Doug Oldenburg: Colleague in Covenant
July 23, 2020 by Lee Hinson-Hasty
Doug Oldenburg’s list of life-changing leadership roles is long: husband, father, founding pastor, preacher, seminary president, grandfather, General Assembly Moderator, college board chair, community activist, and much more.
However, I knew Doug as my friend. Sometimes lost in the Presbyterian ruling elder and teaching elder vows is this one: “Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?” Not only did Doug know this, he lived it — even with a pastor like me ordained a full three decades after him. Doug passed away on Tuesday at the age of 85.
In 2002, Doug approached me in his second year of retirement about a project he was leading to encourage college students with high character and deep faith to consider serving in pastoral ministry. I was serving on staff at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., where Doug had once been the Board Chair. Three years in a row I convened faculty and staff to identify 15-20 students that Doug hosted for a dinner where, after hearing the call stories of two younger female and male pastors, he would close with his own and this line; “You will not be able to say in 20 to 30 years that you regret not considering pastoral ministry, because we are inviting you to hear that call tonight.”
The room usually went silent for a moment and then someone would laugh, because many had tears of joy forming in their eyes that they did not know how to hold back. Hundreds of college students were called to seminary and pastoral ministry by God through Doug’s voice, and that was after his service as Moderator and President of Columbia Theological Seminary!
That’s sort of how I feel today after receiving a call from his daughter-in-law with the news of Doug’s death just yesterday. His health was waning, but his mind on most topics was sharp as always.
My formal introduction to Doug was not the first time I had been influenced by him. He was pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., when I was growing up only 30 minutes away in Monroe, N.C. I took the bus to Camp Grier, run by the Presbytery of Charlotte and my first overnight camp, from the parking lot of Covenant in 1977. Then in my first call, in 1995, I served in Lynchburg, Va., where Doug had served as a founding pastor of another congregation named Covenant.
In February of 2018, I drove from the campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., where Doug received his Bachelor of Divinity, a predecessor of the Master of Divinity, to his home in Davidson, N.C., in the same place where he received his undergraduate degree at Davidson College. I was there to report to him that the Committee on Theological Education had just voted to recommend to the 223rd General Assembly (2018) that he be honored with the PC(USA)’s highest award for excellence in theological education. His first response was, “Thank you, but you should really honor someone else.”
You see, for Doug, the focus should never be on him. Whether it was receiving the largest gift at Columbia Theological Seminary, stewarding the office of Moderator, mentoring the next generation of pastoral leaders, and much more, Doug insisted God should be the focus.
We sang a Jane Parker Huber hymn at my ordination service in 1995, Called as Partner’s in Christ’s Service. Doug lived that hymn of justice and reconciliation. The first stanza reads,
Called as partners in Christ’s service,
called to ministries of grace,
we respond with deep commitment
fresh new lines of faith to trace.
May we learn the art of sharing,
side by side and friend with friend,
equal partners in our caring
to fulfill God’s chosen end.
Thankfully, Doug finally agreed to accept the award and we produced this video in his honor that I’ve watched twice today, and probably will again in the days to come.
In the video former president of Davidson College, John Kuykendall, describes Doug as a friend of all the seminary presidents. You see, he was “a friend among his colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit.”
Thank you, Doug. I look forward to the next place we cross paths and the ways I discover your influence on my life and others, and certainly, the Church and world broadly.