United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon is “back in the saddle and enjoying it” as senior pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Durham.
Willimon spent 20 years as dean of Duke Chapel and then served eight years as bishop of the Northern Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He returned to Durham last year and is a professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School. A prolific writer, his nonfiction books have sold a million copies, and he released his first fiction book, set in a church, “Incorporation,” this spring. This month he also started temporary duty in the pulpit of Duke Memorial UMC.
June is the month that UMC pastors are moved into new church positions, but the decisions are made in April. At Duke Memorial UMC, former co-pastors the Rev. Roger Owens and the Rev. Ginger Thomas left earlier this month after Owens got a job as an associate pastor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Willimon said that Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who leads the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, asked him to serve as pastor through the summer and into fall until the conference can place a new pastor. The UMC doesn’t really have interim pastors, Willimon said, so he’s the pastor for now.
Willimon praised Owens and Thomas and said his months at Duke Memorial will allow the conference to think things through before assigning a new pastor. “The United Methodist Church has a lot of challenges regarding large downtown churches,” Willimon said. “We’re in a competitive environment. To get to Duke Memorial, most of our members pass by a dozen churches.”
Willimon’s first Sunday in the pulpit was June 16, first in a three-part sermon series on “Why Jesus?” He also noted the work of the Rev. Reynolds Chapman, the church’s minister of adult discipleship and witness, and engagement in missions.
As an active bishop the past eight years in Alabama, Willimon preached regularly, but to different congregations. “I’m really enjoying having a flock. It’s fun,” he said. “One thing a preacher does is affirm the faithfulness of that congregation. You can’t do that as a bishop because you’re a visitor.”
Willimon said he’s also enjoying the response he gets. Bishops in a position of authority and power don’t get the same feedback, he said. After his sermons, Willimon goes to the Duke Memorial UMC Facebook page for a dialogue about his sermon. He also has a blog at willwillimon.wordpress.com. He enjoys the intellectual and theological challenge, he said.
The Rev. Donna Banks, superintendent of the Corridor District of the N.C. Conference of the UMC, which includes Durham, said it’s a blessing to have Willimon at Duke Memorial.
“It’s an opportunity to utilize his gifts and graces,” Banks said.
Willimon said his goal while at Duke Memorial is to keep the momentum going and to even increase it.
WHAT: “Why Jesus?” sermon series by Bishop Will Willimon
WHEN: 10:55 a.m. worship service on Sunday and June 30. He is also leading a lecture series before worship on “The Joy of United Methodist Believing,” at 9:45 a.m.
WHERE: Duke Memorial United Methodist Church
504 W. Chapel Hill St., Durham