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.