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1999 NCC News Archives

Commitments Continue for the Rev. Dr. Albert M. Pennybacker
But in Retirement, NCC’s "Utility Player" Expects "New and Less Hurried Expressions"

June 2, 1999, NEW YORK CITY -- In his 45 years of active ministry, the Rev. Dr. Albert M. Pennybacker constantly juggled a rich array of responsibilities – preaching, teaching, organizing and leading ecumenical and community groups, counseling, fund-raising, meeting with legislators, writing, giving media interviews, and serving on boards and committees.

His just-completed seven-plus years with the National Council of Churches were no exception. He was called to help meet such a variety of needs that he finally hit on the term "utility player" as the most succinct description of his multifaceted responsibilities.

He carried two titles ("without two salaries!") – associate general secretary for income development and associate general secretary for public policy – and also worked with Faith and Order, assisted with support for the AmeriCorps program and promoted the NCC in numerous arenas, both public and private.

Now officially retired (as of March 31), he says, "I look forward to the commitments of my life finding new and less hurried expressions." "Penny," as he is called, has returned to his Lexington, Ky., home with his wife, Martha, and will be enjoying leisure activities and grandchildren.

But it will come as no surprise to those who know him that he also is responding to an already growing body of invitations, engaging in some consultant work and finding again "the way to be part of local church and community life."

Penny was born Oct. 20, 1931, in Chatanooga, Tenn. Ordained in 1954 in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he holds degrees from Vanderbilt University (B.A., 1953), Yale (M.Div., 1956) and Bethany College (honorary doctor of divinity, 1965).

For 35 years, he served as senior minister to congregations in Taftville, Conn.; Youngstown and Shaker Heights, Ohio, and in Fort Worth, Texas. During his 16 years leading Fort Worth’s University Christian Church, the congregation – with more than 4,000 members – was the Disciples’ numerically largest. The ABC-TV network broadcast the congregation’s Christmas Eve service nationally in 1988.

Active in denominational leadership, he was first vice moderator of the 1969 Disciples General Assembly, taught homiletics and ecumenical studies at Lexington Theological Seminary, chaired the United Christian Missionary Society’s board and served the Division of Overseas Ministry, Council on Church Unity and other governing bodies.

At the same time, he was never far from community leadership or from ecumenical service. He was an organizer and leader of the Norwich (Conn.) Area Council of Churches, chair of the Metropolitan Affairs Division of the Greater Cleveland Church Council during the Civil Rights Movement era, executive committee organizer of the Black Jail Chaplaincy Program in Tarrant County, Texas, and an active member of Clergy and Laymen Concerned.

As seasoned in global ecumenism as in its local expressions, Dr. Pennybacker was a steward for the Disciples delegation to the World Council of Churches Assembly in Evanston, Ill., a delegate to subsequent WCC assemblies in New Delhi and Uppsala, and an invited guest to Canberra, and has served the WCC Executive Committee as a pastoral consultant. He also has participated in several WCC study groups and conferences.

Dr. Pennybacker was a Disciples representative to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and member of the Disciples-Roman Catholic Dialogue, and represented his denomination at three NCC General Assemblies. A founder of the Interfaith Alliance, dedicated to promoting civility in public discourse, Dr. Pennybacker served as the Alliance’s second president.

On the "academic" side, he has served as a fellow and visiting professor at Yale Divinity School, trustee and lecturer at Texas Christian University and Brite Divinity School, trustee of the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago and as a Chautauqua Institution chaplain.

No wonder he ended up the NCC’s "utility player." In the years since his arrival part-time in 1991 and then full-time in 1993, the foundation for income development has been laid, with trust accounts, charitable gift annuities, bequests and direct gifts.

The Ecumenical Trust – Dr. Pennybacker’s presidency will conclude June 8 – has been established as a joint NCC/World Council of Churches gift manager with more than $1 million assets. And as income was needed for the crash program for the burned churches, he directed the raising of $7 to $8 million the more than $10 million and provided staff counsel on its uses.

In addition to his responsibilities as associate general secretary for income development, he has also served as associate general secretary for public policy and, since January 1996, directed the Washington Office. An advocate of peace and justice, his work "gained respect in the halls of Congress and the Administration, and thus a place for the Council to speak to power," said NCC General Secretary Joan B. Campbell. She also cited his "profound theological understanding of unity" and ability as a bridge builder, among other gifts.

The bridge-building often has been with unlikely dialogue partners. For example, "we opened a conversation with the U.S. Defense Department on ethical issues around sanctions, and had a focus on sanctions against Iraq," Dr. Campbell said. Dr. John Hamre, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, an active Lutheran layperson with theological training, reached out to the NCC and Dr. Pennybacker responded.

Dr. Pennybacker also is known for his work on the issue of religious persecution as it occurs around the globe. He and the Rev. Oliver Thomas together, many would say, were responsible for changing the nature of that legislation, Dr. Campbell said.

He has written public statements, advised on speeches – and given many himself, responded to media interviews, testified before Congress, and advocated on Capitol Hill and in the Administration for NCC public policy positions.

Reflecting on his years with the NCC, Dr. Pennybacker said, "I leave grateful for the Council, these years as a member of the staff and all who have been part of its colorful web of life and service. I am especially grateful to Joan Campbell for her friendship and for opening wider the ecumenical door.

"The Council, like most ecumenical bodies, is marked by the fragility of casual commitments among so many constituencies," he said. "Yet it serves, admittedly imperfectly but often courageously, the vision of God’s intended life for all people in all the world. The NCC is therefore precious and as our wonderfully able general secretary has often said, ‘to be handled with care.’ It has been a joy and an honor to be a part of the Council’s unique ecumenical ministries."

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