Review: Bishop

January 9th, 2012

In his forward, Adam Hamilton asserts that Bishop Will Willimon's Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question (Abingdon, 2012) is not just a book for bishops, but for every pastor and lay leader who hopes the best days of The United Methodist Church are still ahead.  As always, Willimon is colorful, humorous, evocative, and deadly serious all at the same time. His inventive use of language marks his own unique style. Of the sacred episcopal duty of ordination (as he describes it), he says: “it has been my joyful job to confirm the Holy Spirit’s vocational exploits” in describing the ordination of a woman who has taken on $50,000 in debt to pursue a seminary education with the odds at one in four that she will, in the bishop’s terms, burn out, black out, or back out. “Take thou authority,” he says, nevertheless, and the game is on. Renewal, that is. Radical faithfulness and self-expending courage.

Who else but a bishop, you might ask, would assert that our bishops are among the greatest virtues of The UMC? Citing Russell Richey, Willimon maintains that bishops are key to the renewal of the church. Still, his observations, cautions, insights, and encouragement, as Adam Hamilton noted, pertain to anyone called to be a transformative leader.

Willimon writes as a voice of the newest generation of bishops, overseers, who feel called not only to administer but to “push, pull, cajole, and threaten [the] system to become again the Body of Christ in motion.” (p. 13)

In writing about district superintendents, Willimon writes to encourage superintendents. In writing about pastors, Willimon writes to encourage pastors. The same holds true for bishops and for the church as a whole. “Ministry in any of its forms,” he reminds us all, “is always God’s idea before it is ours . . . sometimes the great challenge [for overseers] is to believe in the church half as much as God in Christ believes in us.” (p.20)

With careful analysis of the historic role of bishop in Methodist polity, Willimon points to the unique opportunity now afforded by our traditional reluctance to give bishops authority coupled with pleas for bishops to lead. This seeming oxymoron produces a kind of generative tension within the institution and within bishops themselves, making possible the sort of leadership that prods the status quo into new life. Who else is better placed to ask the pertinent, needed questions, sometimes even describing “the emperor’s new clothes” for what they are?

Quoting First Timothy, Willimon reminds that the overall function of episcopoi is to “take care of God’s church.” What is required? Faith. Trust. Boldness. Courage. Willingness to fail. Willingness to offend. Commitment to high standards. Risk. Permission giving. A profound belief in the Trinity. And what the bishop calls “the guts to lead as if Jesus Christ is really Lord.” (p. 36)

The bishop’s metrics are tough. Some will no doubt squirm at his insistence on measuring and tracking fruitfulness. Numbers—worship attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, dollars for mission, and so forth. What comes through, however, is not an idolatry of numbers, but a passionate desire to read those numbers to measure faithfulness and fruitfulness, and to learn vital leadership lessons from those pressing ahead. Accountability is for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And to this there are no ifs, ands, and buts. The true Wesleyan spirit of almost, passionate, self-giving commitment shines through. The bishop expects of others no more or no less than he expects of himself.

Humor helps. “It’s a blessing,” he says, “to lead an organization that’s failing in numerous ways; one can jettison accustomed practices and risk trial and error without fear of messing up a good thing.”

You won’t leave the reading of this book unoffended. Something will ruffle your feathers. That’s the good bishop’s intent, but all for the sake of the priceless gospel of Christ. So be forewarned and venture in anyway. This a read will worth the time, the effort, the pain, the tears, and the renewal it will bring.

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