Being flexible will make it easier to deal with the “messiness of ministry,” popular Methodist minister William H. Willimon told graduates of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School May 5.
A near-capacity crowd in Andrew Gerow Hodges Chapel looked on as diplomas were awarded to 21 master’s degree students and six doctor of ministry recipients. The service was the first of six graduation exercises planned by over the next two weeks by Samford.
Willimon, presiding bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, told the graduates that he wanted to “speak to you from 40 years gained from pastoral ministry and ministry oversight. It will come as good news to some of you and bad news to others. That’s often the way it is with the Gospel.”
Using references to popular psychology, Willimon said, “If you are the sort of person who separates your socks from your underwear in your dresser drawer or you tend to use too much hairspray or you were the child who tended to color within the lines – the kind of person whom any psychologist would label anal retentative — you are going to be miserable in ministry.”
Ministry is a “mess,” he added. “You need to stay supple, adaptable. You have to be a learner, you have to grow, you have to adapt.”
Illustrating his point with several parables from Luke’s Gospel, Willimon said that ministers have to learn to deal with all kinds of situations and personalities and that God often leads ministers to places they would consider less than desirable.
“I think about the first church where I served in rural Georgia. There’s nothing much more rural than rural Georgia,” he explained.
“I had all my distinctions and labels. And then God comes along and shines on everyone. I realized in that first year that there weren’t as many in that parish ‘damned to hell’ as there would have been if they had just asked me.”
Being flexible and taking risks is important for ministry, he told the graduates. “If you’re one of those persons who speeds slightly on the interstate or who has ripped off one of those tags that says ‘Do not remove under penalty of law,’ then you and Jesus will get along just fine.
“If you’re going to work for Him, you have to go where He would go.”
The service concluded with the divinity school’s traditional consecration service, featuring the biblical laying-on of hands and individual prayers by the faculty of all graduates.