Among the significant advancements across the decades within the Presbyterian Church USA is ordination of women within the denomination starting in 1956.
“Rev. Margaret Towner was the first woman to be ordained as a pastor,” says Rev. Cynthia Cochran-Carney ’88 (M.Div.), an alumna of the U of R Graduate School of Theology’s San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS). “I am grateful for her and other women who paved the way for the rest of us and for the men who had foresight and courage not to stand in the way of God’s Spirit.”
Cochran-Carney is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael, California, one of four foundational churches closely involved with the creation of SFTS in 1871 or the seminary’s move from San Francisco to Marin County in 1891. Indeed, all four of these churches—including San Francisco’s St. John’s Presbyterian Church, Calvary Presbyterian Church, and Old First Presbyterian Church—are presently led by female pastors. According to a statistic stated in Presbyterian Outlook, 38 percent of active ordained Presbyterian ministers in the U.S. were women in 2019.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of SFTS, and, as part of the celebration, pastors of the four churches were recognized at the celebratory banquet held on campus on November 12.
Creating a California seminary
In the mid-1800s, the leaders associated with these churches were involved in establishing the seminary in the Bay Area and were determined to organize “a Theological Seminary such as the present wants and the future interests of this coast demand” (as cited in San Francisco Theological Seminary: The Shaping of a Western School of the Church, 1971-1998). While this noble action impacted the lives of so many who have studied at the seminary for 150 years, these leaders’ personal journeys were peppered with the conventions of their time.
“Like any founding leader, we certainly reflect on the visionary risk that led to the beginnings of St. John’s, but we also hold the complications of his identity as well,” says Rev. Theresa Cho, current pastor of at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, about William Anderson Scott, pastor of both St. John’s and Calvary Presbyterian Church in the 1800s. He taught at the seminary in its very early days and served as president of the faculty and Board of Directors. Scott had served as a frontier circuit-riding preacher and a chaplain to Gen. Andrew Jackson.
“Scott was kicked out by Calvary because of his views on the Civil War and slavery,” adds Cho. “Today, St. John’s is an open and affirming congregation, a sanctuary congregation that advocates for immigrant and refugee rights. And it has a pastor who is a woman of color—far from the values that Scott fought for and defended.”
Another of the men working to establish the West Coast seminary was Pastor Albert Williams, who founded the Old First Presbyterian Church and organized San Francisco’s first YMCA. According to the Library of Congress, his writings include missionary work among the Chinese, as well as accounts of fires, earthquakes, and cholera epidemics.
Of First Presbyterian’s early leaders, Pastor Arthur Crosby led the effort to bring SFTS to San Anselmo in 1891, says Cochran-Carney. A generation later, an elder of the same church, Robert Dollar, a trans-Pacific shipping magnate of the 1920s, endowed the Margaret S. Dollar Chair in Christian Social Ethics at SFTS in 1917 with $50,000 and requested the church’s current pastor, Dr. Lynn T. White Sr., be installed as the first professor. Dollar and his wife also donated the 13-chime carillon to the seminary in 1922, which is now in Geneva Hall.
Using their gifts in service
Rev. Marci Glass, the new pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church, “was drawn to Calvary’s commitment to use the gifts they have to be present in the community,” she says. “Calvary members are walking alongside asylum seekers and recent refugees, mentoring youth and young adults, feeding people with the Interfaith Food Pantry, and giving financial resources to area partners who are doing their part to alleviate poverty. … And we are seeking to dismantle the structural racism in our own lives so we can address it in the world.”
Cochran-Carney’s First Presbyterian Church is similarly entrenched in the city with dozens of activities and programs, including Youth on the Move, which supports the neighborhood’s vulnerable kids; an after-school enrichment program at an elementary school; support of young people on probation completing service hours; and hot meals for the unhoused. In addition, each year members embark on an annual Presbyterian Disaster Assistance mission to help rebuild homes, including structures destroyed by the 2018 Camp fire. SFTS interns also regularly serve the church: Master of Divinity student and intern Chitoka Webb ’22 preached her first sermon at First Presbyterian on Oct. 24.
At St. John’s, the food pantry has been open every Saturday for more than 20 years. “We’re a sanctuary church,” says Cho. “We advocate for immigrant rights by accompanying them to court, hosting prayer vigils, and aiding families who need support. We also raise bond money for detained immigrants.” The congregation advocates for more affordable housing in San Francisco and partners with Habitat for Humanity as they “reimagine the use of church property.”
Looking at the deep investment that each of these churches makes in the communities they serve, Glass also remarks on the national church’s significant, essential, and hard-fought milestones: “I’m glad our church hears the voices of additional communities,” she says. “Black men were ordained in the 1800s, women in the mid-20th century, and LGBTQIA+ people in recent years.”
150 years more
Two years ago, San Rafael’s First Presbyterian Church celebrated its 150th anniversary. “There are numerous historic and ongoing connections with SFTS,” says Cochran-Carney of her congregation. “We are grateful for the partnership and look forward to more collaboration in ministry, education, service, and interfaith dialogue.”