Westmont Magazine A Pastor by the Grace of God
Encouraged by his presbytery, the Rev. Jerry Tankersley ’59 agreed to stand for moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the 214th General Assembly in June. Noting that the church has “nurtured and enriched my life and my family,” during his 30 years as pastor of Laguna Presbyterian Church, he expressed willingness to serve a church struggling with “dangerous disorientation, emotional pain and spiritual brokenness.”
As a young pastor broken by divorce, Jerry found grace and healing through fellow Presbyterians. Building on this experience, he hoped to bring the same kind of healing to opposing factions in the church.
“I believe we can encourage spiritual unity in the General Assembly by focusing on what we have in common,” he says. “All sides want to keep the church together, not blow it apart. I’m positive about the church. We have problems, but everyone does. Some we can fix, others we can’t, we can only bear with them and trust in God’s grace.”
Jerry believes Christians are called to minister to each other, not “fix” each other. He agrees with fellow Presbyterian Sheldon Sorge, who wrote, “There are some difficulties, some shortcomings, some conflicts, some obstinacies that can never be fixed, only borne. . . . Our ability to fix our loved ones’ problems is so very limited. But this we can do: we can bear with them.”
While Jerry was not elected moderator, he will continue to be active in the church, emphasizing central tenets that all Presbyterians accept. He was encouraged that the General Assembly passed a statement affirming the lordship of Christ.
Jerry transferred to Westmont in 1957 after two years at Texas Tech. He arrived the same year the late David Hubbard ’49 started teaching at Westmont and studied under him and the late Ken Monroe. Majoring in Bible, he trained for the ministry and went to Fuller Seminary and then to Princeton.
His ministry as a Presbyterian pastor was just beginning when his marriage ended.
“Filled with shame and a profound sense of failure, I separated from the church, believing that my life and ministry were over,” he says. “Thankfully, an attorney in the church asked me to work in his law office, and I accepted. God used him to restore hope to my heart.
“I began to redirect my life toward the study of law. I met Gary Demarest at La Canada Presbyterian Church, and he asked me to join his staff while I completed a Ph.D. in government at Claremont Graduate School. At the same time, the Presbytery committee, after counseling with me and doing all they could to determine the reason for my divorce, affirmed my life and continued ministry in the Presbyterian Church.
“The Presbytery and the La Canada congregation gave my life back to me. I experienced grace. Grace was mediated to me through the church. Up to that point, grace had been little more than an intellectual notion to be preached and taught. But now, I experienced unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and a new beginning in life.
“I never rationalized my experience as anything but my personal failure. It was covenant-breaking sin. I sought help to understand what had occurred. I repented and turned to God for help. I learned to pray and to give thanks. Gratitude took shape in my soul.
“But I felt marked by the experience. I was not sure I would ever get a call from a church because of this brokenness in my life. But an amazing thing happened. I rediscovered from the Scriptures and through the church that Jesus Christ restores, reconciles, and gives forgiven sinners second chances. I might have intellectually affirmed this truth earlier, but I had never appreciated the possibility that the church could accept, understand, and have compassion for a pastor’s scars as a source of strength and potential for ministry.”
During 30 years as a pastor, Jerry has affirmed a theology of grace. He is thankful for his ministry, his 35 years of marriage to his second wife, Kay, and his 32-year-old son, Jeff.
Jerry has also reached out to the large gay community in Laguna Beach, Calif., and was the first pastor to serve on an AIDS task force the city appointed in the 1980s. While welcoming gays to his church, he has also held to the church’s ordination standards and scriptural prohibitions against homosexual behavior. “It’s a difficult tension to be open and hospitable while holding to the church’s standards,” he notes.
An important part of his ministry has been support for missions. He has traveled to Kenya and India himself for short-term projects, and he encourages his congregation to do the same. His outreach has also focused on Laguna Beach where he has served on numerous boards. The Presbytery of Los Ranchos benefits from his leadership and experience as well.
Always he returns to grace. “The theology of grace saved my life,” he says. “I believe it has the power to save the church’s life and unity in this time of conflict.”
See www.lagunapreschurch.org for more information.