It was in New York City that he had an experience that changed the course of his life and work: He began attending Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Growing up, neither side of his family had a “church connection of any kind,” as he put it, but he went because he happened to live next door and “because I had nothing else to do on a Sunday,” he recounted in a video posted on YouTube by the Frederick Buechner Center.
One Sunday he was struck by a particular turn of phrase by the church’s pastor, the Rev. George Buttrick: “Christ is crowned in the hearts of those who love him and believe in him amidst confession and tears and great laughter.”
He recounted: “I was so taken aback by ‘great laughter’ that I found the tears springing to my eyes.”
He later told Buttrick he wanted to learn more about Christianity, to more than simply join the church. The pastor pointed the young writer to Union Theological Seminary — with some misgivings. Buechner quoted Buttrick in his autobiography “The Sacred Journey” as saying, “It would be a shame to lose a good novelist for a mediocre preacher.”
Buechner graduated with a bachelor’s of divinity — he’d later receive nine honorary degrees — and was ordained as an evangelist in 1958 at the same church where he had been so moved by Buttrick’s words.
That same year, he launched the religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he taught for nine years before moving with his family to their farmhouse in Vermont. He later was awarded lectureships at Harvard and Yale universities and held teaching positions at Tufts University, Calvin College and Wheaton College.
In 2016, Princeton Theological Seminary President Craig Barnes launched the Buechner Writing Workshop at the seminary, calling Buechner a “minister’s minister.”
Over the course of his life, Buechner wrote nearly 40 books across a number of genres: fiction, autobiography, theology, essays and sermons.