Every graduating class has stories of perseverance, but the fall 2020 class has one story that stands above them all.
After enrolling in his first class at Beeson Divinity School in 1996, Beeson’s technology and media manager, Rob Willis, will graduate 24 years later with a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) this December.
Willis never expected to end up at Beeson. He was pursuing an M.Div. at another seminary, when he and his wife, Vikki, were sent by their church to the Virgin Islands as missionaries in 1994.
Then, in September 1995, their lives changed. Hurricane Marilyn devastated their island and scattered the people. Willis and Vikki, who was pregnant with their eldest daughter, also returned to the mainland.
“We thought we were living out our lives’ calling doing what we were doing, and suddenly we weren’t doing that,” Willis said.
They came to Alabama to be near Vikki’s family, and once here, reconnected with a friend from their former church in Boston who was enrolled at Beeson. Incidentally, the school was founded by the former pastor of their Boston-area church, Timothy George, and after a tour, Willis wanted to enroll.
When the admissions officer looked at Willis’s application with all his past experience in sound, video and photography, conversations began, not only to accept him as a student, but also to consider him for the chapel sound coordinator position.
“Beeson had just moved into their building, with new classrooms, chapel, computer lab and preaching lab, all of which needed managing,” Willis said. “Only weeks earlier, I had been praying, ‘Lord, I would love to find a way to serve you at the intersection of your Word and technology.’ I would have never imagined how quickly and precisely God would answer that prayer.”
After a year in the part-time role, Willis was promoted to Beeson’s technology and media manager. This full-time position meant he could only take one course per semester, which dramatically slowed down his degree completion.
Then, in 2006, Willis became senior pastor at Brook Highland Community Church, where he preached, led worship and taught, while still working full time at Beeson. He ended up taking nine years off from school as he worked these two jobs.
But even during this nine-year hiatus from taking classes, Willis was still determined to finish his degree.
“If you want to get me motivated, tell me something is impossible,” he said.
After gaining some more help at the church, Willis returned to his coursework in 2015, but he faced some challenges. For one, the school had undergone several major curriculum revisions since he first began in 1996. The last revision, which included a new four-course history and doctrine sequence, doubled the number of church history hours he would need to take. He also had not finished his Greek courses under the old curriculum because he originally planned to do a joint degree with music. This meant that after 22 years since finishing Greek 2, Willis was required to take Greek 3 and 4.
“Auditing Greek 1 and 2 to get refreshed on it gave me the opportunity to study with Randy Todd,” Willis said. “Having long studied the New Testament from the perspective of its Jewish backgrounds, to study with a scholar with such a profound knowledge of both the Greek New Testament and the Classics opened whole new worlds for me.”
Willis said his last course to complete this fall was “the icing on the cake.” After working closely with professor Robert Smith Jr. for more than 20 years recording student sermons, Willis finished his degree as Smith’s student in his Christian Preaching course.
On Nov. 10, Willis received the James Earl Massey Student Preaching Award during community worship in Hodges Chapel. This award is given to one graduating student each semester for his or her excellence in Christian preaching. Earlier in the service, Willis preached a sermon from Rev. 7:9-12; 21:1-4, 21-27 called, “The Presence is the Point.”
“It didn’t occur to me that I might be eligible for the award because I have a lot of preaching experience, and I feel a little bit like I cheated,” Willis said. “There are other students who would have been very worthy recipients. It’s very humbling. What moves me the most is the years of investment Doug Webster and Robert Smith have invested in me.”
Webster, professor of pastoral theology and Christian preaching at Beeson, worked with Willis behind the scenes on his preaching for many years. “He invested so much in my preaching, even long before I became his student. He and Dr. Smith have taught me so much simply watching them preach, but especially watching them live,” Willis said.
Both Smith and Webster said that Willis is a gifted preacher whose aim is to point people to Jesus Christ.
“Rob’s proclamation is undergirded by the twin pillars of the cross and the kingdom of God,” said Smith. “Ultimately, to be around Rob is to inhale the very aroma of Christ.”
Webster agreed. “Rob Willis embodies a servant’s heart rooted in his passion for Christ,” he said. “His primary gift is as a pastor and disciplemaker. He has honored the faculty by serving us tirelessly and with great patience, and beyond that, he has been in our classes studying with us. Rob is an exceptional colleague and a gifted preacher.”
Although Willis will have to wait until April to walk at commencement due to COVID-19 restrictions, his degree completion signifies faithfulness, perseverance and determination. He plans to continue working at Beeson after graduation as a “tent maker,” while serving as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Rob Willis is a minister of the gospel disguised as an IT man,” said Beeson Dean Douglas A. Sweeney. “He’s one of the godliest people I know. What a blessing it is to work with people like him every day. They make Beeson a picture of the gospel.”
Listen to Willis's sermon and watch him receive his award on Beeson's YouTube channel.