Will Willimon’s Bishop functions as a study of the episcopacy and as a spiritual autobiography. Reading it, we gain insight into the church, its leadership, and its leaders.
Willimon is explicit and plain-spoken about his convictions. At one point he says,
One of my core beliefs is that God has given us all we need to have a different future than the morbid one to which I once feared we were fated.
When we look at the tremendous losses United Methodism has faced over the past generation, we understand why one might fear a morbid future. In the mid 1960s we took 12 million Methodists and 2 million EUBs and ended up with – 12 million United Methodists. That’s pretty poor – and disappointing math.
When we look in so many of our congregations today and see the looming “death tsumani,” we understand why one might fear a morbid future. I’ve seen that tsunami myself. In my last congregation over 50% of the most active and committed members were age 70 and above. It doesn’t take an actuarial degree to tell you that those folks aren’t likely to be as active and committed in 5 years, let alone 10.
In the face of these and other negatives, Willimon still holds on to God. I’m with him. Every time a person joined the church I told them and the congregation that I believed God had brought them for a purpose. First, they God had brought them to us because the Christian life is not the kind of thing one can do by herself. Our congregation was there to help each new member grow in her walk with Christ. Second, however, God had brought that person as a gift to the congregation. There is some way, usually yet to be discovered, that we could not fulfill our mission from God without this person and the gifts and experience God had given him.
So if God has given us “all we need to have a different future,” why aren’t we seeing it?
First, we have to wait a bit. We don’t usually see movements of God happening instantaneously in scripture. Why should we expect things to work differently now?
Second, there is the matter of obedience. What are we doing with the gifts God has given us? Sometimes congregations marginalize new people until they reach a certain tenure. Sometimes we take these gifted folks and force them into old molds. And then sometimes, we as members perceive that the way is hard – and it is – and refrain from even trying. Or, finally, we might get distracted into doing our own thing – even some good thing – rather than what God wants us to do.
Sometimes I think it would be nice if God would just make people do the right thing. When I see my own weakness, I even wish that for myself. But God rarely operates that way. God rarely coerces us to do the right thing. But he does call us, and equip us, and give us the opportunity to join in his kingdom work. I for one don’t want to miss out.