David Dobler Leads Presbytery

Into Twenty-First Century 

By Dianne OíConnell


 The Rev. Mr. David Dobler was chosen as the Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Yukon during the summer of 1995. Dobler would be the man who would lead the presbytery into the 21st Century: the second century of Presbyterian work in Alaska.

Here was a man who spoke Spanish, and had ministered to a Tlingit Indian community in Yakutat, an urban white congregation in Anchorage, and various ethnic groups throughout Africa. He has felt the sting of feminists within the church, as well as gays and lesbians seeking additional access to church leadership and ordination. He is familiar with church funding issues and mechanisms on the local, presbytery, national levels. 

Neil Munro had just retired and Bob Palmer was serving as interim executive when Dobler returned to Alaska following his year as Moderator of General Assembly, Presbyterian Church, USA.

Dobler returned to his pastorate at Jewel Lake Parish in Anchorage, but predictably enough, "things had changed," he says today. It was time to find a new focus for his ministry. 

Dobler was born September 30, 1949 at Yankton, South Dakota. His father was teaching at a Congregational school at the time, Yankton College. As a young adult, Dobler found himself in Tucson, Arizona, running lumberyards and essentially a single father of two small children. His mother-in-law at the time helped get him involved in a Presbyterian Church, St. Marks. It was a larger, more traditional congregation -- and his children were embarrassingly "noisy." 

Eventually, the little family chose to worship at a smaller church on the southside of Tucson, one with a gospel choir. The children felt at home, so did David, and the congregation eventually encouraged him to attend seminary.

 The closest Presbyterian seminary was San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, CA, so that is where David enrolled and met and married his current wife, Laura. 

David always thought he would return to the southwest United States for his ministry -- especially since he spoke Spanish, but that was not what was to be. 

The bulletin board had notices from churches looking for ministers in Missouri, Oregon, and Alaska. David thought he would check out the guy from Alaska. It turned out to be Associate Synod Executive Gordon Corbett, and there were three positions open in the southeast Alaska villages of Hydaburg, Metlakatla, and Yakutat. Corbett facilitated the hiring of three men from Doblerís SFTS graduating class - Bill Trickett went to Hydaburg, Rick Ribeiro to Metlakatla, and David Dobler to Yakutat.

"One of the first things they wanted me to do when I reached Yakutat, was to build a manse. Having been in the lumber business, that was something I knew how to do," Dobler recalls today. 

The Yakutat pulpit had been vacant for about twenty years -- ever since the Rev. Claude Klaver left. There were only four Presbyterian ministers serving all of southeast Alaska at the time. The reason had to do with funding philosophies at the Board of National Missions level. 

"There was a shift in mission funding focus to the urban areas in the 1960s and 1970s," Dobler explains. "Monies for Native American ministries in places like Alaska were cut way back during these years. One of the Board of National Missions staff persons at the time was named Bangler -- everyone called him "Bangler the Strangler" because he cut off money and closed churches," Dobler chuckles.

So, Dobler, his children, and his new bride Laura settled into the Tlingit village of Yakutat not knowing exactly what to expect.

"The session ran in Tlingit," Dobler explains. "All the discussions and arguments on church matters were conducted in the Tlingit language. Sometimes it would go on and on. Then someone, Grandma Susie probably, would announce in English that they were ready to vote. The motion was made, the question called, and the vote would be unanimous.

The Doblers stayed five years. Eventually, David looked even further north and candidated for the pulpit at Jewel Lake Parish, a union Presbyterian-Methodist congregation, in Anchorage. The immediate past pastor, Don Hartman, had told the Methodists he was resigning, but had neglected to mention it to the Presbyterians. The Rev. Dr. James Cox, who had recently left the employ of Alaska Pacific University and a Methodist minister, had served as interim -- but had put little effort into building or maintaining the congregation. There was much to be done. 

"I got here (Anchorage) about the time Gordon Corbett was retiring," Dobler explains. "That was the spring of 1985. Jewel Lake was in the process of putting up a Sunday school building -- there were about $150,000 worth of cost overruns and a couple of forgotten loans. There were some Phantom Pledges, which had been factored into the budget to make the whole thing work -- but now it wasn't working."

Faced with unraveling and solving the serious financial difficulties mentioned above, the new minister was also placed on the Presbytery of Yukon's Board of Trustees, and -- no stranger to Session meetings being conducted in languages other than English -- was appointed Moderator of the First Korean Presbyterian Church in Anchorage while they were unraveling some problems of their own and selecting a minister.

Dobler learned a bunch.

At the November 1992 special meeting of Presbytery Council, the Rev. Ms. Willa Roghair, co-pastor at Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church at Barrow, described a vision she had just recently experienced -- the Vision was of David Dobler, serving as Moderator of the following summer's Presbyterian church, USA, General Assembly. 

She had not mentioned her vision to David prior to calling the meeting, but the Council endorsed his candidacy nonetheless. 

"They endorsed my candidacy, said a prayer, and adjourned the meeting. That was that," Dobler says. 

To make a long story short, the campaign went well and David won the following summer.

"After the election, my son and I walked into this room together and there were lights and TV cameras and, well, Isaac said, `Gee, Dad, this is like winning the playoffs!' Pretty rich stuff for a small church pastor from Alaska," Dobler grins. 

Dobler presided at the 1993 General Assembly and was allowed to come back to Alaska for about a month "to get my affairs in order," he says. An interim minister was found for the Jewel Lake Parish and Dobler was off on a year's whirlwind experience that he can literally talk about for hours.

"I wanted to talk about Mission and I got to do that -- for a while," he says.

Most of October was spent in Africa, where he represented the national Presbyterian church in South Africa, Kenya, and the Sudan.

"It was just before the 1993 elections in South Africa," Dobler recalls. "Isaac was 12 then and he got to play with youngsters in Soweto. It wasn't long before he realized that he was the only kid there with shoes, and some didn't have clothes either."

"There was a real sense that things were going to change. I spoke in both black and in white churches. There is a piece of Scripture which says, `I've saved you like a special arrow in my quiver' -- I think that is what God did in the case of Nelson Mandela. He survived in prison while his contemporaries died.

He was there when the time was right. DeKlerk also helped it all happen -- just by letting it happen.

"The church was really involved in that -- the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the free elections which results in Mandela being chosen President -- every campaign poster had someone standing there in a clerical collar. That meant it was safe to vote. I wore clericals throughout my visit, which was both a protection for me and a sign that I was a safe person."

Dobler found himself preaching every day, always using the lectionary. 

Sometimes it was easier than others. He participated in the dedication of a theological school in Nairobi, Kenya, and travelled to several villages and towns in the Sudan and Masailand. He wasn't exactly sure what his role was supposed to be, but "it was revealed to me" along the way. 

The Presbyterian Church began its mission work in the Sudan at the turn of the century. During the ensuing civil wars, many churches pulled their personnel out. Dobler was told time and again during his visit, "The others left us, but you never left us. "

Some of the churches in which he preached had bullet holes in the roof from strifing and bombed out walls. He learned that the evangelists could be recognized because they were the only ones wearing "bush boots", and the church deacons were the ones wearing a piece of blue cloth. The singing and the praying were sincere, and often someone in the congregation would wash his feet.

Some of the huts had crosses on their roofs. 

"This was a sign that this family was of `The Tribe of Jesus'", Dobler explains. "They were Christian and would share whatever they had with passing refugees."

Following his ambassadorial trip to Africa, Moderator Dobler returned to the United States. To his dismay, folks were less interested in what he had learned about Presbyterian mission work around the world than in arguing about the previous summer's "Re-Imagining Conference" -- the conference and worship experience organized by a number of feminist/womanist religious leaders from an array of denominations and faith expressions.

The Presbyterian church USA had been a major contributor to the funding for the "Re-Imagining" experience -- where God was referred to in the feminine gender and prayers were offered to the Holy Spirit through the name Sophia, Greek for "wisdom."

"For the rest of the year, that's all I got to talk about," says a disgusted Dobler. "What really made people mad was not so much the conference itself, but the fact that our denominational leaders minimized the problem and the people, saying things like `only people who were immature in the faith would be offended by this.'"

Dobler believes that the issue was not just a "flash fire", now gone, but rather more like an individual battle in the Civil War.

"It's an Eastern Elitist problem -- when we think we have the best and the brightest available to write our policies without much thought to the persons sitting in the pews. Asked about the effects of the reunion of the northern and southern Presbyterian churches, Dobler noted that the event resulted in half as many staff jobs and committee positions on the national level as were available when there were two churches. There was a glut of leadership. The new commitment to affirmative action also aided and abetted the leadership glut. Actually the leadership in the South had a lot in common sociologically with their counterparts in the North. There had been several "union" presbyteries where churches from both denominations had already merged. 

Speaking of the "fidelity and chastity" amendment to the Book of Order and the issue of homosexuality, Dobler indicated that the approach in the church over the past decade has been similar to that used during the Civil Rights era: "If we can change the law first, their hearts and minds will follow". But such is not the case, Dobler believes. 

"Previously, we had a 'don't ask, don't tell' attitude, but now it was right out front where people had to vote on it -- and the people spoke the opinion loud and clear," Dobler says.

Granting that the Church has been more than usually obsessed with sexual issues during the past twenty years, Dobler believes that the issue in the Presbytery of Yukon for the new millennium will be MONEY.

"Money can and has divided a lot of groups in the United States," Dobler says. "Demographics continues to give us more and more `have' and `have not' presbyteries. "In the old days, we could tell a tear-jerking story of need and get more money," he recalls. "But mission money is just not available like it was. We have to become self-supporting. It's the Three Self Movement: self-governing, self-________, and self-supporting.

The Synod controlled the Presbytery of Yukon as late as 1985, according to Dobler. "Gordon Corbett's salary was paid by the Synod," he explains. "We had to fight long and hard to get mission funding to help start the Eagle River church." One improvement in the funding process that the Synod no longer has the power to veto "line four" in the Presbytery budget - but that change only came as recently as two years ago. 

The monies for Alaska Presbyterian work will have to come from Alaskan churches.

In answer to this author's stated fear that, perhaps, the more conservative churches -- the ones with the most mission monies to give -- will exercise, perhaps, excessive control over the focus of mission spending, Dobler indicated that had not been the case so far. 

"Trinity (a Presbyterian church with a more traditional focus) has been extremely supportive of the re-development funding for Immanuel (thus far the presbytery's only `More Light" church)," he offered. And this is true. 

Keeping the family together, even though two-thirds are more traditional and as many as one-third are more liberal, will be one of the challenges of the next few years -- as will be maintaining and developing mission spending on both the local and national levels.

The mantle has passed to the Rev. Mr. Dobler to lead us in these and other endeavors. May God bless him.

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