Will Willimon on the Ordained Parish Minister

Posted by Kendall Harmon

My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them. But I found too many clergy who allowed congregational caregiving and maintenance to trump more important acts of ministry, like truth telling and mission leadership. These tired pastors dash about offering parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth. One pastor led a self-study of her congregation and found that 80 percent of them thought the minister’s primary job was to “care for me and my family.” Debilitation is predictable for a kleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos.

Most people in mainline churches meet biblically legitimate needs (food, clothing, housing) with their checkbooks. In the 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 environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.
--Christian Century, the February 4, 2013 edition (emphasis mine)

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryMinistry of the Ordained* TheologyAnthropologyEthics / Moral TheologyPastoral TheologySeminary / Theological EducationTheology: Scripture

13 Comments
Posted February 5, 2013 at 8:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. CSeitz-ACI wrote:

If I may plug it, please, see http://www.cranmerinstitute.org for our two College of Preachers events in 2013 with Will Willimon. We’d love to have you in Dallas.

February 5, 9:07 am | [comment link]
2. montanan wrote:

We laos are, indeed, voracious and never-filled.  While many of those needs are real - and I pray we increase, rather than decrease, the degree to which we seek personal counsel from the kleros, rather than the culture - we ought to bring in enough well-trained church staff to meet those needs and give the priest the opportunity (which he must surely embrace) to do the “truth telling ad mission leadership”.  I was thinking this weekend about the degree to which we all feel like we’re ‘the boss’ of our pastors - and how disparate our standards for job performance are.  I don’t know how any priest does it!

February 5, 9:50 am | [comment link]
3. A Senior Priest wrote:

One really cannot tell if this post is intended to advocate or ridicule the article. At least from a personal perspective, those words “truth telling and mission leadership” seems, a long-time observer of clergy, to be best translated as “ego-inflation by riding one’s favorite hobby-horse and swanning about acting like a big shot”. Far too few clergy act like pastors as it is, and as I look out over the assembled clergy of my diocese or my local ministerial association the vast majority of them are neither intelligent nor educated enough make it possible for them to make so-called truth-telling and mission leadership their vocation without exposing them as the incompetents they really are. I certainly am not qualified to make truth-telling and mission leadership my main ministry, to the point of giving me a free pass to ignore my pastoral duties.

February 5, 11:29 am | [comment link]
4. A Senior Priest wrote:

“Debilitation is predictable for a kleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos.” This sounds like “...servitude to those lowly peasants’ unjustified personal and spiritual struggles.” As well, the replacement of the term clergy with the idiosyncratic term kleros is clearly absurdly pretentious. TEC does this all the time- deliberately replacing commonly understood words with new ones in order to revise and pervert foundational concepts and practices.

February 5, 12:43 pm | [comment link]
5. Terry Tee wrote:

I am taken aback by the extract and by Senior Priest’s comments above.  Regarding the article, surely a priest or minister or pastor begins by meeting his people where they are.  I am surprised at Willimon’s assertion that a sense of spiritual shallowness or emptiness would be of no concern to Jesus.  Yes, we preach the life-changing events of the the life, death and resurrection of Christ, but it is always a struggle to convey this in ways that our people can understand and make their own.  One thing I will concede:  in the ‘mainline’ churches these days we find it very hard these days to challenge the sins of our times, to invite people to a sense of deep repentance.  The difficulty here is our fear of appearing judgemental.  But, pace Senior Priest, does it take a high standard of education and intelligence to do this?  While education and intelligence in clergy are always desiderata, I would put other things above them like honesty - including that difficult thing, honesty about oneself - integrity, a reflective and compassionate heart, prayerfulness, willingness to learn from experience and from others, and a sense of humor.

February 5, 3:30 pm | [comment link]
6. A Senior Priest wrote:

I could not agree with you more profoundly, Terry.

February 5, 4:02 pm | [comment link]
7. BMR+ wrote:

“Senior Priest,” your comment at #3 seems to me right on the mark.  Would you mind if I quote you in another forum?

Bruce Robison

February 6, 8:42 am | [comment link]
8. Matt Kennedy wrote:

Oh I think the quote is right on. The primary task of the pastor is to preach and teach the scriptures. This is not divorced from pastoral care and guidance but it does measure, shape, and define it. When the priorities are reordered and “pastoral care” becomes primary, the pastor takes on the role of therapist. By contrast with Sr. Priest above, many of the mainline pastors I’ve known understand their role as chief therapist and often, biblical counsel has no place in the therapy regimen.

February 6, 12:17 pm | [comment link]
9. CSeitz-ACI wrote:

#8—yes, my hunch was that Willimon was speaking into the (methodist and otherwise) context of ‘ministers as therapists’. I assumed that’s why Kendall included the quote. Willimon has just finished a stint as Bishop in Alabama (where he had oversight of clergy in methodist—not TEC—numbers) and has returned to teaching preaching at Duke, where he was formerly Duke Chapel Minister.

February 6, 12:58 pm | [comment link]
10. A Senior Priest wrote:

My Archdeacon in East Anglia once told me regarding the rectorship of my country parishes, “You’re not there to do, you’re there to be.” Mr Willimon, it appears, seems to think that the world ought to be overrun by pullulating miniature prophets. But true Biblical prophecy is derived from God’s sovereign act of grace. Seen from that perspective, Willimon’s quote might be thought to derive from a kind of Pelagian outlook. To be a pastor, a shepherd of souls in the tradition of George Herbert is, I believe I am qualified to say, not only a calling equal to any Archbishop, but in a very real sense the model for us parish clergy.  The Church desperately needs fewer jumped-up prophets and bank clerks, and more true pastors.

February 6, 1:02 pm | [comment link]
11. A Senior Priest wrote:

Oh, and Matt- you have a very special calling which you have lived out with the greatest integrity, and have been effective in exercising it. One might suggest, however, the this special calling is uncommon. It’s true that there are too many therapist/social worker types. There are too many bank clerks, too. Though as in 1 Cor 12 there are a variety of gifts, I think that of late the Church has been approaching what St Paul calls gifts as if, instead, they are ecclesiastical roles and offices. My objection to the quote from Willimon is it’s implied denigration of the pastoral ministry, the presumption that a lot of people have the gifts outlined in the article, the very convincing display of disdain for the life experience of ordinary human beings, and its overall pretentiousness.

February 6, 1:16 pm | [comment link]
12. cseitz wrote:

Whew! Poor (senior, retired Bishop) Willimon, look out for incoming ICBMs from the wilds of East Anglia. Lord have mercy. What a tempest in a teapot.

February 6, 2:44 pm | [comment link]
13. A Senior Priest wrote:

I don’t think so, Dr S. It’s a symptom of the rather gripping mainstream Christian malaise which is a principal theme of this very site.

February 6, 5:23 pm | [comment link]
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