SFTS - General Assembly Moderators

Sixteen San Francisco Theological graduates, faculty, staff and trustees have been elected to lead Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as General Assembly Moderators, chosen to share their considerable spiritual gifts, skills and wisdom at the leadership pinnacle. While the following vignettes hardly do our moderators justice, they provide a window into some very interesting and productive lives. And, all have contributed to the building up of the Body of Christ in creative and visionary ways with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.

(The following content previously appeared in the 2006 Spring Chimes, 2008 Fall Chimes and 2012 Fall Chimes magazines.)

Rev. William Anderson Scott, D.D., LL.D.
1858: New Orleans, La./70th General Assembly (Old School)

William Anderson Scott was born on the edge of the American frontier in Rock Creek, Tenn., on January 31, 1813. Primarily self-taught, this Presbyterian developed a lifelong devotion to education. At the age of 17 years, Scott was licensed to “ride and preach” on a rural circuit in Tennessee, during which he acquired fame for both elocution and knowledge. Following a short period of study at Princeton Seminary, his ministries took him across the North American continent and back. He was a missionary in Louisiana and Arkansas, and a principal at two Southern female academies. He held pastorates in Presbyterian congregations in Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, California and New York. A prolific writer, he was the editor of the New Orleans Presbyterian; founder (1859) and editor of the Pacific Expositor, and author of numerous religious books. Early in 1854, he left a 12-year pastorate at New Orleans’ First Presbyterian Church to become the founding pastor of San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church. Admired as the most learned minister in the West, Scott built Calvary into the largest church in the region. He co-founded San Francisco’s City College (1856 - later to become SFTS). In 1858, he was elected moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly (Old School) at its meeting in New Orleans. It was hoped that he would keep the slavery issue from creeping into the agenda during the anxious pre-Civil War years. Scott’s pastorate at Calvary ended in 1861 when his life was threatened over his outspoken Southern sympathies. He departed for England where he briefly served a congregation in Birmingham. He returned to the West Coast eight years later via a pastorate in New York. Once back in San Francisco, Scott helped organize and served as pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in 1870, a position he held until his death. As early as 1859, Scott stated, “We are clearly of the opinion that the very next theological school established by our church, should be at the Golden Gate of the Continent … in the city of San Francisco.” Together with William Alexander and George Burrowes, Scott’s education dream was realized when the three co-founded San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1871. He served as President for the Seminary’s first Board of Directors/Trustees, first Professor of Mental Science, Moral Philosophy and Theology/Stuart Professor of Theology, and first President of the faculty (1871-85). Scott died in 1885 leaving a rich legacy of Western church growth and theological education.

Rev. Dr. James Eells, D.D., LL.D.
1877: Chicago, Ill./89th General Assembly

Following in the footsteps of his English/American forebears, Rev. Dr. James Eells became the sixth generation of Presbyterian ministers in his family. Eells was born on Aug. 27, 1822, in Westmoreland, N.Y., the son of home missionaries. Early in his young adult life, as many did, he made his way by teaching. Following graduation from Auburn Theological Seminary in 1851, Eells served various pastorates in New York, Ohio and California. He shared his gifts in reaching, scholarship and statesmanship with two congregations in California: first as pastor to San Francisco’s First Presbyterian Church (1867-70), and next, as pastor to Oakland’s First Presbyterian Church (1874-79). During his pastorate in Oakland, he helped heal strife in the congregation, increased its membership threefold, and presided over the construction of a new building. He was a founding editor for the Presbyterian journal, The Occident. In addition, from 1876-79, Eells joined the SFTS faculty as Professor of Apologetics, Sacred Rhetoric and Pastoral Theology, training seminarians for their work in preaching the gospel. He served SFTS as a director, giving wise counsel and directing the Seminary’s affairs, and as a financial agent who helped find funding to endow the Seminary’s first Chair. In 1877, Eells was elected Moderator of the General Assembly in Chicago. During the same year, he was chosen as a delegate to attend the first meeting of the Presbyterian Alliance of the World in Edinburgh, Scotland. He resigned from the Oakland church and the Seminary in 1879 to join the Lane Seminary faculty in Cincinnati, as the Professor of Practical Theology. Following Dr. Scott’s death in 1885 (see previous biography), SFTS sought a denominational leader to assume the position of Professor of Theology. As former SFTS faculty and GA moderator, Eells had the dedication, experience, and high profile needed to fill the position. He turned down the offer, but raised $100,000 from both the East and West that summer for the Seminary. Eells taught at Lane Seminary until his death in 1886.

Rev. Dr. Henry Collin Minton, D.D., LL.D.
1901: Philadelphia, Penn./113th General Assembly

The chair of Systematic Theology at SFTS has been held by a small number of incumbents during its history. On Dec. 2, 1891, the Rev. Dr. Henry C. Minton was elected as the third occupant. He held this position until he resigned in 1902 to accept a pastoral call to the First Presbyterian Church of Trenton, N.J. Minton was born in Prosperity, Pa., graduated from Western Theological Seminary in 1882, ordained by the Presbytery of St. Paul, Minn., and called as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Duluth, Minn. (1882-83). Due to ill health, Minton moved to California in 1884 and served as pastor to First Presbyterian Church of San Jose from 1885-91 and St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco from 1891-92. Active in ecclesiastical circles beyond the local congregation, Minton was sent as a delegate to the Pan-Presbyterian Council held in Glasgow, Scotland, during 1896. He was elected as Moderator of the 1901 Assembly in Philadelphia during a period when the denomination was debating revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Minton chaired the Committee on Revision of the Confession of Faith, which drafted the revisions that were adopted during the 1902 Assembly. He produced the “Brief Statement of the Reformed Faith” later printed in the authorized Hymnal of 1933. He went on to become a member of the Presbyterian Board of Education. In addition, he served as a Lecturer at Princeton and Auburn Theological Seminaries. Minton resigned from his Trenton pastorate in January 1918. He died on June 14, 1924.

Rev. Dr. Robert Francis Coyle, D.D., LL.D.

1903: Los Angeles, Calif./115th General Assembly

Rev. Dr. Robert Francis Coyle was born in 1850 in Ontario, Canada. From 1878-79, he studied at Auburn Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1879 by the Presbytery of Fort Dodge, Iowa. He served congregations in Fort Dodge and Chicago before being called as pastor to the First Presbyterian Church in Oakland, Calif. He was known as a “master of English, a profound thinker, imbued with a zeal for the spread of the gospel, and a magnetic leader.” Among his accomplishments, Coyle founded the congregation’s first Board of Deaconesses in 1895. The church thrived under Coyle’s leadership from1891-1900. It was during this period that he served the Seminary as President of its Board of Directors from 1898-1900. In the fall of 1900, he accepted a call to Central Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colo. Under his leadership, this active downtown church engaged in ministries to railroad workers, helped found Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital, and ran the Chinese School of Denver, where immigrant workers received both educational and spiritual support. On May 22, 1903, Coyle was elected as Moderator of the 114th General Assembly. According to The American Monthly (July 1903), he presided over revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith that were intended to soften the church’s commitment to Calvinism. These revisions paved the way to the partial 1907 re-merger between the PC(USA) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church – a division that had lasted for nearly 100 years. To bridge the doctrinal differences, several amendments were adopted to the end of the Confession (C-6.183 to C-6.193 in our current Book of Confessions). The operative one was the “Declaratory Statement” that God’s love extends to all of human kind, so that all are “fully responsible for their treatment of God’s gracious offer;” in contrast to the older statement about “elect infants” (C-6.066), this statement rejects infant damnation. In 1913, Coyle became pastor of West Lake Presbyterian Church in Southern California. A prolific author, he produced four published collections of sermons. He died during 1917 in Fullerton, Calif.

Rev. Dr. Jesse Hays Baird, B.D., D.D., LL.D.
1948: Seattle, Washington/160th General Assembly

From the Pennsylvania farm where he was born in 1889, to the president’s chair and Ladd
Professor of Practical Theology at SFTS, to Amsterdam where he played a part in founding the World Council of Churches, Jesse Hayes Baird marched toward widening horizons. Many elements went into the making of this man of Scotch-Irish heritage. He was painter, writer, musician, and outdoorsman, as well as pastor and educator. But his commitment – to live for Christ – fused this diversity into a force that worked best where Baird liked best to be, on the frontier of the great movements that engaged his loyalty. Following his graduation from McCormick Theological Seminary in 1917, Baird accepted his first pastorate at the Presbyterian Church of Rexburg, Idaho. He was called in succession to the First Presbyterian Churches of Boise, Pomona, Salt Lake City and Oakland. He was elected as Moderator of numerous presbyteries and synods and frequently served as a commissioner to the General Assemblies. He served with distinction and became known throughout the West for his pulpit powers and rapport with youth. Only a man with imagination and faith could legitimately have accepted SFTS’s invitation in 1936 to become its president. Baird had both qualities and launched into a long program of strengthening the faculty, expanding the curriculum, increasing enrollment, broadening financial support, and embarking on a building campaign that added 10 new structures to the campus. When he laid down the reins in 1957, the Seminary itself was living testament to the achievements of his leadership. He remained on the faculty two more years, and also taught at Cuba’s Matanzas and Manila’s Union Theological Seminaries. National recognition came in 1945 when Baird chaired the denomination’s Council on Theological Education, and again in 1948 with his election as Moderator of the 160th General Assembly. This opened the way for Baird to become a founder of the World Council of Churches and a leader in the World Presbyterian Alliance. Baird, who died on April 3, 1976, never stopped looking forward to the future. At a celebration of the Seminary’s first century, he extended a vigorous, warm-hearted summons to explore new directions in the second 100 years.

Rev. Paul Stuart Wright, B.D., D.D., D.H.L., LL.D.
1955: Los Angeles, Calif./167th General Assembly

Paul Stuart Wright was born in 1895 to missionary parents, who were serving in Haftevan,
Salmas, Persia. He was fluent in both Turkish and Armenian by the time his family returned to Wooster, Ohio. Following service in World War I, he began a promising career as an executive with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Influenced by his parents and experiences as a soldier, he then chose to study religion. He graduated from McCormick Theological Seminary in 1922 and was ordained in North Dakota. He served congregations in North Dakota, Minnesota and Oklahoma before being called in 1941 as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, Ore. During his 32-year ministry in Portland, he was known for his preaching and public-speaking skills, pastoral warmth, and personal kindness. He retired in 1973 as Pastor Emeritus. Throughout his career, Wright served as an officer of church boards, agencies, and educational institutions. Nationally, he served on the General Council, Board of Christian Education and its Department of Social Education and Action, and the Special Committee on Organization, Structure, and Functioning of the Church. He was a General Assembly commissioner in 1927 and 1969, and attended the 1991 Assembly in Baltimore as the oldest living Moderator. In 1954, he was a delegate to the second World Council of Churches. Regionally, Wright worked closely with Lewis and Clark College from 1941-94, established Friendly House (a social service agency for children, families and seniors) and the Menucha Retreat Center, and worked with the Portland Family Counseling Service and Oregon Prison Association. He was a popular conference speaker at colleges. He wrote numerous articles and the widely used book, The Duties of the Ruling Elder. In 1955, he was elected as Moderator of the General Assembly in Los Angeles. During the 1950s, Wright shared his gifts as a SFTS Trustee and was active in his retirement as an Honorary Trustee. A longtime supporter of gay and lesbian concerns, he spoke out against the “definitive guidance” adopted in 1991 and protested against malice, prejudice and hatred in civic legislation. Referred to as the “elder statesman” of the Presbyterian Church, Wright died in 1994.

Rev. John T. Conner, S.T.D. Candidate
1977: Philadelphia, Penn./189th General Assembly

“What is the one new thing you would do as Moderator?” asked a commissioner from the floor of the 189th General Assembly just prior to the election of the new denominational leader. “I intend to talk straight from the shoulder,” replied Oregon State University Pastor John T. Conner. After his decisive win, Conner jogged up the aisle, hugged those on the platform, and promised the Assembly, “I have been a missionary all my life and I shall continue to be one.” Born on an Iowa farm in 1927, Conner grew up with dreams of becoming a foreign missionary. While studying at McCormick Theological Seminary, he felt a call to urban ministry instead, becoming an inner-city pastor in Detroit. In 1957, his missionary calling took him to the ministries with English- and Spanish-speaking congregations in the high country of Raton, N.M. During 1965, he was called to yet another mission field: Oregon State, where he served as a stimulator, friendly critic and creative friend to the students and faculty during the turbulent late 1960s. Throughout his career, Conner demonstrated concerns for the poor and oppressed, economic justice, world hunger issues and peacemaking. He served on over 30 national-level task forces, advisory committees, and councils in the areas of Mission Directions and Priorities; Church and Society; Health, Hunger, Education, and Welfare; and the Hunger Program. During 1974, he studied world population, food and resources in Southeast Asia. Conner represented the United Presbyterian Church at the United Nations World Population Conference in Bucharest, Romania (1974), the World Conference on Religions for Peace in Leuvain, Belgium (1974), the seventh Special Session for New International Economic Order (1975), and the United Nations “Habitat ’76” conference in Vancouver, B.C. (1976). He received the National Peace Seeker Award from the United Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in 1976. During his term as Moderator, the General Assemblies of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. agreed to meet in the same cities at the same time every other year, beginning the process of reunion. Conner was just completing his SFTS S.T.D., “The Peacemaking Mandate and Theological Education” at the time of his death in March of 1983.

Rev. Dr. Howard Leland Rice, Jr., B.D., D.D.
1979: Kansas City, Kans./191st General Assembly

A Presbyterian by birth, the Rev. Dr. Howard Leland Rice, Jr., was born in 1931 in Wisconsin. While attending McCormick Theological Seminary, he developed an interest in inner-city ministry. Rice graduated, was ordained and called to his first parish in Minneapolis during 1956. In 1961, he was called to Chicago where he successfully merged three struggling churches into a single interracial and bilingual congregation. After Rice was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, San Francisco Theological Seminary called him to California in 1968 as Professor of Ministry and Seminary Chaplain. Crutches and wheelchairs hardly slowed the energetic Rice, who brought an infectious enthusiasm for ministry to the Seminary. For nearly 30 years, he taught, coordinated student internships and vocational counseling programs, and provided outspoken support for women in ministry. In 1979, when Rice was elected Moderator, both the UPCUSA and the PCUS met at the same time and in the same building, foreshadowing the denominational reunion in 1983. “We dealt with several issues,’’ Rice recalls. “The Assembly granted Chapter Nine status to the Presbyterians for Lesbian & Gay Concerns; determined that all church property was owned by the denomination rather than by individual congregations; stated that the ordination of women was an essential tenant of the reformed faith that no one could refute.” Because he was fluent in Spanish, his travels took him throughout Latin America where he helped forge new relationships. And, everywhere he traveled, Rice raised awareness about the importance of accessibility. He organized spiritual retreats at SFTS, Princeton and Dubuque Theological Seminaries, setting into motion the beginnings of the spirituality movement in the PC(USA). “My affiliation with SFTS provided me with a great network of people across the nation that I could call on,’’ Rice says. “Even in Latin America there were alums. SFTS is not a big school, but it has an extensive reach throughout the church.” Following the Assembly, Rice became instrumental in developing the popular “Companions on the Inner Way” spiritual retreats, which he led for 10 years. Retiring in 1998, Rice became Parish Associate at San Francisco’s Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church. Most recently, he served as Interim President of Cook College and Theological School in Tempe, Ariz., a PC(USA) racial/ethnic school serving Native Americans and other indigenous peoples.

Rev. Dr. J. Randolph Taylor, B.D., Ph.D., D.D., LLD.
1983: Atlanta, Ga./195th General Assembly

The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (northern) and Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (Southern) came together in a grand celebration on June 10, 1983, in Atlanta. Frequently referred to as the “Architect of Reunion,” Rev. Dr. J. Randolph Taylor, was elected the first Moderator of the newly formed Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Born in 1929 in China to missionary parents, Taylor’s family returned to Montreat, N.C., after his mother died. He graduated from Richmond’s Union Theological Seminary (1954) and earned his doctorate from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland (1956). He held pastorates in three congregations: Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C. (1956-67), Atlanta’s Central Presbyterian Church (1968-76), and Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Atlanta (1976-85). Taylor was an outspoken supporter within the PCUS for healing the denominational split that dated from time of the Civil War. Starting in 1969, Taylor co-moderated the Joint Committee on Presbyterian Reunion with a representative from the UPCUSA. Over the years, he served both church and society by sharing his leadership in the arenas of civil rights, public housing, family support, the Council of Churches, city planning and evangelism. He was a representative to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Nairobi, Kenya, during 1970. In a highly symbolic step of the reunion, Taylor accepted the eighth presidency of SFTS following his term as moderator in 1984. “Those of us from the community of SFTS had the privilege and joy of experiencing his many gifts during his ministry as our President. Theologically, he brought us the gift of faith with understanding. Academically, he brought us the vision of what could be a ‘seminary without walls’ in Southern California to complement the ‘seminary on a hill’ in San Anselmo. Ecumenically, he brought us a sense of oneness in Christ with the reformed community and, through the Graduate Theological Union, that same oneness that extended beyond cultural limitations.” Taylor retired from SFTS in 1994. He returned to Montreat, where he passed away in 2002 at the age of 72.

Rev. Dr. Harriet Nelson, M.Div.
1984: Phoenix, Ariz./196th General Assembly

Northern California native Rev. Dr. Harriet Nelson was born in 1933 and has lived most of her life close to SFTS. She first came to SFTS for high school meetings during her youth. Years later, after serving as Moderator of the 196th General Assembly, she became a member of the SFTS Board of Trustees (1987-92). Having entered the Seminary community as one of its governors, Nelson then prepared for ministry by becoming one of its students. Completing her M.Div. in 1992, she was ordained as Vice President for Institutional Advancement, a position she held until retirement in 1996. Nelson’s ordination to ministry was not so much of a second career as the addition of yet another facet to her lifelong ministry in the Presbyterian Church and the Church universal. In the first stages of her single career, she worked in the local congregation as a youth choir director, organist and Bible study leader. Together, she and her husband, John, served from 1963-66 as fraternal workers under the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations in Cameroun, West Africa. In 1972, she was ordained as an elder at her home church, First Presbyterian Church of Napa, Calif. Her work with United Presbyterian Women and numerous presbytery, synod, and GA committees brought her into leadership at the national level in the United Presbyterian Church, culminating in her election as GA Moderator in 1984. Prominent issues of the newly reunited Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) included the location of the new headquarters and negotiating how the new church would function, particularly within the Southeastern states. “My role was to listen to people’s concerns and help overcome anxieties,” Nelson recalls. “It was very upbeat and the Spirit was at work.” Nelson enjoys the distinction of being the first woman Moderator of the reunited church. And, she laughs, “All seminaries have graduates who become Moderators; only SFTS has a Moderator who became a graduate!” In 2001, Nelson was elected as the SFTS Distinguished Alumna. In her retirement, she has served as both interim and visitation pastor in Redwoods Presbytery.

Rev. Dr. Benjamin M. Weir, B.D., M.A., D.D.
1986: Minneapolis, Minn./198th General Assembly

In 1986, the 198th General Assembly elected one of its own heroes to the Presbyterian Church’s highest office. Rev. Dr. Benjamin M. Weir, a former American hostage held in Lebanon by Shiite Muslims for 16 months during the turbulent mid-1980s, won on the first ballot. He was nominated by Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery (St. Louis) because he was a recognized world leader steeped in the Presbyterian tradition, a reconciler and peacemaker. Never anticipating service to the church at this level, Weir accepted his election with reverence and appreciation and asked for prayers that, as a people of God, he and the Assembly might fulfill their responsibilities together. On the heels of the 1984 reunion, Weir focused on the adoption of a functioning mission design that would define the national structure of the PC(USA), lobbied for a unified and global view of mission, and continued working to free the remaining hostages. Born in 1923 in Salt Lake City and raised in Berkeley, Weir attended Princeton for his seminary training (1950). After a year as the assistant pastor at Oakland’s Park Blvd. Presbyterian Church, he served as a U.S. Army Chaplain at Camp Roberts during the Korean War. Beginning in 1953, Weir and his wife, Carol, served for 32 years as missionaries to the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon under the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions program. They were active in Lebanese humanitarian and relief programs. Weir enrolled at SFTS twice during furlough leaves to earn Master of Arts degrees in Christian Education (1958) and Pastoral Psychology (1963). “My pastoral theology training (from SFTS) prepared me to appreciate and hear the great variety of experiences and convictions of persons as I visited widely in my year as Moderator,” Weir says. In 1987, at President J. Randolph Taylor’s request, Ben and Carol Weir accepted the invitation to serve SFTS as the Hewlett Professors of Evangelism and Mission. Up to their retirement in 1995, they invented the SFTS Globalization concentration and helped students broaden their knowledge and experience of other cultures. Currently, the Weirs work for peace and justice through understanding by interpreting Middle East culture and its amazing variety to American culture, and invite support for Beirut’s Middle East School of Theology.

Rev. Dr. Herbert Duncan Valentine, B.D., D.Min.
1991: Baltimore, Md./203rd General Assembly

Rev. Dr. Herbert D. Valentine (B.D. ’60) holds the distinction of being the first B.D. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary to be elected as Moderator of the General Assembly. He caught the bug for urban ministry during his years as a seminarian. “My SFTS experience provided me with the ethical and theological context for my ministry,” he says. “It was a student cohort at San Anselmo who confirmed my call to ministry and the faculty who – with passion – passed on to me their love for the Church, its Christ, and their own sense of calling.” The third child of Scottish immigrants, Valentine was born in 1935 in
Oakland, Calif. He received a B.S. in Business Administration from the University of California (Berkeley). Following graduation from SFTS and ordination (1960), he served for 17 years in urban congregations in California and Indiana. During his first call to San
Francisco’s Lebanon Presbyterian Church he recalls, “I served in a post-graduate urban ministry intern training program of the Board of National Missions. It was one of the best ever created for hands-on training for ministers.” During this period, Valentine earned a D.Min. from McCormick Theological Seminary. In 1977, he was called as the Executive Presbyter of Baltimore Presbytery. The experience offered him the opportunity to move the presbytery into the public realm with a lobbyist in the State House, start new church developments, engage in international mission partnerships, participate in a variety of housing projects and found The Interfaith Alliance (a national organization whose purpose is to witness to religious tolerance and the strength of religious pluralism). The dominant issue before the 1991 Assembly was the Human Sexuality Report. It was received as a published resource for the church, acknowledging that continued discussions about the ordination of homosexuals was important. The Assembly also approved the “Brief Statement of Faith” that is widely used today. “My year as Moderator was one of the most affirming and confirming periods in my life; it was the relationships I experienced, the people I met ... the church is filled with caring people who go into the world every day and change it for the better.” Post-retirement, Valentine serves a small, lively, and globally-aware congregation in Gladwyne, Pa.

Rev. David Lee Dobler, M.Div.
1993: Orlando, Fla./205th General Assembly

At the age of 43 years, Rev. David Lee Dobler was elected by the 1993 General Assembly to lead the PC(USA). Born in 1949 in South Dakota, Dobler attended Oregon’s Reed College. Later, he and his young family found themselves in Tucson, Ariz., where he ran lumberyards. The Presbyterian Church this little family attended encouraged Dobler to attend seminary. He chose SFTS and graduated in 1980, fully intending to return to the Southwest where he could use his Spanish language skills in his ministry. Instead, Dobler began his ministry career in the small, southeast Alaskan Tlingit village of Yakutat, where the pulpit had been empty for 20 years. Five years later, he accepted a call to Anchorage’s Jewel Lake Parish (Presbyterian/Methodist). During a special meeting of the Yukon Presbytery Council, Dobler was endorsed, without prior knowledge, as a candidate for Moderator for the 205th General Assembly. “After the (GA) election, my son and I walked into this room ... and there were lights and TV cameras and (my son) said, ‘Gee, Dad, this is like winning the playoffs!’ Pretty rich stuff for a small church pastor from Alaska,” Dobler remembered. Two issues seemed paramount. The first was the matter of ordination standards and “practicing, self-confessed homosexuals.” A three-year moratorium on voting about issues related to human sexuality and the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians to church office was declared. The church was urged to engage in study and dialogue about those issues. The second issue, which was almost eclipsed, was the first restructuring of the recently reunited PC(USA). “In retrospect, the restructuring of the GAC agencies, from 16 to three, seems a halting step in partial recognition of the changes that are now so clearly challenging the very existence of denominations,” Dobler states. Representing the PC(USA) in pre-election South Africa and in the rebel zone of the Sudan are indelible memories. He tried to convey a depth of evangelical faith to sustain their witness. “SFTS taught me how to think theologically and confirmed me in Reformed orthodoxy,” Dobler says of his career in ministry. In 1995, he became the Yukon Presbytery’s executive presbyter. In 2006, Dobler was called as president to Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka.

Rev. Dr. Jack Bartlett Rogers, B.D., Th.M., Th.D., D.D.
2001: Louisville, Ken./213th General Assembly

Rev. Dr. Jack Bartlett Rogers was 18 years old when he discerned a call to enter the ministry. He was born in Lincoln, Neb., in 1934. Ordained in 1959, Rogers earned B.D. (’59) and Th.M. (’64) degrees from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a Th.D. (’63) from the Free University in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. During his doctoral studies abroad, and by the joint action of Nebraska City Presbytery and the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church of the Netherlands, Rogers was installed as the organizing pastor of Pilgrim Fellowship of the Hervormde Kerk in Dordercht. Upon returning to the United States in 1963, he was hired as the Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa. He became the college’s Assistant Academic Dean in 1969. In 1971, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., called Rogers as Professor of Philosophical Theology, Associate Provost and Director of the Office of Presbyterian Ministries. From 1988-90, Rogers served briefly as the Associate for Theological Studies in the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit of the General Assembly in Louisville, Ken. In 1990, Rogers accepted the newly created position of Vice President/Director for Southern California and Professor of Theology. He retired from SFTS as Professor Emeritus in 2000. Throughout his career, Rogers has attended 28 General Assemblies serving in committees, teaching Presbyterian Polity and observing. He was endorsed for Moderator shortly after his retirement by San Gabriel Presbytery, and elected by the 213th General Assembly in 2001. The prominent issues facing the 213th Assembly included a 60-40 percent vote to send the proposed “fidelity & chastity” amendment to the presbyteries that would delete G-6.0106b to remove the ordination prohibition for people who are gay/lesbian from the Book of Order (the amendment was subsequently defeated). In addition, a statement was issued about Christology. “The Assembly was wonderfully strong and united on the basics,” Rogers recalls. “They were not so clear on the rest. Along with past Moderators Freda Gardner and Syngman Rhee, the Assembly created a task force of 20 people – who represented the broad spectrum of the church – to study the question of what the Confessions say about Christology.” This group became the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, now referred to as “PUP.” It was specifically asked to address issues of Christology, Biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards and power. The Layman, a publication of the independent Presbyterian Lay Committee, declared in its July 2001 issue that the 213th General Assembly was “apostate.” “And then, September 11 happened,” says Rogers, who added this tragedy to the list of denominational items he served as spokesperson for. “My greatest contribution to the PC(USA) during my term as Moderator was saying to the church that 90 percent of Presbyterians find our denomination a viable way to worship and serve their neighbors,” Rogers reflects. “Only 10 percent are dissident and distort our version of what is going on. I worked hard to be a moderating influence and project a message of hope.” Of his affiliation with the SFTS/Southern California program from 1990-2000, Rogers says, “It was a great privilege to work with a very diverse group of people from ethnic and language backgrounds; we taught classes in five languages! I became more sensitive to (our church’s) membership all over the country as I travelled as Moderator.” A prolific writer, Rogers has released Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. In it, he tackles the most divisive issue in the church today, arguing unequivocally for the ordination and marriage of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).

Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, M.Div.
2008: San Jose, Calif./218th General Assembly

Bruce Reyes-Chow (M. Div. ‘95) spoke about his vision for church leadership after being voted as General Assmebly moderator. Below are his responses that appeared in the 2008 Fall Chimes magazine:

How would you characterize the current state of the church?
We are in the midst of a larger cultural shift full of competing worldviews. There is much struggle and excitement in today’s society and the church is in a unique role where we can react positively or negatively. Where we’re headed is tied to these cultural shifts. A lot of people want to be reactive to these cultural trends, yet I do not think as a church we are ready to be reactive. First, we need to understand the culture, and it begins by understanding the person across the table from us. Right now our discussions are all on the surface. When I was asked at the General Assembly as a candidate for moderator about the ordination of homosexuals, I went straight to the point rather than dodging the question. I am for the full inclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, but I don’t think the church as a whole is quite ready for that. By making it clear where I stood, people were free to either embrace or stand against me. Let’s know what it is we’re talking about and confronting in the culture or the church before we embrace or stand against something new.

You did not mention decline. Should church leaders be attentive to declining numbers?
Decline is an easy place to fall back into old paradigms of conservative versus progressive. Focusing on decline is a poor place to begin conversation and ignores the bigger picture and other realities. Things are changing so rapidly that we do not have decades to respond to cultural shifts, but rather months or weeks. We focus on decline because we are not in tune with culture and all its ups and downs. Decline is not death, and it is not the only measurement of goodness. Spiritual growth is hard to measure but just as faithful and important to the gospel in context. If my church of 125-150 people were to grow any bigger, it would completely change the context. How we lead worship would have to change, and it might no longer be meeting people where they are spiritually. Instead of lamenting, “Gosh, we’re dying,” we need to appreciate different ways of being valuable.

Your first goal as moderator is to listen. Tell more.
Listening expands our understanding about God, and I believe we need to enter conversations with humility. Being willing to listen takes a surprising amount of confidence. Too often we don’t want to listen out of weakness or avoidance, saying, “We’ve listened enough!” This attitude leads to debate rather than dialogue. Although we may not have done things this way in the past, when we are secure where we are we are able to listen. I myself am not the leader, but rather the guy who was in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, it’s about saying, “This is not about us. This is about God.” I believe our struggles are not over theology or sexuality but are shifts in power. Things have changed, and there is a strong sentiment to return to how we used to do things. While there is a certain kind of nostalgia in this feeling, things were not always better in the past. We have always struggled. We need the vision, and those who are coming will bring new life.

What type of leaders will enliven this vision?
I feel my election is symbolic of a tipping point. This shift is not from old to young, but rather about worldviews, from modern to postmodern. One postmodern goal is to create room and space for new people. We should be less scared to talk about problems or test solutions, and think broader about what it means to be the church. After all, it’s not about us, but about God. Postmodernists have a different language as well as a different way of doing things, leading to a different way of being in the world. We need to move into this open space in freedom, without falling back into debates on finances or sexuality. The postmodern pastor values multiple ways people experience God. Rather than using “onlys,” they are attentive to context. Instead of relying on the old paradigm that growth equals good and decline equals bad, these pastors are able to care for the rural church in a town of dwindling population by figuring out its context. Their training must be about context, strategy and community.

How can leaders better balance tradition with transformation?
First, we must value tradition, otherwise we are lost. Seminaries should not focus solely on how we do church, but encourage students to communicate and connect with God historically. As an immigrant myself, my life is not in a vacuum. I am aware of those who came before me, and their way of being is foundational to how I live today. The foundations of our faith, including communion and the sacramental elements of worship, should continue to be found in our worship. Yet people should also feel that they belong, that they are important and are in a safe place. So when dialogue occurs about different interpretations of scripture, tradition converges with our future heritage in a wholesome, constructive way. This is what it means to be culturally relevant.

How important is technology, such as blogging, for church leadership?
A blog is one indication of transparency. We’re seeing even CEOs of major corporations blogging, leaving themselves open to comment. Because of our blog, people know more about us even before they visit, allowing them to feel comfortable even before they step foot into worship. We can be technologically savvy, but what is important is consistency. What people see online is what they get when they visit in person. The blog reiterates this consistency in who we are. It is also a pastoral care mechanism where we post devotionals at certain times of the year. It also serves as a place where people can post community news, such as jobs, stuff for sale, etc. It also helps the church community become a part of everyday life, and not just an event on Sundays.

While it might be hard for a postmodern to name some universal traits for pastors, what characteristics are vital for church leaders today?
Any pastor has to know who Jesus is to them. If we are unable to articulate a relations or communal value to Christ, we will be unable to do our jobs. Openly sharing and confessing what we believe gives us confidence to serve in humility and be open to listening to those to whom we minister. I’m also struck by the words of a pastor in Chicago, Rev. Sean McMillan, who pleads pastors to have an “abiding fidelity to the life of the mind.” We must not forget to nurture ourselves in soul, mind and heart. Otherwise, we cannot be models for others. It is far too easy to get caught up in the technology or administrative issues of the job.
We must be unafraid to speak the truth, yet we can’t be mean. If we want people to hear the truth, we need to alter our words so that we are speaking truth from a place of compassion and love. In this way, we will speak truth not only in love, but with effectiveness.


Rev. Neal D. Presa (M.Div.)
2012: Pittsburgh, Pa./220th General Assembly

Rev. Neal D. Presa (M.Div. ’02) became the 16th member of the San Francisco Theological Seminary community to be elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly in June 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Presa, a Filipino-American, was elected by majority vote over three other candidates, including fellow SFTS alum Rev. Randy Branson (M.Div. ’71). Among the other SFTS community members who have been elected moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly is Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow (M.Div. ’95), whose two-year term ran from 2008-10.

Besides serving as pastor of Middlesex (N.J.) Presbyterian Church, Presa is affiliate assistant professor of preaching and worship at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. A noted ecumenist, Presa has provided leadership through the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and its predecessor, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC).  He has also chaired of the PC(USA) General Assembly Special Committee on the Heidelberg Catechism, was vice chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (formerly the General Assembly Council), and held positions as vice moderator and moderator of the Presbytery of Elizabeth.

Here’s what he has to say about his experiences at SFTS and how they have helped him negotiate the challenges facing the PC(USA) and church in the 21st century.

“A key characteristic of theological education that I experienced at SFTS when I was an M.Div. student from 1999-2002 was the community life that welcomed freedom of thought while tethered to the Reformed tradition,” Presa said. “I look at my time at SFTS with great delight as it was a community that lived with the tension of the broadness of the theological spectrum -- this is where the Church needs to be.”

Presa’s quest for unity and cooperation has become the polestar of his role as moderator. Leading up to the election, Presa was faced with conflict when it was revealed his vice moderator running mate, Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe of National Capital Presbytery, had signed a marriage certificate for a lesbian couple in Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriage is legal.

Presa said that as a church officer, he holds to the PC(USA) Constitution, which recognizes marriage as between a man and a woman. “But I’ve known Tara for 10½ years and though we disagree, we live with this tension because of our relationship,” Presa said. Days after their election, McCabe resigned over this divisive issue.

“I think our focus now has to be on how to develop a community that allows dissenting views but still allows that person or persons to belong to the community,” Presa said. Toward that goal, Presa plans to initiate a new conversation within his church.

“One of the first initiatives will be Unity with a Difference, a gathering of conservative and progressive leaders to catalyze a church-wide conversation on our common Christian faith while dignifying the differences we have,” Presa said.

 


 
 
 

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