AFTER PUBLISHING 64 books on theology, worship and church leadership, William H. Willimon wrote a novel, Incorporation (Wipf and Stock), about a large suburban congregation, its dysfunctional staff and its narcissistic senior pastor. We wanted to know what led Willimon to try his hand at fiction. Or is it fiction? We asked Lillian Daniel to find out.
Lillian Daniel: What possessed you to write a novel? Has it always been a dream of yours?
William Willimon: Sort of. I'm a lover of novels, ever since a college course in the modern American novel. I love Flannery O'Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann and even dear, sweet, degenerate Marcel Proust. I reread them all.
Pastors must be curious about people. Novels are a natural aid to pastoral work. When you watch Gustave Flaubert dissect a character, it's a great help in attempting to figure out why the chair of your vestry is so screwed up. Also, as a pastor, you spend a great deal of time with people who are exposed and without adequate protection. Being a pastor is therefore almost like being a novelist without all the alcohol.
LD: You Methodists and your obsession with other people's alcohol! In my denomination, we would say that being a Methodist pastor is like being a pastor without all the alcohol.
At any rate, your novel is brutal in its critique of ambitious clergy. The main character--the "senior managing pastor"--leads an affluent tall-steeple church that is liberal leaning and light on the gospel. This guy has no theological depth in his sermons or his life. And yet he is beloved by parishioners and admired in his denomination, and his church has all the statistical markings of success. I get the feeling you know this guy.
WW: Are you suggesting that I am ambitious, affluent, tall--steepled and liberal leaning?
I share much in common with the character except that I have more theological depth and have never committed adultery. And yet for all his faults, which are many, don't you have to admire this character for staying in ministry for 20 years simply because he has the crazy idea that God has called him?
Some have said the novel has "too little grace in it." I don't get that. The grace, if you must have that, is in a God who seems not only to love but also call to service such flawed and fallen folk.
LD: I found this novel to be laugh-out--loud funny when I thought it was about a pompous senior pastor somewhere in the South. Then, when I figured out that it was set in the suburbs of Chicago, where I work, I didn't find it as amusing. Tell me honestly, was that main character based on me?
WW: Did I not make it clear that the character is a man? Also, I don't believe you have a degree from Princeton Seminary, do you? How could you possibly think you were the model for such a reprobate?
LD: Thank you for that reassurance that one of the most narcissistic pastors in all of literature has nothing to do with me. The main character really is unbearable.
WW: I must say that I've been taken aback by those who say, "There are such terrible people in this church--especially the musicians!" I'm rather hurt by that. These are my people! We must have a rather amazing God if God is able to use folk like them to be his body in the world, don't you think? …