A Personal Evaluation of Mission In Alaska and Yukon Presbyteries By Neil Munro March 16, 1994
Memory and evaluation of events from hopefully the more mature perspective of added years do not always reflect an accurate appraisal of how things really were. But they do reflect the impression those events made upon the person making the appraisal. Therefore, what follows must be regarded as coming from one who did not have the “big picture” nor all the information to make a full and accurate accounting. But what follows does come as an expression of how one accounts for what took place as a participant on the field.
The Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the 1950s was euphemistically referred to as “156 Fifth Avenue.” It was the nerve center for both National Missions and Foreign Missions. The Board of Christian Education was located in Philadelphia, as was the office of the Stated Clerk of General Assembly. For those of us on the field, it was the hub of our existence. Our reports were sent there. Our paychecks came from there. And to whatever level of concern one held, “156” was either a blessing or a curse.
A more standard appraisal of this great center containing the “wise men of the east,” was best illustrated by Bert Bingle, a formidable character on the Yukon Presbytery scene. The Lord may have been a carpenter before he entered his second career as a minister. However, it was not logical to assume that his underlings would automatically make good carpenters. One of my first tasks on the field was to work with Bert. I soon discovered I would have to push and pull a huge handsaw, cutting three-side-square spruce logs for a log cabin manse we were building. I could not get the saw to cut straight. It always curved off the mark. So when we would lay up the long, gaps appeared where there ought to have been a tight fit. The solution to the problem was called “three quarter inch putty.” As I would express my frustration over my lack of skill, Bert would say, “They can’t see it from ‘156’.”
When I went to Alaska as an intern in 1952, I had little or no real insights about the Board of National Missions (BNM). All I knew about the place was the Secretary for the work in Alaska, J. Earl Jackman. I knew nothing of, nor cared about, the politics of the establishment. When I got to Fairbanks and met BNM personnel, I developed a deep appreciation for their individuality. To them “156 Fifth Avenue” was simply a necessary evil to be endured. Some had serious doubts about how much “156” cared about those in the field.
A few years after I was ordained and at work at Delta, Herman Morse, the chief officer of the BNM, and the Moderator of the General Assembly at the time, visited Alaska. I show my immaturity in my appraisal of the man. I did not, and still do not, know anything about him. But he left me with a negative opinion about himself, and of the Board as being irrelevant. Historically, both Alaskan presbyteries had been dominated by a straight, almost fundamentalist, lifestyle demonstrated by the covenant agreement all the BNM personnel made with Earl Jackman before coming to the field. They agreed neither to use tobacco nor any form of alcohol while serving in Alaska. Herman Morse smoked and didn’t seem to care that the rest of us did not. Even worse, his conversations and talks reflected a very “liberal theology.” So from my sanctimonious “high ground,” I saw Morse as a detriment to the cause of mission for the whole church.
The one person who made “156 Fifth Avenue” a tangible reality for us on the field was J. Earl Jackman. In retrospect I marvel today at how he managed to do his job at the time. For one thing, he simply could not have spent much time in New York. He was the Secretary for Sunday School Missions, for the mission in Puerto Rico and for the mission in Alaska’s Alaska and Yukon Presbyteries. In the booming times of the 1950s, Earl had to have been on the road most all the time. He was travelling at a time when airline connections as we assume them today were still in pioneer stages.
Today it is about a three and a half-hour flight from Seattle to Anchorage. When Earl was travelling, it was at a minimum an eight-hour trip. Then when he got into Alaska there was neither the sophistication of communications nor of flight operations we now take for granted. Being weathered into a location was simply a matter of course. Knowing what the obstacles to flight were in Alaska and the limited road system of Puerto Rico at that time, he must have had comparable problems at the other end of his beat. (I have flown from Anchorage to San Juan, making all the connections on time, with three plane transfers and a five-hour time change. It took fourteen hours of travel time and that was by jet service all the way. When you add in the five-hour time change you can appreciate the physical toll such travel took.)
Earl Jackman knew his people on the field. He carried his little black book and was continually penning notes to himself. He knew the elders at every congregation. He knew the leaders in the communities and something of the issues each community faced. He would promote new church development (without any real funding other than faith as a back up). He would make sure that Sunday school materials were sent to missionary-pastors. He would encourage the building of necessary buildings depending upon local resources and “sweat equity.” Before the term “volunteerism” was coined and the denomination’s highly successful Volunteer In Mission (VIM) program was developed, Earl had volunteers serving in Alaska. He would visit the seminaries regularly to recruit personnel for his three fields. He would bring tours of people from all across the denomination to see the church in Alaska. He was a prime fund-raiser for mission knowing how to maximize every opportunity to expand a donor’s vision of the need. And from start to finish in each contact with his people, he knew them well. He knew every member of their families including their pets. Those of us on the field knew he cared for us. He was truly a pastor to his pastors. He was hard minded but fair, and always in his quiet, soft-spoken way, loving. In reality, though every one of us bridled when anyone dared to call him “bishop” for Alaska’s Presbyterians, he was.
Jackman understood leadership and the delegation of responsibility. He wisely added the position of Field Secretary. This person was authorized to take necessary administrative action, a liaison without having to endure the difficulties of communication between Alaska and New York. In the 1950s, no one comprehended Alaska’s size better than those who travelled to it did. Even today the people of the “South 48” seldom grasp its magnitude. But like his predecessor, Sheldon Jackson, Jackman knew from hands on experience the monumental effort needed to support the work of Alaska’s mission. With this in mind, he appointed Rolland Armstrong as the first Field Secretary of the Board of National Missions.
“Army” Armstrong was no stranger to the work of the BNM. He had served in Appalachia, in the West Virginia coalfields. It was probably Earl Jackman’s influence that brought him to Alaska. He served as pastor of First Church, Fairbanks, and was called to First Church, Anchorage. During the WWII years and post war years in Alaska, till the boom of the Korean Conflict, those two churches were the only self-supporting churches in the Yukon Presbytery. They were the key churches of Yukon Presbytery. And they were strong supporters of the Presbytery’s mission endeavor. For all practical purposes, both presbyteries were considered National Missions presbyteries. And even though it was terribly costly to travel to Southeast’s Alaska Presbytery, there was always a close link between us because of Earl Jackman’s ministry. Bringing his BNM experience to the field, Army was a “natural” for the new position.
Army was a dynamic leader with a wide acceptance far beyond just the church. When statehood for Alaska was no longer merely a hot prospect, Army was elected as the only clergyperson to the first “Constitutional Convention” held at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks campus. He helped pave the way for Statehood as it emerged, January 1, 1958.
I do not know how to evaluate Army’s role as Field Secretary. He was essentially my first “boss” when I began as a missionary-pastor. He was a great person to work with; supportive, understanding, and demanding. His office was in Juneau. So we saw him only seldom. For those of us in the Interior, this was thought to be just fine. That Alaskan Independence, which Army thoroughly understood, has always been a reality that has not diminished in the least over the years. Things ran quite smoothly as he worked for and with us.
In the spring of 1956, Army was called to direct another dimension of Alaskan mission. Sheldon Jackson School and Junior College called him to be its president. The call was in fact, not really from the school itself, but through Catherine Gladfelter, of the Board of Christian Education in Philadelphia.
I have a vivid memory of Army’s move from Juneau to Sitka. I had been invited to be the commencement speaker at Sheldon Jackson High School. That meant much more than merely flying into Sitka, making an address and flying out. One practical function of a missionary-pastor was to assist in transporting students from the North Slope and St. Lawrence Island to either Whitehorse or Haines. From Whitehorse they would either fly to Juneau or take the train to Skagway. From either location they would then be transported by the school boat, the MV “SJSII,” to Sitka. Or, if the Haines Cutoff were open they would be driven to Haines where they would catch the boat.
In the spring of 1956, Kerry and I drove to Whitehorse to ride the White Pass and Yukon narrow gauge train to Skagway. Overnighting at the manse, we flew to Juneau the next day and on to Sitka. The return trip had us slated to be chaperones of the northern youngsters to Whitehorse and then drive to Fairbanks. Bert Bingle would meet us in Whitehorse and share the load to Fairbanks where the kids would fly home. All reservations were covered for the southbound trip. But no one thought of the fact that we had to return, especially as chaperones. Furthermore, no one realized Mt. Edgecumbe High would send its contingent of youngsters back north at the same time.
Following commencement, we all boarded the MV “SJSII,” the school’s “ferry”, a converted purse seiner. It was about a twelve-hour trip and an absolute delight. I knew the Barrow young people, having worked with them in 1954 as pulpit supply. When we pulled into Juneau, we were met and transported to the airport to catch the Pan Am flight to Whitehorse to get our car and meet Bingle’s caravan. The plane was waiting on the ramp. The kids all checked in. It was then that we discovered there were no reservations for Kerry or me and the plane was full. The Pan Am station manager was as frustrated as I, delaying the flight more than a half an hour as we sought a compromise. Since I was an adult, supposedly chaperoning the SJS contingent, they allowed me to pull one of the young people off the flight and put Kerry on in his place. She hurried on the plane agreeing to meet somewhere on the Haines Cutoff the next day. Louis Aiken, from Barrow, and I would fly to Haines the next day and bum a ride from someone at Haines House, driving till we met Kerry. In the meantime Louis and I returned to Juneau where Army drafted us to help move his stuff to the MV “SJSII” for shipment to Sitka and his new role.
Earl Jackman appointed Brian Cleworth, then pastor of the Palmer Church, to succeed Army. Brian was also an excellent administrator and an excellent colleague to work with. He too had the needed insights for working with the Alaska personnel. Again, lacking the experience at the time to be able to make a good evaluation of his ministry and of Army’s, I would simply say that the overall mission of the two presbyteries continued well. Each of these men brought strengths of leadership to their positions, bolstering and expanding the mission. After a short stint as Field Secretary, Brian was called to the pastorate of First Church, Fairbanks. Following his departure as the BNM administrator, the Alaskan mission took a radical turn.
Enter, Bill Pritchard. Toward the end of the decade of the 1950s, some radical changes took place at the national level of the denomination. Rev. Ken Neigh became the director of the Board of National Missions. The whole emphasis of mission turned sharply away from a rural emphasis provided by Sunday School Missions, Puerto Rico and Alaska. Furthermore, Earl Jackman, much too conservative for Neigh’s style of leadership, was starting to be shelved.
Neigh appointed Bill Pritchard in 1959 as the next Field Secretary for the BNM. Politically, Earl Jackman was shunted to the side; his role in Alaska all but eliminated. Pritchard’s administrative style was one hundred eighty degrees from Jackman’s. Bill was a second career minister. Coming out of a retail merchandise management field, it was assumed he would apply his managerial skills to the administration of the Alaskan mission. Had it been an objective of upgrading administrative responsibilities, the change might have been acceptable, though the pastoral ministry of Earl Jackman was sorely missed almost immediately. The pastors in the field drew the sharp contrast between Jackman and Pritchard.
Pritchard came on in a very heavy manner. His voice was strong and booming, by contrast to Jackman’s soft approach. He also seemed to be a chain smoker. Frequent rumors were reported of his imbibing too heavily in the spirits, of doing and saying erratic things inconsistent to the standards we had known. His vocabulary was laced with religious terminology, often void of the appropriate context for their expression. And rumored reports of his demeanor with flight attendants were often unbecoming. In short, Bill Pritchard was no Earl Jackman.
I spent about one year under Pritchard’s administration. I must say that he never was a hindrance to what we were attempting to do at Delta and along the Highway Parish. Yet I did not care for him as a person. The feeling was probably mutual. I felt I rated fairly low on his appreciation index. At that point in time I was too immature and lacking in confidence to stand up in direct opposition to Bill. In fact none of us ever really did. He was a very intimidating person. But lacking the courage to say, “I quit,” my youngest son’s asthmatic problems became our reason for leaving Delta and Alaska. In 1960, we went to Seattle to serve in the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church where I was the Assistant Pastor. Other than meeting Bill Pritchard at Synod meetings, I had no more contact with him as a supervisor.
Still a part of Washington Synod, I would pick up rumors of Alaskan developments from time to time. I soon realized Alaska would never again know the type of ministry it had experienced up through the 1950s. During his administrative role, lasting nine years, Bill managed to recruit and install missionary-pastors who met his standards for almost the entire mission supported fields. From an ultraconservative mission field, the two presbyteries were transformed to a dominantly liberal theological expression. Real problems were generating within the presbyteries.
Bill Pritchard was too much too soon. The very conservative Native congregations where Bill sent pastors soon found themselves losing their members. Bill’s personnel had a tendency to be expert at closing churches.
In many of the village ministries, the change that had come was too abrupt. Rather than pull back, there almost seemed a determination to turn the system completely around come what may. But there was a failure to comprehend that congregations just don’t make such big changes without a lot of advance preparation. In my opinion the nine years of Bill Pritchard’s administration can be marked as the time of sharp decline in our Native American ministry in Southeast Alaska and the rise and rapid expansion of the Assemblies of God Church filling our vacuum. I believe that the Presbyterian Church built the Assemblies of God Church in that period.
By 1968, sessions in the more conservative, self-supporting churches were growing restive and frustrated with the course of events. Conservative elders and pastors were tiring of Pritchard and making their complaints known to the Synod. Until this time, the power of the Synod had been relatively unknown to the two Alaskan presbyteries, which were still attuned administratively with New York rather than Seattle. At the Synod meeting of 1968, at Whitworth College, Spokane, action was taken to dissolve Bill Pritchard’s relationship with Alaska and Yukon Presbyteries. His responsibilities were terminated on the spot. The Synod activated several administrative commissions to go to Alaska, to evaluate what was held to be a “bad morale problem,” and to evaluate the future ministry of the MV “Anna Jackman,” along with Sheldon Jackson School and Junior College.
My own personal ministry had taken me from Delta in November of 1960 to serve in Seattle. In 1962, I was called to the Westminster Church in Anacortes, Washington. And in August 1968, I received a call to the First Presbyterian Church of Sitka. With that move, my insights into Alaska took on a new flavor from Southeast. I arrived shortly before the Administrative Commissions began arriving. The Sitka Church was placarded within the Presbytery with the reputation of causing Bill Pritchard’s termination. So my acceptance within the Presbytery was suspect, chiefly by most of those members Bill had brought. And rather than turning to the Board of National Missions for a replacement for Pritchard, the Synod chose to appoint Alex Campbell interim administrator under Bill Rasco, the Synod Executive.
The Synod’s involvement, its assumption of jurisdiction administratively which the BNM had exercised was new in the administrative history of the two Alaskan presbyteries. When I left Delta in 1960, I made our intent known to Dr. Jackman on July 5th while he was with a BNM committee elected by General Assembly. That committee, escorted by Earl Jackman, who was still Secretary for the work in Alaska, included Bill Pritchard and Clarence Polhemus, in addition to three members of the committee. Clarence (Polly) was the Synod Executive at the time. The committee’s junket was to determine whether or not the BNM should continue its full blown operation of mission in Alaska, as its was still being “directed” by Earl Jackman.
Politically there was a lot of fancy footwork taking place. Being at a pretty low level of the structure, it swirled over my head without my understanding. Yet one couldn’t help sense the dynamic tensions of the group. Pritchard, Ken Neigh’s representative, was the counterbalance to Earl Jackman. But at that time I was more deeply involved in my own decision to leave. This decision was divulged to Earl Jackman at the very beginning of the visit. Earl was upset at the word of our leaving. In retrospect, I’m sure he saw this as jumping ship. He did his best to come up with every argument conceivable to persuade us to change our minds. Then he attempted to help us once he accepted our determination.
Earl called Clarence Polhemus into our confidential conversation. Still very naive about church politics, I was reintroduced to a man who appeared to freely exercise his political clout. He began to suggest several possible churches where I might be called in Washington, especially in the Puget Sound area. I was once again viewing a man who acted like a bishop, making promises and offers he had no way to support. Again, in retrospect, I think now that Clarence was maneuvering very directly to persuade the committee from the BNM to relinquish control of Alaska’s two presbyteries, to turn it over to the Synod. That is a guess on my part, reflecting how I might have thought had I been in his position. But to see the man operate as a bishop was to me quite ironic, as I remembered his own judgement upon Earl when he thought he “acted like a bishop.”
At the 1955 spring presbytery meeting, Jackman was challenged from the floor by John Stokes, pastor of the College Community Church. John virtually accused him for all intents and purposes of being a “bishop.” A long discussion ensued where we in the field attempted to make it clear to Earl that his manner of administration of mission was not really “presbyterian.” To our amazement, Earl agreed. But having blown off, having challenged his “authority,” we settled back to reality. There was no way we could stand on our own two feet without the support of “156 Fifth Avenue.” But Earl would not let it drop. As the discussion wound down, he turned the tables, challenging us to figure out a way to make the Alaskan mission “presbyterian.” His readiness to relinquish “power” so easily shocked us. We loved Earl dearly, but we didn’t realize the “bigness” of the man at the time.
Stokes accepted the challenge and with a few of us worked at figuring out a way to cut the umbilical cord. At that time, the Synod of Washington was virtually “non-existent.” It offered nothing administratively. The Synod was “open,” that is a pastor and elder from every church in Washington could attend and vote at the annual meeting at Whitworth College. But “open” was not “open” for Alaska. The two presbyteries were only entitled to send one pastor and one elder from each. Pastorally the competition for a trip to Synod was on a par with going to General Assembly. Synod meant nothing to us. But those “think tank sessions” with Stokes began to generate some substance.
The concept that emerged was the formulation of the Synod of Alaska. We would divide Yukon Presbytery into two parts, the Anchorage Bowl region becoming one presbytery and the Interior linked with the Arctic the second. Alaska Presbytery would continue as it was. Our reasoning was simple. In those days the airline hub for Alaska was Fairbanks. That linkage seemed natural. Also the Book of Order only required three congregations to be linked for the formation of a presbytery. And that only three presbyteries were required to form a synod. We were fully conscious of our need for continued ties to the Board of National Missions. But we saw that as no hindrance to self-administration. We also knew that idea might not sit too well in the halls of “156”. Nevertheless, we knew Earl Jackman was a man of his word. He would support our dreams and schemes if we could sell the idea in Alaska.
What we had not counted on in all our planning, was the Synod of Washington. It simply bore no weight in our experience. We knew names and had met people from the synod. But they had no real influence upon us. As our plan for an Alaskan synod began emerging, the discussions were no longer little bull sessions. We began to talk about our scheme. The word started to get around, even to Seattle. In our naive process of reasoning, we hadn’t taken the Synod of Washington into account. We felt they didn’t take us seriously. We assumed they would never miss us were we to be cut free. We went to the spring meeting of Presbytery in 1957 prepared to discuss our plan, though we had no formal proposal.
Something unusual occurred at that meeting. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the Synod Executive, Clarence Polhemus, along with the Synod’s Stated Clerk, were present. We got the message. There were no smoked filled rooms since Polly didn’t smoke. But there was a flattery that struck Stokes, myself and two other members of the presbytery as we were invited to Polly’s hotel room. There he and the Stated Clerk grandly elaborated on the marvelous advantages of belonging to the Synod of Washington. When we got down to brass tacks, we discovered that Polly and the Synod had had little opportunity to be involved with Alaska due to the Board of National Mission’s grip. That didn’t mean they weren’t interested. It soon became clear, there was no way Polly was going to allow us to split out of the Synod of Washington. He also raised some red flags for me. He started making promises of how we would be enabled to have more representation and participation in Synod. The things he offered were not really his to offer. We were seeing a man acting out the role of bishop, even as he portrayed Earl Jackman as a bishop.
Our dreams and schemes took a pretty cold dash of water at that spring meeting. But it was Earl Jackman’s major event that provided the coup de grace for the concept of the Synod of Alaska. Either in late July or in August of 1957, Earl and the Board of National Missions sponsored a gathering never before nor since attempted. He brought together in Sitka all the missionary pastors and all the pastors of self-supporting churches along with all the spouses and children from both presbyteries. We gathered at Sheldon Jackson School. For the first time we met our counterparts from Alaska Presbytery. These people were only names that Earl Jackman shared with us. We were there a week. Louis Evans, Sr., pastor of Hollywood First Presbyterian Church, was our speaker. It was a time of rich renewal and established friendships. There was a bonding and sharing of dreams. But it was also an instant reality check. It became transparently clear to us from Yukon; Alaska Presbytery simply did not have the clout to carry its own weight. It was not able to function as we imagined the two presbyteries coming out of the split of Yukon might do.
The hope of forming a synod was dropped as a result of the 1957 All-Alaska Conference. It did occur to me along with a few others, maybe the whole Territory could become one presbytery. I toyed with the idea for a while. But I sensed little supportive enthusiasm. We returned to our parishes generally accepting the real necessity of “156 Fifth Avenue.” When I returned to Alaska in 1968, I talked about the possibility of one presbytery but there were too many entangled internal problems to allow the concept to be more than talk.
One opportunity for merge arose after Gordon Corbett was elected Associate Synod Executive. With permission from the Council of Alaska Presbytery, I went to Anchorage to try to sell the idea to Yukon Presbytery. The response was a resounding “No.” And even though I felt there were some convincing reasons for such a merger, I’ve given up the idea. However, looking at the economics emerging in the 1990s plus the potential for electronic linkages, administratively such a merger might still be considered. I don’t give up easily.
Back to the 1968 benchmark, the termination of Bill Pritchard’s administration. At the time, Synod was going through one of its many transformations. There had been a series of Associate Synod Executives charged with programmatic leadership. Seattle Presbytery was the only presbytery strong enough to support a Presbytery Executive. So that role was not one being touted as a model for new directions. However, the Synod had an associate executive whose position was being phased out. Administrative logic determined that the man, Alex Campbell, being available, knowing something about the synod and Alaska should serve as interim replacing Pritchard.
Polhemus had retired. Bill Rasco, his successor, shared Polly’s political vision. Bill, I’m sure recognized that for the first time the Synod had a real “in” administratively with Alaska. Applying Ken Neigh’s philosophy of management being administered at the lowest functional level, Rasco moved. There appeared to be little or no opposition to the Synod taking over Alaska’s administration. It was a process already in the evolutionary works.
Alex Campbell was not really an administrator per se. But he had a pastor’s heart. He was called to a nightmare scene. His quiet calm was what was needed. The personnel in both presbyteries were stunned by Synod’s action. If they had not been aware of a state of low morale before Synod met, they certainly were afterwards. Conflict management was not Campbell’s forte. But he was not afraid to face the problem issues.
Alaska Presbytery was already experiencing finance problems with its mission-aided churches. Whenever a missionary pastor left the field, or when the work in a congregation dwindled to the point of questioning its viability, the mission committee often made cuts in financial aid tantamount to closure. The problem began to be revealed as no replacements were made for vacant pulpits. By the time I arrived at Sitka in August of 1968, there were several vacant churches with little or no prospect of a missionary pastor being called. The BNM would withdraw funds with no indication or hope of every assigning them again to the fields from which they were taken.
There seemed to exist a general state of denial amongst the presbyters. But the problem of low morale was demonstrated by my acceptance into the Presbytery. The 1968 fall meeting was held at Hoonah. I was welcomed politely but certainly with no enthusiasm. I had been warned by our session that a couple of the elders from First Church, Sitka, were held to have been responsible for Bill Pritchard’s dismissal. That being the case, my presence would only be tolerated out of necessity. The reception was cool and I was fully aware of the fact that I was being tested. Actually when the meeting was over and I had returned home, I felt as though I had gotten off pretty easily.
It was the spring meeting of 1969 at Wrangell where the problem would quickly appear. Orin Stratton, President of Sheldon Jackson Junior College, Ken Green, pastor at Skagway, Ken Smith, pastor of the Chapel by the Lake at Auke Bay, with his elder, and Hugh Hannigan, our Sitka elder and myself, suddenly found ourselves set up as a voting block. One of the most ridiculous situations I’ve ever experienced took place. Ipso facto we became the “conservative front.” Whatever we proposed or spoke for regardless of the issue, was voted down consistently. In fact it appeared as though the rest of the presbytery was sitting back, waiting to see how we were going to vote and then voted in opposition. Testing this possibility, we even made a motion completely contrary to the intents this core group represented. The rest of the Presbytery voted it down simply because we proposed it. That was a long, drawn out, exhausting and frustrating meeting. There were a lot of resentments still needing to be worked through.
The problem of funding for mission would become even worse, especially when General Assembly endorsed the Legal Aid Fund’s grant to Angela Davis. In terms of mission funding, that action proved to be a disaster to all mission support in the denomination as such funds plummeted. We still have not recovered from that radical departure. It was what I consider now to be the turning point in the division between the liberal and conservative elements of our denomination.
With the end of Bill Pritchard’s administration in 1968, there was a gradual departure of the pastors he had brought to the field. Some were growing frustrated with ineffectual results and grim financial prospects. There was also the phenomenon of Vietnam’s effect. At the time we didn’t fully realize it.
The problem the war presented could be illustrated by an encounter I had with one of our village pastors. I was the Mission and Ministry chairman (the M&M Committee) at the time. The pastor was having problems and requested Ministerial Relations help. With an elder from the committee, I went to the village. We were weathered in for an extra 24 hours, allowing time for relaxed conversation.
The pastor and I went to the church to set up for a meeting. We had a running theological dialogue going. I made some comment that reflected a rather elementary theological view. The pastor asked me what I meant. At first I thought he was kidding, having assumed that my comment reflected what all Presbyterian ministers assented to in their ordination vows. Then I realized he was serious. So I attempted a definition, to which he said, “I wish I could believe that.” I was dumbfounded. I asked how he got through his ordination exam without indicating a positive assent to the doctrine. His answer was simple, “Oh, they didn’t ask me much of anything. There was no real examination at all. They just voted to ordain me and that was it.”
When this pastor met my partner and me at the plane, he proudly took us to a garbage dump he had persuaded the community to develop. I thought at the moment, that’s a fine social action move, a good demonstration to the community of something more than just a conservative theology. By the time we got to know the man, my doubts concerning his theology were confirmed. I asked him why he had chosen the ministry, and why he had come to Alaska. He was straightforward, saying “As I saw my friends being called up into the military and going to Vietnam, I felt that I needed to do some form of ‘alterNative service.’” On that basis he had come to Alaska. He saw the ministry as a forum for changing society. But he was completely devoid of any sense of spiritual commitment to the Lord, let alone good old fashioned Reformed concepts of a Call. Taking a “call” to a church in the South 48, he lasted only a couple of years and demitted the ministry, for his well being and the church’s. In a visit with some Sitka friends a year ago, I learned that they had met him. He owns a small winery and is quite happy in what he is doing. He sent his regards through these friends.
This was part of the setting confronting Alex Campbell as Interim Associate Synod Executive for the Alaskan mission. The fall and winter following the 1968 Synod meeting found Administrative Committees meeting in several locations throughout Alaska Presbytery. I believe there were sub-committees meeting at nearly every church site in both presbyteries. I have vivid memories of my contacts with the committees, plus two members meeting specifically with the Sitka Session and with me. The two most memorable meetings dealt with the future of the MV “Anna Jackman” and Sheldon Jackson School and Junior College. In each meeting there was a distinct feeling the sub-committees intended to recommend closure of the school and termination of the “Anna Jackman.”
The most immediate point of reference for me was the future of the AJ. The boat ministry primarily covered our mission to the remote areas of Southeast Alaska. At best, the operation of a boat is terribly costly. As those of us on the field felt, the AJ was one bright spot on a dark horizon. But that was not how the Administrative Committee viewed it. The skipper and the chaplain simply had not been keeping good records, especially in maintaining the ship’s log. Had their decision depended upon the logbook, the AJ ministry would have been scuttled. There was a great agony expressed by those from the presbytery who testified. There was tearful pleadings, attempting to persuade the committee to continue the ministry. When the committee returned south the boat’s future seemed totally in jeopardy. Presbytery, at its next meeting voted to beg the Synod to allow the ministry to be continued on a year to year basis, with careful scrutiny of the records, making sure the mission was fully executed. The Synod gave its approval. The boat ministry lasted a few years more until the operation was no longer economically feasible.
The second memorable meeting with the Synod Administrative Commission dealt with Sheldon Jackson School’s future. In the years preceding my call to Sitka First Church the relationship between SJS and the Church had been antagonistic. I was determined to try to bring healing to the division. Working cooperatively with Orin Stratton, the president, was rewarding. Because of this relationship, I was invited to sit in as the Commission held its hearing. The atmosphere was heavy. There was a feeling the decision had already been made to close the school. Again, there was much pleading, with urgent testimonies to the necessity of continuing its operation. Clearly the Commission was not going to be able to bring a cut and dried decision to Synod. I believe the earnestness and integrity of those who spoke on behalf of the boat ministry and the college was the enabling factor in persuading the Commission members to recommend that the two ministries continue on a provisional basis.
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