Will Willimon tells the story of his first Christmas in a new appointment serving a very small church, having received the news that his estranged black-sheep father has died in his memoir Accidental Preacher.
His stories resonate with experiences of pastoral life, not in a self-serving or manipulative way that presents the pastoral role as one deserving pity, but in ways that demonstrate that pastors can only minister grace when we continually experience our personal dependence on it.
I’m only held together by gaffer tape, baling wire and grace. And the gaffer tape and baling wire are purely decorational.
That’s not the story of my past, as if I’m now beyond what I commit to people as being their current need.
It’s still my daily experience.
That’s church for you. Church forces us to march in and sing even when we’re not in a 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 have 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 are supposed to be an expert in helping others to grieve, you may not know how publicly to mark your own loss. As a pastor, your personal problems take a backseat to the needs of others. You’re the only pastor they have, and Christmas comes but once a year. So you pull tight the cincture and pray, “God, who got me into this, give me the hardheaded determination to get through it.” You go out and act like their pastor even when you don’t want to.
When seminarians plead for graciousness for “personal reasons,” when they are late with some class assignment because an aunt whom “I revered as if she were my grandmother” departed or they are suffering a bout of depression, I think, Clergy who are not periodically depressed have either given up too soon or expect too little of Jesus. You can’t stand up on Sunday and say, “Nothing would have pleased me more than to have a sermon for you but first it was one thing and then another so we’re going to break up into discussion groups. Then we’ll pool our collective ignorance and call that todays’ sermon.”
I’d get ﬁred for saying this to a student, but even the dean can’t keep me from thinking it.
Will Willimon, Accidental Preacher, Eerdmans, 2019, pgs 71-72.