Will Willimon is one of the two most frequently read pastors in mainline Protestantism. Baylor University identified him as one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world in 1996. His books have sold over a million copies. He is a bishop in the United Methodist Church and served in this office for seven years in the Northern Alabama Conference.
Willimon is a friend of the Vancouver School of Theology and frequently visits the school to give lectures, sermons and courses. He has an amazing ministry of encouragement to the clergy, the church and principals of theological colleges—he serves on the principal’s advisory team at VST. I asked him recently if he would reflect on a series of important questions about theological education, the Christian church in North America and hope for the future. —Richard Topping
Richard Topping: What characteristics do the most transformative leaders in congregations have in common?
Will Willimon: Leadership is what pastors do and is among the most important services a pastor can render to a church. Many pastors do not conceive of themselves as leaders. In fact, they are very suspicious of that language and I would say that they perceive of themselves mostly as caregivers, those who provide support and encouragement at best, as well as those who periodically deliver the Word.
My judgement is we do a fairly good job, when we’re at our best, in theological education. What we’re failing at is to say: “You’re here to be a leader.” Every Christian has a responsibility to have a theology, to evangelize, and to serve in the name of Jesus. So just saying that is important is a beginning.
In terms of qualities of a transformative leader, I’d say having self-awareness is required and particularly at this time. You used the words “transformative leadership.” Maybe I’m being unfair, but we’re being forced to talk about matters that our predecessors didn’t talk about 50 years ago. Transformative leadership wasn’t needed—the church did not perceive its need at that time. The need is really new and pressing and urgent because of the churches we serve.
Topping: In your work as a bishop or in your work as a theological educator, how do we get to these people?
Willimon: We ought to do a better job of identifying people who have gifts for leadership and calling them forward. When’s the last time you have pulled aside the most talented young person in your church youth group and said: “Hey kid, you can get into medical school if that’s all you want to do. You can make a bunch of money in business. But we think, with a lot of hard work and study, you could be one of our leaders.” As a teenager, people pulled me aside and said: “Hey, I think you would make a great preacher and I tell you what, I’d love to have you as our preacher someday.” That’s a healthy church. And so part of recruiting begins with that and part of that begins in seminary.
How did you get to be a pastor? I guarantee somebody said to you: “Richard, the way God calls people to do things for God is usually through other people. Now I want to talk to you.” That’s the way we get good leaders. You pick out somebody from your congregation that you’d like to be led by.
Topping: Have you ever seen the other sort of difficulty, that is to say, people who feel called to lead change, people whom God has obviously gifted but who look at the kinds of opportunities that present themselves in churches that want caretaking ministry and they wonder whether their energy for big things is best spent there?
Willimon: That’s an issue for this particular generation (20- or 30-somethings). Many of them don’t seem to have the kind of dogged persistence that is required to change anything.
Back in the ‘60s, I remember interminable meetings that went on for hours where everybody got to speak but there was a sense that we’re not going to change the system unless we sit here and do our homework. The job does seem to be overwhelming and indomitable. However, we’ve got a God who loves to raise the dead and who is determined to have a people against all odds.
As President Obama said, “the thing that allows racism and racist structures to continue in America today is the evil notion that people can’t change and the evil notion that no progress can be made.”
We’ve got a God who loves to redeem stuff. One thing that helps is you keep at it … [with] the theological conviction that God means to reign and that God is not going to be defeated by a lethargic church. You’ve got to feel that this is change I want to do, this is a place I want to fight the battles.
Topping: You’ve done some writing and thinking about whether it’s always the best decision to send promising graduates to established congregations who have a history of two or three people coming and staying a short time and moving on, discouraged.
Willimon: I was in one church who had a young, dynamic pastor who was really pushing them and I said that I had been so inspired by what’s happening in this church, and that I can just feel the living Christ moving here and moving you. I want to meet all the people who served on the selection committee and tell them that they have done some good work. Your young pastor is impressive but he isn’t as impressive as the people who chose to make him their pastor.
When I became bishop, one of the most important books I read was a business book: First Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham. It was a book for middle managers. One of the first rules that needs breaking is: “Treat everybody the same.” Buckingham says that is a means whereby we preserve mediocrity in institutions. You have a sacred obligation to identify talent, to get to know that talent and to empower that talent.
You need to discipline yourself not to be dragged down by people who are failing. It is important to spend time with your best people. Who do you reward with your time, with your best pastoral appointments? Because those signals are going to be taken and we need to encourage those that need encouraging.