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Dr. Jerry Tankersley: After 46 years the time has come to say goodbye to Laguna Presbyterian

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Dr. Jerry Tankersley preached his last sermon at the Laguna Presbyterian Church last Sunday. After 46 years at the church, Dr. Tankersley leaves large shoes for his congregation to fill. 

As for why now, Dr. Tankersley says, “Well, I think I’ve accomplished what I set out to do when I came here.” However, he acknowledges that while he may be ready to pursue other things, “The work of the church goes on and on. We’re always redefining ourselves. We’re always asking ourselves where the spirit is leading us.”

Retiring but the work won’t stop

That drive forward is certainly not halting with Dr. Tankersley’s retirement. He has every intention to continue his life’s work. “I am going to have to find other places to teach. I’ll have plenty of opportunities to use whatever gifts God has given me. It’s a whole new mindset. I’ve got to find a new definition for what it means to continue to serve.” 

In his role at the Presbyterian Church, Dr. Tankersley has found many ways to serve, both far and near. This, plus the fact that he finds Laguna a very stimulating place, is what has cemented his longevity. 

“I came here when I was 35 years old. It has been such an exciting place. All the major events of American culture through the past 50 years have blown through Laguna,” he says. 

This is important because, according to Dr. Tankersley, the Presbyterian Church is a socially engaged church. “We are a denomination that takes on major issues: war, peace, human sexuality…The church came to America in the 1600s. It has been a part of every major debate in the history of this country.”

LLP Tankersley close up

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Dr. Jerry Tankersley, lead pastor of Laguna Presbyterian Church for the past 46 years, is retiring

This would explain the depth and breadth of Dr. Tankersley’s service. Back in the 1980s, for example, he was named the first pastor to serve on the AIDS task force by Laguna’s mayor. “That was very rewarding,” he says. 

And that kind of reach has continued ever since.

A reach that has extended far beyond the walls of the church

As far as his activities outside of Laguna, Dr. Tankersley rattles off a list of mission trips and exchanges he has led over the years, in Mexico City, East Africa, India, Israel, Palestine, Romania; returning to some of these places multiple times. Each trip had a specific purpose – rebuilding an orphanage, ministering to recovering lepers, establishing a Presbytery. He describes them all as “wonderful,” “meaningful,” and “fascinating.” 

Getting exposure on a national stage

In addition, Dr. Tankerlsey has been able to work with the Presbytery at a national level. In 2002, he was “drafted” to stand for moderator of the 214th General Assembly. “Thankfully,” he says, “I was not elected, but it opened doors for me.” 

These “openings” allowed him to get involved with issues surrounding Israel and Palestine as well as building relationships with other Christians as well as Jews and Muslims. 

He also worked on the Belhar Confession. 

“After eight years, the General Assembly adopted it,” he says. “It deals with race and racism. That was a very rewarding experience. I grew up in Texas during the time of separate but equal, so it is an important issue for me.” 

For someone with a PhD in Government, these extracurricular activities clearly added more stimulation to an already invigorating career.

There were times of restlessness

This is not to say that Dr. Tankersley never thought about leaving Laguna. He says he got a bit “restless” when he was 45-55 years old. Other churches, larger churches, had contacted him and tried to woo him away. 

“I visited. I thought it through. I prayed it through,” he says. “I didn’t see a church that could match this one. After I flirted with these other situations, I finally decided ‘I’m going to go for broke and go deeper here (in Laguna). If they decide they no longer want me, so be it.’ That day never came.”

Leaving on his own terms

Because “that” day never came Dr. Tankersley has the luxury of leaving on his own terms. Big projects, like the $15 million retrofitting of the church he undertook have been seen to completion. “We have paid all the bills,” he says. “The church is debt free.”

If it was otherwise, one gets the sense Dr. Tankerlsey might feel there was still unfinished business to deal with. Now, with no major loose ends, the time is right to retire. 

LLP Tankersley family

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Dr. Jerry Tankersley and his family celebrate his last sermon at Laguna Presbyterian

As he reflects on the past 46 years, Dr. Tankersley says, “It all went so quickly!” 

He remembers when he first came to Laguna. “I came trembling,” he says. But he was embraced. “There are a lot of churches that devour pastors. This is not that kind of church. It builds pastors. There is so much gracious support. In the 100 years of this church, I am only the third long-term pastor. It has a way of absorbing your life. If you come here, you better plan on staying.”

A future filled with work and a little relaxation

Dr. Tankersley would like to spend his future reading and writing. He has volumes of sermons to organize and even books to write. 

“I hope to have some opportunity to smell the flowers,” he adds. “I am looking forward to enjoying Laguna, walking on the beach, looking out at the hills.” 

He says he’d also like to travel, but sadly his wife had a stroke last year. She continues to recover, so those plans will have to wait until she is ready.

“It’s a mystery how my life has played out the way it has,” he says. He certainly never thought he’d stay in Laguna for 46 years. In fact, at one point in his life, he wasn’t sure he’d be welcomed back to the church at all. 

Finding grace in the church when he most needed it

As a young man, Dr. Tankersley was divorced, and this is not something the church takes lightly. “I thought my life was over,” he explains. “Then I experienced the grace of God.” 

At the time he was connected with the Presbyterian Church in La Cañada. The pastor there had, according to Dr. Tankersley, a “similar experience.” Dr. Tankerlsey was pleased to find his life in the church was far from over. He was embraced, and that experience has never left him. 

 “People need a church that is filled with grace. I don’t recommend it [divorce], but it happens.” He explains that when he stood for Moderator during the General Assembly he told his fellow pastors. “I wanted them to know me,” he says. “This has become part of my style. I try to be transparent about who I am.”

LLP Tankersley preaching

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Dr. Jerry Tankersley preaching his final sermon on Sunday

“People know I’m quite serious about my own spiritual life,” he adds.  “I not only want to talk the talk, but also walk the walk.”

After 46 years, still striving to improve his message and messaging

Dr. Tankerlsey’s quest for openness and grace is a consistent theme in his sermons. However, there have been stylistic changes over the years, if not thematic ones. When he first started preaching, he says he was very concerned about “literary precision.” In 1990, he decided to preach from the center of the church. “That has brought a dynamism,” he says. Now, he says, “I feel like my preaching is at a whole new place. It has a depth I didn’t have in the early days.” 

Even so, after all these years, Dr. Tankersley feels he is still honing his craft.  “I’m still trying to interpret text and be faithful to the story and also preach in a relevant way to the congregants. You never feel you’re adequate for it.” 

Clearly, his longevity would indicate he has not been “adequate,” but, rather, exceptional.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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