Monday, May 23, 2011

The Joy of Ministry

A highlight of worship at Annual Conference will be our services of Ordination and Commissioning. In these services our church recognizes God’s gift to us of a new generation of United Methodist pastoral leaders.

Ministry, in any of its forms, is always God’s idea before it is ours. While we pastors may come to enjoy our clerical vocation, we do it first of all not because it causes us bliss but rather because it is the job to which God has called us. God loves to summon people to painful, impossible tasks. Service to Christ and his church begins in Christ’s call. That’s why reflection upon ministry in any of its forms begins with baptism – the laying on of hands is a baptismal gesture that only later, and regrettably, became almost exclusively associated with ordination. All Christians are “ordained” through baptism to share in Christ’s ministry in the world. A few of the baptized are designated by the church to equip and to mobilize their fellow Christians to share Christ’s ministry – these are called clergy.

All Christian leadership begins in God’s determination to have a people in motion helping God retake God’s world. For those of us in ordained leadership in our church, sometimes the great challenge is to believe in us half as much as God in Christ believes in us; though laity can be forgiven for watching us pastors in action and thinking lots of things before thinking, “gift of God.”

My former boss at Duke, Nan Keohane, defines leadership as “providing solutions to common problems or offering ideas about how to accomplish collective purposes, and mobilizing the energies of others to follow those courses of action.”[1] This is as good a global definition of leadership as I know -- except for one missing element -- God. A faithful pastor allows God the Father to define our common problems, asking Jesus Christ for the grace to find solutions that are compatible with the Christian view of reality, and then assists the Holy Spirit in mobilizing the energies of fellow disciples to do the work. All Christian leadership is under obligation to keep our leadership theological rather than a-theistic (attempting to lead as if God were not).

When Rowan Williams was made Archbishop of Canterbury the press asked if he had doubts about accepting the new post. Williams replied, “You’d be a maniac not to have doubts…’s a job that inevitably carries huge expectations and projections,… you live through other people’s fantasies in a way, and to try and keep some degree of honesty, clarity and simplicity in the middle of that is going to be hard work – so that frightened me a lot.”[2] Fear and trembling come with the summons to ministry of leadership of the church, fear of God’s demands, apprehension of the church’s fantasies and expectations, dread of your own limits.

Considering our present obsession with leadership, it’s odd that the New Testament has so little to say about the subject. For instance in one of the few places where scripture bothers with bishops, the First Letter to Timothy says:

Now a bishop must be worthy of reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. (1 Timothy 2:2-3)

Well, at least I am the husband of one wife.

While I take comfort that First Timothy has modest ethical expectations for bishops, these days, it isn’t easy being bishop. The Bishop of Rome continues to twist in the wind due to almost daily revelations of sex abuse by priests under his care. The Archbishop of the Church of England isn’t doing so hot either – he’s just been forced to make another public apology. Both I and the Pope could learn from Williams’ skilled self-flagellation before the media. My heart goes out to the Archbishop. Though I’m far from the depth of his intellect, like Rowan I came to the episcopacy from academia and, like him, have difficulty being comprehended. I am also an anti-establishmentarian now forced to prop up and to defend the establishment. And like the good Archbishop I can’t find a way fully to please either conservatives or liberals.

But being a specifically Christian leader has never meant first of all to be easily understood, popular and well liked, or pleasing to peoples’ expectations. It means first of all to serve God, to work to move forward God’s purposes, and earnestly to try to do what God wants before serving what we want.

It’s a vocation full of peril, failure, and frustration to be sure. But I’m happy to report, after four decades of my own attempt at ministry, and from what I’ve observed (particularly in the past four weeks in Alabama) that it is a profession full of great joy. It is a joyful thing to feel that ones life is being used by God for godly endeavor.

I spent some time a few weeks ago, attempting to help a young woman discern if God might be calling her into the United Methodist ordained leadership. That morning I had spent some time at one of our disaster relief centers, working with Methodists attempting to help people after the storm. I had seen some of our pastors leading some remarkable work in some very difficult situations.

I said to the young person exploring vocation, “I don’t know at this point whether or not God is calling you into ordained leadership. But you need to pray that God will call you into the pastoral ministry. It’s a great way to go!”

William H. Willimon

Monday, May 16, 2011

Reading Job in a Whirlwind

In the Hebrew scriptures “whirlwind” designates a variety of destructive, violent winds. Tornadoes are rare in the Holy Land. Perhaps it was a tornado that swept up Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). To my mind the most notorious whirlwind in scripture is the violent “great wind” that swept across the desert and destroyed Job’s house, killing all of Job’s children. (Job 1:19) This destructive wind is the catalyst for Job’s moving poetic lament and his protest against the injustice of the pain and tragedy that have taken all of his goods and his beloved family as well.

In the past weeks we in Alabama have had cause to renew our friendship with Job. We have witnessed, and many personally suffered, the havoc and calamity of a series of great and mighty whirlwinds. Standing with Pastor Ryan Rosser in the ruins of our Long Memorial Church in Cordova, I saw how an ill wind destroys. We were to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of Long Memorial next year. Now this historic, beautiful church with its exquisite windows and noble belfry is in ruin.

The next day, while thanking a team of United Methodists from Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection in Kansas for their work in one of the impoverished, devastated areas of Tuscaloosa, a veteran chain saw operator showed me the peril of cutting into a huge tree that the tornado had crashed into the top of a house.

“The tornado, in just a few seconds, takes these big trees and twists them, twisting the wood like a coiled spring,” he explained. “Put a chain saw to it, release the tension, and the tree can literally explode, sending the chain saw back in your face.”

The awesome, awful power of the biblical whirlwind, seen in contemporary Pleasant Grove with hundreds of ruined homes is terrible to behold. In the past weeks, in the fevered activity at dozens of our church disaster relief centers, I have seen innocent lives twisted by a great, evil wind.

And yet, not until my most recent reading of Job did I notice: the terrible whirlwind that destroys Job’s life and blows him into misery in the end becomes the very voice of God. After thirty-six chapters of Job’s lament and his friends’ false consolations, God at last speaks. And how does God speak?

“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind….” (Job 38:1) God speaks to Job from the whirlwind. The horrible, destructive, death-dealing wind becomes a means of divine-human communication. Not that Job likes hearing what God says to him “out of the whirlwind,” and not that God’s words to Job are completely comprehensible or undo the tragedy Job has suffered. Still, God speaks. Job has pled for God to come and speak. At last God does – “out of the whirlwind.”

In these past three weeks I have witnessed this phenomenon. Pastor John Gates, as we surveyed the remarkable response of Pleasant Grove UMC, said, “I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘I feel so privileged to be able to serve during this time.’” John says that on Sunday, in their devastated community, in their badly damaged church, they had the largest crowd they had seen in years with regular Pleasant Grove communicants joining their voices in praise and prayer with Methodists from all over the country who had come to help us in our need. John preached a three way sermon with two visiting preachers, one a Methodist from Pennsylvania and another a Church of God pastor from Texas whose teams had spent the week working out of Pleasant Grove.

Too many pastors and laypeople to mention have told me, “This has been the greatest experience of ministry. Our church is closer to God and more engaged in the true mission of Christ than ever because of the storm.”

How amazing that a redemptive God can transform the worst of ill winds into a revealing, divine breath. What grace that a God can take a death-dealing wind and, in church, use it to speak to us.

Will Willimon

Invite someone in your community to join us in relief work this week at one of our dozens of disaster relief centers.

Also, we have started a Disaster Response account for all our efforts in responding to the storms here in North Alabama. Direct gifts to this fund can be sent to our Conference Treasurer’s Office at 898 Arkadelphia Road, Birmingham, AL 35204. Make your checks payable to “North Alabama Conference” and mark “North Alabama Disaster Response” in the memo line.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Prayer of Hope

I am offering the following prayer of hope after the storms of April 27, 2011.

Lord Jesus Christ,
You are our Savior who saves us amid the storm.
You are our Comforter who comes to us in our pain.
You are in life, in death, in life beyond death our only hope.

We pray this day for all those who suffer in body or soul, particularly our sisters and brothers among us in Alabama who have suffered pain and loss because of the storms that ravaged our state. We ask your comforting presence among those who struggle in the destruction and the loss. We pray for your guidance for those who feel overwhelmed and over burdened by the aftermath of the storms.

We give you thanks for all those who have given money and time to help the victims rebuild their homes and their lives. Thank you for motivating so many to reach out to us in our time of need.

Lord, you have never left us alone in our need. Time and again you come to us amid the storm. Thus we have hope, hope not in ourselves or our own devices but rather hope based upon your faithfulness and upon our experience of your steadfast love.


This prayer is now among the notes of thoughts and prayers from many from United Methodists around the world who posted comments throughout the Conference website that they are praying for North Alabama following the spring storms. These comments from United Methodists in North Alabama, youth and children in Slidell, LA; Rev. Adam Hamilton of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas; pastors in Texas, South Carolina and Oklahoma and others – have been collected on the North Alabama Conference Disaster Response Prayers page.

To read all the prayers visit the Disaster Response Prayers page.

To add your own prayer, while viewing the prayer page, click the submit prayer link in the left menu.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Limits of Explanation

Last year Professor Bart Ehrmann of the University of North Carolina cranked out yet another book, God’s Problem. Dr. Ehrmann breathlessly announces that he has discovered that God has a big problem – suffering. Ehrmann dismisses various futile attempts on the part of God to explain why there is suffering, pain, and disaster in the world – the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Jesus. Unsurprisingly, Dr. Ehrmann reaches the conclusion that God comes up short in regard to a plausible explanation for suffering. Dr. Ehrmann says that, even though he personally does not believe in God, he can’t figure out why so many otherwise intelligent people persist in the notion that God is good – look at all the suffering that God can’t explain.

Now, I’m all for explanations, have attempted some of them myself. I have spent much of my life trying to figure out answers to some of life’s toughest questions, write books on what I’ve discovered, and convey explanations to my students and my parishioners.

In the past two weeks I’ve learned again that terrible, destructive, undeserved tragedies are, on the whole, inexplicable.

Pine Grove UMC (pastor, Don Burgess) was built over a hundred years ago, with stone that was pulled up the hill by mule teams. Now, those huge stones have been cast all over the hillside and Pine Grove Church has been leveled to its foundations. That same day I stood among the volunteers working at Pleasant Grove Church (pastor, John Gates) and saw nearly equal destruction of one of our beloved churches.

No one around me at those locations of terrible destruction asked, “Why me? Why God?” Most of them were too busy, drenched in sweat, and dust from the rubble to pause to engage in philosophical speculation. Their most persistent question was, “How can we do more to support and work for the victims?”

And that seems very Christian to me. Jesus was not a great philosopher who came with a set of noble precepts and brilliant ideals. Jesus never said, “Think about me.” Rather it was always, “Follow me!”

Jesus was among us as a victim of horrible injustice. He offered us few explications of suffering and injustice; he offered himself as fellow sufferer. As Hebrews says, Jesus not only came to us but suffered with us. He offered us not reasoned explanations but rather empathetic, life-giving presence with us. He gave us not a great way to think about tragedy but a way of acting in and through tragedy.

Professor Ehrmann, believe it or not, that’s as close as Christians come to a true explanation for suffering. God in Jesus Christ does have a real problem – this God cannot desert us, cannot not keep coming back to us or refuse to stand with us.

We Wesleyan Christians have never been known for our great speculative theologians. We have been known for our warm hearts and active hands. John Wesley considered that any theology that can’t be put into practice wasn’t worth thinking. Thank goodness our churches didn’t wait to ponder the eternal implications of the horrible storms that swept through our state and destroyed so many of our churches, homes, and families. We went right to work. We were first on the scene and we reassured our devastated communities like Fultondale, Forrest Lake, Tuscaloosa, Phil Campbell, and Cullman (and others listed on our website) that we will remain with them throughout the long, arduous process of rebuilding.

And that, my fellow Wesleyans, is better even than learned explanations.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Body of Christ in Motion

I wish that all of you could have been with me for the last couple of days. Yes, the devastation in places like Tuscaloosa, Fultondale, Sand Mountain, Cullman, and Phil Campbell is terrible to behold.

And yet….the response of our people in the United Methodist Church is an even greater wonder. I began the weekend bragging that United Methodists were feeding five thousand people a day, but quickly revised the number to ten thousand. In Tuscaloosa our churches like Forrest Lake and Southside were badly damaged – and had staging areas and dining tents set up in their front yards. At Phil Campbell you could hardly see our horribly damaged church for the dozens of workers, tents, and disaster response trailers the Northwest District had assembled out front. We have shown that we can respond quickly and effectively to meet the immediate needs of the victims and the volunteers. Our churches are housing many hundreds of utilities workers and those who have lost their homes.

Tom Hazelwood of UMCOR spent the weekend with us, helping us to organize for the longer term. The North Alabama Conference is leading this recovery for the long run. The Reverend Matt Lacey will continue to train and to equip our responders. Linda Holland, our new Connectional Ministries Director, is mobilizing our Connectional Ministries to give all their focus over the next couple of months to the recovery. The Reverend Tom Duley will coordinate and place all volunteers coming into North Alabama from elsewhere.

Today I’m also appointing the Reverend Bob Alford as the Director of our Disaster Recovery effort. Throughout the Conference I’ve heard that we need an experienced, senior person to serve as the overall coordinator and director of our efforts, one person who knows exactly what we’re up to and where the help is needed. If you need information on our staging areas, places of need, and how your church can plug into our far flung efforts, beginning May 4 we will have a dedicated number to call. The number will be posted on the conference website ( Director of Communication Danette Clifton will also continue to keep information constantly updated on our website. If you have questions and need answers, go first to our website, then call the 800 number.

Many of you know that I have long been a critic of some of Methodism’s overly articulated organizational structure. We’ve got so many rules, so many layers of bureaucracy. This past week, I’ve rediscovered the beauty of our name – Methodists. We have a methodical approach to discipleship. We believe if there’s good worth doing in Jesus’ name, it’s worth rightly organizing ourselves to do it well. I give thanks that the North Alabama UMC didn’t wait until a disaster struck to get ready for a disaster and that, with our connection in good working order, we were ready to respond when the time came for us to step up and testify to our faith through our deeds of mercy and love.

Will Willimon