Growing Uneasy with Bishop Willimon

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.


14 thoughts on “Growing Uneasy with Bishop Willimon

  1. I remember in the 1970s, there was a sort of popular form of ‘Transactional Analysis’ going around that basically ended up blaming the victim: ‘Hey, don’t punch me! That’s wrong and it hurts’. ‘I can only hurt you if you allow yourself to be hurt.’

    ‘A church only dies because it has decided to die’ sounds a bit like that.

    I think where I disagree with a lot of the harsher voices about the declining church is that I don’t think people actively *decide* to do these things. I think often, people know that change is needed, but they don’t know or understand what *kind* of change.

    And I also agree with you that some congregations will need to ‘die’ and be amalgamated into other congregations. In this country, we are left with the legacy of a surfeit of church buildings from the Victorian era.

    Most American denominations haven’t even begun to experience the reality of what it means to be a 30-person, 20-person or even 6-person congregation trying to maintain a large church building.

  2. Thanks, Will. This is a good post, and basically I agree with you. But I have known for a long time that American Methodists have bishops, although British ones don’t. The only new thing on my blog was that I quoted one.

    I have no problem with churches that choose to close because they are no longer viable and have accepted the inevitable. I have no problem with churches which struggle on through their declining years with their own declining resources, as long as they don’t have a dog in the manger attitude towards other, newer and more lively works of God in their neighbourhood.

    The problem I have is with declining churches which continue to expect and demand to be resourced from outside, and with those outside who continue to pour resources into them at the expense of living and growing churches. I am not saying that churches should be callously closed down by central authorities. But they do need to be told that they cannot expect pastors and preachers, or help in maintaining large and obsolete buildings, to be provided for them indefinitely if they are not self-sufficient and are not prepared to make the changes necessary to move towards this.

    This is a problem in the Church of England, where large and successful churches are being milked dry, financially, by dioceses to provide clergy for village churches which are not otherwise viable. It is also a problem in the free churches in England, often without their own pastors, who rely on visiting preachers from the larger and more successful churches. I am happy to support these small churches if they are willing to move ahead into effective ministry outside their own small and declining congregations. I am not happy when they are draining resources simply to keep up their traditions with no willingness to find new life.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Pam and Peter.

    There will always be those churches who will say, ‘Though the whole world give up their [insert your favourite inherited church issue here], we will keep ours.’ It’s the whole ‘It’ll see me out!’ attitude. I don’t deny this, but I also know that as Pam says, some know they need to change and don’t know how. Or, can they seriously make the changes needed? For a church of 16 (all over 60, 14 of whom are of one gender), can they change? (Pam, you are spot on about NA churches largely not knowing this situation). If they keep the attitude of ‘It’ll see me out!’ and simply refuse to change, I have, admittedly, little sympathy. I can have a tendency to disregard them (I’m working on this). So I agreed with much of what Peter said in his post.

    But, my heart goes out to those churches who know their time is drawing to a close and they make the difficult decision to close. They should not be portrayed as unfaithful, written off, or like Pam says, being blamed – is not helpful. Many churches simply hear the blame and will feel unfaithful and others will tell them so (see my previous post on my friend’s church that closed and how some have responded to them). That will only worsen the situation you describe, Peter.

    This is what I was trying to draw out of Bishop Willimon’s response. I hear what Peter said and the problems with churches who refuse to be little more than a society that meets on a Sunday (again, I am working on a better response!). Methodists, too, are suffering from having fewer ministers, but still retain the same number of chapels that need a minister (I don’t know as well the situation about larger churches).

    My post was not necessarily in disagreement with what Peter or John said (they just instigated me to write when I decided to let it pass). I didn’t hear anyone criticising what the bishop said (rather, how he said it). Everyone was saying how wonderful it was, and even while I agree with some of what he says, it still left me cold.

  4. Will, good post and thoughtful comments. I have little to add to the conversation you, Peter, and Pam are having.

    I do think there are more ways to grow than in numbers. Decline and stagnation refer to the spirit as well as the number of bodies.

    As Wesleyans, we affirm free grace – everyone is in need of grace and all can have it – and sanctifciation – all should be ‘going on to perfection.’

    So, it seems to me that even a church hanging on with just a few members can choose to live by deepening its spiritual life. Grow in holiness and in witness.

    As a final note, I’m not sure the analogy between individual humans and churches holds true.

  5. John, thank you for your comment. I agree that churches can grow spiritually, but there comes a time when the building can no longer be sustained by the members. That is usually the biggest determining factor in, ‘can a church remain open?’ The people at my friend’s church were among the most spiritual I have met, but they could not maintain that large building.

    I would be interested hear what don’t you agree about the analogy. That churches have life cycles or the hospice care? Many ministers here refer to the type of ministry they do among smaller churches that cannot be sustained as ‘hospice care’. I heard another minister use it from a different angle, saying that he understands that churches don’t want to be told they are dying because he didn’t want to hear it when his wife was in hospice care.

    No analogy is perfect, but I find it demoralising to hear from the church and ‘higher ups’ that I don’t have ‘enough faith’ if my church closes. That’s not going to help me, and I have heard too many stories of pastors leaving over churches that wouldn’t move. I have a hard enough time not taking it personally without someone questioning my faith in the Holy Spirit or resurrection.

  6. Was reminded of this Fred Pratt Green hymn whose lyrics seemed apropos!

    The Church of Christ, in every age
    Beset by change but Spirit-led,
    Must claim and test its heritage,
    And keep on rising from the dead.

  7. Will, I’m in the middle of cooking dinner right now, so my response will have to be short.

    I think the analogy is good, but should not be pressed too far. Churches do have life cycles, but they do not have to die. Some may die. Some may need to die. But just as a rule, churches can live on for centuries. They will probably be “reborn” more than once in that time.

    I agree with your point about being told you don’t have enough faith and feeling insulted by it. It begins to sound like works righteousness doesn’t it?

    Gotta get back to the stir fry.

  8. Pam: that’s a great hymn. Fred Pratt Green is (or was, I think he has died now) one of the great 20th c. hymn writers. His Easter hymns are fantastic.

    John: Thanks for your response, and I completely agree. I think the problem, though, is when we start assuming that a particular church will go on forever without the recognition that it may die. To count it as a failure, as Bishop Willimon seems to do, is where I break with him. I think Craig Adams also speaks to this in his latest post, Why Do We Need a UMC?.

  9. Is it possible that the church, as a body, sometimes need for certain cells to die off in order for other parts to be sustained, or perhaps create the energy later for regeneration?

    Thanks for your comments on Bishop Willimon. I would say that my hope is that churches would live–even churches that are in decline. Leadership turnarounds are difficult, however, and it takes a special group of people bring a dying church community back to life.

  10. Is it possible that the church, as a body, sometimes need for certain cells to die off in order for other parts to be sustained, or perhaps create the energy later for regeneration?

    Thanks for your comments on Bishop Willimon. I would say that my hope is that churches would live–even churches that are in decline. Leadership turnarounds are difficult, however, and it takes a special group of people bring a dying church community back to life.

  11. Ben, thanks for your comment. I think that’s exactly what I am saying. That’s why I keep going back to my friend’s story of the church that closed. 1) They invigorated the life of the church they joined. 2) Instead of the church being sold to become a block a flats, they sold it to an Orthodox Church who now worships there (ironically, a little difficult for this former Primitive Methodist Church, but still I see God moving).

    Again, I don’t disagree in principle with Bishop Willimon, I just think he needs to recognise that not all churches survive into perpetuity and they are not a failure if they do. If he does recognise this, good. I sometimes think he is more interested in being provocative than meaningful.

  12. Saying: “If your church is in decline and not growing, it is because your congregation has decided to die rather than to live “ is punchier for saying: “If your church is in decline and not growing, it is because your congregation has decided to act in such a way that will eventuate in death (even though they wouldn’t recognize or acknowledge that).” It’s something you write in the effort ot awaken people to the consequences of what they are doing. Might work. Might not. When churches decline they often become very anxious about how things are going — and that anxiety causes further problems.

  13. Thanks for your comment, Craig. Again, I don’t deny what the Bishop said, and I am glad to know that he is trying ‘wake up’ churches. Perhaps the difference is more culture. Pam, Peter (comments above), and I come from a situation in which churches are near death rather than dying (hence my use of the hospice metaphor when I was talking with John). I think there are more factors involved than simply churches ‘deciding’ to die. In the UK, my churches were so used to being the centre of the community and the Queen was the head of the church, etc., that I don’t think they noticed when people stopped coming. By the time they did notice, they couldn’t think of why and the gap between them grew, as did the membership numbers. Now, as Peter suggested, we have a bunch of churches in England refusing to do anything because they either don’t know what to do, don’t know if they can (and perhaps this late in the game, nothing can), or simply aren’t going to do anything because they don’t want to change. In particular the first two situations, I will not say those churches are ‘deciding to die’ when there are other things involved. The third case is a different story, and for them, as I have implied with John’s post, I would like to read Willimon’s post in their CC.

  14. I think Bishop Willimon’s comments are refreshing. Its nice to find an American Bishop that has the faith in Christ to speak out with strong words for Evangelism. Instead of focusing on some crusade that only hurts the Church. I recently had the privilage of serving a dying United Methodist Church in rural Mississippi with no hope of revitalization. However with lots of work and obedience to the Holy Ghost the Church the first two years took in 11 adult professions of faith and 17 new members. The Church just decided to love the community the way Christ loves the Church and to proclaim the gospel in its fullness. It seems pretty clear to me that many Methodist Churches would rather die than change. In short we die for lack of Vision and leaderships from the Bishops and down. Ps. Let Us offer Grace but not forget about Christian perfection that may be another cause of American Methodism decline.

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