New United Methodist Bishop William Willimon has often needled his denomination for being boring and irrelevant and having a bulky bureaucracy.
Now, as the new spiritual leader of the United Methodist Conference of North Alabama, the former Duke University Chapel dean has become part of the bureaucracy. Itâ€™s an opportunity Willimon relishes.
â€œIâ€™ve been kind of a critic of our church,â€ said Willimon, as he settled into his office at Methodist headquarters on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College on Thursday. â€œI want to see what we can do.â€
I’ve read much of what Willimon has written over the past several years and find it difficult to imagine him fitting well into the UM bureaucracy. The whole system is set up to domesticate leadership. Bishops seem to be required to serve on so many boards, agencies and committees (that’s what real leadership is about, right?) that it leaves them little breathing room to do much out of the ordinary. Willimon’s advantage may be that having served as Duke University chaplain for so many years, he has been out of the system and away form most of the domesticating pressures.
The 8-million-member United Methodist Church, the second-largest U.S. Protestant denomination after Southern Baptists, has struggled with membership loss the past three decades. The North Alabama Conference has 157,862 members, down from 178,118 members at the start of 1984, an average loss of about a thousand a year.
â€œSometimes we get distracted by the nonessentials and donâ€™t keep focused on the essentials theologically,â€ Willimon said. â€œWe need to ask what the church does that no one else does. Methodists are big on doing, serving, organizing. The downside of that is we have a tendency to get into lots of things that are not the basic mission of the church. Weâ€™ve lost touch with a couple of generations.â€ ….
Churches need to realize theyâ€™re supposed to be about more than providing social services, he said.
â€œI think we mainline liberal Protestant types have done a huge disservice in de-supernaturalizing the faith,â€ Willimon said. â€œI think itâ€™s about miracles. Itâ€™s about the supernatural.â€
According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the church’s mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Willimon’s assesment that our apparent failure to do that over the past generation is a theological failure is refreshing. It has been much more common since the days of Bishop Richard Wilke’s And Are We Yet Alive to see the root of UM decline in programmatic failure. As we pay attention to our theology, we’ll be able to answer the WHY questions that ought to drive the HOW questions addressed by program.