Bishop Willimon, thanks so much for your time.
ARB: You spent eight years as a bishop of the UMC in the North Alabama Conference. Did you leave with any sense of urgency in reference to what the United Methodist Church needs to attend to in a timely manner? If so, what is it we UMs need to attend to and quickly?
WW: I think I failed to instigate any real sense of urgency in my conference as Bishop. UMC leadership does seem to have gone beyond denial, but it has not yet decided on a way forward. As for my own sense of what matters most, I would say that we must find better, more efficient ways, to get the churches the vital, transformative pastoral leadership they require to have a future. Our process of clergy credentialing is laborious and unproductive of good leaders. We have got to attend to the leadership needs of the few vital congregations that we have left. That’s a job for bishops and DS' and the task that I highlighted in my book, Bishop (Abingdon).
ARB: General Conference 2016 is approaching. I will confess that I am skeptical of anything of significance happening, but I hope I am wrong. As you think about the current state of the United Methodist Church, what do you think will happen at General Conference, if anything, and what would you like to see happen at General Conference?
WW: I share your skepticism about General Conference. I led an effort to shorten and make less expensive General Conference, with modest results. The last General Conference was a sad waste of church time and resources. I would love to see General Conference attend to our massive loss of vital congregations, our aging membership, and other matters but we seem focused on various divisive social issues, clergy dominated concerns, and other matters that will keep us from that work. I think it important to remember that the most important work that needs doing at our church will NOT be at General Conference but in the local congregation.
ARB: In your book, Bishop: the Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question, you write,
We asked master new church planter Paul Borden, "What characteristics do you look for in selecting pastors to start new churches?" We thought Borden would list personality traits or psychological profiles or specify necessary previous experiences. Instead he replied, "A robust belief in the Trinity-- people have got to know that God is real and on the move, and a clear Chalcedonian faith-- new church pastors must be convinced of a relational, incarnational God." It was a joy to see leadership defined by theological commitments.On certain occasions when I have had opportunity to read this quote to some of our UM colleagues in ministry, they often look puzzled and fail to see your point. So, I am asking, why is it so important for pastors to have a robust belief in the Trinity?
WW: Sad to hear that, since both of the Wesleys were such vital Trinitarians! The Trinity is what we have if Jesus Christ is indeed God with us, God as God really is. The Trinity shows that God is in relationship, that God is constantly, relentlessly relational, outgoing, and incarnational. We can have new church starts, growing churches, and an expansive Kingdom of God because we have a God who is Triune. The Trinity designates God as communicative, loving, relational, and on the move.
QUESTION: You recently published a book with Stanley Hauerwas, on the Holy Spirit. I have yet to read it, but I will do so. With all the books on the Holy Spirit in print, why did you see a need for this book?
WW: We thought we hadn’t done justice to the Holy Spirit in some of our other books. We have also become increasingly convinced that the Holy Spirit is the most neglected and most disobeyed person of the Trinity. There have been some great new investigations of the Holy Spirit and the role that the Holy Spirit plays in the church. We wanted to share more widely some of those academic insights, thus the book.
ARB: Much has been written on the religious right and their collusion with nation state politics, but there are those of us mainliners who believe that we religious left folks have also sold our souls as well to the Democratic Party and secular progressives and their nation state agenda. UM theologian Steve Harper writes,
The problem with too much Christianity is not that it is too radical, but rather that it is not radical enough--putting too much faith in politics and politicians rather than in the One Who governs all--too much energy in building kingdoms rather than advancing the Kingdom-- and too much time pointing to ourselves rather than to the One Who was, and is, and is to come.Where have we mainliners so advanced earthly kingdoms that we have failed to be kingdom citizens?
WW: I like Steve’s quote. In Resident Aliens we said that Christians do politics, but not as the world thinks of politics. The most radical, political statement that the church can make is "church" – a living, breathing, witnessing community of truth in a world of lies.
QUESTION: What advice would you give to new pastors, particularly younger pastors, entering the ministry in the United Methodist Church?
WW; I would say to them to thank God that God has called them to such a wonderful, interesting vocation. Our church has some huge challenges before us, but fortunately we serve a God who is determined to save us, to have a family, and to expand the reign of God into every corner of the world. Therein is our hope.
ARB: 1 Timothy 3:1 reads, "Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be a bishop desires a noble task." As a bishop, what advice would you give to those who aspire to be a bishop?
WW: I think Timothy also says that a bishop should “have only one wife,” which seems like sound advice to me! Being bishop was a great privilege, the hardest work I’ve ever done, but also a great vantage point to see the movements of God in our church. As bishop, I got to see Jesus do some incredible work in little, out of the way places that you have never heard of. Places like Bethlehem, by the way.
ARB: And finally, in your retirement (which most of us suspect is not a retirement for you in the conventional sense) what fills your days with joy?
WW: Well, I’m only retired from the episcopacy. I’m teaching a full load at Duke Divinity, which is great fun to see the sort of great people that Christ is sending us for the future. In my classes I'm trying to integrate what I learned as a bishop into my courses to prepare future pastors for the leadership that the church requires.
I’m also doing a bit of writing, revising my Pastor text and also coming out with another novel, of all things.
Bishop, Willimon, thanks again for your time and a special thank you for your service to Jesus Christ and his church.