Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: Bishop by William H. Willimon

Several years ago while attending an ecumenical clergy conference I had the chance to hear Bishop Willimon preach. I was introduced to Bishop Willimon first in his books then in his own collection of sermons that were published several years ago, but I never saw him "live and in color" as they say. I've heard a lot of preaching in my lifetime but Willimon was the real thing. I'll never forget his sermon too; it was on Jesus and Zachaeus, not only did he have the congregation in stitches but I never forgot what he said. Now that is the power of the Word!

Bishop Willimon is the bishop of the North Alabama Conference UMC and the author of Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2012). This book is classic Willimon; truthful, powerful, sardonic, sarcastic, and honest to God. For the past decade or so Bishop Willimon has lead the North Alabama Conference and this new book is a collection of his thoughts regarding the episcopal ministry. Organized into ten chapters and drawing from Scripture, Tradition, experience, and writings from other bishops Willimon explains how the role and function of the bishop works, or doesn't! I tend to read with pen in hand and I found myself underlining passages on every page, for further reflection and also for journaling. I also caught myself laughing out loud too. Truth is often stranger and funnier than fiction and let's put it this way, Willimon is 110% truthful.

There is way too much to discuss in a short book review, needless to say, Willimon identifies key areas where the episcopate, and the Church in general needs to develop and change. He draws on the writings and life of the Wesley brothers reminding his readers that change, reform, renewal, and regeneration is necessary especially in a Church which seems to be changing every week. He notes for example the high rate of attrition among members in the UMC as well as the poor preaching and teaching of pastors, and the lack of risk taking. This book is certainly food for thought for any minister or lay leader, but as he himself notes, not many UMC pastors read. The lack of continuing eduction among clergy is shocking, not just among UMC clergy either, but across the Christian spectrum.

While Willimon addresses several key factors in declining Church life, he does not address for example other sociological factors such as the "twenty-thirty something" generation is no longer interested in Altar guilds, Fish Fry Fridays, or Homecomings, or that people are not interested in keeping afloat large physical plants including properties, Church halls, and cutting the grass. Down the street from our parish is a large UMC Church which is declining because the previous generation is older and it is hard to keep up their large physical plant. Lack of regular income and other resources forced them to share clergy with another local Church. Most people are interested in connection, community, and communion, not paying the mortgage and keeping the lights on and unfortunately, most of our time is spent with the latter rather than the former.

One cannot deal with everything in one book, but this said, Bishop Willimon has done a fine job with this new book. One would hope that clergy read it---let's hope!