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BOOK REVIEW: Willimon’s latest may help ordained leaders, but won’t reach others Eric Van Meter, May 25, 2012
By Eric Van Meter Special Contributor
Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question William H. Willimon Abingdon Press, 2012 Paperback, 200 pages
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Bishop William H. Willimon that his latest book is one filled with both passion and contradictions.
One of the most prolific United Methodist writers of his generation, Bishop Willimon has styled himself as an agitator and antagonist, famously referring to bishops as “the bland leading the bland” while he served as dean of the chapel at Duke University. Once elected to the episcopacy, however, he found the new seat of authority too limited in scope.
Most of the stories Bishop Willimon tells about his time as bishop in the North Alabama Conference reflect the same confrontational style that marked his earlier career. The conference he inherited was, to him, a sick and static system with no real sense of mission. He relates his frustration at low expectations for growth among pastors and congregations, as well as the lack of accountability throughout the United Methodist structure.
Bishop Willimon’s answer to these frustrations is to afford more power to bishops as leaders. He builds his argument based on biblical ideas, Wesleyan history, and modern institutional failures. Bishops, he believes, are a supreme gift to the United Methodist Church. They are the ones who should have the greatest power in holding clergy and local congregations accountable for measurable, numerical growth.
As expected, Bishop gives some insight into life in the episcopacy. Although he frequently complains about the institutional structures he must work with, Bishop Willimon also talks about the necessity of teamwork with superintendents and other bishops. He offers a glimpse into the process of making appointments and helping them to work, and he ruminates on the joys of working with pastors who understood and implemented his vision for the church.
Still, Bishop is far from a collection of memories from a wizened veteran. Rather, it is a forceful argument for bishops to courageously claim the authority to lead—and for the UMC to recognize and empower them with greater authority. Although the defeat of some Call to Action proposals at the 2012 General Conference is a setback for Bishop Willimon’s vision, his latest book insists that bishops will play perhaps the most vital role in the renewal of the UMC.
Fans of Bishop Willimon will appreciate his sharp wit and excellence as a writer. He blusters through his subject with the energy and conviction his readers have come to expect.
However, Bishop lacks the same connectivity with rank-and-file United Methodists that mark some of his earlier writings. Rather than address issues of power theologically, it unquestioningly defends ecclesial authority—and makes a plea for that authority to be extended well beyond its current limits. The book’s narrow scope may provide interesting reading to some, but it falls well short of the title’s claim of truly questioning authority in a way that matters to the average United Methodist reader.
The Rev. Van Meter is director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.