Welcome to willwillimon.com, the website of former Bishop Will Willimon. Check this site periodically for blog posts, photos, podcasts and publications. Thanks for stopping by!
Host Frank Stacio will interview Will Willimon Monday on WUNC 91.5 FM’s “The State of Things”. They’ll talk about Willimon’s novel, Incorporation, and about his new interim appointment at Duke Memorial UMC.
A live stream, podcasts and RSS feeds can be accessed by visiting
He has written 60 of them, all dealing with church related topics, including several on the art of preaching, one of his long suits.
But recently, he took a literary leap in a new direction. He published his first novel.
Over the years, Willimon has racked up a lot of miles of hard-core experience with congregations and churches of all shapes and sizes. In addition to his 20 years as Dean of Duke Chapel as well as a professor in Duke Divinity School, he served United Methodist charges during his first years as an ordained elder and retired only last year from an eight-year appointment as bishop in the North Alabama Conference.
That significant experience, plus his creative and fertile imagination are surely what he draws on for “Incorporation,” published by Cascade Books.
Folks who know the iconic author might think he would write a religious comedy, since there’s plenty to poke fun at in contemporary churches and he’s one who sees and appreciates it all. Or he might write a kind of “Father Tim” tale about a kindly preacher in a small town church who loves fried chicken and potato salad and who is popular with all his parishioners. After all, Willimon grew up in South Carolina and has an accent and plenty of Southern DNA to prove it.
Nope. “Incorporation” is a story with a message. Of sorts.
It delves into the use and misuse of power, and if that sounds too heavy for summertime reading, be encouraged, it touches on such titillating subjects as money, greed, envy, murder, romance, lust and sex (our favorite sins). All in the setting of a small town with a big church called Hope where politics is alive and well and where redemption comes from an unexpected source. Sort of like some of the stories Jesus told during his ministry.
In Willimon’s novel, Dr. Simon Lupino is senior pastor at Hope Church, an imaginary church in the Mid-West not modeled after any particular church or congregation, according to the author.
The reader soon learns that Dr. Lupino, SMP, (Senior Managing Pastor) has a wife he doesn’t like or co-habitate with, a staff he never stops trying to manipulate and an ego as big as Texas.
This character is intriguing, however, because the reader has access to his thoughts and feelings. His weekly sermon preparation sessions are especially insightful as we catch little glimpses of his call to ministry all mixed up with his new-found notions about good public relations, how to motivate members and how to make sure the church’s staggering budget gets met and the big Gothic cathedral-type building gets tended to.
Although there’s much about him not to admire, including his fling with a wealthy divorcee in the congregation, those brief flashes during sermon preparation remind the reader that Dr. Lupino is not a total jerk, just a sinner like everybody else.
That’s what makes Willimon’s novel a “tragedy of sorts” instead of just a sardonic look inside the state of the mega-church of the 21st century. Everybody on that staff at Hope seemed to have started off at the right place but by now most of them have lost their way and so has the church they helped to create. Stephen, the young black man who just graduated from Princeton and came to Hope with creative juices flowing is part of that tragedy, but ironically he’s the one who finds hope even after his devastating experiences at Hope Church.
“Incorporation” plays mightily as it explores competition, envy and jealousy among church staff members and exposes choices made by leaders to keep everybody happy, especially those members with deep pockets who influence the always present church budget. And don’t forget about those lectionary readings that might be offensive. Play those down, the SMP reminds himself regularly.
Speaking of internal strife and competition, one particular incident between Glumweltner, the choirmaster, and Grimball, the organist, is worth the space it takes to describe. During a disagreement that turns into a physical showdown (start messing with church music and you’ll have an uprising, not to mention all out war, on your hands), the two end up rolling around on the dusty floor of the sweltering organ chamber on a hot day and when one bites the other on the arm, the reader may want to fall out laughing. But such an incident may also serve as a moment of clarity as the reader realizes a more appropriate response might be to sit down and weep at such a sorry state of affairs in a church.
Exaggeration, yes. In fact, I see this novel as a hyperbolic slice of church life, because it would be hard to find a church infected with every negative trend coming down the pike. But as Willimon exposes the under-belly of such trends, exaggeration becomes an effective technique.
This approach saves the novel from becoming a hum-drum story about a young seminarian who finds life on the ground totally bewildering. Princeton had not prepared him for this.
So here’s the upshot. This novel with its over-the-top events and characters (described in promotional verbiage as “a wild ride through the contemporary church”) is an opportunity to get a behind the scenes glimpse of a mega-church in action.
But, hey, my fun loving side keeps harboring the notion that “Incorporation” may simply be the ‘Bama Bishop’s creative way of “defusing.” After all, he just cane home from an eight-year deployment with Methodist troops on the ground in the North Alabama Conference!
Summer update for Bishop Willimon
Craig Kocher, who has endured much mentoring by me, came across a Thoreau quote that sounded as if it had been said by me:
I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose of life.
When he interviewed me for the job of Dean of Duke Chapel, the first question Terry Sanford asked was, “Who are your mentors?” It’s a revealing question to put to a pastor. We get our word mentor from Homer’s Odyssey, in which old Mentor led young Telemachus into life. The Greeks knew that most of us journey no further than our mentors are able to take us.
As Bishop I met regularly with my new and young pastors, asking them how I could support their leadership. Their most frequent request: give us more mentors. Their request made me feel old. As a young pastor in the late 60s, I would never have asked some old guy to mentor me. If our parents were wrong about Viet Nam and Civil Rights, there was a good chance they were wrong on everything. So our generation’s plea was, Get out of the way and let us take over!
Through the years I have been privileged, as a theology professor and as Bishop, to mentor dozens of developing pastoral leaders. Many of the skills required to be a good mentor are the same required to be a good coach. One must know well the young person being mentored, when criticize and when to praise, and a host of other skills including the ability not to come across as an insufferable old bore when talking to callow youth.
Being back at Duke Divinity School has again given me the opportunity to cultivate my love of mentoring. It’s quite a rush to have some young supplicant to ask, “Have you got time to give me some advice?”
Yet I’ve also been reminded of the challenge developing clergy face in being mentored by old guys like me.
Hegel said that history is our best teacher and that we move forward by learning from the past. Trouble is, Hegel also noted that current, unexpected events keep disrupting history and invalidating what we thought we knew from past experience, rendering history useless. Therein is the problem faced by those who would submit to mentoring.
Mainline Protestantism is not doing well. Have you noticed? The present age presents us with new challenges. I am unclear about the precise directions the church ought to take, but I know enough to know that our churches must be led differently if we are to have a different future than the rather diminished one to which many feel we are fated.
Thus I began my Introduction to Christian Leadership class by admitting to the students that it was going to be tough for me to get through all of this material on ordained leadership in one semester. Then I told the students that their job was more difficult than mine. They had not only to soak up any insights gained from my experience, inculcate my best practices, and to profit from any wisdom I had to offer, at the same time they had to keep telling themselves, “This old guy did ministry the way he knew how, in the way he was most comfortable, given his limitations. I’ve got to serve the church in a world other than that in which he served. Furthermore, we work for a living, sovereign God, not an easily managed idol. Lord, give me the wisdom to know what of this professor’s wisdom must be tossed if I am faithfully to lead your church into your future.”
In our appointment of clergy, my church tends to privilege experience, years served, and seniority, even though no seniority system is mentioned in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The sad results of this boring approach to clergy deployment are all around us. We choke to death o the geriatric virtues of maturity, balance, and careful procedure when what our moribund system needs are more clergy who are young, brash, reckless, and stupid. That is new pastoral leaders who will give God enough room to get in this staid old church and do the sort of resurrection that this God does so well.
So go ahead. Humor me. Listen to my war stories (including the ones about how I rescued Alabama Methodism with my bare hands). Write down my knock down, absolutely effective principles for good ecclesiastical leadership. But promise me that you will then silently pray, “Lord, please help me to get past this old guy’s advice. You have called me to set right the stuff he messed up. Forgive him Lord. He’s never been in the church that you, Lord want me to lead. Amen.”
All you young new clergy listen to me. Write this down. I have lots of experience and wisdom. I know what I’m talking about. Write this down.
What Willimon’s Mission Class Did to Me
By Zack Christy
I am currently a rising third year student at Duke Divinity School. This past spring semester I had the opportunity to take a class taught by Dr. Willimon called, “Local Church in Mission.” I feel that God has called me to ministry in the rural church and I believed that I had a good grasp on how to engage the church in missional activities, so naturally I believed that taking Dr. Willimon’s class would just be a refresher in what I already knew. However, God has a funny way of putting us in situations that are uncomfortable, and He always has a way of knocking us down a peg when we believe that we are on top. Such was my experience in Willimon’s mission class; I can tell you now that I have never been more frustrated, terrified, challenged, excited and humbled before by one class, or experience.
I had never heard Dr. Willimon speak before this class. I did know that he had previously been a Bishop in Alabama, but that was about all I knew of him. I am the son of a United Methodist minister and I don’t know why I believed that gave me an understanding of how to lead a church in mission, but I thought that it did. Coming into the class I had in my mind that if I was really nice to my congregation, and if I took really good care of them first, the mission would follow. From my untrained observation of my father, this is how I saw mission beginning. Though, through this class I was able to interview my father, and was somewhat astonished that this was not the case, even though Willimon had been practically yelling it for the better part of a month.
This class frustrated me because it confronted me with the truth; if the church is not in mission then it is not the church. I don’t know why this struck me so, it seems like common sense, but I really needed to hear this truth. Somehow I had gotten in my mind that my first and foremost responsibility as pastor was to take care of my congregation. However, as was stressed to me over and over and over again in Willimon’s mission class, this is not what it means to be the body of Christ. Mission is never something that is easy, it is mostly messy. Mission is not something that is at the periphery of Christian life, a missional life is Christian life. Mission is the result of well-trained Christians, and is done out of recognition of baptismal vocation.
I was terrified by this class because it made me realize that God has called me to help train these Christians. This class stressed to me that God has called me to be one of the ones that reminds these people of their baptismal vocation. I am still terrified, because ministry would be so much easier if we were not called to work for the kingdom of God. Ministry would be so much easier if we were called to maintain status-quo. However, Willimon reminded me that God will not let anyone off this easy. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Willimon state that he didn’t know how most clergy don’t just die of boredom from being congregational caregivers.
As much as I was terrified by this class I was excited by it as well. How amazing is it that we don’t worship a dead God? How amazing is it that through participating in the Christian life we are never allowed to be bored? Coming into this class I fear that I was dangerously close to falling into a belief that I was entering the clergy profession. I believe that this is easy to do when we are constantly within the walls of the academic kingdom that is Duke Divinity. We begin to believe that when we get out of school that we will have some special tools to give congregations that we have and they need. But as was stressed to me over and over again in Willimon’s mission class, we are not called to be professionals; we are people called and willed by God, we are people sent on a mission.
I am thankful for the ways in which this class challenged me. I am grateful for the ways in which I have been called in this through this class. More than any of this though I am glad for the ways in which this class reoriented my view of the ministry. I feel that I was very close to walking towards being a congregational caregiver, and while that is a part of the ministry, it is not the only part. I hope that my colleagues felt the same call in their lives.
A version of this article appeared earlier this year in The Christian Century. Hope you enjoy!
Ministry As Difficult As It Ought to Be
“See our big buildings?” asked the Medical School Dean as he swept his hand across the panorama of the Duke Medical Center. “Their purpose is production of a handful of doctors who can be trusted to be alone with a naked patient. Takes us four years.”
I repositioned the Dean so that he faced the less impressive neogothic Divinity School. “That’s where we teach our seminarians to be in awkward situations with naked, vulnerable parishioners. It only takes us three years.”
After two quadrennia as a church bureaucrat, slogging in the muck and mire of ecclesiastical trenches — sending pastors to remote, unappealing locations where Jesus insists on working — I’m again teaching in that amazing countercultural phenomenon called a seminary.
I was honored to serve with eight hundred fellow clergy who risked United Methodism in Alabama, though I leave behind a subpoena and three law suits; don’t tell Governor Bentley that I’ve now fled the state.
Being bishop gave me a front row seat to observe ministry in the Protestant mainline that is being rapidly sidelined. Pastoral leadership of a mainline congregation is no picnic. My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them. Now, as a seminary professor, I’m eager to do my bit in the classroom to prepare new clergy for the most demanding of vocations.
Consumer Corrupted Clergy
From what I saw, too many contemporary clergy limit themselves to ministries of congregational care-giving – soothing the fears of the anxiously affluent. One of my pastors led a self-study of her congregation. Eighty percent responded that their chief expectation of their pastor was, “Care for me and my family.”
I left seminary in the heady Sixties, eager to be on the front line in the struggle for a renaissance of the church as countercultural work of God. By a happy confluence of events, the church was again being given the opportunity to be salt and light to the world rather than sweet syrup to enable the world’s solutions to go down easier.
Four decades later as bishop I saw too many of my fellow clergy allow congregational-caregiving and maintenance to trump other more important acts of ministry like truth-telling and mission leadership. Lacking the theological resources to resist the relentless cloying of self-centered congregations, these tired pastors breathlessly dashed about offering their parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth.
North American parishes are in a bad neighborhood for care-giving. Most of our people (at least those we are willing to include in mainline churches) solve biblically legitimate need (food, clothing, housing) with their check books. Now, in the little free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning, or inner well-being – matters of unconcern to Jesus. In this narcissistic environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.
A consumptive society perverts the church’s ministry into another commodity which the clergy dole out to self-centered consumers who enlist us in their attempt to cure their emptiness. Exclusively therapeutic ministry is the result. I saw fatigue and depression among many clergy whom I served as bishop. Debilitation is predictable for a cleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos.
The 12 million dollar Duke Clergy Health study implies that our biggest challenge is to drop a few pounds and take a day off. If you can’t be faithful, be healthy and happy. I believe that our toughest task is to love the Truth who is Jesus Christ more than we love our people who are so skillful in conning us into their idolatries.
Seminaries, Wake Up
Yet I must say that by comparison, the poor old demoralized mainline church, for all its faults, is a good deal more self-critical and boldly innovative than the seminary. Our most effective clergy are finding creative ways to critique the practice of ministry, to start new communities of faith, to reach out to underserved and unwelcomed constituencies, and to engage the laity in something more important than themselves. Alas, seminaries have changed less in the past one hundred years than the worship, preaching, and life of vibrant congregations have changed in the last two decades.
As bishop I served as chair of our denomination’s Theological Schools Commission. Most of our seminaries are clueless, or at least unresponsive, to the huge transformation that is sweeping through mainline Protestantism. We have so many seminaries for one reason: the church has given seminaries a monopoly on training our clergy with no accountability for the clergy they produce. Increasing numbers of our most vital congregations say that seminary fails to give them the leadership they now require. Oblivious to our current crisis, seminaries continue to produce pastors for congregational care-giving and institutional preservation. The result is another generation of pastors who know only how to be chaplains for the status quo and managers of decline rather than leaders of a movement in transformational faith. As a fellow bishop said, “Seminaries are still cranking out pastors to serve healthy congregations, giving us new pastors who are ill equipped to serve two-thirds of my churches.”
In just a decade, United Methodists, various Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians will have half of our strength and resources – judgment upon our unfaithful limitation of ministry to a demographic (mine) that is rapidly exiting. After decades of study, finger-pointing and blaming, we now know that a major factor in our rapid decline is our unwillingness to go where the people are and to plant new churches. Yet few traditionalist mainline seminaries teach future pastors how to start new communities of faith.
My new pastors repeatedly told me: “We got out of seminary with lots of good ideas but without the ability to lead people from here to there.” “I’ve learned enough to know that something is bad wrong with the current church but I don’t know where to begin to fix it.” Seminaries produce clergy rich in ideas but impoverished in agency, well-intentioned in care giving but deficient in leadership.
After interviewing a dozen seminarians at one of our prestigious seminaries, I asked my District Superintendents, “How many interviewees could be helpful in the work that we believe God has assigned us in Alabama?”
They identified two of the twelve. “Seminaries are run by professors whose life goal is acquisition of academic tenure,” said one DS. “Why ask the seminary to give us innovators who take risks and hold people accountable for their discipleship?”
We found that too many of our pastors want to be John on Patmos, dreaming dreams and seeing visions, when what we badly need is Paul in Corinth, doing the tough, persistent, measureable work required to initiate new communities of faith. If that much touted moniker “servant leader” means anything, it means someone who is willing to submit to what the institution now needs doing for the common good in this time and place. Mainline churches who want to be part of God’s future need leadership by impatient instigators rather than patient caretakers for the ecclesial status quo.
Our Board of Ordained ministry habitually asked candidates unrevealing questions like, “What are your gifts and graces for ministry?”
Surprise, the would-be pastors were incredibly gifted.
I got the Board to ask behavioral questions like, “When is the last time you started a ministry?” “Tell us about your most recent failure in the church. What did you learn?” No ventures, no leadership; no failures, no initiatives.
Don’t dismiss my criticism of seminaries as due to anxiety about a dying institution. Though anxiety is an appropriate response to death, my impetus for concern is Christological. Scripture renders a living agent on the move. “God never rests!” thunders Barth. The Lord of the church means to reign over a far more expansive realm than the church. Nothing in the message or work of Christ justifies a settled, parochial, sedate, care-giving style of ministry that comforts one generation (the average Methodist is 59), cares for aging real estate, and ceases all efforts to get the news to a violent, despairing world that, in Jesus Christ, God is decisively doing something about what’s wrong with the world.
So in this semester’s The Local Church in Mission class rather than have students write a paper on their theology of mission, I’m having them attempt to start up some mission in a church context. Then they are to tell me what they have learned about the leadership skills they need to obtain if they are to be a pastor in a North American church that finds itself in a missionary situation.
One of my pastors succeeded in planting a congregation in a marginalized, primarily Spanish-speaking community (where we have closed three churches in the past ten years). I spent a day with her, primarily to urge her to go back to school and finish her seminary education. During the course of the day she told me that in her previous life she had started three restaurants. Two failed, one finally succeeded. I not only understood why God had used her so effectively in this church start but also why I ought to put her in charge of our new church development rather than send her to seminary.
Seminaries have got to find ways to listen to the church’s cry for bold, transformative clergy leaders to serve the church in the present hour or seminaries face a bleak prospectus.
Seminaries must remember that the most interesting thing about clergy is not that we have acquired savvy management skills or have been given esoteric knowledge that is unavailable to the lowly baptized. The One who calls and makes clergy, the One who is in ministry and mission rocking the world (whether we are or not) is ultimately the only good reason to be a pastor. Leadership in the name of Jesus is inherently energetic, transformative leadership that challenges and enables Christians to participate in the ever-expanding Realm of God. Pastors have the privilege of expending our lives for someone more important than ourselves or our congregations. We get to serve a people on the move because they are in the grip of a God who refuses to be God alone and leave us to our own devices.
After my prattling about how the sixth century prophets inform our work as pastors, a surly seminarian piped up, “So Jesus explains how you got to be pastor of a large church and a bishop?” Being a seminary professor is more difficult than it looks.
As I look out upon the students in my Intro to Christian Ministry class, I hear Jesus say, “Hey, I’m doing my part to give your church a future. I’m giving you all the resources you need to be faithful.”
Then I hear Jesus sneer, “Would you people at Duke try not to bore to death those whom I’ve summoned to give your church a future?”
I agonized with a pastor about what he could do to stop his congregation from self-destruction. Had he tried a consultant? Yes. Had he secured a crisis counselor? Yes.
“I keep thinking that maybe our disintegration is not something I did or didn’t do,” the pastor said, “or even due to our bad history. I wonder if our demise is caused by Jesus.”
“Maybe Jesus has used our way of being church as much as he intends. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is moving somewhere else? Only Jesus can birth a church; maybe he’s the only one who’s got a right to kill it.”
How willing are we clergy to risk service to such a demanding Savior?
Seminary’s grand goal? Theological education makes ministry in the name of Jesus Christ as difficult as it ought to be. In sending each new wave of pastors, seminaries have the opportunity to theologically regenerate the church, giving the church and its pastoral leaders some canon of measurement greater than institutional health or cultural relevance. Seminarians come to us more adept at construal of their world through a-theistic categories, most of them purloined from the reigning social sciences, than theological canons. Our job is to train the church’s leaders in a rigorously theological refurbishment of the church.
Training people to minister in the name of Jesus is a huge challenge — because of Jesus. His vision of a new, reborn humanity, the extravagant reach of his realm, the constant outward, Trinitarian momentum, the command not only to belief the faith but also to enact and embody the faith, Christ’s revelation of the God whom we did not expect, Christ’s determination to save sinners, only sinners, all make leadership in Jesus’ name a daunting task.
I received a heated email from a long-time member of one of my churches complaining that during the Sunday service the pastor had prayed for the salvation of Osama bin Laden. “We don’t pay a preacher to pull a stunt like that,” whined the lay leader.
I called the pastor, explaining to him that his behavior was difficult for the laity to handle, asking him if he had used good judgment to pray such a thing during our national crisis.
With distinct annoyance the pastor replied, “Just for your information bishop, I happen to believe that the Jew who said, ‘Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you,’ is the Son of God.”
In my courses I face a two-fold challenge: responsibility to hand over what we’ve learned in two thousand years of leading in the name of Jesus, indoctrinating a new generation of pastors into the God-given wisdom of the church and taunting would-be pastoral leaders to step up and help the church think, pray, and act our way out of our present malaise.
“Here kid, watch me now,” I say in my classes, “here’s the way my generation tried to serve the church and its mission. Now, here’s my list of failures and disappointments. God has sent you to overcome my generation’s limitations in doing church. Go for it!”
In spite of my best intentions, my classes in ministry sometimes degenerate into techniques for success, managerial tips and tricks, and irresistible, knock down arguments for effective ministry; atheism that ministers as if God doesn’t matter.
Still, my students keep calling me back to the theological wonders that convene us, another benefit of working almost exclusively among those who outrageously believe that they have been summoned, commandeered, called by God to leadership in the Body of Christ. Whatever God wants to do with the world, God has decided to do it with them.
The paradigmatic story of their enlistment is Exodus 3, the call of Moses. (We made our entering students read Gregory’s Life of Moses to prepare them for Duke Divinity.) When summoned to leadership, Moses asks, “Who are you that you should send me?”
Moses cannot represent a deity without knowing the peculiar identity of the God who sends him against the empire. Nor can we. The best work we do in the seminary classroom is investigation and reiteration of the identity of the Triune God who, in every time and place, summons the people required to help the church to be faithful, giving them the grace needed to keep ministry as difficult as God needs it to be.
I begin my class by asking students to describe, in less than five pages, how they got to seminary, “My Call to Christian Leadership.” Reading those papers is a faith-engendering experience. People jerked out of secure positions in perfectly good professions, bright young things commandeered and shoved into a very different life trajectory, a nurse to whom Jesus personally appeared on a patio. All I could say, when I finished reading those papers was, “Wow. Jesus is more interesting (and dangerous) than even I knew.”
Here’s an article written a few weeks ago in the Durham Herald-Sun about Will’s novel Incorporation.
Willimon’s novel, “Incorporation” (Cascade Books) — his first fiction after selling a million books on church, ministry and religion – is set in a large, liberal, Midwestern church.
In “Incorporation,” most of the characters have serious flaws, including clergy. There is conflict all around, between pastors and music ministers and congregants, and even a physical fight between unscrupulous staff. There’s death and gossip and plenty of humor. Willimon describes the novel as about the “underbelly of this institution filled with really human people.” It’s also about the grace of God, he said, as these same people are leading a church. Willimon said he enjoyed writing the novel, which is not based on anyone he knows.
Check out the full article here.