As my memoir Accidental Preacher comes out in print, I want to share a series of reflections with you. I hope you find my story and my coming into this calling we share, somehow helpful in understanding your own.
When I was ten, my mother deposited me at Buncombe Street Methodist (founded long before H. L. Mencken invented “bunkum”) every Thursday afternoon for the church membership class. I retained nothing about Methodism from that class. My confirmation occurred not in the church sanctuary on a Sunday but rather in the parking lot on Thursday before Holy Week. On Palm Sunday we were to be joined to the church. The bulletin that Sunday was to feature a photo of the class lined up on the steps in front of the Ionic columns of Buncombe Street. (The facade earned the church a nickname, Jesus First National Bank.)
Thursday, I was greeted by the woman who commanded the confirmands: “Where’s your tie?”
“You were told to wear a tie. We’re taking the confirmands’ photo. There’s a photographer—a professional. Dr. Herbert is to have his picture taken with the class—the preacher.”
She waved her hand over the assembled righteous. “Every boy has a tie. Even Stanley Starnes. See? You were told.”
Words failed. I wheeled around and dashed out the door to the back parking lot. I would post myself at the preacher’s parking space, head him off, confess my sin, and humbly bow out of the picture.
Sure enough, there was Dr. Herbert, pulling his light blue Plymouth into the space. I breathlessly ran up and blurted, “Dr. Herbert, you don’t know me but I’m William Willimon, and I didn’t hear that we were supposed to have a tie, or I forgot, or maybe my mother didn’t tell me, and I don’t want to be in the picture anyway and . . .”
Dr. Herbert, with his stained-glass bass voice, replied, “Tie? Why on earth would you be wearing a tie? I am wearing a tie because I’m a pastor and I am forced to wear a tie. I’m unaware that you have had theological training.”
All I’ve had is this dumb class.
“Are you not preparing yourself for membership in the Methodist Church?” he continued.
“Well, son, I know more about these matters than anyone present, and I’m certain that there are no requirements in Methodism for ties to be worn in order to join the church. No record of our Lord ever having worn a tie, and I know Scripture. Come along. The whole point of these ceremonials is to put you in the picture.”
He led me back into the darkened hall toward the primary classroom, where the others were detained.
“Everyone’s here,” reported the woman in charge. “Nearly everyone has dressed for the photograph, as they were told. Even Stanley Starnes.”
My heart stopped.
“What a beautiful group!” exclaimed Dr. Herbert. “I have but one request before we go out and take our place on the church steps. Boys, please, no ties on a Thursday. Only I can wear a tie in church on a weekday. Such are the rules of our Connection. You may wear them if you must on Sunday. Please remove your ties. Let’s take that picture.”
God is like Dr. Herbert, without the Plymouth.