• Print
Photo of Will Willimon

Listening like a bishop

Most people who have the leader's ear want to talk about protecting the status quo, says United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon. The trick is to find people who have not been heard.

May 8, 2012

In his new book, “Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question,”  the Rev. Dr. William Willimon offers an account of the lessons he has learned in eight years serving as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. In the following excerpt, Willimon discusses the critical leadership skill of listening.

“Bishops need to listen,” many told me. My heart sank. When somebody’s talking, I want it to be me. And yet, as reading is prerequisite for writing, preaching thrives by listening. The twenty-minutes-of-words-worth-saying on Sunday require a preacher who listens all week. Preachers spend years learning to listen to a biblical text honestly, critically, accurately, and humbly -- precisely the skills required for episcopal listening.

Isolated behind so many insiders and clergy types, I devised a number of stratagems to hear something new: listening an hour or so every few weeks to a young adult who was not a Christian, asking a host preacher to set up a lunch with a small group of her best lay leaders rather than go to lunch with the professional staff, disciplining myself to spend as much time in conversation with young clergy as I did with the old guard on my Cabinet, listening to the sermons of every full-time pastor I appointed, reading e-mail two hours a day, and praying at least once a year for each pastor by name with a picture of the pastor in front of me.

“Our bishop needs to listen” usually means “Bishop, listen to me.” Most people who have the bishop’s ear want to talk about the protection of the status quo. The trick is to find people who have not been heard.

Scripture teaches that when God speaks it’s usually through those who, before God summoned them, were marginalized and voiceless. More important than knowing how to listen is to know to whom to listen. In my first days, eager to show that I was a good bishop, my door was open, so eager was I to talk to anyone, anytime, anyplace. Good decisions require good information. Trouble is, most of the people who wanted to talk, particularly in the days before they knew me, came with an agenda: here is work that I want to take off my back and lay on yours.

A hierarchical system deludes people into thinking that power flows from the top down. An anxious organization yearns for omnipotent saviors to fix it by executive fiat. In such a climate, lots of people think that the easiest way to get a fix is to talk the bishop into their agenda and then wait for the bishop to get busy. Conversation with the bishop gives the illusion that they have actually accomplished something without expending much effort since now they’ve enlisted the bishop to do work that God meant for them.

When confronted by those who say, “God has given me a great idea that I want to lay on you,” a bishop must say, “I am already working full-time. It appears that God has given you an assignment. God has said nothing of this to me. By all means, obey God’s vocation and get busy. Let me know how it works out.”

Productive people assume personal responsibility and are generally far too busy to waste time talking to the bishop. Thus, unless a bishop is selective, he or she will spend more time with those who are failing at ministry than with those who are succeeding -- failing people feel better if they can explain their failure to you, hoping that you will take responsibility for their failure. These are the “I could succeed at ministry but the dumb Cabinet has never sent me to a good church” pastors.

Any group that begins planning by first attempting to get a number of bishops at the gathering probably doesn’t know how to do the creative work required to produce a worthwhile meeting. I therefore routinely asked [district superintendents], “Convene a half dozen of your most productive pastors and their lay leadership. I need to encourage them and to learn from them.”

It’s axiomatic that most of a good manager’s time should be spent with the organization’s best people. In a system in which two-thirds of the pastors and churches are failing to fulfill the full purpose of the church and its ministry, selective listening is essential.

During my first couple of months, I engaged in about twenty listening sessions with all of our clergy. In the first groups, the first questions concerned The UMC and homosexuality. Our church has a clear, legislated position on ordaining homosexual persons. What about “no” could they not understand?

“Can we be sure that you will support the Discipline’s position on homosexuality?” they asked. I was insulted. I’ve vowed to administer the Discipline. They had just met me and already suspected that I was a liar?

“Our conference has lost a fourth of its membership in the last two decades. There has not been one instance of any confusion over where we stand on ordaining gay people. In your first two hours with your bishop, this is your greatest concern?”

Sometimes people talk about certain subjects because they are less threatening. A leader must find a way to get the institution talking about issues it has been avoiding for decades. So the challenge is not simply to listen, but also to refocus the conversation by asking the right questions. Writers connected with agitation groups like Renew Network, the Reconciling Movement, the Good News Movement, the IRD, Methodist Federation for Social Action, and the Confessing Movement sometimes say that they talk so much about sex because it’s the cause of our decline. There is no evidence for any such claim. Their attempt to keep our church focused on sexuality is owing more to their fundraising than to the issue’s theological importance.

A leader refocuses a conversation by asking better questions: “Have you excluded gay and lesbian persons from your congregations?” If someone is openly gay in Alabama and still wants to follow Jesus as a United Methodist -- even after the ugly things we’ve said about their particular brand of sin -- “Don’t we need them to teach the rest of us the art of forgiveness?”

Bishops, like anyone else with power to talk, need to hear the truth in order to utilize power with care. But powerful people often have power to do almost anything except to force people to tell us the truth. Gregory the Great warns that a bishop, “by the very fact of his preeminence over others, becomes conceited; and because everything is at his service, because his orders are quickly executed to suit his wishes, because all his subjects praise him for what he has done well, but have no authority to criticize what he has done amiss … his mind, led astray by those below him, is lifted above itself … he is diverted by the commendations of others.” The bishop thus becomes deluded into thinking, “himself to be wiser than any of those whom he exceeds in power.”

My first month on the job I said something mildly humorous and my Cabinet erupted in peals of laughter. I was terrified.

Bishops have been removed for the sin of adultery, and well they should, but adultery is more easily avoided by a bishop than vanity. If surrounded by deferential, flattering sycophants, a bishop is sorely tempted to believe adulators and disregard detractors. If lying is the mother of vanity, arrogance is vanity’s child. Max Weber urged the cultivation of “distance toward oneself” as an antidote to vanity -- a bishop needs “balcony time” not only from the demands of the organization but also from the demands of the ego.

[Former Duke University President] Nan Keohane advises a leader to foster a “pragmatic realism” coupled with a “sardonic sense of humor.” I’m sure that Nan, my former boss, could testify I’ve got one of those virtues down pat. Humor, in all its forms, may be the supremely humanizing instance of “balcony time,” a short vacation from having always to be right.

Dear reader, do not overly concern yourself about bishops bloated by vainglory and arrogance -- the sheer magnitude of decline and failure in The UMC make depression and despair greater episcopal temptations.

From “Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question” by William H. Willimon © 2012 Abingdon Press. Reprinted with permission.