A Friend of a Lifetime: Bill Duncan

My life has been richly blessed with extraordinary friendships. When I think of the amazing people whose lives have become intertwined with mine, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. 

Some have been mentors. Some have been creative colleagues, entrepreneurial partners, co-laborers. Others have been family friends, parents of our kids’ friends who became our friends, church friends, friends with shared interests, or simply people whose company was a joy and with whom I felt safe, accepted, understood, and alive over decades.

One person — Bill Duncan — has overflowed every one those categories in my life. He died yesterday, Friday, March 5, 2021 of COVID-19.

Over the years, when I tell people about Bill, I habitually say, “He and his wife Shobha are among the very best humans I’ve ever met.”

We met back in the 70’s. Shobha and I went to the same church as kids. I remember one Tuesday night prayer meeting (I think it was) when I looked across the aisle and saw this new guy sitting next to Shobha, and I thought, “There’s a smart guy, if he’s dating Shobha.” I must have been under twenty years old at the time, and Bill was a few years older. Later we were introduced, and I found in Bill an engaging conversationalist. I was especially drawn to him because, although I was not nearly as politically awakened as Bill, I was drawn toward people who cared about social justice. Whenever I’d see him, I’d look forward to chatting. I was honored to be asked to play guitar and sing at Bill and Shobha’s wedding.

But it wasn’t like Bill and I saw each other regularly back then. I stopped attending the church Bill and Shobha attended when I became involved with a young church plant in the Jesus People days. That church lasted a few years and then (as a lot of groups did back in those days), it ended in a painful implosion. “I’ll never get involved with anything like that again,” I told myself.

Grace and I had gotten married, and we started attending an Episcopal Church, so I would only see Bill or Shobha occasionally, at a wedding or funeral or something of that sort.

During those years, Grace and I hosted a little dinner group that turned into a weekly fellowship  group that was on the verge of becoming a little church. “Oh no,” I thought. “I said I’d never get involved with anything like this ever again.” I remember it as clear as day: I was standing in the dining room of our little fixer-upper house, and a thought popped into my mind, seemingly out of nowhere. “If Bill Duncan would help you, you two could start something and it would go really well.”

I literally took three or four steps to the wall phone (remember those?) and called the operator (remember them?) for Bill’s number. I wasn’t even sure he lived in the area any more. When the operator gave me the number, I called. After a little small talk, I got to the point of my call: “Hey Bill, do you want to help me start a church?” “Let’s talk,” was his reply. 

That was a life-changing moment for me. Over the coming months and years, this new church became our joint venture. Eventually, it became my part-time job and then a full-time job, and then the main work of my pastoral career. And at every step, Bill was my (slightly) older brother, partner, and friend.

I am certain that without Bill’s friendship, Community Church — which was later renamed Cedar Ridge Community Church — never would have survived. Back in those days, I thought every problem could be solved by a wild new idea. Bill valued continuity. I was incautious about taking risks. Bill preferred taking only necessary risks. I was inexperienced regarding raising and managing money. Bill made sure the books always balanced. I was overly trusting and gave people way too many second chances. Bill was deeply compassionate, but he also had wiser boundaries and better instincts about people than I had. I had a big vision. Bill had deep roots.

We made a great team.

We had children of similar ages, and they became fast friends. Both of our families took refugees into our homes, so we shared in that adventure, immersing our lives with Cambodian, Vietnamese, Iranian, and Ethiopian families and cultures. 

All the ideals people have about Christian community — we experienced them.

In our little church, we were walking at the intersection of social justice, the charismatic movement, and mainstream Evangelicalism … a rare integration in those days, and without Bill, I wouldn’t have been able to hold those different streams together. These days, a lot of people know me as “political,” but Bill was always much farther along than I was, and it was his deeply ethical, compassionate, and just integration of faith and politics that mentored me, gave me courage, and eventually nudged me out of the “play it safe” rut I walked in for too long. Back in the 90’s, Bill made sure I was paying attention to Gordon Cosby, Rich Sider, Jim Wallis, and Tony Campolo, not just Rick Warren, John Wimber, Francis Schaeffer, and Bill Hybels. For Bill, poverty, race, and LGBTQ equality were important issues before they were for me. He brought me along.

For many years, Bill and I (and later, new members of our Leadership Team like Kevin Barwick and Mark Buckingham) would meet once a week at 5 or 5:30 a.m. for planning and prayer. We met so early because we had young children and jobs and needed to be home in the evenings. We went through a lot of eggs, toast, and coffee refills at a Denny’s in Greenbelt over the years, and as we became a team of leaders, we also became a band of brothers.

Because we were so different, Bill and I sometimes experienced “creative tension.” But never for even a second did I doubt the goodness of Bill’s heart or the wisdom of his perspective. Our mutual respect grew through the tensions we experienced. Honestly, I think he had to forgive me of a lot more than I ever had to forgive him.

When we were going through a tough time in our marriages, or when one of our kids was struggling, or when we were having theological questions and doubts, we were there for each other. When our son Trevor was diagnosed with cancer, Bill and Shobha were major supports for us, along with our whole church community. 

We literally did life together, with all of its laughter and tears.

One of the many gifts Bill gave me was his example, the example of being a good man, a good husband, a good father, a man of character. Being a few years older than me, he would hit predictable bumps before I would. I remember when Bill bought his first sailboat. I watched the delight he took in being on the water, “messing around with boats,” and it gave me permission to rediscover some of my own interests and passions — parts of life that often get moved to the back burner in the demands of parenthood and career. 

When I left the pastorate at Cedar Ridge to write and speak full time, Bill and Shobha became a stabilizing force at Cedar Ridge more than ever. When Grace and I moved to Florida, although we saw each other less, we felt like we picked up where we left off every time we got together. When Bill retired and he and Shobha got a van to sail around the country in, they became like a thread, visiting friends around the country and keeping them woven together. So many of us are still in touch today because Bill and Shobha were our glue.

(Here’s a photo of a visit a few years back – thx, Melanie Griffin.)



In recent years, we’d meet up each summer at Wild Goose Festival, share a meal and a beer, take a walk, and a lifetime of memories would catch up with us, reminding us how much we loved each other.

Bill caught COVID-19 a few weeks ago. He and Shobha had been so careful to wear masks, avoid crowds, wash hands, and all the rest. He was healthy, fit, active. But the virus ravaged his lungs beyond recovery, as it has done to over half a million in this country and over two million around the world.

Like thousands of people who knew and loved Bill, we have been praying and holding Bill and Shobha in our hearts over these weeks of his sickness. We’re grateful to Shobha, pastor Matthew Dyer, and all the others who have been keeping us updated from a distance.

Bill’s absence will be felt deeply by thousands of people his life has touched, but especially by Shobha, by their sons Tim and Jon and their spouses, and by Bill’s grandchildren, who have always called Bill “Captain” because of his love for sailing.

Bill Duncan was a truly good man, a true Christian, a Christ-like man, in whom the light and fire of Christ burned bright. He showed his faith in his love for neighbor, where it counts most. I have been a recipient of that Christ-like love for over four decades of my life.

I only went sailing with Bill a few times, but I remember seeing his great happiness when he was on the water. In the management of keel, tiller, and sails, the Captain was a master of managing risk and speed, wind and water, and that was one of his many great strengths as a leader in our work together. He always set a steady course.

All of us who have known and loved Bill know the profound and unique shape that his absence will leave in the world — and in our lives. We bless him as he sails out beyond our sight, into the mystery, with strong and favorable winds, exploring wider seas, and breathing free. May the humble, genuine, authentic beauty of his life live on in us all.

God has blessed my life in so many ways. But among the greatest blessings of my life is the friendship of Bill Duncan, one of the very best humans I’ve ever met. No words can express my love and gratitude for him, and my grief that he didn’t get to enjoy a few more decades of this precious gift of life. I offer these words as a gesture toward honoring this good and honest man who was to me the friend of a lifetime.


I came across this poem this week, and it expresses both my grief and hope.

O Blessed Spring 

Susan Palo Cherwien


O blessed spring, where Word and sign
Embrace us into Christ the Vine:
Here Christ enjoins each one to be
A branch of this life-giving Tree.

Through summer heat of youthful years,
Uncertain faith, rebellious tears,
Sustained by Christ’s infusing rain,
The boughs will shout for joy again.

When autumn cools and youth is cold,
When limbs their heavy harvest hold,
Then through us, warm, the Christ will move
With gifts of beauty, wisdom, love.

As winter comes, as winters must,
We breathe our last, return to dust;
Still held in Christ, our souls take wing
And trust the promise of the spring.

Christ, holy Vine, Christ, living Tree,
Be praised for this blest mystery:
That Word and water thus revive
And join us to your Tree of Life.