Sullivan Flashback: Bishop Will Willimon

Bishop and Professor Will Willimon boasts some impressive stats. That he’s written 60 books is amazing on its own. That he has managed, at the same time, to pastor seven United Methodist congregations, serve on the faculty at Duke University for a total of 23 years, and preside as Bishop of Northern Alabama for the better part of a decade is astounding.

Following a career in the church that started in 1971, Willimon has been enjoying retirement since 2012 (a “retirement” that still involves a faculty position at Duke, naturally). Looking back at that career, it’s no surprise that, as a young student graduating from Wofford College in 1968, he was a Sullivan Award recipient. His record of reaching out to others through his intellect and pastoral skill runs deep.

A young Will Willimon poses for a photo

A native of Greenville, South Carolina, Willimon’s early exposure to the church was at Buncombe Street United Methodist. Shortly after his college career at Wofford, he married his wife, Patsy, before moving on to Yale Divinity School for his master’s degree and Emory for his doctorate. Will and Patsy went on to have two children.

Willimon also went on to become one of the most influential preachers and religious writers in America. Among his extensive catalog are inspirational books for Christians, instructional books for clergy members … even novels. He was even identified as one of the “twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world” in a 1996 survey by Baylor University.

Through his direct ministry as well as his writing and preaching, Willimon has always stayed focused on one primary goal — and the impact it has had on generations of students, parishioners, and readers is hard to understate. That goal, as articulated by his former student Michael Turner in the book A Peculiar Prophet, is this: “First and foremost Willimon is a pastoral theologian whose primary message is that the God revealed in Jesus matters for everything in life.”

Willimon’s newest novel, “I’m Not From Here,” was released in November 2015. It’s the second he’s published since stepping down as bishop. If past performance is any indicator, he’s probably in for a busy retirement.

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