A few years ago I was asked to contribute a “last sermon” to a collection that was being published. Here is that sermon offered as my last “Bishop’s Email.” Thanks to all those of you who have read these messages and who often responded. I have been humbled by the conversation across the church that these weekly messages (now over 350!) have instigated. Thanks.
This summer our church will elect bishops, those who will lead our church in the ministry of oversight.
Everyone agrees that we currently suffer a “crisis of leadership.” Our numbers indicate that we have been under led, or led in the wrong sorts of ways. Our indicators of institutional health say that we need to do some things differently.
But I remind you that the first and most enduring “crisis of leadership” is named “Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ not only assaulted our definitions of “God” and “Messiah,” but also disrupted and challenged our notions of leadership. From the first he predicted that the people in charge would reject him. Those early predictions are quickly validated by the response of the authorities to Jesus.
As Annual Conference began this year, I looked back to the dozens of listening sessions that I conducted in my first two months as Bishop in North Alabama. I wrote down ten key things that I heard.
I shared with the Conference, in rather brief form, some of the ways that we have responded to what was heard in those early sessions. I hope that the church takes heart that we have not only listened, but also responded during 2004 – 2012.
Service of Ordination, 2012
Matthew 28:5-8, 16-20
These persons before you, our newest clergy, tonight pledge their lives to one of the most unusual practices in historic Methodism – sent ministry. No congregation can hire a United Methodist pastor; our pastors are sent. Just as your call into the ministry was God’s notion before you thought of it, so in your sent ministry, your assignment in the Kingdom is God’s before it’s yours (or the Bishop’s!).
Like you, I am here because I was sent. And, when the time comes, you will leave, as I am leaving, because you have been sent. A sent ministry is a countercultural challenge. Subordination of your career, marriage, and family, and even the choice of where to sleep at night to the mission of the church, is weirdly un-American. We are a people who have been deeply indoctrinated into the godless ideology that our lives are our possessions to do with as we please, that my life is the sum of my astute choices, and that the life I’m living is my own.
One of our Conference priorities is empowering and reaching a new generation of United Methodist Christians. A rising median age of our church indicates that we have much to do to position ourselves to reach our youth.
A huge step forward has been our appointment of Clay Farrington, a Deacon, to oversee our Conference work with youth. Clay is leading us in some exciting ways.
Clay says that Conference Youth Ministry exists for two reasons:
When Jesus rose from the dead the disciples were told, “Don’t be afraid.” Those who knew Jesus best, and were in turn known best by him, knew that, while friendship with Jesus is sweet, it is also demanding, difficult, and, at times, even fearsome.
In a culture like our own, dominated by “family values,” where we have nothing better to command our allegiance to than our own blood relatives, this is one of the good things the church does for many of us. In baptism, we are rescued from our family. Our families, as good as they are, are too narrow, too restricted. So in baptism we are adopted into a family large enough to make our lives more interesting.
I am sometimes asked why so many of our Methodists have actively opposed Alabama’s controversial Immigration Law. Many of our leading educators, law enforcement personnel, and business persons have criticized Senator Beason’s law. From what I’ve seen, the motivation of many Christians in opposing the law arise from our own experience with Christ; we were aliens from the love of God, lost, then we were found.
On the night a squad of soldiers arrested him, Jesus mocked them, undaunted, asking if they were armed to the teeth to arrest him, an unarmed rabbi, as if he were a common thief. Ironically, the soldiers were not the only ones with swords. Peter, the most impetuous of Jesus’ disciples, the “rock” upon which Jesus promised to build his church, whipped out a sword and nicked off a bit of an ear—despite Jesus’ clear commandment that his disciples not carry weapons. Jesus cursed Peter: “Those who take up the sword die by the sword.” That night, Jesus once again refused to practice violence, even in self-defense.
“Competent employees crave accountability; incompetent ones flee it,” writes one of our management consultants. I’m pleased that the North Alabama Conference, through the invention and use of our Dashboard, has pioneered a renewed culture of accountability. The spirit has caught on with the bishops’ Call to Action – a plan to build in accountability for mission into the life of our connection. Of course, like any innovation, the plan has its critics, most of whom see no need for increased accountability in our church 
Paul Nixon has become a very helpful coach to our pastors and churches who want to improve their mission engagement. Recently Paul published a piece on how measurement and accountability, inspired by the Holy Spirit, have motivated his own ministry.
I am still haunted by a long conversation I had with a man who was a member of one of my early congregations. He told me that one evening, returning from a night of poker with pals, he had a stunning vision of the presence of the risen Christ. Christ appeared to him undeniably, vividly.
A student, asked to summarize the gospel in a few words, responded: in the Bible, it gets dark, then it gets very, very dark, then Jesus shows up. I’d add to this affirmation, Jesus doesn’t just show up; he shows up for us.
Don’t you find it curious that the first word, the very first word that Jesus speaks in agony on the cross, is “Father, forgive”? Such blood, violence, injustice, crushed bone, and ripped sinew, the hands nailed to the wood. With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, and accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.”
I’m honored that Abingdon Press is publishing The Best of Will Willimon this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I’m sharing some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.
Abingdon Press is publishingThe Best of Will this year, a collection of some of my writing from Abingdon, edited by my friend Dr. Robert Ratcliff. As we move through Lent, season of the cross, I thought I would share some of these selections related to the theme of the cross.
One of our church's great challenges is finding qualified pastoral leaders for our churches in the future. As you know, United Methodism historically has some of the highest educational and character standards for our new pastors of any church. Our rigorous educational requirements are expensive to maintain. But we think our congregations are worth it.
One of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed, in the Council of Bishops, is the bishops’ “Call to Action.” The bishops have heard the plea of the UMC for leadership to do throughout our connection that which has already been done in all of our vital congregations – simplify and focus our structure and realign our resources, so that more emphasis is placed upon mission and upon fruit.
Thank you North Alabama!
In this video message, Bishop Will and Patsy Willimon say thank you to North Alabama United Methodists for your continuing disaster recovery work in response to the April 27, 2011 storms.