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Q & A
Q&A: Bishop’s blog connects with laity Kim Edwards, Feb 29, 2008
Bishop Will Willimon
Some 15 years ago, Bishop William H. Willimon (Alabama Area) preached at First United Methodist Church, San Diego. He returned again recently and told the congregation, “If it takes another 15 years before I come back, I’ll be dead.” Blunt and funny from the start, Will Willimon was in the house.
This time, he delivered the Transfiguration Sunday sermon, describing that surreal event as a vague and strange passage that suddenly becomes clear when a voice bellows: “This is my son. Listen to him.” Bishop Willimon reflected, “When we move from an odd vision to an outright, word for word declaration... when the vaguely spiritual becomes directly unavoidable... when the gospel gets specific, it’s scary.”
Afterward, the bishop “got specific” with Kim Edwards about blogging, the General Conference and getting back to grassroots. He was frank, funny and eye-opening, but not scary.
How did you decide to start blogging?
A young pastor, a colleague of mine, came up with this. But I had been sending out weekly thoughts for clergy by e-mail as a way for them to get to know me and for me to get to know them.
It’s just amazing to me. I thought I was blogging for clergy, and then, really, many more lay people seem to be engaged by it. I did a series of excerpts on my book on Methodist beliefs—a heavy piece. I put it out there and I heard from a young man who’s a business person. And I thought, “You know, we sell these lay people short. They’re thinking about this stuff!”
Do you enjoy blogging? Have you had any odd or scary experiences?
It’s been fun. I’ve heard from people in Taiwan, India, all around the world. We did have a weird moment where we logged in and the message posted was obviously not mine. It was a complete fabrication. They shut the blog down for two weeks to get the security tightened up. Cyberspace is a strange new world.
You’ve said that you blog as a way to communicate your ideas on church renewal with a wider audience. Explain.
I read once in a business book that leaders try to change organizations through words. And I thought, “What a great place for a preacher to be, to try to have this organization, the Northern Alabama Conference, from here to there through words.” Blogging is a way to grab ‘em.
How is it working?
I see glimmers of it working. I can’t say I’m overwhelmed. But then again, I’m a preacher; I’m accustomed to being ignored. When people do respond I’m kind of shocked. I am always in wonderment that with something I’ll say, God speaks through me to them.
I do worry how blogging and all of that changes communication. I think TV has changed preaching a great deal. It’s kind of scary. TV calls the shots, and I think we’re in an awkward period where we don’t exactly know how it’s changing us, but we know it is. Is it modifying the gospel in fundamental ways that ought not be modified? Would Jesus have blogged if he could have? I really don’t know.
Would you encourage other clergy to blog?
Yes, particularly in a large church. At the end of my first year, through e-mail I had substantive conversations with 175 of my clergy one-on-one. That could never have been done if I’d set up office hours and said, “Make the time and come in and we’ll talk.” It was all in cyberspace.
My younger clergy respond more often, and to me, it provides marvelous accessibility. I’ll go to a little church to preach. People come out and shake my hand. Then I get home, and by 6 o’clock that evening I’ve got four e-mails from people raising issues, things they didn’t feel comfortable saying in public. It gives a certain freedom.
It has enabled me to speed up everything. Within a year people were saying, “Here’s what I get from you.” I did that through blogging and e-mail.
There are criticisms that my stuff is too long. It’s got to fit on one screen or people won’t read it. Another criticism is that I talk too much. Some people say, “What is the great, new, world-shaking program he’s going to write about this week?” That says to me I ought to stay on target more. But on the other hand, how many Methodists can say, “I just hear too much from my bishop. I know too much about him. I’ve had too many conversations with our bishop.”
Let’s change gears, to General Conference. Any concerns in particular you’ve got your eye on?
Not one single thing. I think two weeks is too long to be in a church meeting, and it’s too much money. I will have to be convinced that it is important.
It costs millions to meet. We spent $300,000 last year on coffee! I just don’t know any Methodists who think they’re giving for that purpose. This is just me. I don’t have a voice. I don’t get to vote. I get to sound off through you.
Any issues you want to see discussed at GC?
I’m not being cute when I say that General Conference is distracting. The real stuff for our church is your local church. It’s what happens on Sunday morning and Monday morning at your local church.
And I just think where we’re failing is in this grassroots level. We’re going to have an address from youth at GC this year. OK, but the backdrop is that we have been killing youth. We’ve got something like 20 percent of the youth we had 15 years ago. Are we doing something wrong?
I wonder where we’ll be in 10 years. Of course, I know where I’ll be in 10 years—in the home!
What’s your advice for bringing church back to the grassroots level?
The best work Jesus does is local. It’s congregational. We are failing dramatically. The decline is huge. And I think none of you lay people would put up with this in your own business or your own life to say, “I made 25 percent less than I did last year. I wonder if I’m doing something wrong?”
We have to do the very Methodist thing of worrying who is not here this morning.
Ms. Edwards is a freelance writer in San Diego, Calif., where she is a member of First UMC.