By D.J. Monsma, Special to the Independent
Rev. Jerry Tankersley could never have imagined that he’d spend most of his adult life as the pastor of Laguna Presbyterian Church. “I couldn’t have planned such a scenario, “ he told well-wishers at his 40th anniversary celebration last Sunday. “But I have learned that my life doesn’t belong to me. The years have deepened my knowledge of Christ and my love for his people and the world.”
Tankersley was called to assume leadership of a 900-member congregation in September, 1972. Back then, the Amarillo, Tex., native was a 35-year-old associate pastor at La Canada Presbyterian, which didn’t want to lose him. “I did everything I could to keep it from happening,” said Dr. Gary Demarest, retired La Canada pastor and an elder statesman in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Demarest was one of the many church leaders and parishioners who gathered to salute Tankersley, his wife Kay, son Jeff, daughter-in-law Rachel, and grandsons Quinn and Luke, all Laguna Beach residents. The reception was held in Dawson Cole Fine Art’s sculpture garden.
Interviewed earlier, Tankersley said his early years were challenging.
“I didn’t know whether I’d come to build or bury the church, “ he said. “We were passing out of the ‘60s culture of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Facilities were in bad shape. There were 950 people on the rolls, but maybe 200 attended services regularly. We had to rebuild trust.”
That building and stabilizing process dominated Tankersley’s first decade in Laguna Beach. Eventually, membership was pruned to 700, a number which has remained fairly constant despite a sharp drop in mainline denomination membership overall. Tankersley credits a supportive congregation and “great lay leaders who worked endless hours and were committed to the cause of Christ.”
His next two decades were marked by mission outreach, including partnering with Christians in India, East Africa, and Romania to build water wells and serve lepers and orphans. The church also deepened its local connections, and still works today with the Laguna Relief and Resource Center, the Community Clinic, Habitat for Humanity and military outreach groups.
During the last 10 years, Tankersley also took on broader responsibilities in the denomination, such as mentoring younger pastors.
At 75, he is not ready to retire. He is energized by a healthy and growing church, which last year completed a $13 million rebuilding of its historic 1928 Spanish Colonial Revival sanctuary that was suffering from major structural problems. The church is intent on retiring its $4 million mortgage by 2017, but Tankersley is more focused on how he can help to advance its mission.
“We are not just a reflection of the culture. We have to be in it, but not of it,” he said. “I’ve never been more excited about our mission. You have to read, study, pray, travel, and keep growing spiritually. Eventually, I’d like to write a memoir. But right now I love being engaged in the world and being around people.”
D.J. Monsma is a church congregant.