Will Willimon: Your Work is a Calling
The Reverend Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at the Divinity School, Duke University. He served eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, where he led the 157,000 Methodists and 792 pastors in North Alabama. For twenty years prior to the episcopacy, he was Dean of the Chapel and Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Willimon is the author of over 80 books. His articles have appeared in many publications including Theology Today, Interpretation, Liturgy, and Christianity Today.
Will has also written numerous books, all of which I would recommend, including Fear of the Other, Accidental Preacher (that has an afterword by yours truly), his latest book on aging called Aging: Growing Old in Church, and the book he mentions in the interview on racial justice Who Lynched Willie Earl?
Three years ago I wrote this piece on mainline celebrities and Willimon’s sermon at the Crystal Cathedral. If you’ve never heard of the Crystal Cathedral, this article by the Washington Post does a great job summarizing the buildings’ televangelism history and more recent ties with the Catholic church.
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always doing mountaintop yoga. I used to have my own delusion of living my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom. Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago and I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick. Lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.
Kate Bowler: Have you ever wondered if you were called to something like, I always knew I wanted to be a professor? Always. I was very bossy with my stuffed animals for not listening. Or sometimes people just know that they were supposed to be a parent or a nurse or an angry driver. No, that one just comes naturally. Sometimes we feel like a tug. Like we’re just being pulled forward towards something. A calling. A purpose. Today, we’re going to talk about that feeling that were called to something. And what happens when it feels like we’ve aged out of those roles. Our spouse is gone. We retire. We can’t move around like we once did. What does purpose look like then? Well, there is no one I’d rather talk to about this than my friend Will Willimon. The Reverend Dr. William Willimon is a professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School. He served eight years as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, where he led one hundred and fifty seven thousand Methodists and seven hundred and ninety two pastors in North Alabama. And before that, he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke for 20 years. He’s written over 80 books, including his memoir Accidental Preacher, and his most recent book, Aging Growing Old in the Church. Will has the most absurd and hilarious hobbies, like woodcarving and a mosaic phase that he doesn’t like to talk about. And he is one of my dearest friends. Will, hello.
Will Willimon: Oh, this is exciting. Thank you, Kate.
K.B.: You always joke that all you were ever going to be was a Methodist pastor and that you are one of the most notorious. I might add. So I wondered if we could start there. How did you become a pastor in the first place?
W.W.: Well, it wasn’t my idea and I resisted the notion. However, we appear to have a God that just sometimes does not take no for an answer and shows up at inopportune times and all. I think one of the challenges of the Christian life is to realize that the life where living is not our own. And for me, it became a kind of growing awareness in college that, darn it. This appeared to be where God was pushing me. You know, there’s a long kind of mythology in Christian lore about resisting the call because that’s what the prophets did. Nevertheless, it this this appears to be where God wanted me to be. And it’s been better than I thought it would be. It’s been fun.
K.B.: How do you know that you’re called towards something like how did you recognize that in yourself? Or like how might you give that kind of advice to somebody else? How can they sense a calling?
W.W.: That’s a good question. Well, one of the troubles with the God of Israel and the church is that it is kind of like if you could explain it, if you can’t explain it some other way, it’s probably not God because God is bigger than our explanations at all. So it means that discernment becomes a major task. You have days when you’re really, really sure this is God and this is what God wants you to do. And then you have other days when you say, hey, tell me once again why you thought this would be a great way for me to spend my life. So you go back and forth, which I think it’s kind of like maybe a lot of other calls, like the call to be married. The call to be somebodies friend. The call to be a parent. But I think generally there has to be a certain definite sense of direction. And I teach a class in the divinity school on ordained leadership. First thing I have the seminarians do is write a paper on why God explains why somebody like you is in seminary. And I love those papers. They’re like papers where Jesus sort of shows up on a patio. One year, I don’t know why he worked patios, but um.
K.B.: He’s really on the patio circuit.
W.W.: The, I get other papers where a guy starts out saying, at age 19, I woke up from a coma, that had lasted 19 years. And others who say, I can’t believe I have been shoved into a place like seminary with losers like the ones in this class. The weird thing about vocation is it it’s not your idea. People, Christians really believe that they’re doing what they’re doing and they’re living the life that they’re living because it was God’s idea before it was theirs. And that sort of external address, that sense of external determination is really weird among modern North American people.
K.B.: Well, it also sort of sounds a little bit too like part of the problem, the problem of call sounds a little bit like deciding if you’re in love or not. Like is this love or is this indigestion?
W.W.: Nice analogy. And I do wonder if modern Western people like us. It’s been so long since we’ve expected address by anything other than from our own interiority. Maybe we’re a little less adept at saying, oh, God’s got his hand on me or ohhh I believe the Lord is leading me in this direction.
K.B.: Yeah. Well, I think we’re always worried about being wrong because then we’re like, well, maybe it was indigestion.
W.W.: I must say, when it comes to vocation, Kate, you are one of my prime examples of vocation.
K.B.: No, I’m not. No, that’s not true.
W.W.: Look, a lot of people get stage four cancer and it’s it’s bad and their earnest prayer is get me through this and over it and I’ll hope to never think about it again. But it takes somebody like you a Mennonite kind of background and all to say, wow, I’m not only going to try to get my head around this, I’m not only trying to get my life position to live through this, but my cancer is going to be an assignment, a vocation. Like, you know, why on earth would Kate Bowler want to revisit horrible events, series of events?
K.B.: Because of my propensity to be sad?
W.W.: No, I’m saying is because you feel an obligation to help others to pass it on, to turn your sickness into a commission. Now, that’s a weird thing and could be even considered sick by some people. But as Christians, that’s kind of what we do. And I remember a woman saying to me after a particularly nasty divorce, and I was asking her, what have you learned through your divorce? This was a year or two later. She said, well, God turned my divorce into my assignment. Now I am the woman who is busy helping other people go through nasty divorces and I am busy. And she said, I’ve never thought of myself as a teacher. I’ve certainly never thought about myself as a preacher. And yet I’m doing that. Well, that’s kind of the God who calls and who says to you, let me help you turn this experience into a calling. And for somebody else’s good. And that’s exactly what Kate Bowler has done.
K.B.: Oh, buddy. OK. Well, thank you. That’s it. You can be done now. This podcast is over. Part of what I am so, I just love the expansiveness of though of the category then of calling, because then we’re not just called to like magical spiritual stuff like, oh you’re, like I’m sure some people listening to this would say, well, well, you’re ordained and that’s, you know, congratulations. You’re part of a special separate class of spiritual people. But then like what what does calling mean to everyday people? And how do I know what the difference is between calling and vocation and say, just work?
W.W.: Well, I think as a Christian, you’ve got to think of calling, your first, your primary vocation is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I know that sounds sappy and everything. But to all those of you who are not Christians, let me tell you, it ain’t easy. It would have been a lot easier if Jesus had left us alone. But that’s your primary vocation. And then you live out that vocation as a carpenter or as a wife or husband. And this like Paul says, whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. I remember the woman who’s a friend of mine whose daughter had leukemia, and she said to me, said, you know, that expression, God never puts more on you than you can bear. And I said, yes, I’ve heard that expression. She said, I said to God last night, you got the wrong name here. I’m not that person. OK? When we laughed about that a year or so later and her daughter got a remission from leukemia, she said, you know, it’s weird, I’ve always thought of myself as a weak person. I’m just not, I’m psychologically vulnerable and all. She said, God has basically said to me during this last year. Well, you were wrong about that, weren’t you? You’re a strong person. Now, why don’t you use your strength for some others? And she was part of a group giving help to other people whose children had leukemia and that that’s kind of the essence of vocation.
K.B.: I read something really wise in the afterword of your book, and it went something like this, that we devote ourselves to the grand cause of joining God and bringing heaven to earth, but mostly we find ourselves doing paperwork and trying to find better parking.
W.W.: That’s a great line.
K.B.: We want to feel called, but we are asked to simply act like it. Weirdly, that person was me in my great honor of writing your Afterward.
W.W.: Oh Yes.
K.B.: I do think of you so often in this, well, you write so beautifully about the incredible contradiction of wanting to do meaningful work in the world where we have all these high hopes for ourselves that our lives will be deeply meaningful. And then we find ourselves trapped in these hilariously mundane moments. Can you give me an experience in your own life where the thing that was meaningful was both wonderfully cosmic and unbelievably petty?
W.W.: As a college chaplain, I remember, you know, getting a call late one night and, at home from a student, and he said, I need to talk. And I said, great, I’d be glad to see you tomorrow morning in my office. He said, did you not listen anything I said? I said, I need to talk now. And so he just starts pouring out all this about a woman he was dating and this and that and the other and school, and nobody at Duke likes me and all. So I go through this and I think this is unbelievable that I’m on the phone at ten, forty five at night. But I want to appear to be a nice person and I’m listening and all. So when we got finished, he said, well thanks for taking the call and thanks for talking. And I said, Do you feel any better? And he said, Oh, not particularly. But he said, I’ll, I’ll, let wait. Let’s just see what God does with this. I said, let me ask you. Why did you need to call me the chaplain at this hour of night about romantic problems and dating and relationships and all? He said, well, you’re the only person at Duke that ever loved me. Good night. So I’m holding the phone thinking, oh, wow. So for me, that was just a little transcendent moment. And Christians kind of keep trying to believe God was in that somewhere amidst all that.
K.B.: There are a lot of listeners of this podcast who are stretched really thin. They’re hospice chaplains and nurses and doctors and teachers and social workers and their callings like their deep sense that this is the work they’re supposed to be doing, has really cost them. You wrote something really beautiful about like what it feels like to have that cost you and what we might do anyway.
W.W.: OK, here’s a response from Accidental Preacher: Church forces us to march in and sing even when we’re not in the singing mood, not feeling faithful and joyful and triumphant is not us. 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’ve been called to be a pastor that you don’t feel like being a pastor, but still must act the part. You may be in pain, may be in over your head emotionally and theologically, though you’re supposed to be an expert in helping others to grieve, you may not know how to publicly to mark your own loss. As a pastor, your personal problems take a backseat to the needs of others. You go out and act like their pastor even when you don’t want to.
K.B.: I mean, how do you like minister to people like that who come to you so tired? Because their calling is costing them like a bit too much right now?
W.W.: Some people could think that sounds disingenuous or you’re just putting on an act. You’re just fulfilling a role to which I say, yeah, I’m a husband. And there are times when I don’t feel like being a husband and it doesn’t bring me huge satisfaction to be a husband. But you kind of go out and act the part and and maybe there’s a sense in which you act the role in order more fully to assume the role.
K.B.: Mm hmm.
W.W.: Like in marriage, you know, I had to stand up in front of a preacher who happened to be my wife’s grandmother, first ordained woman in South Carolina. And she said, be faithful, forsaking all other, keep only to her as long as you both shall live. And I bet in the early days of marriage, I really had to try to act faithful. I had to be faithful. I had to think. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You’re married. You gotta be faithful. Well, then you wake up one day and suddenly you’re not trying to be faithful anymore. You just are. Faithful is who you have become by fulfilling that role that was assigned to you. And also think like, I don’t want to be cared for in the hospital by a nurse who is only a nurse when it brings her joy and satisfaction to be a nurse. I want her, damn it, to come in there and when I’m bemoaning my fate and saying oh this hurts, it’s just terrible. I want her to say, oh, really? That’s so interesting. I’ve never, let me, where does it hurt? And you know, she doesn’t give a damn I mean, you know, after 20 years of this. But it’s wonderful when she puts on that empathetic hat and comes in there and says, well, tell me all about it. Unh-huh. It’s helpful. And I think one of the deceits of modern life is this myth of the roleless individual that I am most me, when I strip myself of all my roles and responsibilities and say, all right, I’m a husband, but sometimes I gotta just be me. I think the Christian faith says there’s no you there without the roles, without the assignments, without the relationships.
K.B.: Yeah, I think honestly Will, we’re getting to like one of my very favorite bits about you and about your entire family. Is you have this very unglamorous view of service, which I really appreciate. Your lovely wife, Patsy, your incredible daughter, Harriet. Everyone I know who is in this orbit is just determined to make service part of the requirement of living and and not requiring it to be meaningful to you first before you decide that this work will be meaningful for other people. And I think part of what I hear you saying when you say like we’re called to this kind of work, is that when you do good work, it allows other’s people’s lives to be enriched. But you don’t get promised on the front end that it’s gonna make your life better.
W.W.: Thank you. I hope I hope that’s because we’re trying to be Christian. I love that parable. Jesus told where he says when a servant has been working out in the fields all day for the master, when the servant comes in from the fields, does the master thank the servant? No. The master says, Hey, go prepare me supper. So you also when you’ve done all that you were supposed to do, just say we’re unworthy servants who’ve only done our duty. That’s one of the nastiest parables Jesus ever told.
K.B.: It sounds really horrible.
W.W.: Well, I mean, it was Jesus on a bad day. But it is typical of this kind of thing about you’re called to serve. And I think it’s a Christian claim that in that service is the greatest joy ultimately you can render. I heard from a guy the other day who said, I want to write you. I was in your church in Greenville, and I want you to know that I’ve enjoyed your book on racial justice and I’m working for racial justice here in Georgia and I’m doing this and all, and and I’m doing it because of you. Because I realize I got interested in this when when you were my Pastor. So I wrote back, I said, wow, what a wonderful compliment. Thank you. And I said, what was it about my ministry that? And I couldn’t remember, I remembered him. He was a kid, a kind of a bratty kid, about eight years old. His mother was going through a very difficult divorce and he was acting out, he would act out on Sunday morning and I’d say to the ushers, get that kid out of here, take him outside or something, I’ve got to finish this sermon. Anyway, so I said, what was there about my ministry that so influenced you? And he wrote back and he said, when you served communion, you always call my name. And he said, you said Rob the body of Christ given for you. And he said we’d never had a pastor who ever knew my name. And I thought, I didn’t write back but I said, that was it? I called your name?
K.B.: Just like God Will, just like God.
W.W.: Well. But then I thought, well, that’s typical of God. God says, look, give me what you got. I’ll work it up into something interesting. I call this kid’s name when he was eight years old. And God says, I’ll do the rest. All right? I’ll work this up into a vocation to work against racial injustice. All right? So that’s one of the great things working with Jesus.
K.B.: You told that beautiful story in the grouchiest voice.
W.W.: Yeah, I got I got to tell the people, I come in one day and I’m miserable and I’ve got this cold, which the doctor said was just a cold, but it was a flu. It was a flu. So I come in, I’m miserable. And I say to Kate Bowler. She said, hey, how you doing older adult? And I said, well, terrible. I said, I’ve got this, the doctor says it’s only a cold, but I am miserable. I didn’t want to come in today. And I got this meeting. I had to come in. So I’m here. And so Kate Bowler says, could I see you just a moment in your office? So she comes in the office, shuts the door and says, hey, older adult, I’m thirty three years old, whatever it was, you know, and and and my most earnest prayer is to live until my child’s high school graduation. I’m fighting for my life here. You’re 70 years old. You’ve had a good full life. I don’t give a damn about your cold. Get out of here.
K.B.: I believe I said, Will, comma, Is your long life becoming an encumbrance to you?
W.W.: Check out any time you like, just don’t whine to me about it. Anyway, it was it was a great moment of pastoral care. And suddenly I thought, gosh, I feel better, I.
K.B.: Oh, it’s weird. I have that effect on people. It’s amazing how much better they feel.
W.W.: Well, what I heard was, hey, old man, you’re damn lucky to be here. You know, any time you want to leave, you can leave. But come on. And it was a really good point.
K.B.: Thank you buddy, thank you. I um, when you write that we’re called into aging. What do you mean by that?
W.W.: Christians believe that we’re not where we are because we decided to be there. Or, we made all the best choices and all. We are where we are because in some sense, God has beckoned us there. That just like Abraham and Sarah, we’ve been called into a country we didn’t know where we were going and we went ahead and went. And I think aging for us can be the same way. My generation, it is said, doesn’t like being old. We think of ourselves as 20 somethings and all. Well, I think we’re, to sense that God beckons you there, to sense that God, that at every stage of life there are certain tasks that are not to be assumed just for us personally and our betterment, but are to be assumed for the sake of others. So there are joys in aging and some of the joy as a kind of serenity of thinking, hey, I played my bit part on the stage of life. A God pushed me out there, assigned me roles too big for my talents, but I did the best I could. And now to be sort of moving into harbor.
K.B.: No, no, no. That’s so nice, Will. But that’s one hundred percent not how it is. You’re the captain, whose just going to ram the boat into the port as often as you like until something else happens.
W.W.: I think there is a sense in which aging is a kind of moral test. Some people don’t do well on the exam. They didn’t prepare. Others move into aging, saying, gosh, I never thought this would happen to me. As as Eubie Blake said, if I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself. And yet one of the truths of aging is it’s never too late. I mean, it’s never too late to take care of your body better. It’s never too late to tell people you love them and it’s never too late to say, can you forgive me? I’m sorry. And to see aging as time to do that gives aging meaning it might not otherwise have.
K.B.: Yeah. I’ve heard so often from people during this terrible pandemic season that this is, it’s such a moment of intense isolation and fear for those in our community whose age saddles them with additional risk. I’m just wondering how might we be able to encourage people to feel called at a moment like this when they might feel, not called just like diminished?
W.W.: Wow, a fair question. And there is a sense in which moments like the double pandemic we’re in confronting white racial violence and and Covid19. Forgive me, this is a prejudice Christian comment, but there’s kind of a call for us to become theologians. The moment you ask why me? Or the moment you say I can’t take it any longer, this is too much. It’s sort of a call for God. It’s a calling out. And to say what so many of the Psalms say, Lord, help me.
W.W.: It’s a call for adaptation. And for the time being, we cannot live the old lives that we lived. Well, then what can we do and how can we live? And but, but also a feeling that God is with us. There’s so many wonderful times in scripture when people find themselves alone or at the end of their rope. And it’s like they wake up and there’s God waiting on them and saying, OK, now that you’re stranded, we got time to talk.
K.B.: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s funny, you know, I found it’s a lot easier for me to feel spiritually connected or something, if I’m in a lot or like to other people and to God when I’m in a lot of pain. But, but it’s the blahzayness that’s been it’s been harder to feel, I guess called. So that’s that’s a good reminder Will. Is that like sometimes in a time like this, it can just feel like we’re not being called to do anything. And the flatness of our stories can really get to us.
W.W.: Yeah, and I’m I’m thinking the loneliness is a real issue, that, again, I think this is a prejudice Christian statement, but I think Christianity is just inherently communitarian and communal and communion. And Jesus makes it that way. I saw a wonderful video by a young pastor and she’s in an empty church and she’s walking around and she’s being followed. And she said, I hate this building empty. I miss all of you, and she walked over and she said, you know where I’m standing now, that’s where Florence sits every Sunday. And Florence, you always tell me that I’m not talking loud enough and I always say turn up the hearing aid Florence and the service has begun. And she walked around and she said, you’re all absent. But she said, let me tell you, this will pass. And when it does, we’re going to have ourselves one heck of a celebration here, because we’ve all been put here by Christ. Anyway, I’m I’m maybe it’s also a time to rediscover the joy of bodies and having people close by and touch and visual.
K.B.: Also, this is just as a side note, but for all the pastors who are now televangelists, I hope that you told them that you were already a televangelist in the 1980s and that you appeared at the Crystal Cathedral and have already done this work. So.
W.W.: Oh, gee, I’m trying to forget that.
K.B.: Will, I’m going to compliment you, which you never like, but I’m going to do it anyway. But here is my very favorite thing about you. The thing that you’ve decided to do a long time ago when you decided that you were called was that you always decided that you would be the person who acted like it. And I have been grateful for all the moments when bidden or unbidden, you showed up in my life to do the unglamorous work of being there. It is what makes being a pastor seem both unbelievably cool and unbelievably uncool at the same time. And I’m so grateful to watch it up close.
W.W.: Oh, thank you.
K.B.: You can’t not adore Will, his accent, his directness, his wisdom. He reminds me all the time that we are not what we do, but we are called to something greater than ourselves, whether we like it or not. If you’re someone who wonders if you’ll ever find your vocation. Bless you. May God nudge you in exactly the right direction. If you’ve ever had to step away from a job because of retirement or a diagnosis or a life change, bless you. Life has changed, but your purpose has not gone away. And if you, like me, wonder if your work, your calling will cost too much. Bless you. Thank you for doing the good hard work of serving others. The way you pour out may often go unnoticed. But today may you feel fresh wind in your sails because this is more than a job. This is a call. So though life has changed. You’ve grown older. Maybe your work has worn you thin. Let’s press on trusting that our smallest efforts will amount to something beautiful.
K.B.: This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly endowment. Huge thank you to my team, Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman and J.J. Dickinson. OK, but for real, come be human with me. Find me on Instagram or Twitter at katecbowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.