National Pastors Convention: Will Willimon has Control Issues

Leadership's editorial team is posting from sunny San Diego this week. We've gathered with 1700 other church leaders for the National Pastors Convention. At the opening session Methodist bishop Will Willimon spoke (with his charming and colorful Southern humor) about our pastoral tendency to control and squelch the Spirit of God.

Building his case from John 3 where Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born from above, Willimon found it interesting that the only person Jesus told, "You must be born again" was someone "like him" - a church leader. Nicodemus' responds to Jesus with a question church leaders can relate to, "How?"

"How?" is a question pastors ask a lot.

How do I lead my church? How do I minister effectively? How do I deal with conflict? How do I grow my church? How do I (fill in the blank)? "How" is why we buy books, attend conferences, and go to seminars. Modern evangelical pastors are all about the "how." And we base our credibility as leaders on our ability to tell other people "how." We give them three-point sermons on how to do all sorts of things.

But Jesus irritates us by not sharing our passion for pragmatic answers. Jesus responds to Nicodemus' question, "How can a man be born again," with an unashamedly ambiguous answer. He says, "The wind blows where it wishes ?you do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Willimon says that like Nicodemus many pastors have a desire to control, manage, stabilize, and harness God. But we serve a Living God, and this God does not yield to the desires of men. His Spirit goes where he chooses, blowing freely like the wind. This, said Willimon, "is why we nail down our pews." We don't want the Spirit to blow in and disrupt our perfectly managed ministries.

I've seen this controlling tendency in myself, and my church - maybe you have too. We assemble boards, committees, and task forces to manufacture policies by which our ministries function. These policies determine the what, when, and how of ministry. They constrain the Living God and his people to minister within a bureaucratic framework that keeps us comfortably in control. The wind of the Spirit may be blowing outside, but we'd never know it behind church walls sealed shut with policies and procedures.

That is the danger of always building ministry around "how." History is full of Spirit-filled missional movements whose power waned as they become bureaucratic institutions. In the process of bottling the wind they lost it. But has this tendency come to mark a generation of church leaders enamored with the pragmatics of ministry - its procedures, policies, structures, and plans. Have we forgotten that the beauty and power of the Spirit cannot be bottled and stored on a shelf?

February 22, 2006

Displaying 1–7 of 7 comments


March 03, 2006  10:24am

In response to James Paul's post: There are not online mp3s available this year, but CDs and DVDs of the event are available for sale at

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March 01, 2006  9:30am

As a Methodist pastor I often wonder how much our order and method get in the way of God's movement rather than pointing us to it. All pastors live in this tension of trying to use our gifts and reason and experience to plan and organize ministry in an effective way, while acknowledging that we have a God who takes the unthinkable and makes it reality on a regular basis. As we order our lives and ministries, there is a profound need for space and mystery. We must give God space to act. We must give ourselves silence in the space to listen for God and to be lead by the Holy Spirit. May we live with courage into the tension that is Spirit lead ministry.

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February 28, 2006  2:49pm

We do have to remember that it was the Spirit at creation that brough the firmament out of the waters. He brought order out of chaos. The Spirit does move as the Spirit wills therefore our structures need to flex, bend and even break in order to be re-ordered. Maybe we should think of organized religion (or religion as organized relationships) more of a sailing ship rather than a building?

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Dave Vander Laan

February 28, 2006  8:10am

Thank you, Dr. Willimon, for reminding all of us that religion doesn't equip us to be disciples on this great adventure of following Jesus but the Spirit can & does!

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February 23, 2006  11:43am

I'm relieved 1) to hear a church leader acknowledge that "the wind of the Spirit" could be "blowing outside" the walls of organized religion; and 2) to hear that someone is saying these things out loud in the presence of people who have the means and authority to change things. Now if they only had the guts...

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February 23, 2006  8:06am

I'm reminded of the words of Dallas Willard when he calls us to discipleship and says it can be done without a budget, programs, or a building – what is left but the Spirit that Christ has promised to us. I am growing more and more convinced that what our churches need are not more procedural documents and committee meetings, rather, a practical theology of the Holy Spirit worked out in the governance of our congregations and within the lives of our lay people.

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James Paul

February 23, 2006  1:15am

Thanks for the report. May God help us all become faithful stewards of His house while never forgetting "The Ghost" who owns, builds, equips and uses her. Any chance of online mp3s of this conference?

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