Reflections by Pastor Jerry Tankersley
Laguna Presbyterian Church is beginning its 100th Year–Celebrating God’s Faithfulness. The Presbytery of Los Angeles organized and chartered us in 1917 as one of its churches. There were several short-term pastors between the years of 1917 and 1925. In 1925, Raymond Brahams was called as a new graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary to be pastor of LPC. Early in my pastorate, Ray came to my office, or his office, and shared that upon graduation from Princeton Seminary, Dr. Clarence Macartney of First Presbyterian Church, Pittsburg PA, offered him a call to be his assistant pastor. He promised that if he came to serve with him that in three years he would place him as senior pastor in one of the large Presbyterian congregations of America. At the time, FPC Pittsburgh, PA, was one of very large, influential American congregations. Ray said he told Dr. Macartney “thanks, but no thanks, I am going to Laguna Beach, CA.”
In 1928, 31 members built a sanctuary for the worship of God at the center of Laguna Beach. It was large enough to contain all the residents of the seaside village. Ray and Ellen raised their four boys in Laguna Beach. They lived and worked for the Lord in Laguna Beach for 25 years through the Great Depression and WWII. By 1949, the church had 750 members. In that year Ray was called as pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Boulder, Colorado. Through the first two decades of our history land parcels were added to our campus, allowing the church to expand in this downtown space.
In 1949 Dallas Turner was called as pastor where he served for 22 years. By the mid 1950’s, the church had grown to over one thousand members and was a vital part of the City of Laguna Beach and of the rapidly growing Presbytery of Los Angeles. Other buildings were added for Preschool and Sunday school use. The 1960’s saw major social changes and protests. Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll came to Laguna Beach with major impacts upon our church and all churches in our nation.
In 1972, by the time I was called as your pastor, the congregation had 950 members on its rolls, but no more than 200 in worship. In 1973, our total operating budget was $158K, half from our Preschool and half from contributions. In 2017 our operating budget will be around $2 million.
By 1972 the membership and its buildings were in need of revitalization and restoration. A new mission vision was required. Kay and I were about the youngest members of the church. In my first two years we removed 200 inactive members from our rolls. God has answered our prayers and the prayers of all who went before us. Together, by God’s grace, we have continued to build the Church of Christ at the heart of our beloved City.
Soon it became clear that God was drawing new families and persons to our fellowship. Community Presbyterian Church, as we were known, was coming alive by the power of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. We called associate pastors and lay leaders to develop children and youth ministries. Soon the congregation was engaged in serious Bible study using the Bethel Series and later, the Disciple Bible Study program. Adult programming and fellowship flourished. By the early 1980’s we were able to address building maintenance issues. Do you remember “Restore the Splendor” with the new fellowship hall and the restoration of the sanctuary from the lower level to the interior of the worship space? We raised around $1.5 million and at the end of the project the church was debt free.
In the 1990’s, our mission focus was not only our parish area, but also the larger world. The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, to which we were assigned when the old Los Angeles Presbytery was divided into 7 Southern California presbyteries, developed “Mission On Our Doorstep,” with the goal of raising $10 million dollars for new church development and redevelopment.
Our congregation raised $1 million for that mission and the support of local charities in Laguna Beach. Right along our pastors have served at every level of Presbytery leadership.
Presbytery consultants advised me that our staff and lay leaders needed to work 2 to 3 times harder than any other church in the Presbytery just to maintain a membership of around 700. They said it was because of our geography and our demographics. The consultant from Chicago reminded me that this was not the Bible belt and that building and maintaining a vital church would be difficult.
Nevertheless, we sent our members and our money to start Laguna Niguel church and others. We had become a mission station for blessing this rapidly growing southern end of our Presbytery.
In addition, we sent mission teams to Mexico City, Romania, India, and East Africa. We reached out to other places where doors had opened for partnering with brothers and sisters in Christ in building the kingdom of God.
In October 1993, our City nearly burned in devastating fires. Our church facility and leadership became the center of recovery. The city and the nearby area lost over 400 houses. Our sanctuary lower level and fellowship hall were filled with counseling services, clothing, furniture, food, and other needed items. God blessed our outreach in serving the human needs of many who struggled to rebuild and begin anew. The Lord gave our congregation a heart for the development of ministries for children, youth, and their families.
We grew to three full time pastors in order to staff for program growth and mission outreach. We now have a dynamic and blessed outreach to people of all ages and conditions. People comment about the warmth of the church’s fellowship. We have become a community of believers whose welcome and hospitality attracts others.
The Laguna Presbyterian Preschool continues to strengthen and to grow in the midst of social and cultural changes. Our MOPS ministry serves young mothers and their children. Several generations of young people have been trained as disciples. Mission outreach to Molokai, Hawaii, through our students, has for over ten years blessed the island and us.
New outreach to the poor and homeless of L.A., San Francisco, and Seattle, have built our student fellowships, and also trained young disciples to follow Jesus. We have sent at least two-dozen of our members into full time ministry by means of the Carson Trust, and paid their ways through theological seminary.
September 11, 2001 launched the first two decades of the 21st century. Our nation was faced with wars and rumors of wars. The threat of terrorism impacted our national culture. Yet, LPC did not flinch in its mission commitment to the south coast of Orange County, to our nation, and to the challenges of our world mission. Why? We remained faithful out of love for Jesus Christ and his mission to the world through the church. We had been shaped and formed by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit at work in and through us.
You supported my standing for moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly in 2002. Even though I was not elected, doors were opened for me to have a voice of leadership and influence in the national church. The experience of the last 15 years has brought such enrichment to my call and understanding of the larger church’s mission. I have believed that we are a vital part of a connectional Reformed denomination that has played a vital role in the shaping of our nation’s history and culture. Study the history of America and you will find Presbyterian leadership from the very beginning until now. We have been at the center of every American cultural change, economic crisis, political debate, and experience of war. We have been advocates of the peace of God’s kingdom.
In 2005, the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the leadership of LPC had become aware of the need of our campus for a new development and maintenance vision and plan. We thought it was cosmetic, but in our research we discovered that the sanctuary was structurally unsound and needed a complete retrofitting and rebuild from the foundation up. The estimated cost was $7 million, but what finally emerged was a cost of over $13 million. We prayed; we planned; we interpreted; we sought approvals from the City. We have now completed several fund raising drives. From 2005 to the present we have raised around $12 million dollars for the capital needs of our congregation. We still owe about $1.7 million on our mortgage debt.
The sanctuary rebuild was the direct result of our 2000 Mission Study. Out of that planning a need for worship renewal emerged. We saw that this renewal would require new worship staff, a diversity of musical styles, a deepening of the knowledge of our Reformed liturgical history, and an architectural enhancement that would be congruent with our theology. We have come so far in our worship renewal. We believe that God, the audience for our worship, is pleased with what is seen and heard in our sanctuary. Christmas Eve 2016 saw four worship services with over 1,300 present. This represents the fruit of our investments and a potential for church growth.
It is a testimony to the faithfulness of God and of our friends and members that we were enabled during the “Open Door/Build It for Him” capital campaigns to raise up the spiritual and financial resources. In 2008, right in the middle of this project, when the sanctuary building had been stripped to a skeleton and we were worshiping in Tankersley Hall, the worst economic recession in American history hit. We wondered if we would survive, but God’s people were steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord. We made it through, maintained our staff and program, and strengthened our mission outreach in the Presbytery, our nation, and the world. Thanks be to God! God’s faithfulness to us, and the faithfulness of our congregation, have allowed us to be where we are in 2017.
In the process of our “Open Door and Build It For Him” program of the last decade, we were required by the City to do environmental studies of the soil under our property. We discovered that dry cleaning fluids from the cleaners on Forest Ave, which property the church bought in the 1960’s, had leached into the soil in the 1930’s and 40’s. A chemical plume had grown under the Parlor side of the church. Since we owned the property, we would be required by government agencies to clean it up. Slowly our session team and geologists have worked to perform this clean up. That work is in process. We still do not know what the total cost of this environmental project will be, but it could be well over $1 million dollars. Governmental agencies are working with us on this cleanup.
During the past five years the PCUSA has faced a major crisis. Due to General Assembly actions related to ordination standards and same-gender marriage, 10 of our larger Los Ranchos Presbytery churches have sought dismissal to a new Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterian Churches, or ECO. This Presbytery discernment process has stunned our Presbytery and other Presbyteries across the denomination. Many scholars say that we live in a post-denomination world. Mainline Protestantism faces much resistance, both within and without the established Church. Post-modern culture dismisses truth with a capital “T” and settles for experience and subjective opinions for ethical and moral decisions and actions. The result is that the institutional Church is required to address rapid change. In the meantime, the spiritual hunger and thirst of humankind grows. The year of 2016 has left the nation deeply polarized and divided.
In many ways our theological understandings of ordination and marriage have been the flash points of much conflict. Each pastor and each session of a congregation must now approve of candidates for ordination and marriage. The right of freedom of conscience has not been eliminated from our Book of Order or the Book of Confessions, the Constitution of the PCUSA. Some have argued that the “essential tenets of the Reformed tradition” have been neglected and that we are now in a theological drift toward unfaithfulness.
I believe this is untrue, and that healthy churches in the PCUSA, which live by faith and not fear, may pursue the mission of God in obedience to Jesus Christ, his Word, and the guidance of the Spirit. As you know, I have spoken to several of the departing congregations pleading for them to stay connected with us for the sake of kingdom work. There has never been a totally pure Church. We are God’s saints by grace alone. Until Jesus comes we shall be a mixture of saints and sinners. Therefore, we are commissioned to make sure our election and calling. Central to our calling is to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ in having the mind of Christ, in proclaiming and teaching the gospel of the kingdom for the glory of God.
During 2017, as part of our 100th anniversary, the session approved a capital fund drive for the purpose of completing our building debt commitment. On September 17, 2017, while “Celebrating God’s Faithfulness” at the Hotel Laguna, we were able to retire the debt and to burn the mortgage papers!
On the first Sunday in December, 2017, with all of our obligations paid, we will look to the future mission of Laguna Presbyterian Church. It will be time to do a new mission study, to review our mission statement, and to move forward into God’s mission for us. Finishing our past commitments will be the foundation for our congregation’s re-visioning our biblically-guided and Spirit-led obedience to God’s will.
LPC did not begin 100 years ago by accident. By God’s providence the Presbytery of Los Angeles organized us with its resources and personnel to be a lighthouse of the gospel on this South Coast of Orange County. Rest assured that the next 100 years will not be lacking in challenges. A new level of faith, hope, and love will draw us into the continuing opportunities of the kingdom of God.
Faithfully, Pastor Jerry Tankersley