Book Review: Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Author: Will Willimon, Afterword By Kate Bowler

Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019

242 pages, including Prelude, Afterword, and Index, hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

About the Author

The following information is from the jacket cover: “Will Willimon is professor of the practice of Christian ministry and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. He is an internationally renowned preacher and widely read author noted for his humor, his insight into the Christian faith, and his theological commitment. His many books have sold over a million copies.”

Rev. Dr. Willimon, a Methodist preacher and former bishop, is the prolific author of over 80 books, thousands of sermons, and numerous articles in publications such as The Christian Century. He also has a popular website: willwillimon.com. 

A Personal Note

Over the years, I’ve appreciated Rev. Dr. Willimon’s written works and website posts. A few years ago, our synod clergy study conference was privileged to have Dr. Willimon as the keynote speaker. He is an incredibly gifted master storyteller, able to tell one story or anecdote after the other ad infinitum. 

Contents

There are nine chapters written by Dr. Willimon, each beginning with a biblical citation. The chapter titles are as follows: Fortuitous Baptism, Unwitting Call, Inadvertent Summons, Unexpected Church, Unplanned Disruptions, Adventitious Preacher, Serendipitous Writer, Unanticipated Friends, Unforeseen Commission. 

To whet readers’ appetites, I am going to cite one or more quotations from each chapter.

In Fortuitous Baptism, Willimon has this to say about his mother: “My mother ended her day reading her bedside Bible. That one so fiercely independent as my mother daily submitted to the writings of these ancient Jews made a deep impression.” (p. 19)

Also in chapter one, when a grade four student boasted that he gave his life to Christ, Willimon reflecting on such a boast, counters it with this insight: “You can’t give something to somebody who already owns what’s being given.” (p. 37) 

In Unwitting Call, Willimon reflects on calling, identity and God: “Believing that most of the important things that define us are accidental, externally imposed, Christians believe the question is not “What do I want to do with me?” but rather “Which God am I worshiping and how is that God having his way with me?” (p. 45)

In Inadvertent Summons, Willimon observes: “That we are not self-made implies that we are God’s property, to be called for as God pleases. In the New Testament, “calling” or “vocation” refers to discipleship rather than employment.” (p. 53) 

For pastors, according to Willimon one’s calling, one’s vocation is an ongoing struggle: “Church doesn’t wait for you to have the proper motivation for worship in order to call you to worship. And there are so many times, when you have been called to be a pastor, that you don’t feel like being a pastor but still must act the part. As a pastor, your personal problems take a backseat to the needs of others.” (p. 71)

In Unexpected Church, Willimon shares this humorous tidbit: “To everyone’s surprise, there I was, 1998, delivering the final address at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Successful Church Conference. A thousand pastors had gathered around the theme “How to Succeed at Ministry.” I, of course, chose “Failing at Ministry with Moses, Peter, and Just about Everybody in the Bible.” (p. 86)

There are several thought-provoking Willimon statements in Unplanned Disruptions—some may find them prophetic, others cynical and hyper-critical, yet others painfully true.

On the Bible and family: “Scripture’s lack of interest in childhood, parents, and family is born of the conviction that God is more responsible for you than Mom or Dad.” (p. 98)

A critique of and prescription for mainline Christianity: “Buttoned-down mainline Christianity offers aspirin for those in need of massive chemotherapy.” (p. 101)

On Willimon’s experience of racism: “You already know that I grew up in an unashamedly, legally white-supremacist culture. Each day I boarded a Greenville bus that bore the sign: South Carolina Law: White patrons sit from the front. Colored patrons sit from the rear. Nobody questioned that sign, especially those who preached to me on Sunday.” (p. 102)

A critique of natural law: “Natural law is a fiction devised to help us cope with our contingency before God. Sorry, anal-retentive legalists, the world was not created by a lawyer.” (p. 104)

On preachers who pervert the theology of the cross: “Ingratiating preachers transform Jesus’s cross into a snuggly bourgeois blanket.” (p. 107) 

On the upper middle class and pneumatology: “The upper middle class has a myriad of ways to tame the Holy Spirit.” (p. 113) 

On God continuing to work within us: “How easily people like me get it wrong; how disruptively God works to set us right.” (p. 116)

In Adventitious Preacher there are a generous array of homiletical insights. 

On the nature of preaching: “If a preacher finds the words to bring the gospel to speech, it’s only grace. The Christian faith is inherently acoustical. You can’t self-inoculate the gospel; somebody’s got to tell it to you. It’s auditory.” (p. 122)

A couple of priceless quotes from Luther on sermons and preachers: “Luther said ‘a sermon is a surgeon’s scalpel!’ Hey, he also said, ‘Whenever the word of God is rightly preached, demons are unleashed!’” (p. 127) “God can ride a lame horse or shoot with a crooked bow,” said Luther. By God’s grace, even life’s setbacks can be used by God to re-call a preacher.” (p. 129)

On the process of sermon preparation and when the preacher is not satisfied with their sermons: “When composing a sermon, I apply a theological test: What is God doing in this biblical text, and what might God condescend to do in my sermon? In my sorriest sermons, Jesus may elect to preach.” (p. 142) Yours truly has experienced this numerous times over the years!

On a best thing about being a preacher: “One of the best things about being a preacher is that one preaches from, rather than apologizes for, a biblical text.” (p. 144) 

On clergy leaving the ministry: “Of the twenty people who were ordained with me, only two of us made it to retirement as clergy.” (p. 145) 

On the consequence of preaching: “Preaching is judged by its performance in the lives of the saints.” (p. 147) 

In Serendipitous Writer, Willimon links “good preachers” with writers: “Good preachers are voracious readers, recognizing in writers and stand-up comics our kith and kin who, like our Lord and Dostoevsky, create worlds through words.” (p. 163)

A warning about those who write an autobiography or a memoir: “Gertrude Stein dismissed autobiography as inferior literature that “anyone can write,” then proved herself wrong in The Making of Americans. Be suspicious of memoirists who claim to give you a fully accurate rendition of themselves.” (pp. 164-165)

In Unanticipated Friends, Willimon acknowledges preachers’ indebtedness to other preachers: An unindebted preacher is a poor preacher, though the line between grateful apprenticeship and smarmy plagiarism gets thin. My own incriminating paper trail is too long for me to be righteously indignant that a fellow preacher snitched one of mine.” (pp. 185-186)

On the importance of Willimon’s wife as his friend: “Never a truer word was spoken by my mother than “Without Patsy, (Willimon’s wife) you would be a disaster.” (p. 189)

On God’s forgiveness: “Don’t attempt friendship, in marriage or otherwise, without a God who forgives.” (p. 196) 

On advice from Willimon’s friend Rev. Carlyle Marney: “I called Marney and asked him if I should interview at Duke. “Sure. But if you’re hired by Duke, you must become more adept in using a word:bullshit.” (p. 209) 

In Unforeseen Commission, Willimon reflects on the surprise element of prophecy: “Now anybody God chooses, even betrayers like Peter or me, can be enlisted for prophecy.

On the authority of a bishop, Willimon offers this satirical comment: “I wish that Jesus had authorized lapel pins, Boy Scout badges, corporal’s stripes, judge’s wigs, Tasers, or doctoral hoods to give God’s servants clout, but that’s not how Jesus works.” (pp. 226-227)

This memoir is a brilliant example of how God humorously and absurdly chose and called Rev. Dr. Will Willimon into the ministry. All preachers would benefit in some way from reading this volume.