I have always thought of Bishop William Willimon as an oddity. Previously, in my more conservative days (yes, for some of you, I used to be more than I am now!), I thought him odd because he seemed to speak an evangelical, orthodox theology while speaking against the conservative political ideology that used to be nearly synonymous with the evangelicalism I knew. And I will admit, that he had a direct impact on the start of my turning from that form of evangelicalism (i.e., the one so bound up with the Republican party) and forced me to start thinking about how my faith witnessed to social justice issues. He also deepened my understanding of my call through many of his writings, and it was one of his books I was reading when I heard the call to ministry. In that, I will be thankful always for Bishop Willimon.
Later, at Duke Divinity School, I found him something of an oddity through the stories I heard about him. Friends that took his class and said he barely made it half the time because of his many speaking engagements. His talk of getting to know his students, but not knowing who they are when he met them outside of the context of the classroom. And others, which really don’t bear repeating here. I think we just thought about that as, ‘Well, that’s Dean Willimon.’
Lately, I find him less as odd. I am growing uneasy with some of what he says. He has posted on his blog recently twice about ‘dying churches’ (here and here) and while I have wanted to post on them, I just haven’t. This morning I found two other bloggers have commented on him favourably. John at Come to the Waters has suggested we read this post at church council meetings and Peter Kirk at Gentle Wisdom, who didn’t know Methodists had bishops, compared this to the British situation. Both bloggers quote this from Bishop Willimon’s blog:
If your church is in decline and not growing, it is because your congregation has decided to die rather than to live (alas, there is no in between when it comes to churches). The majority of our churches are not growing, thus we have a huge challenge before us. Still, our major challenge is not to find good resources for helping a church grow and live into the future; our challenge is to have pastors and churches who want to do what is necessary to live into Christ’s future.
What is sad is, I actually agree with Bishop Willimon on why churches are indeed dying, and with Peter’s assessment when he writes, ‘They have no vision for the church being revitalised and no will to make any of the changes that might be necessary for this to happen. Indeed they resist change of any kind.’ It is good to hear a bishop making a strong, theological case for how the church can grow and should do in a church culture that appears to take current marketing techniques (for my problems with him recently, Bishop Willimon has been breath of fresh air among the Council of Bishops). But is it the case in all churches that they simply have ‘made a decision to die’? I mean this in two ways: 1) I have seen churches willing to do what it takes, and still nothing happens. This could happen for a variety of reasons, and since I don’t research this, I can’t really comment. 2) Some churches have simply come to the end of the life cycle. I point to a commenter on Peter’s blog who writes, ‘isn’t it true that everything dies except God? Naturally, then, just as churches are born we shouldn’t be too surprised that they also die. Sad, sure. But inevitable.’ Churches, like people, have life cycles. When a person dies, I hope we do not see that as a failure in the person. Why should we do the same with churches? Why should we accuse them of simply rolling over when they decide they can continue no longer?
I want to give my assent to what John and Peter say on their blogs. For some churches, it may be appropriate to read Bishop Willimon’s post. And those churches are the ones Peter describes, ones that need a nudge to move forward and where there is potential to keep ‘running the race’ (to use a Pauline metaphor). But is it right for the bishop (or any of us) to look down on all churches that choose to make the extremely difficult decision to close? I think this is where my problem with Bishop Willimon arises. It’s the arrogant attitude that seems to come out, the belief that if you just have enough faith and do the right things the church will be healed. Would he do the same, walking into a hospice where someone’s loved one lies dying? Would he tell that person as they watch their friend/spouse/child/parent die and say, ‘Well, I believe in resurrection and if you have faith and do the right things, then he/she won’t die?’ Likely, Bishop Willimon wouldn’t. The little I know of him personally tells me that he is a very compassionate person. But, if we don’t do that when people are involved, then why do we for churches?
For there to be resurrection, there has to be death. Sometimes, the churches that close release people and resources that go on to help in other ways that perhaps we could not imagine (I refer to an earlier blog post where I told the story of a colleague in another circuit whose church has closed and the circuit has been nourished by it – it’s a beautiful story). If any of the churches I have been a part of – here or in the United States – make the decision to close, I hope they would not see that as testimony to their failure as a church.