Durham Magazine: Welcome Back, Will Willimon

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The former dean of Duke Chapel, Will Willimon, has returned to Durham to be the Interim Pastor at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church. The retired bishop served as professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University, and is the author of sixty books.

DM: What brought you back to Durham?

We first came to Durham in 1976 when I was asked to be on the Duke Divinity School faculty. Then we had twenty wonderful years when I was dean at Duke Chapel. So, Durham is our home. We also have two great grandsons who live here! The Divinity School graciously invited me back on the faculty when my time as Methodist bishop was done. I must say that when folks ask, “How is it to be back in Durham?” I’m tempted to respond, “We’ve never lived in this Durham!” Wow, has this town changed, just in the eight years we were away. So many good things have happened here. Quite a different place than when we first moved here in the seventies.

DM: What was the transition like from bishop to pastor?

Since leaving Duke Chapel, I really have missed having a “flock,” a regular group of people for whom I care and to whom I preach on a weekly basis. So I was thrilled when [N.C. Conference Bishop] Ward called and asked me to do this. Also, after eight years of ordering pastors (630 of them) to go to churches and preach the gospel, how could I resist a bishop ordering me to do just that! My wife, Patsy, is a member of Duke Memorial, along with our daughter and her family, so I really feel as if I’m serving “my” congregation.

I must say that as a bishop, people were reluctant to criticize my sermons. I now go on Facebook on Sundays after I preach and find that people don’t mind telling you what they really think of your sermon when you are their pastor! I love it.

DM: Your previous nonfiction books were huge successes. How is your latest book different from the others, and was it more of a challenge?

My latest book is a novel about a big church. It’s called “Incorporation,” and is a sort of satirical but very serious and honest look at the church, warts and all. I’ve always loved reading fiction and had been attempting a church novel in the back of my mind. There is truth that can’t be told except through fiction. I’ve loved getting response to the book. Some have said that the book is a bit too honest and rough on contemporary Christians in the church. I say, “But isn’t it wonderful that God manages to love and forgive these people?” The book is about the funny, wonderful way that Christ calls unlikely people to represent him in the world as his Body.

DM: Tell us more about your summer sermon series.

I’m preaching sort of straight through the Gospel of Luke at Duke Memorial this summer and into the fall. Luke is one of our most engaging portraits of Jesus. I did a book that was addressed to young adults wanting to know more about Jesus called, “Why Jesus?” thus the theme of the sermon series. I’ve so much enjoyed the response I’ve been getting to the sermons. I think that Jesus is just about the most important and interesting (and controversial!) thing the church has to say to the world in any age, particularly today.

DM: What are your goals for your time at Duke Memorial?

I hope to stay alive, to have something interesting to preach each Sunday! At the same time I hope to continue the incredible momentum that this congregation has enjoyed under the leadership of two great pastors. Duke Memorial is going through quite a renewal at this time, and it’s exciting to be part of the movement of God in downtown Durham for this great church! I want to do all I can to ensure that the momentum continues. I say to my fellow citizens of Durham, “Come join us on Sundays!”

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2 thoughts on “Durham Magazine: Welcome Back, Will Willimon

  1. Hey Dr. Willimon…George here from Chapel Hill. In 1978 when we moved here, I thoght I had discovered you at Duke! I knew you were special and I have remembered many of your sermons over the years. Seriously…Thank you. Picked up your book..”Why Jesus?” and it is beautifully written….with your tongue in your cheek..typical of many of your stories. Hope to see you soon….Your Catholic groupie….

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