learned temperance in judgment and condemnation.
  • Pastors who understand how to exercise authority, through the act of
  • Pastors who have been prepared, trained, and educated in obedience and suffering so that they will be able to correct, admonish, edify, move, and also constrain not by force, anything but that, but rather through their own obedience; and above all will be able to put up with all the rudeness of the sick person without letting it upset her any more than a physician allows herself to be disturbed by the curses and kicks of a patient during an operation.

-- Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, trans. Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1959).

Monday, April 16, 2007


“The Main Thing is to keep your eye on The Main Thing.” That’s what I heard a distinguished business leader say awhile back. It is so easy, when you are in a leadership position, to be overcome, swamped with trivialities and distractions and to lose sight of “the main thing.”
How do we keep at ministry, amid the myriad and deep demands of the pastoral ministry? I think there is only one way - with a deep conviction that God really is present in our ministry, doing more than we can think, say, or do. Bill Easum confirms this with this affirmation of the need to keep our pastoral focus on “the main thing” - the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.

My experiences with the “deeps” have taught me much about myself and how God works. What really separates authentic leaders who soar from those who do not is a vision or mission worth dying for. Those who have this kind of vision or mission are able to go in the face of impossible odds. They are able to focus on the goal so fully that it must happen.
My “deeps” have taught me that my little successes in life have little to do with me and a lot to do with the gracious gift of a mission from God. The mission is what saves us and drives us on - not our ability. The mission is what both drives us down and brings us up. People with a vision don’t burn out, they just keep on going and going and going in spite of it all.

-- From Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First: Rediscovering Ministry, Bill Easum, with Linnea Nilsen Capshaw, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004
p. 18.

William H. Willimon

I hope to see you at the Inaugural Bishop's Lecture in Faith and Ethics at Birmingham-Southern College on Tuesday, April 17 at 11:00 a.m., in the Norton Campus Theater. Dr. Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Distinguished Professor at Emory University, will speak on “Three Ways of Imagining Good and Evil: The Bible’s Internal Conversation”.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Last to Believe in Easter

Preparing to preach on Easter I note some curious truths. The first to experience Easter, and the first to preach Easter were women (take that, those who think that women preaching isn’t “biblical”!). And to whom do the women preach the resurrection? The disciples of Jesus.

Preachers and lay leaders of the church please note. The disciples don’t believe the women. They think they are hysterical. The disciples dismiss their news as “an idle tale.” As Kierkegaard noted, how curious that those who were closest to this event, those whom Jesus had been carefully preparing - his own inner circle, the disciples -- are the least prepared to believe. Those who were the most prepared, who had a front row seat in the class - Jesus disciples - were as dumb as anyone, dumber, actually.

People who teach in theological schools take note: Even the two Jewish religious groups who at the time were the most sophisticated in thinking about resurrection, who were working the most diligently from the Scriptures to prepare an adequate theological foundation for the resurrection - the Pharisees and the Essenes - missed the whole thing. As Karl Barth once said, when it comes to the gospel, everybody is an amateur, everyone a beginner.

Luke makes the intellectually marginalized - in this case, women who were denied participation in the educational systems of the day - play so prominent a role in perception of resurrection. Mary Magdalene - maybe the most marginal of any of the early followers of Jesus - is the chief resurrection witness and the only person to appear in all four accounts. All we know about Mary Magdalene before she joined Jesus is that she had previously been possessed by “seven devils.” The “seven devils” could refer to an utterly dissolute moral life or to an extreme form of mental illness. Either or both of these pre-Jesus conditions, coupled with being a woman in a patriarchal society, put her at the far edge of marginality.

If you were Luke and trying to convince people of the truth of the resurrection, would you make your chief endorsements come from those whom the majority of people are least likely to believe? Given the importance that we in our society gives to celebrity endorsements, it’s more than a little disconcerting that the main witness to the resurrection is a woman on the margins.

Unless that was exactly how it happened. Here is a God who tends to work the margins rather than the center, who does not limit divine revelation to the “in crowd.” You can’t get much more in the center of the “in crowd” of the church than being a bishop, and a male bishop at that.

I think in this early testimony to the resurrection that we read in the gospels, a parable is here for those of us, all of us in the church, Jesus’ closest friends, the Jesus “in crowd.” We may be the slowest to apprehend the full, frightening, wonderful truth of the resurrection. We may have to listen to the testimony of those whom we don’t consider to be on the “in crowd.” We may have to admit that the resurrection is both our hope and our judgment as followers of Jesus.

Happy Easter. He is risen, he is risen indeed.

William H. Willimon

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Violent Bear It Away

Maundy Thursday
Tonight we begin the enactment of a story, Jesus’ last hours. I don’t know what most impresses you about the story of the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion of Jesus. What impresses me is its sheer bloodiness, the violence. I pray to God that I’ll never get so hardened of heart, so inoculated to the violence, that I cease to flinch as Jesus is nailed to the wood.

It’s a very violent story. Jesus foretold this night in a parable (Mt. 21). A man had a vineyard. He improved it, built a wall around it, a tower too. He leased his vineyard to some tenants, allowing them to collect and keep the fruit of the vineyard, never charging them rent. One day, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect the rent that was due. The wicked tenants beat the servants, killing one, stoning another half to death. The owner thought, “Unbelievable! This time I’ll send my own son to collect my rent, that will surely shame them, or bring out the best in them.”

The owner failed fully to reckon the depth of wickedness, the potential for violence among the tenants. They say to themselves, “Well, here comes the son, the heir to the vineyard. Let’s bash in his head, kill him, so that it will be ours.”

And Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is just like that. He who never one time used violence, or even self-defense (wouldn’t let us use our swords tonight to protect him), was the cause of violence. He, who embodied the best, brought out in us, the worst. The gospel is a violent story.
So is ours. We are a violent people, we tenants of the vineyard, and most of the stories about us, if they are true, are bathed in blood. Historian Stephen Ambrose says that 1945, the year before my birth, may have been history’s bloodiest year. In every corner of the world, the sight, says Ambrose, of a half dozen teenaged boys, walking down a street, would strike fear among the people. They were armed to the teeth, young killers in uniforms provided by old men in government. I was born one year later, the year of the last lynching in the South, in my hometown. I was conceived in blood.

And weren’t we all? Creation is but six chapters old, says Genesis (6:11), when God notes that something had gone terribly wrong. The earth that God intended to be filled with birds and beasts and humanity, is “filled with violence.”

And hasn’t it always, at least our part of the earth? A few years ago was published a three volume, Violence in America.[1] A brief perusal proves it really is as American as apple pie. We were born in blood, what we call “The Revolution,” others call it the genocide of the natives. 168 people killed by a young man, U.S. Army trained, in Oklahoma City. The crazed Unabomber, a Harvard man. Most of our children have seen something like a thousand TV murders by the time they are ten. And so many of our heroes, Kennedy, King, Lincoln, assassinated by their fellow citizens. I confess I only made it for about twenty of the encyclopedia’s nearly 2,000 bloody pages.

And he gathered us, the night before he was whipped, beaten and nailed to the wood. And taking the bread said, “This is my body, broken, for you.” And then the cup, “This is my blood, shed, for you.”

For you. Because if there were not some blood to it, some brokeness, it wouldn’t be for me, for you.

“We don’t really believe that the cup actually contains the blood of Christ, do we?” he asked. Well, why not? What did you think it meant when it said, on Christmas, that "the Word became flesh and moved in with us”?

“I will, having failed at all else, send them the Son,” said the Father, that will bring out the best in them, shame them, change them, surely.” Well, tonight we see that, he came into the world, the world (in the words of Genesis, “filled with violence”) and brought out the worst in us.
Any Savior who wants to save us, must be willing to get bloody in order to get to us, for our story is one of broken bodies and shed blood.

Earlier, in Matthew’s gospel, when they came and told Jesus that John the Baptist had been arrested and was awaiting execution (Mt. 11:12), Jesus commented that, since the first days of Creation, since Genesis, since John, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent try to take it by force.

What’s new? Well, what’s new is this night, that the kingdom should come to us, the violent, not by violence, but by One willing to turn his cheek to the smiters, to shed blood, body to be broken, for us, for us.

[1] Violence in America: An Encyclopedia, Ronald Gottesman and Richard Maxwell Brown (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001).