Publishing a book is no new experience for Will Willimon, a retired bishop in the United Methodist Church now living in Durham and teaching at Duke Divinity School.
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!