A Feature Review of
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2019
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Reviewed by Allen T. Stanton
During a worship service at Duke Chapel, when I was still one of his students, Will Willimon slid into the pew next to me. During a hymn, he pestered me about my dating life, and told me a story about my girlfriend’s father.
“I’ve heard that story,” I said, “I also heard that it’s not true. How many of your stories aren’t true?” I was teasing him, but also curious.
“Does it really matter?” he smirked back.
I remembered this interaction when I found his memoir, Accidental Preacher, on my desk one morning. I was familiar with this grand preacher. He was my professor, a valued conversation partner during my time in school, and, when I married the girl he pestered me about, it was Will who presided at our wedding. I’ve also taken my share of easy digs at him. His not so hidden disdain of the small-membership church has provided ample fodder for my own writing.
He is, without a doubt, a gifted storyteller. And, Bishop Willimon is one who could, without much difficulty, be placed in the same category as the father in Big Fish. His elaborate stories are grounded somewhere in a true event, even if the stories themselves are larger than life.
I write all of this in part as a disclaimer, but also to say that I carried all this in my mind as I opened Accidental Preacher. Mostly, I was eager to read the inner workings of Willimon’s thoughts. I am an avid fan of memoirs, and the memoirs from Willimon’s colleagues at Duke are among my favorite. Rick Lischer’s Open Secrets is an intimate examination of a young pastor in his first appointment. Lischer’s second memoir, Stations of the Heart, is a detailed and emotional study of death a man loses his son. Stanley Hauerwas’s memoir, Hannah’s Child, might fit into the same genre as John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, and is valuable as a reflection of theological formation and discipleship.
But Willimon is not Rick Lischer or Stanley Hauerwas. In person, he is more boisterous than either Lischer or Hauerwas. In writing, he is gregarious and often informal. So, I was unsure of what I should expect from Willimon’s memoirs.
The first observation I made about Accidental Preacher is that it is not linear. Willimon begins and ends with his childhood. Stories from his life are grouped together by theme rather than timeline. In a single chapter, Willimon will talk about discovering his call to ministry in college, his service in his first church, a few quips about the episcopacy, and a reflection about his time as Dean of Duke Chapel.
The second, and perhaps the more important, thing I should say about this book is that this is not a space in which Willimon discusses the pivotal moments of his career in any great detail. You will not find play-by-play accounts of backroom meetings from his time as dean of Duke Chapel, nor will you encounter a reflection as to how the episcopacy shaped and impacted his personal life. The closest you come to either of those is a few ruminations about the peculiar practices of bishops, a couple of quips about his boredom at meetings, and a sentence long admission about his motivation to run for the episcopacy. There are (only if you look for it) a few swipes at a former dean.
In short, this is not a memoir to read if you are looking for dirt on any of the institutions that Willimon has served. In fact, Willimon states several times throughout the pages that the concept of a deeply personal memoir is foreign to him. There will be no revelations of deep and personal private thought, no excavations of the soul, no apologetic of his life’s work.
This is not to say that Willimon doesn’t open up for self-reflection. Indeed, there are plenty of musings about his motivations, insecurities, and even failures. But these are not the priority. They always seem to be on the periphery, and never the focus.
All of this makes for a rather surprising memoir. One should not come to these pages looking for deep secrets revealed about Willimon’s life. Neither are there dramatic moments and salacious inside information that readers find sprinkled in the bestsellers. There is no play-by-play on his life; the account of meeting his wife is one paragraph. As Willimon himself puts it, “I’m under no compulsion to display my ‘whole personality’” (165).
In a very real sense, this memoir is not about Willimon at all. Rather, Willimon uses his life story to refocus on Jesus. More important than his insecurities, arguments, successes, and failures, Willimon wants to show that Jesus is the primary actor at work in his life and the world. Rather than recount his adventures, famous encounters, and dramatic moments, Willimon wants to show how Jesus interrupted his life and took him to places that he was not expected. Where Willimon has his most honest self-reflections, usually focusing on his insecurity and desire to be liked and loved, he reflects on how Jesus can redeem even those qualities to make him an effective preacher (in fact, one of the 12 most effective in the English-speaking world).
For those that pay attention to Willimon’s writings, this is not a new theme. In a book about his preaching, Michael Turner notes that Willimon’s really only has three sermons: “1) ‘God is large, mysterious, and there is no way I could explain it to someone like you,’ 2) ‘Life is a mess and there is no way I could explain it to someone like you,’ and 3) ‘Christianity is weird, odd, peculiar; I can’t believe you people actually want to be Christians.’”
This observation can also be made about Accidental Preacher, only this time, rather than asking a congregation to embrace the mystery of God, to try to understand the messiness of life, or articulate why they follow Christ, Willimon turns the questions to himself.
The result is a memoir that is an object lesson in vocation. It demands that the reader reconsider their own vocation, their own discipleship. Throughout the book, Willimon implicitly asks the reader, “If I, with all of my shortcomings, insecurities, family drama, and personal failures, can give myself over to Christ, why can’t you?”
This is not a new question for Willimon to ask. When I thought about leaving seminary and abandoning my call to ordained ministry to pursue something more akin to the study of religion, Will was the one who asked me whether or not I had consulted Christ about my decision, adamant that theology is to be practiced, not just pontificated. Always one to condemn conversations of careerism (which, admittedly, is strange coming from a prominent preacher and bishop), Willimon wants a pastor to embrace their commitment to Jesus and be prepared to let go of any expectations about what might happen next. The rest, he trusts, will fall into place.
Accidental Preacher is not a memoir to understand the deep psyche of one of mainline Christianity’s most noted preachers and authors. It is a memoir to understand the importance of vocation, and how a vocation for Christ renders the rest obsolete. The book is a success if readers – whether lay or clergy – finish it by asking themselves to remember their own call, recalling the work of Christ in their own lives.
For those of us who call ourselves his students, the pages will reflect familiar lessons that were shared in lectures, hallways, and office hours. For those who have only known Willimon from afar, this will be a master class to the most important (if not the only) lesson that Willimon has to teach: It’s all about Jesus; it is decidedly not about you.
Allen T. Stanton is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College. His writings on faith-based rural economic and community development has appeared in numerous places, including Faith and Leadership and Practical Matters.
 Turner, Michael A., and William F. Malambri, editors. A Peculiar Prophet: William H. Willimon and the Art of Preaching. Abingdon Press, 2004.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com