Monday, December 12, 2011

Speaking of the Bishop

Check out this article written by him on the message of Christmas over and against some of the political and economic messages we are offered (especially this year with the GOP debates raging simultaneously with the Advent season). It serves as a prime example of his prophetic spirit. He and I actually had a conversation closely related to this topic during our time together (mentioned in my previous post). I'd like to think I inspired this article (probably not, but let me take what I can get). Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

24 Hours With The Bishop

Last week, I had the privilege of spending a day with the bishop of the North Alabama Annual Conference, Will Willimon. Willimon is a rather infamous character in the world of Methodism. On the one hand, he is known for being abrasive and unafraid of confrontation, all the while possessing the vocabulary of a disgruntled postal worker. Yet on the other hand, he is a role model for prophetic ministry, willing to take daring stands on issues of justice (including HB 56, Alabama's controversial immigration law), and a living archetype for the peculiarity of the life of a disciple of Jesus. Not to mention, he is often voted as one of the most influential and powerful preachers in the English-speaking world and referred to quite frequently as "the Pope of Methodism".

So when he sent me a message to see if I would join him for an overnight stay in Nashville, I jumped at the chance. I was to drive him to and from a meeting there, spend the night in a hotel, and accompany him on a visit to a district meeting in Athens, AL on our return trip. This is essentially what happened, so I won't bore you with the details of our itinerary.

What I will detail is the great respect I gained for him during our trip. I say this not to kiss his rear (he does not read this blog anyways; nor do more than about 3 people), but to counter both widespread attack of his character and the prevalent criticism that I often hear of the episcopacy in general.

Given his aforementioned reputation and my own mild-mannered nature as a people-pleaser, in conjunction with my greenness in ministry, I half expected him to criticize most of the things I said and leave me feeling like an intellectual and spiritual worm. Instead, I was not intimidated. Our conversations in the car were some of the most engaging I have ever had with anyone, let alone an authority figure. He has a deep concern for the thriving of the church and its ministers. He is especially concerned with the future of the church and the pastors who will lead it. Much of our conversation centered around generational differences between the world in which he grew up (the '60s) and the Sitz im Leben of us folks in our 20s and 30s, and how God might use those differences to raise up the Body of Christ. He seemed genuinely interested in my answers to his questions (which were very pointed and unguarded), and he offered up some wonderfully vulgar anecdotes (I have never heard so many four-letter words in my life, but somehow that rawness of the human condition he described in his stories was refreshing to hear) from his own experience- many of which you will probably hear in my future sermons (censored version, of course).

To my second point, I discovered that being bishop is a tough gig. As Bishop Ken Carder once said to a class of mine, "This is not a job to which you should aspire in ministry." I can see why. Throughout our discussions in the car, Willimon frequently had to check his e-mail and make phone calls in order to fulfill the administrative aspects of his job (fun fact: the Greek word for bishop, episkopos, literally means "overseer")- none of which was responding to pleasant requests, I'm sure. He somehow, while juggling all of these administrative tasks, managed to be a wonderful conversationalist and listener with someone whom he will likely not move to a new appointment (a primary duty of a UMC bishop) before he leaves this coming summer. Oh, and he had to prepare to give two lectures to a group of hundreds of clergy the next morning in Nashville, on top of preparing for a district meaning later on that afternoon.

Such is a day in the life of a bishop. I thought about how hectic that day was- speaking engagements, sleeping away from home, responding to complaints, etc. And then I thought about how he probably had to wake up the next day and do it all over again. And the day after that. And the day after that. Knowing what I know now about all that is on the plate of a bishop, along with the brief timetable they have to think through all of these matters, the unpredictability of job, and the tireless schedule, I will probably think twice before criticizing a bishop. In fact, I think I shall instead praise God for gifting such people with the rare abilities to oversee this messy, divine thing we call the church.