Accidental Preacher: A Memoir
Eerdmans, 240 pages
Reviewed by Kay E. Huggins
A memoir is an odd read. With the assurance of maturity, a memoir recalls youthful choices, challenges, indiscretions. By a long view, intimacies are treasured. Through favorite stories, a life is told. At the conclusion, questions and assumptions remain. And yet, the reader cannot argue the facts: they belong to the author. Nor can the reader evaluate the reflections — for those also belong, wholeheartedly, to the author. To read a memoir, the reader suspends judgment, follows the flow and acknowledges that the tale belongs to the author. The best memoirs stretch the reader’s capacity to listen carefully.
Will Willimon is a gifted storyteller. “Accidental Preacher” will invite your laughter, your tears and your flat-out “Well, I never!” But, as you carefully read, you will also notice echoes of Scripture, common congregational challenges, youthful pastoral foolishness and the well-aged wisdom of faith. In other words, you may encounter yourself! This is what a well-written memoir does best: sets two lives side by side in such a way that author and reader recognize each other.
“Accidental Preacher” invites the reader – regardless of vocational choices or challenges – to reflect on the personal and foundational experience of call. By call, Willimon does not mean those polite, well-polished recitations of spiritual journey every preacher has. Rather, Willimon’s sense of call is more akin to being hunted down, picked up from the mire, thrown onto the potter’s wheel and crashed into accidentally. There is nothing polite or well-polished about Willimon’s call — nor does he pretend that God’s call should be domesticated to please a church’s corporate palate. Willimon beckons readers to remember the distasteful as well as the surprising accidents of grace that temper God’s call.
This book reminds the reader that church life is always messy. Church people are unruly, institutions can be heartless and the gospel falls on deaf ears. But even as these realities are present, Willimon reminds us: that’s not the full truth. The full truth is that God continues to work despite the unruly behavior and the frustration of sermons falling on deaf ears. Willimon does not assign blame — although some stories edge toward judgment. Instead, the point of his raging at the fragilities of church life is to expose the accidental nature of grace. Of course grace comes to those who cannot behave in loving ways or who execute regulations as a means of punishment or who stuff their ears with plugs of self-righteousness on Sunday mornings. Where else would grace go?
Willimon also comforts in these pages. For those wounded by the very church they love, there are sufficient stories to provoke a reimagining of one’s own rocky road. For those grown cold by the oversight of rule-enforcers, there are tales of delights more vibrant than any successful “evaluation.” For those entertaining doubts at the beginning, middle or ending of a pastoral work, the steady surprise of call, grace and another chance holding this memoir together is saving medicine.
Who should read this memoir? A young pastor, someone who loves a minister, a retired pastor, a church member seeking to understand a preacher. Use the memoir as sabbatical reading, as a prompt for your own memoir, as solace after a great loss. Loan the memoir to a friend from another denomination, then sit down for a long talk. But don’t pick up the book if you just want to know more about Will Willimon. This memoir is meant to engage you. You are more than the reader — you are a blessed accident of God’s grace.
Kay E. Huggins is an honorably retired PC(USA) teaching elder in Albuquerque, New Mexico, currently directing the New Mexico Pilgrimage for Unity.