Episode 66: “Leading with the Sermon” featuring Bishop William Willimon

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 66: “Leading with the Sermon” featuring Bishop William Willimon

Bishop William Willimon says truth telling is critical to faithful leadership. In this episode he speaks about a pastor’s call to preach unabashedly the truth of Jesus Christ without losing sight of the importance of managing congregational life in this disruptive, revealing time.

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Bishop William Willimon says truth telling is critical to faithful leadership. In this episode he speaks about a pastor’s call to preach unabashedly the truth of Jesus Christ without losing sight of the importance of managing congregational life in this disruptive, revealing time.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Bishop William Willimon, professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School. Our focus for this podcast is based on his book Leading With the Sermon: Preaching as Leadership. And for this podcast, we really want to think about leading from the pulpit. Bishop Willimon we’re so glad that you can join us today.

Bishop Willimon: Thank you. It’s wonderful to join you. And I’m so appreciative of the work of the Lewis Center.

Doug Powe: Thank you for those kind words and your book really fits into our wheelhouse. And I want to begin, because I appreciated the language you use, this language of “truth enacting.” And you make an argument that we can’t separate preaching from the administrative work of the church. And so what I’m wondering is, what are some of the ideas that help pastors to make sure they focus on what you call truth enacting and are not simply thinking preaching should be their main focus?

Bishop Willimon: Well, I think you know one reason may be that preachers avoid heavy investment in preaching, and one reason that some of us preachers find preaching difficult out of all the array of pastoral work, is I find that preaching is the most explicitly, visibly connected to truth telling.  We can go about much of our pastoral work each day without ever asking well “Is this true? Or do you believe this is true? Or where are you connected to this truth?” And so that means that truth telling and preaching go together. I must say, when I became a bishop and went from academia back embedded in the church, one thing I noticed was, and not to be nostalgic, but when I came into the ministry like in 1970, when I left divinity school and went back to South Carolina, I thought I was going back into a war. A lot of my mentors had really been driven out of the ministry. They were tense times. And I kind of understood you could get hurt doing this. It may take some courage to do this, to stand up to the white supremacy, post racially segregated society. Well, but when I became bishop, it just seemed to me lots of pastors had exchanged the role of truth telling and truth enacting for the role of pastoral care. Mercy gifts. Handholding. Ambulance chasing. And pastors would routinely say things like, “Well, you know I’m not much of a preacher. But I do try to be a loving and caring pastor.” Well, not to be nostalgic, but I just thought, “Gosh, I’m thankful I got to come into the ministry at a time when it was clear to me part of your job is telling the truth as you have received it.” And Jesus Christ is not only the way and the life. He is the truth. Truth has a name, a face, a distinctive way in the world. It’s called Jesus Christ. And to be a pastor means you’ve got to represent that, too. So that means that I guess I was speaking up for saying that I think when we get in the pulpit it is where I experience issues of truth and falsehood coming most immediately and vibrantly into play. And that’s one reason preaching is difficult, but also one reason that preaching is at the center of pastoral work. And I am bold to say it’s the most important activity of pastors.

Doug Powe: So Bishop, let me stick with your example of race. How do you then talk with students and others about there are those who could be white supremacists who could argue they are truth telling and sharing their perspective. And this is what God has given them. Whereas, of course, others would say “That is not correct. We are sharing the truth about racial unity and that’s what God has given us.” So when people see the truth differently, how is it then that we are to navigate those differences?

Bishop Willimon: I think it’s of the nature of Christian truthfulness that it is first of all truth about a person. Jesus did not say there in John’s Gospel, “I’ve come to give you a list of important truths. I’ve come to give you a definition of truth.” He said “I am the truth.” Well, that means truth is personal. It is a person. It is a living person, speaking, revealing to us. It is Jesus Christ. So that means that Christian truth tends to be inherently conflicted. It means that Christians have some really fiery arguments over what is true. What is true for this situation? What is true here? And I don’t know of any way to sidestep that. Unfortunately a lot of people sidestep it by just trying to stay away from “controversial issues” rather than have a good argument about “what does Scripture say about this? What does Jesus Christ say about this?” I would just say that what I know of Jesus Christ as he is represented in Scripture, he is someone who makes a frontal assault on our idolatry. Someone who goes head to head with the principalities and powers that rule our lives, with all of our allegiances that question him. And therefore working with Jesus Christ, I don’t know any way we have of avoiding his assault upon our idolatry. And if I were having to sort out idolatries, I think I could demonstrate right quickly that white supremacy in American history and in American present life is one of our major idolatry that we go head to head with. And it is part of the nature of that idolatry that it cloaks itself in other idolatries. A pastor was just telling me, that she had received a prayer request from one of the members saying, “Pastor, please, please talk about the need for law and order in our country and the horrible destruction of property in places like Oregon where people who hate America and what America stands for are determined to tear apart America. Please pray for that.” Well, the pastor was bright enough to be able to see the kind of passive aggressiveness in that statement. When I said “Gosh. That’s awful,” she said, “Well, one good thing is it’s good for me as a preacher know what I’m up against. These are my people. This is how they really feel. And that’s my job to bring Jesus Christ to bear on that.” And so I just think race in the present moment, maybe throughout American history, is something – and  we make the bold claim as Christians that Jesus Christ gives us the capacity to have painful discussions that the world doesn’t know how to have. And we have to make that good every time we go into the pulpit.

Doug Powe: I want to pick up there. And I appreciate particularly your point about being able to have challenging conversations, sometimes to where you argue with one another. What do you believe is the seminary’s role then in this process of truth enacting and helping pastors. Obviously, you don’t want pastors that go in and be belligerent. But in the way that you frame it, it seems to me that what you’re saying is you want pastors who are willing to be strong and have a conversation with people and don’t simply try to get along just to go along.

Bishop Willimon: Oh, what can seminaries do? I think one thing is to confront the widespread characteristic of people in ministry and that is avoidance of conflict and fear of conflict. I teach an introduction to ordained leadership class. And the question each person has got to respond to for my next class is “What do you think will be your greatest moral challenge as a pastor?” And I often say to them, “Don’t flatter yourself. It’s not sex.” But I know this is going to happen. When students pray about this and think about this, they are going to come back and over half the class will say “My biggest moral challenge as pastor is I’m a people pleaser.” Or “I don’t like conflict.” Or “I really like everybody to get along and like me.” Well, I praise them for having that much perception to see that this is going to be a problem. And I’d say the problem is not only the people. Church people are difficult, hard to get along with, contentious – which they are oftentimes. But the biggest challenge is Jesus Christ. We all know how Jesus’s own ministry ended. And there is a sense in which Jesus is our model for ministry. Well, I think of Luke 4 there, talking about preaching and leadership. Jesus comes back to his hometown synagogue. They hand him the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. And they’re not interested in his experiences. And they’re not interested in his personal feelings. They just say, “Here. Read this.” And then he reads. And they say “Oh, he reads it so well!” Well, the trouble starts when Jesus preaches . When he preaches using our own Scriptures, he says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Good news! God is coming.” Now let’s see. The last time God came during the days of the Prophet Elijah, there had to be lots of hungry women in Israel. God didn’t help any of them. Hmm. And there had to be a lot of sick people who were Jewish. But God’s prophet Elijah only healed a Syrian army officer. Well, that’s when the congregation’s initial adulation turned to rage and they tried to kill the preacher. Well, that’s called a sermon by Jesus. That’s called going on attack in your very first sermon. I don’t know that we preachers have to do it that way and all. But just to say it’s kind of the world resists the good news of Jesus Christ and always has. And that resistance is often the most fierce within the family of God, within the household of faith, within the church. And so I think seminaries need to remind us, “Hey, it comes with the territory.” And it’s not a sign if they resist your sermon that you said it the wrong way or that you could have been more ingratiating. It’s often a sign that this is what you get when you are preaching with Jesus. That’s easy for me to say that. When you’re actually in the middle of conflict with people. But I think we preachers could learn better skills at managing conflict and responding to people. I just heard a wonderful sermon by a young woman in which she took a text from Jesus and applied it to white supremacy. And she was white and this was an all-white congregation. And at the end of her sermon she said, “Oh, these are tough words from Jesus. I gotta say, I just respect you so much for coming to church today and being willing to hear this sermon by Jesus. Let’s stand for the hymn.” I thought it was just wonderful.

Doug Powe: But let me sort of stay in that vein just a little bit longer and come at it from the angle of what you just said in terms of how challenging it is when you’re in the midst of this conflict. How do you help pastors respond to that? Oftentimes, it’s the congregation’s perception that they’re the pastor’s boss. So you know, “We don’t want you to preach difficult things to us. We want you to make us happy because we’re the ones who pay your salary.” So how do you come at leadership in the pulpit from that angle? How do you help pastors to work through it and navigate that challenge?

Bishop Willimon: You know, I’ve never had a congregation say that to me. But I’ve heard pastors say their congregations say that.  One thing, just to make that statement shows that one is so deeply confused about the nature of the church and ministry and preaching and I dare say Jesus Christ. To me that statement would be a call for some good Christian education and for a discussion about “Wait a minute. You pay my salary. Yeah. Yeah.  And I’m grateful. Thank you for my meager salary. However, I’m accountable as an ordained clergy person to God. You’re also accountable to God through your baptism. But there are moments when I must ‘obey God rather than humanity’ to quote from the Acts of the Apostles.  And there are times when God’s will aligns wonderfully with our wills. But don’t be surprised if there are more times when it doesn’t.” But anyway, I’m just concerned. I would say to a pastor, if a pastor is ever told that by a congregation, “Remember, they didn’t get into that dumb notion of church and ministry overnight. Some pastor had to teach them that. And they probably won’t get over it overnight. But maybe God has sent you to help them expand their notion of church, expand their notion of preaching.” Again, you mentioned comfort and all. I am concerned about a lot of our preaching in liberal mainline denominations, like maybe United Methodists, where the point of the church, the point of preaching, the point of the gospel has become somehow ministering to my needs (as I define my needs) and helping me with my pain (as I define my most important pain). I think that is really questionable theologically in light of Scripture. I think ministry is also about vocation and saying “I wonder how God intends to use you to serve God? The advent of God’s Kingdom among us? You may be being called to change in this moment and you don’t like it. But don’t take that out on me. I mean take it up with the Lord.” So anyway, I don’t mean to dismiss that. But just to say that I got a friend who’s a certified public accountant. He does my taxes for me. And he talks about the challenge of being an accountant where you’re paid by a client to do the client’s work — filling out their taxes, keeping the books for them in their business, etc. But there are certain key moments when an accountant has to say “Thank you for paying my salary. I like working for you, with you. But I am also more loyal to good accounting practices than I am to you. Therefore, I gotta tell you, what you’re asking me to do is illegal. And I’m not gonna do it. Or, I gotta tell you, this is poor accounting management practice and I can’t let you do this. I can’t be a party to it.” Well, you know what I was thinking. Wow, an accountant is in much the same situation there as we pastors are on Sunday morning. We got to stand up and often give people news that they’ve been avoiding all week. Having a conversation with God that they have done anything to run from. So we preachers, that’s just our job.

Doug Powe: Yeah. I think that insight and the example of the accountant is helpful. I had not thought of it quite from that angle. I want to pick up and go in a little bit different direction, but sticking with this same theme that you have in your book of the leadership. And you quote from Rendle on page 63. And the quote is “Managers help organizations do things right. Leaders help organizations do right things.” And part of your argument using this is that pastors can’t afford to choose between being a manager and being a leader. That if I’m understanding you correctly, what makes a pastor unique is that they actually have to be able to do both of these things well. There are some people who would argue that leadership is the key and being a manager — you leave that to other people. But you seem to be saying something different. Am I reading you correctly? If so or if not can you share a little bit more?

Bishop Willimon: You know, I do think it’s good to avoid too neat a separation between being a leader and being a manager. I think being a leader is casting a long vision. Being a leader means to encourage painful discussions. Being a leader means seeing the whole picture of the organization and not just a little piece of it. But being a manager means also doing things in a timely way. Following good practices of administration and management. Holding the organization together by promoting communication and all. The leader tends to be a teacher. The manager tends to be the person who says, “Now we’ve all agreed to do this. Now here’s the date we’re gonna do this by. And here’s how we’re gonna do it. And here’s gonna be the process we’ll use.” Well, in most congregations, pastors must be able to be good at both of those areas. And the mission of the congregation, the mission of Jesus Christ suffers when a pastor isn’t. If you’re in a big church who can afford a big staff, maybe you can apportion out those management responsibilities to other people. In fact, you probably should. And you can go be the great visionary leader. But in most congregations you can’t do that. And maybe that can be good in the sense that many times, in being a manager you are sitting through the meeting and saying to people, “OK folks, we’ve had a conversation about this for the last three meetings. It’s time for action now. How are we gonna get there from here? Who will step up and take responsibility for seeing that this happens? Who will be held accountable for the execution of these noble plans?” I just think the two go together. And I’m really suspicious when pastors will make comments like, “Well, you know the church is not a business.” And, ”you know that in the church, you can’t always follow these things at work and in other organizations.” Many times what that means is the pastor is just saying “I am too arrogant to learn basic administrative practice.” It fascinates me as a bishop when I would go into congregations having difficulty with a pastor, the pastor would say things like, “Well, I’m a visionary leader. And I believe in tackling racism and sexism. And they’re conservative and they’re backward and they just can’t take the truth.” When you sit down with the laity and ask them, “Why are you unhappy with your pastor?” In an embarrassing number of cases they would say, “Well, he’s always late to every gathering. He doesn’t return emails for days. He appears to be very unorganized. He tells us that it’s impossible for him to function without at least two days completely detached from us so he can work on the sermon.” Well, forgive the laity for saying, “Wait a minute. Those are kind of just basic stuff you gotta do to keep the congregation together as a congregation, to keep us moving in a direction.” So I think both have got to be done together. On the other hand, let me say, I know I’m a Methodist, I know those dear souls who get a reputation for being bean counters. They’re really good at following the rules. And their idea of a well-functioning church is on their own time. “I’m in my office five days a week. I’m checking all that off.  I know I’m not much of a leader in the pulpit, you know. But I’m keeping the machinery oiled.” And Gil Rendle also says in his book, since you quoted it, “Yesterday’s good pastoral leadership is not good enough for today.” And Rendle wrote his wonderful book Quietly Courageous. He wrote that book before the pandemic. If that statement was true before the pandemic, wow, I think it’s even doubly, it’s much more important now — that yesterday’s good, maintenance-oriented, day-to-day pastoral leadership is not going to be enough, once we climb out of this. So we’ve got to be leaders as well as managers.

Doug Powe: Bishop, very appreciative of your time today. As we get ready to draw this to an end, I want to end with this question which impacts where we are right now. We’re living during the midst of a pandemic. So I want to ask, how should pastors help congregations deal with the reality of “now,”of the pandemic, but also start to think about where there are possibilities of leading their congregations as we move forward and eventually will come out on the other side?

Bishop Willimon: Well, I’ve been privileged in the past few months to see some amazing creativity on the part of pastors, often in very small congregations, through technology of finding a way to be the church even amid this time. I’m thinking of the pastor who holds Sunday worship sitting at his family’s table with the children around him of his family. And a loaf and a cup in front of him. And ending the service by saying, “We can’t have communion now. But we shall. And I don’t know when. But we shall. And when we do, we’ll all be back together. And I can’t wait to celebrate that with you.” And a beautiful note of both yearning and longing and hopefulness that God will guide us through this. I’m thinking of the little church where the pastor said, “Our Sunday attendance was about 75. Online our attendance is 275. Wow. We have more than tripled attendance during the pandemic.”  To me the pandemic is an “apocalyptic time” in the full significance of that word. “Apocalypse,” as you know, means in the Greek an “unveiling” or a “revelation.” It’s apocalyptic in the sense that I think there’s a sense among us some things are ending, some things are over. But also, because of a living God, some things are beginning. One difficulty is, like a lot of apocalyptic moments, we don’t know which things exactly are ending and which things exactly will begin. It doesn’t yet appear what we shall be. But that’s often a time full of anxiety, but maybe a time when we need to be reassured that Jesus Christ is Lord. He will have his way with the world. He will lead us through this and be with us on the other side of this. It’s also apocalyptic in the sense that I think a lot is being revealed. One phrase that I do not permit my congregation use is, “We’re all in this together.” Now look at the statistics. We’re not. In all honesty the pandemic has exposed the deep inequities that are due to race, class, economic status, education that we’re living through in America, that we have put up with, that we constructed. Maybe God is dismantling some of that. Maybe that’s good. I wonder, could you have had Black Lives Matter, in the widespread vibrant way that we’ve got it now, could you have had that without the pandemic? Somehow the pandemic and all the other anxieties and all mixed with that, all of the patent instances of inequality that we see in deaths from the pandemic. Maybe God is using all of that to make us more faithful, to bring us to honest confession of our sin, and to be redeemed in the process. So, in other words, maybe this is a great time to be a pastor. As one pastor told me, “I’ve told my people we’re mortal. I’ve told him there are limits to what humans can achieve and solve and figure out on our own. I told them. Well, maybe now in the pandemic, God is telling them. Maybe they are seeing now our finitude.” And what a great time to say “You’re feeling frail and vulnerable and out of control?” Well, good you are. And Jesus Christ is God’s response to that.” Let’s live into that.

Doug Powe: Bishop, thank you so much for your time today and for your very provocative book on leadership, Leading With the Sermon.

Bishop Willimon: Thank you. I really appreciate you’re reading the book and highlighting it. And thank you for your work in the Lewis Center. Wow. We needed the Lewis Center before, and your work in church leadership, ministry, and mission. But there is a sense in which in this pandemic and the aftermath, we need you and your research and guidance even more so. Thank you for that.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Dr. Anna Petrin, assistant professor of worship at Wesley Theological Seminary, shares ideas for preparing for Advent during a pandemic.

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About Author

William Willimon became Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Duke Divinity School after retiring as bishop in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is author of over 70 books and is an editor-at-large for The Christian Century. He previously served as Duke Divinity professor and the dean of Duke Chapel.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.