By Robert W. Dalton
The Rev. Dr. Will Willimon ’68 is well known for delivering memorable sermons. A new documentary will provide an inside look at how Willimon gets from idea to the polished final product.
“A Will to Preach” aired on SCETV on Thursday, May 27. “A Conversation with Will Willimon,” a 30-minute interview, followed. Both can be seen at scetv.org.
Susie Films, a Davidson, North Carolina-based company, produced the documentary. Willimon, professor of the practice of Christian ministry at the Duke University Divinity School, said it was “weird” trying to conduct business as usual with a film crew in tow.
“In the opening shot I enter a Duke classroom saying, ‘As you know, I always have a film crew follow me through the day,’” Willimon says. The videographers “were a group of seasoned professionals who made it seem a bit less weird,” he adds.
The documentary follows Willimon through his process for building a sermon – from reading scripture and commentaries, to conversations – and then delivering it at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Salisbury, North Carolina. It includes interviews with family, friends and colleagues, as well as clips from previous sermons.
During the interview that follows, which was shot over several hours one day at his home church, Buncombe Street United Methodist in Greenville, Willimon talks extensively about his time at Wofford – including the time he was almost kicked out for publishing a satirical cartoon about then-president Charles Marsh in The Journal, Wofford’s literary magazine.
“It was a harrowing experience,” Willimon says in the interview. “One thing I learned from that was, I’m never again going to publish anything that I’m not willing to stand up for.”
For 20 years, Willimon was dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke. He served as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church for eight years, and he has authored about 100 books. He is currently in his third term on the Wofford College Board of Trustees.
Willimon says he hopes the documentary shows the joys and challenges of being called to be a preacher.
“It’s a great vocation if you don’t mind the risks,” he says. “I hope that this gives a privileged peek into how preachers’ brains function and all that God has to do in a preacher to come up with a sermon.”
The Rev. Dr. Ron Robinson, Perkins-Prothro Chaplain and professor of religion, says that on any given Sunday morning, Willimon is arguably the most quoted person in any American pulpit.
“I’m honored to count myself among those who have been fortunate enough to have him as a professor,” Robinson says. “Like all of his students, I have been shaped by his insights into scripture, tradition, human struggle and the current culture. In an era when preaching has questionable impact and where the notion of preaching is off-putting, Will consistently shows the importance of a well-crafted sermon. ETV has done all of us a favor by focusing on his extraordinary gifts as a communicator of vital Christianity. This is a much-appreciated public validation of his life’s work.”