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The Presbyterians' dynamic new leader.


Had you been visiting Salt Lake City on a June afternoon this year, you might well have been curious about the thunderous ovation that suddenly shook the very walls of Salt Palace Center. But as any member of the 202nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) could have told you, the wild excitement marked the entry of its new leader, Price Gwynn, a businessman from Charlotte, North Carolina. As he came down the aisle--amid popping flashbulbs and rolling videotapes--the Assembly rose to greet him, well-wishers from his home church crowded onto the stage, and his wife, Katherine, reached out for a teary hug.

When the cheers subsided, Gwynn donned the embroidered blue stole and three-inch silver cross that symbolize the top post in the 2.9 million-member denomination, and he stepped to the podium. Rapping a homemade rosewood gavel, he launched what would be a yearlong adventure as moderator of this tradition-rich, politically active church, with concerns running the gamut from the environment and street people to peace in the world and houses for the poor.

"I am humbled by your choice, honored beyond words by your selection, and I'm in prayer," Gwynn said. The cheers erupted again.

In the often-contentious world of church politics, Price Henderson Gwynn III is a breath of fresh air.

Modest but self-assured, genteel but forthright, the 67-year-old elder and lay leader from Steele Creek Presbyterian Church in Charlotte was by all accounts a long shot for leadership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a mainline Protestant body that traces its American roots to 1629.

But Gwynn agreed to seek the moderator's job at the urging of pastors and friends impressed by his talent and commitment. His first bid for national church office came at a critical time for Presbyterians. Escalating unrest between conservatives and liberals threatened the unity achieved in 1983, when the northern and southern halves of the denominations were reunited for the first time since the Civil War.

Although Gwynn was a corporate executive with a splendid portfolio of professional accomplishments and community activism, he offered no impressive committee assignments at the national level, no familiarity with the inner workings of denominational headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky. He lacked the pastoral credentials of four of his opponents and the national name recognition of the fifth, a Washington layman well-known for his leadership of the church's powerful General Assembly Council.

But Gwynn appealed eloquently to men and women in the pew.

His message was aimed not at the powerbrokers, but at the worshipers and volunteer workers who fill the denomination's 11,500 U.S. churches: those who teach Sunday school, operate childcare programs, contribute to community homeless shelters, support Presbyterian colleges, promote evangelism, and send missionaries around the world.

He spoke compellingly of the need to put aside political differences and move forward on faith with a new commitment to outreach and growth.

"Christian friends, if we shoot ourselves in the foot because of internecine warfare or denominational myopia, we will have to answer for it," Gwynn told more than 3,000 people at the General Assembly last June.

"We can energize our witness, we can magnify the Christ we profess, we can become a 5 million-communicant denomination by the year 2000. But it won't just happen. You gotta pray for it. You gotta commit to it. You gotta work at it."

Gwynn struck a nerve. His election as moderator on the second ballot surprised even veteran General Assembly observers. It offered encouragement to lay people who had begun to feel alienated from the national church; confused by its priorities, at times; uncertain of how to make their feelings heard as the church strives for inclusivity, yet struggles over such volatile issues as abortion rights and the ordination of homosexuals.

It surprised the winner too.

"I'm astonished," Gwynn said after the vote results were announced. "Nothing prepared me for this."

On the contrary, in fact, it might be said that Gwynn had been carefully prepared all his life. The son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, he excelled in college, rose through the enlisted ranks to be an army captain in World War II, and worked his way from sales trainee to president of an international packaging firm. Along the way, he devoted years of service to his wife, their three sons, and a historic Presbyterian congregation.

"One of Price's advantages is being out of the denomination's bureaucracy," said the Rev. Lewis Bledsoe, Gwynn's pastor. "And he is so able. I think people are going to be surprised at the way he can articulate what we are as a church and what we need to be."

What will it take to succeed as moderator of a church at work around the world? It will take the same kind of energy, patience, and resourcefulness that Price Gwynn practiced in his rise to the top of the business world.

"I actually felt called into business," Gwynn says. "I felt that's where my talents were; that's where my contribution could be."

Gwynn's first job turned into a 33-year career at Package Products, Inc. After starting as a sales trainee, he specialized in sales and marketing and subsequently became the marketing director, then the executive vice president. Finally, he became chief executive officer.

A church elder and Sunday school teacher as well as successful businessman, he became intrigued with the oftmaligned relationship between profit and the public good.

"The priority task of the businessman who wants to contribute to the public welfare is to make a profit," he said. "If he fails, then society won't have the means to abolish poverty, provide opportunity for all, develop alternate energy sources, protect our environment, save our cities.

"The gut-tearer--the ethical dilemma--is how to be in the world, but not of it; how to be called and committed to a secular vocation, but attentive to a higher loyalty; how to march with the crowd in empathic relationship but in step to the beat of a different drummer. It can't be done, except by grace."

Not everything has gone smoothly in Gwynn's business career, however.

At age 57, his rise to the top at Package Products took an unexpected turn. Sure that he was being groomed to take over for the retiring chairman of the board, Gwynn was called into a meeting of company executives. Without warning, he was told to clean out his desk. Another employee had been chosen for the position.

"After I got fired, I felt like I'd been kicked in the belly," Gwynn said. "I spent nine months thinking about things, looking for other work. I considered consulting or editing an industry newsletter, but I see myself as a hands-on manager. I'm no good at telling someone else what to do and walking away from it. So," he continued, "I decided, 'Shoot. I want another corporate structure.'"

Executives at the Charlotte-based Lance, Inc., a leading manufacturer of snack crackers, were quick to snap him up. There he undertook an industry first: a reformulation of all Lance products to remove animal fats and such saturated fats as palm oil and coconut oil. Tinkering with tried-and-true formulas to reduce cholesterol content was both controversial and complicated. A market research poll had showed that up to 25 percent of consumers questioned were concerned about fat in their diets. To please these people, Lance had to cut the cholesterol content of its product without--it was stressed--altering taste, crispness, color, shelf life, etc. "Finally," Gwynn said, "after three years of testing, we arrived at a complex combination of substitutions that worked." The question remains: Will the man who cut the fat in Lance snacks now have the courage to put whole-wheat bread on the sacred communion trays?

A mountain hiker who runs four miles a day, six days a week, Gwynn was a month away from retirement at Lance when his pastor suggested that he run for the moderator's job last December. He couldn't resist the challenge.

"I told Lewis he had to be crazy to suggest it," Gwynn said. "But when the Presbytery of Charlotte endorsed my candidacy, I agreed to study four hours a day as my contribution to being serious about it. I felt like I was entering a horse race when I was three laps behind."

Every day for six months, Gwynn pored over church documents, studied special interest groups, reviewed mission budgets, and delved into controversial issues. He gained ground steadily, his determination reminding friends of his month-long hike through the Himalayas at age 54. His preparation paid off in Salt Lake City, where commissioners to the General Assembly were clearly impressed with his straightforward responses.

The moderator receives no salary, and the position is in many ways symbolic. But Presbyterian groups across the country are clamoring for Gwynn's presence at milestone events. Last year's moderator, the Rev. Joan Salmon-Campbell of Philadelphia, traveled about 300 days of the year and added Cuba, Italy, Switzerland, Kenya, and Ethiopia to an exhausting string of U.S. stops.

Gwynn, who has asked for help with his ongoing duties as board chairman of Charlotte's 710-bed Presbyterian Hospital, expects to set a slightly slower pace. He keeps tabs on the hundreds of invitations that filter through the denomination's Kentucky headquarters with the new telephone and fax machine installed in the spacious basement office of his southeast Charlotte home.

His early commitments ranged from addressing the international Peacemaking 2000 conference in Washington to preaching at the Bloys Camp Meeting and Cowboy Roundup in Fort Davis, Texas.

"I would love to be a catalyst in finding ways we can disagree and still work together toward common goals," Gwynn says. "We're not there yet, either as persons or as an institution, but people want it to work and that means it will."

And Presbyterians were at the 202nd General Assembly just waiting to select a successful family man and business executive with strong Presbyterian roots and grave concerns for the church where the church really is, and where it has always been--with the Presbyterian in the pew.

Presbyterians in


The Presbyterian Church has been a historically powerful force in American life. Presbyterians were so involved in the American Revolution that the King of England was said to have called it "a Presbyterian revolution."

It was a young Scot Presbyterian, Francis Makemie, who worked to bring together the various scattered Presbyterian churches that were developing in the New World. The early church in 1775 issued a pastoral letter urging unity among the colonists and urging them to fight for freedom if necessary.

The Rev. John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, was Presbyterian. He also taught many of the main framers of the Constitution at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University.

Presbyterians have been involved in politics for many years, and eight U.S. presidents have belonged to, or been identified with, a Presbyterian church. Currently, 53 members of Congress are Presbyterians. Mark Twain was a Presbyterian. So is John Glenn.

Their global mission work is in 89 countries, and in recent years, the Presbyterian denomination was the first to bring missionaries from overseas back to this country to bring a new outlook to mission here as well. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has 11 theological institutions, the oldest of which is Princeton.

Strong on education and medical care, Presbyterians have institutions and hospitals dotting the land. Columbia Presbyterian in New York City is a jewel in their crown. Sixty-nine colleges are Presbyterian related. They have hospitals the world over, with some of the largest ones in Japan, Korea, Zaire, and Brazil. And a large number of Presbyterians in this country are involved in medical care.

The church has been in the forefront in working for human rights and for women and minorities. It has added a reemphasis during the past three years on evangelism and global mission.

Also added is a reemphasis on youth work. The denomination has three major national campgrounds and dozens of others nationwide related to individual presbyteries and synods. A renewed vitality has entered the scene in youth work, and the church has added plans for a national youth council and an annual gathering of Christian college students.

Two small basically fundamentalist Presbyterian denominations have broken away from the church in recent years. One of the two small denominations refuses to ordain women, and both strongly condemn social action and ecumenical projects of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Presbyterians have also discovered in recent surveys that the church has almost unknowingly moved toward the middle in recent years. They further discovered that part of the membership drop is really only on paper because many congregations removed names of members to the inactive roll when a per capita charge went up, says Marj Carpenter, manager of the Office of News Services at the denomination's headquarters. "Those particular members have not left the denomination at all," Carpenter said. A possible future count of the inactive roll is also projected in the denomination.
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Title Annotation:Price Gwynn
Author:McClain, Kathleen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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