William Willimon

‘Ministry As Difficult As It Ought to Be’, by Will Willimon

weeping jesusWill Willimon’s latest piece, a version of an article previously-published in The Christian Century, is well worth the read. It’s entitled ‘Ministry As Difficult As It Ought to Be’, and I thought it worth reproducing here. Willimon’s words speak powerfully to pastors, to theological educators, to church committees set up to discern/assess calls about future pastors, and more:

“See our big buildings?” asked the Medical School Dean as he swept his hand across the panorama of the Duke Medical Center.  “Their purpose is production of a handful of doctors who can be trusted to be alone with a naked patient.  Takes us four years.”

I repositioned the Dean so that he faced the less impressive neogothic Divinity School.  “That’s where we teach our seminarians to be in awkward situations with naked, vulnerable parishioners.  It only takes us three years.”

After two quadrennia as a church bureaucrat, slogging in the muck and mire of ecclesiastical trenches — sending pastors to remote, unappealing locations where Jesus insists on working — I’m again teaching in that amazing countercultural phenomenon called a seminary.

I was honored to serve with eight hundred fellow clergy who risked United Methodism in Alabama, though I leave behind a subpoena and three law suits; don’t tell Governor Bentley that I’ve now fled the state.

Being bishop gave me a front row seat to observe ministry in the Protestant mainline that is being rapidly sidelined.  Pastoral leadership of a mainline congregation is no picnic.  My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them.  Now, as a seminary professor, I’m eager to do my bit in the classroom to prepare new clergy for the most demanding of vocations.

Consumer Corrupted Clergy

From what I saw, too many contemporary clergy limit themselves to ministries of congregational care-giving – soothing the fears of the anxiously affluent.  One of my pastors led a self-study of her congregation.  Eighty percent responded that their chief expectation of their pastor was, “Care for me and my family.”

I left seminary in the heady Sixties, eager to be on the front line in the struggle for a renaissance of the church as countercultural work of God.  By a happy confluence of events, the church was again being given the opportunity to be salt and light to the world rather than sweet syrup to enable the world’s solutions to go down easier.

Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership.  Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.

North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving.  Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books.  Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus.  In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.

A consumptive society perverts the church’s ministry into another commodity which the clergy dole out to self-centered consumers who enlist us in their attempt to cure their emptiness.  Exclusively therapeutic ministry is the result.  I saw fatigue and depression among many clergy whom I served as bishop.  Debilitation is predictable for a cleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos. 

The 12 million dollar Duke Clergy Health study implies that our biggest challenge is to drop a few pounds and take a day off.  If you can’t be faithful, be healthy and happy.  I believe that our toughest task is to love the Truth who is Jesus Christ more than we love our people who are so skillful in conning us into their idolatries.

Seminaries, Wake Up

Yet I must say that by comparison, the poor old demoralized mainline church, for all its faults, is a good deal more self-critical and boldly innovative than the seminary.  Our most effective clergy are finding creative ways to critique the practice of ministry, to start new communities of faith, to reach out to underserved and unwelcomed constituencies, and to engage the laity in something more important than themselves.  Alas, seminaries have changed less in the past one hundred years than the worship, preaching, and life of vibrant congregations have changed in the last two decades.

As bishop I served as chair of our denomination’s Theological Schools Commission. Most of our seminaries are clueless, or at least unresponsive, to the huge transformation that is sweeping through mainline Protestantism.  We have so many seminaries for one reason: the church has given seminaries a monopoly on training our clergy with no accountability for the clergy they produce.  Increasing numbers of our most vital congregations say that seminary fails to give them the leadership they now require.  Oblivious to our current crisis, seminaries continue to produce pastors for congregational care-giving and institutional preservation.   The result is another generation of pastors who know only how to be chaplains for the status quo and managers of decline rather than leaders of a movement in transformational faith.  As a fellow bishop said, “Seminaries are still cranking out pastors to serve healthy congregations, giving us new pastors who are ill equipped to serve two-thirds of my churches.”

In just a decade, United Methodists, various Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will have half of our strength and resources – judgment upon our unfaithful limitation of ministry to a demographic (mine) that is rapidly exiting.  After decades of study, finger-pointing and blaming, we now know that a major factor in our rapid decline is our unwillingness to go where the people are and to plant new churches.  Yet few traditionalist mainline seminaries teach future pastors how to start new communities of faith.

My new pastors repeatedly told me: “We got out of seminary with lots of good ideas but without the ability to lead people from here to there.”  “I’ve learned enough to know that something is bad wrong with the current church but I don’t know where to begin to fix it.”  Seminaries produce clergy rich in ideas but impoverished in agency, well-intentioned in care giving but deficient in leadership.

After interviewing a dozen seminarians at one of our prestigious seminaries, I asked my District Superintendents, “How many interviewees could be helpful in the work that we believe God has assigned us in Alabama?”

They identified two of the twelve.  “Seminaries are run by professors whose life goal is acquisition of academic tenure,” said one DS.  “Why ask the seminary to give us innovators who take risks and hold people accountable for their discipleship?”

We found that too many of our pastors want to be John on Patmos, dreaming dreams and seeing visions, when what we badly need is Paul in Corinth, doing the tough, persistent, measureable work required to initiate new communities of faith.  If that much touted moniker “servant leader” means anything, it means someone who is willing to submit to what the institution now needs doing for the common good in this time and place.  Mainline churches who want to be part of God’s future need leadership by impatient instigators rather than patient caretakers for the ecclesial status quo.

Our Board of Ordained ministry habitually asked candidates unrevealing questions like, “What are your gifts and graces for ministry?”

Surprise, the would-be pastors were incredibly gifted.

I got the Board to ask behavioral questions like, “When is the last time you started a ministry?”  “Tell us about your most recent failure in the church.  What did you learn?”  No ventures, no leadership; no failures, no initiatives.

Don’t dismiss my criticism of seminaries as due to anxiety about a dying institution.  Though anxiety is an appropriate response to death, my impetus for concern is Christological.  Scripture renders a living agent on the move. “God never rests!” thunders Barth.  The Lord of the church means to reign over a far more expansive realm than the church.  Nothing in the message or work of Christ justifies a settled, parochial, sedate, care-giving style of ministry that comforts one generation (the average Methodist is 59), cares for aging real estate, and ceases all efforts to get the news to a violent, despairing world that, in Jesus Christ, God is decisively doing something about what’s wrong with the world.

So in this semester’s The Local Church in Mission class rather than have students write a paper on their theology of mission, I’m having them attempt to start up some mission in a church context.  Then they are to tell me what they have learned about the leadership skills they need to obtain if they are to be a pastor in a North American church that finds itself in a missionary situation.

One of my pastors succeeded in planting a congregation in a marginalized, primarily Spanish-speaking community (where we have closed three churches in the past ten years).  I spent a day with her, primarily to urge her to go back to school and finish her seminary education.  During the course of the day she told me that in her previous life she had started three restaurants.  Two failed, one finally succeeded.  I not only understood why God had used her so effectively in this church start but also why I ought to put her in charge of our new church development rather than send her to seminary.

Seminaries have got to find ways to listen to the church’s cry for bold, transformative clergy leaders to serve the church in the present hour or seminaries face a bleak prospectus.

Theological Refurbishment

Seminaries must remember that the most interesting thing about clergy is not that we have acquired savvy management skills or have been given esoteric knowledge that is unavailable to the lowly baptized.  The One who calls and makes clergy, the One who is in ministry and mission rocking the world (whether we are or not) is ultimately the only good reason to be a pastor.  Leadership in the name of Jesus is inherently energetic, transformative leadership that challenges and enables Christians to participate in the ever-expanding Realm of God.  Pastors have the privilege of expending our lives for someone more important than ourselves or our congregations.  We get to serve a people on the move because they are in the grip of a God who refuses to be God alone and leave us to our own devices.

After my prattling about how the sixth century prophets inform our work as pastors, a surly seminarian piped up, “So Jesus explains how you got to be pastor of a large church and a bishop?”  Being a seminary professor is more difficult than it looks.

As I look out upon the students in my Intro to Christian Ministry class, I hear Jesus say, “Hey, I’m doing my part to give your church a future.  I’m giving you all the resources you need to be faithful.”

Then I hear Jesus sneer, “Would you people at Duke try not to bore to death those whom I’ve summoned to give your church a future?”

I agonized with a pastor about what he could do to stop his congregation from self-destruction.  Had he tried a consultant? Yes.  Had he secured a crisis counselor?  Yes.

“I keep thinking that maybe our disintegration is not something I did or didn’t do,” the pastor said, “or even due to our bad history.  I wonder if our demise is caused by Jesus.”


“Maybe Jesus has used our way of being church as much as he intends. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving somewhere else?  Only Jesus can birth a church; maybe he’s the only one who’s got a right to kill it.”

How willing are we clergy to risk service to such a demanding Savior?
Seminary’s grand goal?  Theological education makes ministry in the name of Jesus Christ as difficult as it ought to be.  In sending each new wave of pastors, seminaries have the opportunity to theologically regenerate the church, giving the church and its pastoral leaders some canon of measurement greater than institutional health or cultural relevance.  Seminarians come to us more adept at construal of their world through a-theistic categories, most of them purloined from the reigning social sciences, than theological canons.  Our job is to train the church’s leaders in a rigorously theological refurbishment of the church.

Training people to minister in the name of Jesus is a huge challenge — because of Jesus.  His vision of a new, reborn humanity, the extravagant reach of his realm, the constant outward, Trinitarian momentum, the command not only to belief the faith but also to enact and embody the faith, Christ’s revelation of the God whom we did not expect, Christ’s determination to save sinners, only sinners, all make leadership in Jesus’ name a daunting task.

I received a heated email from a long-time member of one of my churches complaining that during the Sunday service the pastor had prayed for the salvation of Osama bin Laden.  “We don’t pay a preacher to pull a stunt like that,” whined the lay leader.

I called the pastor, explaining to him that his behavior was difficult for the laity to handle, asking him if he had used good judgment to pray such a thing during our national crisis.

With distinct annoyance the pastor replied, “Just for your information bishop, I happen to believe that the Jew who said, ‘Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you,’ is the Son of God.”

In my courses I face a two-fold challenge: responsibility to hand over what we’ve learned in two thousand years of leading in the name of Jesus, indoctrinating a new generation of pastors into the God-given wisdom of the church and taunting would-be pastoral leaders to step up and help the church think, pray, and act our way out of our present malaise.

“Here kid, watch me now,” I say in my classes, “here’s the way my generation tried to serve the church and its mission.  Now, here’s my list of failures and disappointments.  God has sent you to overcome my generation’s limitations in doing church.  Go for it!”

In spite of my best intentions, my classes in ministry sometimes degenerate into techniques for success, managerial tips and tricks, and irresistible, knock down arguments for effective ministry; atheism that ministers as if God doesn’t matter.

Still, my students keep calling me back to the theological wonders that convene us, another benefit of working almost exclusively among those who outrageously believe that they have been summoned, commandeered, called by God to leadership in the Body of Christ.  Whatever God wants to do with the world, God has decided to do it with them.

The paradigmatic story of their enlistment is Exodus 3, the call of Moses.  (We made our entering students read Gregory’s Life of Moses to prepare them for Duke Divinity.)  When summoned to leadership, Moses asks, “Who are you that you should send me?”

Moses cannot represent a deity without knowing the peculiar identity of the God who sends him against the empire.  Nor can we.  The best work we do in the seminary classroom is investigation and reiteration of the identity of the Triune God who, in every time and place, summons the people required to help the church to be faithful, giving them the grace needed to keep ministry as difficult as God needs it to be.

I begin my class by asking students to describe, in less than five pages, how they got to seminary, “My Call to Christian Leadership.”  Reading those papers is a faith-engendering experience.  People jerked out of secure positions in perfectly good professions, bright young things commandeered and shoved into a very different life trajectory, a nurse to whom Jesus personally appeared on a patio.  All I could say, when I finished reading those papers was, “Wow. Jesus is more interesting (and dangerous) than even I knew.”

Advent III: But then … they appear

After W.H. Auden had visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, and seen Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s c.1558 work, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, he went away and penned the following cynical words:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

William Willimon recalls Brueghel’s painting, and Auden’s poem, in his book On a Wild and Windy Mountain, wherein he observes that we trudge past bleeding crosses with a shrug of the shoulders, that Good Fridays are so commonplace among us as to be unnoteworthy, and that tragedy achieves nobility only in the theater. ‘Everydayness and ordinariness’, he writes, ‘become our best defenses, the most effective relativizers of the tragic in our midst. Some young Icarus falls from the sky every day, so one had best get on with the business at hand until the extraordinary comes. For now, go to work, eat, make friends, make money, make love, mind your business – that’s the best way to cope, for the time being, with the expectedness of the tragic. The old masters knew best’ (p. 15).

Willimon proceeds to compare Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with another of the Dutch masters’ works: Numbering at Bethlehem. He notes the ordinariness of the depiction, a day mundane and unpromising – in its highlights at least – and nothing beyond the expected.

But then … they appear.

They appear. ‘An inconspicuous, thoroughly ordinary young woman on a little donkey led by a stoop-shouldered, bearded peasant who carries a saw. Here is Mary, with Joseph the carpenter, come to town to be counted. They are so easily overlooked in the midst of ordinariness. Old masters like Brueghel’, Willimon rightly suggests (and we might add Rembrandt), ‘were never wrong’. Rather, they understood, and bore witness to in their work, the truth of Emmanuel, the scandal of the unostentatious God living – and dying – with us, of God stained with the sweat of human bondage and soaked – baptised – in the blood of human violence, of God incognito. ‘They understood our blindness not only to the tragic but also to the triumphant in our midst … In life, the Presence goes unnoted as we thumb through the evening paper. And so we wait, sitting in the darkness of the everyday until something extraordinary breaks in. Someday God may break into this world, we say. But for the time being, it is best to work, eat, make love, pay taxes, fill out government forms, and mind our business. The old masters knew it best’ (p. 16).

I have posted elsewhere on the pseudonymous activity of God, suggesting that ‘in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise’. It is precisely that we may ‘see’ what Willimon so beautifully refers to as ‘the triumphant in our midst’ that we are graced, and that that we might witness to the day when good will triumph over all, certain that the grace of holy love will win at last because it did not fail to win at its most decisive time. In the meantime, such seeing typically requires what is another great advent theme: waiting, or what R.S. Thomas, in his poem ‘Kneeling’, called ‘moments of great calm’:

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

[This meditation was first written for the Advent series over at Hopeful Imagination, and I have posted other Advent reflections here.]

A challenge for theological educators

resident aliens‘The seminaries have produced clergy who are agents of modernity, experts in the art of congregational adaptation to the cultural status-quo, enlightened facilitators whose years of education have trained them to enable believers to detach themselves from the insights, habits, stories and structures that make the church the church’. – Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: A provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know that something is wrong (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 116.

On chronological snobbery and evangelical realignment in the word of God


I’ve been busy preparing a paper for an upcoming conference on Calvin. My paper, titled ‘John Calvin: Servant of the Word’, attends to the notion of Calvin as servant/minister of the Word, and considers the attention that preaching occupied in the Reformer’s ministry, his understanding of preaching as divine accommodation, as public, as event, as the Word of God, and its relationship to the proclamation activities of font and table. Along the way, I manage to entertain a few detours, one of which concerns ‘chronological snobbery’.

G.K. Chesterton once quipped that ‘Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as from a root. Even when we improve we never progress. For progress, the metaphor from the road, implies a man leaving his home behind him: but improvement means a man exalting the towers or extending the gardens of his home’. 

One recalls here that oft-quoted phrase employed by Inklings C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield – ‘chronological snobbery’. ‘Chronological snobbery’ is the notion, in Barfield’s words, that ‘intellectually, humanity languished for countless generations in the most childish errors on all sorts of crucial subjects, until it was redeemed by some simple scientific dictum of the last century’. ‘Chronological snobbery’ is a fruit of one of modernity’s great lies, and one which slices of the Church have swallowed with significant detriment.

But a recovery of the Church’s health cannot be purchased via an attempt to return to some golden age. Rather – as the history of God’s people teaches us repeatedly – such recovery comes via realignment with the Church’s evangelical and catholic centre in the gospel itself borne witness to in the prophetic and apostolic writings. At a time when ‘chronological snobbery’ remains the outlook for many, the reading and promotion of such a word will seem ‘countercultural, provocative, [and] strange’.

There are, of course, obvious implications here for pastors. If William Willimon is right that Christians are indeed among ‘the last close readers left in this culture’ (and that is a significant ‘if’), then ‘a major task of pastors is to assist congregations in reading carefully in order to align ourselves to a text, in order to submit and bend ourselves to the complex redescription of reality that is Scripture’.

The best of the alternatives may mean taking on a new look:


William H. Willimon: Advice for New Pastors

William Willimon

William Willimon recently posted an exceptional series of posts in the form of ‘advice’ for those starting in pastoral ministry. It is taken from a book edited by Allan Hugh Cole titled From Midterms to Ministry: Practical Theologians on Pastoral BeginningsI have pasted Bishop Willimon’s posts together into this one post. Read on seminarians, pastors and theological educators, and be encouraged … and challenged. This is one to keep coming back to and re-reading again, and again.


Between Two Worlds

In retrospect, my first year as a pastor was perhaps the most painful, frightening year of my entire ministry. Part of the terror that I experienced was my fear of failure, not simply to fail at being an effective pastor (I had little means of knowing what being “effective” would look like), but rather my fear that I had failed to discern God’s will for my life. What I had thought was my tortured, gradually dawning, wrestling with “call to the ministry,” might be revealed as something other than God’s idea. Looking back, I realize now that the early bumps and potholes that I experienced during the course of that first year were so disconcerting because each one of them made me wonder: maybe my friends are right. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a pastor. Perhaps the church really is a waste of my life.

As it turned out, I received more confirmation of my vocation in that first year than invalidation. Wonder of wonders, God really did occasionally speak through me to God’s people, God really did sometimes use me to work a wonder, and God’s people – some of them – really did respond to my ministry. I came to realize that much of my consternation was due, not to my own lack of preparation, or to inadequacies in me or in the church but rather to a move I was making from one world to another.

I recently heard Marcus Borg of the errant “Jesus Seminar” chide us pastors for protecting our congregations from the glorious fruits of “contemporary biblical scholarship.” There’s a brave new world of insight through the historical-critical study of Scripture! Don’t hold back from giving the people in the pew the real truth about Jesus as it has been uncovered by contemporary biblical scholarship and faithfully delivered to you in seminary biblical courses. He implied that even the laity, in their intellectual limitations, can take the truth about Jesus as revealed by Professor Borg and his academic friends.

Yet it seemed not to occur to Professor Borg that contemporary biblical scholarship, because it is asking the wrong questions of the biblical texts, and even more because it is subservient to a community that is at odds with communities of faith, may simply be irrelevant both to the church and to the intent of the church’s Scripture. Sometimes the dissonance between the church and the academy is due, not to the benighted nature of the church, but rather to the limited thought that reigns in the academy.

It took me a long time to learn this. As I said, I remember experiencing that dissonance in my first days in my first church in rural Georgia. I was the freshly minted product of Yale Divinity School now forlorn and forsaken in a poor little parish in rural Georgia. My first surprise was how difficult it was to communicate. If was as if I were speaking a different language. As I preached, my congregation impassively looked at me across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf.

At first I figured that the problem was a gap in education. (Educated people are continued to think this way when dealing with the uneducated.) I had nineteen years of formal education behind me; many of them had less than twelve. Most of my education involved lots of writing and talking, whereas they seemed taciturn and reserved.

I was impressed that they knew more about some things than I. Mostly, they talked and thought with the Bible. They easily, quite naturally referred to Scripture in their conversation, freely using biblical metaphors, sometime referring to obscure biblical texts that I had never read. If they had not read the masters of my thought – Bultmann, Tillich, and Barth, then I had no way to speak to them. I had been in a world that based communicating upon conversations about the thought of others, rather than worrying overmuch about my own thoughts. I realized that my divinity school had made me adept in construing the world psychologically, sociologically (that is, anthropologically) rather than theologically. The only conceptual equipment my people had was that provided by the church, whereas most of my means of making sense were given to me by the academy. Their interpretation of the world was not simply primitive, or simple, or naïve, as I first thought. Rather they were thinking in ways that were different from my ways of thinking. I came to realize that we were not simply speaking from different perspectives and experiences; it was as if we were speaking across the boundaries of two different worlds.

When a theologically trained seminary graduate like me confronts the sociological reality of the church, when a new pastor, schooled in a vision of the church as it ought to be, has his or her nose rubbed in the church as it is, it’s a collision that is the concern of this book. The leap between academia and ecclesia can be a challenge.

I want to avoid a characterization of the challenge as a leap between the goofy ideal (ecclesia as portrayed in the thoughtful academy) and the gritty real (ecclesia as it is in all its grubby mediocrity). Sometimes new pastors say, “Seminary did not prepare me for the true work of ministry,” or “There is too great a gap between what I was told in seminary and what the church really is.”

I do not want to put the matter in a way that privileges academia over ecclesia, as if to imply that to theological schools and seminaries has been given the noble vision of the real, true, faithful church whereas it has been given to the church the grubby, impossible task of actually being the church, putting all that high falutin’ theological theory into institutional praxis.

The challenge is not to stretch oneself between the ideal and the real, or the clash between the theoretical and the practical, the challenge is in finding oneself in the middle of an intersection where two intellectual worlds collide. True, there is often a disconcerting disconnect between the questions being raised in the seminary and the answers that constitute the church. Yet there may also be the problem that the seminary is preoccupied with the wrong questions, or at least questions that arise from intentions other than the Kingdom of God and its fullness.


The Seminary’s World

To be sure, it’s risky to attempt to characterize so complex and diverse a phenomenon as “the seminary.” My characterization arises out of nearly thirty years on a mainline protestant seminary faculty and visits, in the course of time, to over forty different theological schools. Some of my books have become standard texts in the curriculum of a few dozen seminaries, so I know at least a large part of the world of the seminary.

I am helped, in attempting to generalize about theological education, because the world of the seminary is more uniform and standardized than the world of the church. Seminaries, be they large or small, conservative or liberal, have more in common than the churches they serve. They have patterned their internal lives, constructed their curricula, selected their faculties, and have expectations of their students that are based more on the models of other seminaries than on the mission of the church. That’s only one of the problems of theological schools.

Seminaries, at least those in our church, labor under a growing disconnect between the graduates they are producing and the leadership needs of the churches these graduates are serving. This disjunction causes friction in and sometimes defeat of the transition between seminary and church for new pastors. For example, most protestant seminaries have organized themselves on the basis of modern, Western ways of knowing. The epistemology that still holds theological education captive is that which was borrowed from the modern university – detached objectively, the fact/value dichotomy, the separation of emotion and reason with the exaltation of reason as the superior means of knowing, the sovereignty of subjectivity, the loss of any authority other than the isolated, sovereign self pared with subservience to the social, cultural, and political needs of the modern nation state. (The best history of what happened in our seminaries in the Twentieth Century is by Conrad Cherry, Hurrying Toward Zion: Universities, Divinity Schools and American Protestantism, Indiana University Press, 1995.)

That’s saying a mouthful but it is an attempt to depict the intellectual “world” of the theological school that has a tough time honoring the intellectual restrictions of academia and the peculiarly sweeping mandate of the church of Jesus Christ.

The word “seminary” means literally “seed bed.” Seminary was meant to be the nursery where budding theologians are cultivated and seeds are planted that will bear good fruit, God willing, in the future. Trouble is, seminaries thought they could simply overlay those governmentally patronized, culturally confirmed ways of academic thinking over the church’s ways of thought, and proceed right along as if nothing had happened between the seminary as the church created it to be (a place to equip and form new pastoral leaders for the church) and the seminary as it became (another graduate/professional school).

In the world of the contemporary theological school, faculty talk mostly to one another (As Nietzsche noted, long ago, no one reads theologians except for other theologians.), faculty accredit and tenure other faculty using criteria derived mainly from the modern, secular research university. While the seminary desperately needs faculty who are adept at negotiating the tension between ecclesia and academia, faculty tend to be best at bedding down in academia. The AAR (American Academy of Religion) owns theological education.

One last disconnect I’ll mention: The seminary, by its nature, is a selective, elitist institution, selecting and evaluating its students with criteria that are derived from educational institutions rather than the ecclesia. In one sense, a theological school should be selective, astutely selecting these students who can most benefit Christ’s future work with the church. Trouble is, when criteria are applied that arise from sources other than the Body of Christ, we have the phenomenon of the church’s leadership schools cranking out people who have little interest in equipment for service to the church as it is called to be. If college departments of Religious Studies were not in decline, there would be something to do with the best of these seminary graduates. If the US Post Office were not holding its employees more accountable for their performance, the rest of them would have promising careers.

For instance, when my District Superintendents and I interviewed a group of soon to be graduates in one of our seminaries, we were distinctly unimpressed with their responses. Here we were before them saying, in effect, “We are a declining organization. We are looking for people who will come into the United Methodist ministry, take some risks, attempt to grow some new churches and new ministries, and help lead us out of our current malaise.” Yet the seminarians we were conversing with struck us as mostly those interested in being care givers to established congregations, caretakers of ministries that someone else long before them had initiated, and in general, to be people who were attracted to our church’s ministry precisely because they would never, ever have to take a risk with Jesus. 

When I was critical of the students we were meeting, one of the pastors with me said, “Look, you have people who have spent a lifetime in school learning nothing more than how to be in school. They have been taught by tenured faculty who have given their lives to doing well in academia and thereby getting tenure and never having again to take a risk in their lives. Faculty who are not held accountable for their performance or results are not likely to educate clergy who are focused on accountability or results.”

When seminaries appoint faculty who have little skill or inclination to traffic between academia and church, is there any wonder why the products of their teaching find that transition to be so difficult? Alas, what many graduates do is quickly to jettison “all that theology stuff” that seminary attempted to teach and relent to the “real world” of the congregation, the rest of their ministry simply flying by the seat of their pants. The seminary may self-flatteringly think of itself as the vanguard of the thought of the church when in reality it is an agent for the preservation of the church’s boring status quo.


The Church’s World

Seminarians who have been schooled in modern, Western notions that they are primarily individuals, detached persons whose main source of authority is their own subjectivity, have thereby been inculcated into the unchristian notion that they should think for themselves. What a shock to enter their first parish and find that church is an essentially group phenomenon, an inherently traditioned enterprise. Our most original thinking occurs when we think, not by ourselves, but with the saints. The best thing that seminary has done for its graduates, if it has done its work, is to introduce them to the burden and the blessing of the church’s tradition, to form them into advocates for the collective witness of the church, and to make believe that the church is God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world. Yet the way that the seminary engages the witness of the saints makes it difficult for new pastors to think with the saints.

For example, Scripture, the tradition of the church, has a privileged place in the communication of the church. Pastors are ordained, ordered to bear that tradition compellingly, faithfully, quite unoriginally before their congregations, not primarily so that their congregations can think through the tradition, but rather so that they can, in their discipleship incarnate Christian truth. We pastors are not free to rummage about in the recesses of our own egos, not free to consult other extraecclesial texts until we have first done business with Scripture and the great tradition. Alas, too much of today’s theological training (arising out of the German university of the Nineteenth Century) places the modern reader above the texts of the church, assuming a privileged, detached and superior position to the church’s historic faith. The academic guild stands in judgment upon the texts, raising questions about the texts. Thus it comes as a jolt for the seminarian to graduate and to find him or herself cast in the role of the ordained, the official who leads the church not in detached criticism of these texts but rather in faithful embodiment of the sacred texts.

In my book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon, 2002), I observed that many seminarians tend to be introverted, reflective, personal seekers after God whereas the church is heavily politicized and communal. Pastors are supremely “community persons,” officials of an institution, leaders who the church expects to worry about community and group cohesion with a Savior whose salvation is always a group phenomenon. The seminarian who is trained occasionally to write a speech for a group of individuals, sometimes to do one-on-one counseling, to form intense personal relationships within a conglomerate of individuals, finds herself flung into a politically charged, complex organization, a family system that requires astute knowledge of group dynamics and wise leadership of a divisive group of people who have been caught in the dragnet of God’s expansive grace in Christ. When Chrysostom argued his own inadequacy to be a pastor or bishop, it was precisely this public quality of Christian leadership that he cited as the reason why he did not have what it takes to be a pastor.

Sadly, too often the seminary has taught its students to step back from the Christian tradition and its Scriptures, to reflect, learn to critique, and actively to question. True, such stepping back and critique are developmentally appropriate for the formation of the church’s leaders. Yet when the seminarian becomes a pastor, she takes her place as leader of an organization that has goals like embodiment, engagement, involvement, participation, and full-hearted commitment, embrace of the enemy, hospitality to the stranger, group cohesion, koinonia. The whole point of discipleship is not cool consideration of Jesus but rather following Jesus. The person who fails to make the move from being the lone individual, confronting the faith, tending his or her own spiritual garden, to the role of a public leader of a group, is the person who will have a tough time in the first parish.

Today many describe the ordained ministry as “servant leadership.” The peculiar service that the church needs from those who ordained is that they step up, lay aside their own spiritual quandaries, and speak for the church to the church. They must, as the bishop tells them in the ordinal, “take authority,” cultivating in themselves the habit of thinking more about the community and its needs than their own. Students who have been enculturated into the world of the academy – in which students must defer and submit to the authority of the professor, who has submitted to the authority of the academic guild – sometimes have difficulty standing up in a congregation and, in service to the community, taking charge, casting a vision, and taking the time and doing the work to build a group of allies who will join the pastor in moving toward responsibility for Christ’s mission into the world.

I, therefore, say to seminarians, upon their graduation, you are not just taking on a new job, you are moving to a new world.

Recently, I asked a group of our best and brightest new pastors what they would like most from the church and from me as their bishop. I was surprised to hear them all respond: “Supervision!” They yearn for help with the move between these two worlds because they realize the inadequacy of their preparation. Churches and judicatories must take this move more seriously and must develop better means of mentoring and supervising new pastors through this process.

As someone who now works with new pastors on that move from the world of the theological school to the world of the parish, I have some specific suggestions:

1. Devise ways to learn to speak their language. Laity sometimes complain that their young pastor, in sermons, uses “religious” words like “spiritual practice,” “liberation,” “empowerment,” “intentional community” (this is an actual list a layperson collected and sent to me) that no one understands and no one recalls having heard in Scripture. Such “preacher talk” makes the pastor seem detached, alien, and aloof from the people and hinders leadership.

2. At the same time, prepare yourself to become a teacher of the church’s peculiar speech to a people who may have forgotten how to use it. This may seem contrary to my first suggestion. My friend, Stanley Hauerwas, says that the best preparation for being a pastor today is previously to have taught high school French. The skills required to drill French verbs into the heads of adolescents are the skills that pastors need to teach our people how to speak the gospel. Trouble is, most seminarians are more skilled, upon graduation from school, to be able to describe the world anthropologically than theologically. They have learned to use the language of Marxist analysis or feminist criticism better than the language of Zion. We must be person who lovingly cultivate and actively use the church’s peculiar speech.

3. Keep telling yourself that the difference in thought between the laity in your first parish and that of your friends back in seminary is not so much the difference between ignorance and intelligence; it’s just different ways of thinking that arise out of life in different worlds. I recommend reading novels (Flannery O’Connor saved me in my first parish by writing true stories that sounded like they were written by one of my parishioners) in order to appreciate the thought and the speech of people who, while having never been initiated into the narrow confines of the world of theological education, are thinking deeply.

4. Remind yourself that while the seminary has an important role to play in the life of the church, it is the seminary that must be accountable to the church, not vice versa. It is my prejudice that, if you have difficulty making the transition from seminary to parish it is probably a criticism of the seminary. The Christian faith is to be studied and critically examined only for the purpose of its embodiment. Christians are those who are to become that which we profess. The purpose of theological discernment is not to devise something that is interesting to say to the modern world but rather to rock the modern world with the church’s demonstration that Jesus Christ is Lord and all other little lordlets are not.

5. Be open to the possibility that the matters that were focused upon in the course of the seminary curriculum, the questions raised and the arguments engaged, might be a distraction from the true, historic mission and purpose of the church and its ministry.

6. On the other hand, be open to the possibility that the church has a tendency to bed down with mediocrity, to accept the mere status quo as the norm, and to let itself off the theological hook too easily. One reason why the church needs theology explored and taught in its seminaries is that theology (at its best) keeps making Christian discipleship as hard as it ought to be. Theology keeps guard over the church’s peculiar speech and the church’s distinctive mission. Something there is within any accommodated, compromised church (and aren’t they all, in one way or another?) that needs to reassure itself, “All that academic, intellectual, theological stuff is bunk and is irrelevant to the way the church really is.” The way the church “really is” is faithless, mistaken, cowardly, and compromised. It’s sad that it is up to seminaries to offer some of the most trenc hant and interesting critiques of the church. Criticism of the church ought to be part of the ongoing mission of a faithful church that takes Jesus more seriously and itself a little less so. I pray that your theological education rendered you permanently uneasy with the church. Promise me that you will, throughout your ministry, never be happy with the church.

7. I pray that you studied hard in seminary, read widely, thought deeply because you are going to need all of that if you are going to stay long as a leader of the church. Your life would be infinitely easier and less complicated if God had called you to be an accountant or a seminary professor. Most of the stuff that you read in seminary will only prepare you really to grow and to develop after you leave seminary. Think of your tough transition into the parish as the beginning, not the end, of your adventure into real growth as a minister. Theology tends to be wasted on the young. It’s only when you run into a complete dead end in the parish, when you are aging and tired and fed up with the people of God (and maybe even God too) that you need to know where to go to have a good conversation with some saint in order to make it through the night. Believe it or not, it’s much easier to beg in in the ministry, even considering the tough transition between seminary and the parish, than it is to continue in ministry. A winning smile, a pleasing personality, a winsome way with people, none of these are enough to keep you working with Jesus, preaching the Word, nurturing the flock, looking for the lost. Only God can do that and a major way God does that is through the prayerful, intense reading, study and reflection that you can only begin in three or four years of seminary.

8. Try not to listen to your parishioners when they attempt to use you to weasel out of the claims of Christ. Much of the criticism that you will receive, many of their negative comments about your work, are just their attempt to excuse themselves from discipleship. “When you are older, you will understand,” they told me as a young pastor. “You have still got all that theological stuff in you from seminary. Eventually, you’ll learn,” said older, cynical pastors. Now it’s, “Because you are a bishop, you don’t really understand that I can’t….” God has called you to preach and to live the gospel before them and they will use any means to avoid it. Be suspicious when people encourage you to see the transition from seminary to the parish as mainly a time finally to settle in and make peace with the “real world.” Jesus Christ is our definition of what’s real and there is much that passes for “the way things are” in the average church that makes Jesus want to grab a whip in hand and clean house.

9. The next few years could be among the most important in your ministry, including the years that you spent in seminary, because they are the years in which you will form your habits that will make your ministry. That’s one reason why I think the Lutherans are wise to require an internship year in a parish, before seminary graduation, for their pastors and why I think that a great way to begin is to begin your ministry is as someone’s associate in a team ministry in a larger church. In a small, rural church, alone, with total responsibility in your shoulders, in the weekly treadmill of sermons and pastoral care, if you are not careful there is too little time to read and reflect, too little time to prepare your first sermons, so you develop bad habits of flying by the seat of your pants, taking short cuts, and borrowing from others what ought to be developed in the workshop of your own soul. Ministry has a wa y of coming at you, of jerking you around from here to there, so you need to take charge of your time, prioritize your work, and be sure that you don’t neglect the absolute essentials while you are doing the merely important. If you don’t define your ministry on the basis of your theological commitments, the parish has a way of defining your ministry on the basis of their selfish preoccupations and that is why so many clergy are so harried and tired today. Mind your habits.


The Necessity of Mentors

One of the most important decisions that a new pastor can make is to obtain a good pastoral mentor. Ministry is a craft. I am unperturbed when new pastors sometimes say, “Seminary never really taught me actually how to do ministry.” I think seminary is best when it instills the classical theological disciplines and exposes to the classical theological resources of the church, not so good at teaching the everyday, practical, administrative and mundane tasks of the parish ministry. One learns a craft, not by reading books, but by looking over the shoulder of a master, watching the moves, learning by example, developing a critical approach that constantly evaluates and gains new skills.

Selecting a mentor can be your greatest challenge as a new pastor. Few experienced pastors have the training or the gifts for mentoring a new colleague. The “Lone Ranger” mentality afflicts many lonely pastors and their work shows the results of their failure to obey Jesus’ sending of the Seventy “two by two” (Luke 10:1). Some senior colleagues are often threatened by your youth, or your idealism, or your talent, seeing their own failures and disappointments in the light of your future promise. You will encounter those experienced pastors whose main experience has been that of accommodation, appeasement, and disillusionment with the meager impact of their ministry. They have a personal stake in robbing you of your youthful energy and expectation for ministry. Their goal is to get you to say, “Well, I thought that ministry in the name of Jesus would be a great advent ure but now I’ve settled in and turned it into a modestly well paying job.”

Yet in asking someone to be your mentor, to look into your life, to show you how to do ministry as they have done it, is one of the most flattering and affirming things you can do for a senior colleague. The Christian ministry is too tough to be done alone. There is something built into the practice of Christian ministry that requires apprenticeship from Paul mentoring young Timothy to Ambrose guiding the willful Augustine, to Carlyle Marney putting his arm around me and saying, “Here’s what a kid like you has got to watch out for.” In my experience, one of the most revealing questions that I can ask a new pastor is, “Who are your models for ministry? Whose example are you following?”

One of the most decisive examples given to me, in my first months of ministry, was a negative one. I was attending my first Annual Conference. Between one of the sessions, an older, self-presumed wiser pastor took me aside and said, “Son, you seem ambitious and talented. Let me give you some advice that I wish someone had given me when I was at your age. Buy property at Junaluska (Lake Junaluska, the retreat center now Methodist resort near our Conference).”

Property at Junaluska?” I asked in wide-eyed stupidity.

“Right. Doesn’t have to be a house. Perhaps start with an undeveloped lot. Eventually move up to a home at Junaluska,” he continued. “Name me one person on the Bishop’s Cabinet who doesn’t have a house at Junaluska,” he responded before moving on to offer advice to some other promising young pastor.

I thought to myself, “Four years of college. Three years of seminary. Three years of graduate school for the purpose of a lousy mortgage at Lake Junaluska. This is what it’s all about?”

That interchange was one of the most significant in my first days as a United Methodist minister. It was encouragement for me to lay hold of the vocation that had taken hold of me. Standing there in the lobby of the auditorium, I prayed, “Lord, you have my permission to strike me dead if I ever degrade my vocation as that guy has degraded his.”

That I am here today, over thirty years after my transition from seminary to the pastoral ministry, writing this essay, suggests to me that I kept the solemn vow I made that day. More likely is that the Lord is infinite in mercy, full of forgiveness, and patient with those whom the Lord calls to ministry.

William H. Willimon

[Source: Parts I, II, III, IV]