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Publication Date: Wednesday, July 24, 2002

People's pastor: Walt Gerber, the pastor who built Menlo Pres into a local institution, is stepping down, but the church carries on People's pastor: Walt Gerber, the pastor who built Menlo Pres into a local institution, is stepping down, but the church carries on (July 24, 2002)

By Jane Knoerle

When the Rev. Walt Gerber, 65, retires in October as senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, he's not worried about the church's future. "This church is not built around Walt Gerber," he told the congregation recently. "There are a lot of stars on our team. I'm passing the baton to the greatest team in the world. What good hands I'm leaving the church in."

Since he came to Menlo Presbyterian 28 years ago from Southern California, Pastor Gerber has seen his flock grow from 2,000 to 5,500 members. More than 4,000 attend church each Sunday (9,000 over Christmas), filling every pew and every available parking space for blocks around.

In an era when other churches are losing membership, Menlo Pres attracts thousands. Why? Most attribute it to one man, Walt Gerber.

Walt Gerber says no. "I've never deluded myself in thinking this is all about me." Of his retirement, he says: "They'll do very well without me. If things fall apart, that means I've failed."

The search for a new senior pastor (the church includes 11 ordained Presbyterian pastors) is expected to take two years. Tradition has it that the senior pastor is never appointed from the ranks, according to church historian Bill Russ.

Walt Gerber, who describes himself as "a low profile guy," grew up in Glendale in a religious Baptist family. His grandparents were missionaries and his sister married a Baptist minister "who was like a big brother to me."

His early ambitions were "to be a vet, then an M.D." In his senior year at Occidental College, he felt called to the ministry. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and San Francisco Theological Seminary.

"I wanted to work with youth and spent eight years [in that ministry in churches] in San Gabriel and Redondo Beach." When he became senior pastor to the First Presbyterian Church in Malibu, there were 75 members. When he left seven years later, there were 700.

The Rev. Gerber didn't want to leave Malibu. He and his family lived on the beach in a house rented by the church. "I'm a beach rat," he says.

He answered the call to come to Menlo Park in 1974 "as an act of obedience to the Lord." The search committee heard about him because the daughter of one of the members belonged to his congregation.

It wasn't an easy move. The venerable Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, where Jane Stanford once worshipped, was too formal and formidable. "I was too Southern California. I didn't fit in," he says. He was 37 at the time. (Early Sharon Heights neighbors remember him zooming down the street on a skateboard.)

After six months he tried returning to Malibu, where his former congregation wanted him back. Walking on the beach, the revelation came to him that, "No matter how hard it was, I'm here [in Menlo Park] to stay."

It was hard in those early years. Many church members weren't used to the changes that Pastor Gerber brought. The music was too loud and too contemporary. The clapping, toe tapping, and reaching out to greet fellow worshipers bothered some of the "frozen people," as Presbyterians sometimes laughingly call themselves. The many "singles" activities had some old-timers raising their eyebrows.

Pastor Gerber didn't like to see the church dark, except for Sundays. He set about welcoming all kinds of activities, applying his philosophy: "This isn't a house for saints. It's a hospital for sinners."

Dozens of recovery and support groups, ranging from Hope for the Hurting for families and friends of the homosexual community, to Divorce/Relationship Recovery, meet weekly at the church. PrayerWorks addresses the needs of those who are between jobs or who are under-employed.

"This is a place to heal the wounded," says the Rev. Gerber.

MPPC (Menlo Park Presbyterian Church) historian Bill Russ of Menlo Park says: "He (Walt) seems to have a special sensitivity to what's happening in our local culture, fitting the gospel message of people's needs without compromising the salvation message."

A great example of that is the singles ministry, he says.

"When Walt arrived, the church was mostly families. He made it OK for divorced people to come to church," says Mr. Russ. "Today singles make up about 40 percent of our congregation."

Young families are also responsible for a large portion of the church's growth, says Mr. Russ.

Nancy Parker, regional associate in the church's department of congregational care, says of the Rev. Gerber: "I've watched him step back and I don't see this church changing dramatically [with his retirement]. There's a certain excitement with change, as well as fear. They'll miss Walt, but there are a lot of good people out there. They don't want a church that worships Walt. After all, God's in charge."

In 2002, more than 200 events a week occur at the church, according to the church's annual report, from FOG (Friends of God) Diner dinners for 250 members and friends on Saturday night, to five worship services on Saturday night and Sunday, plus two special services for singles. More than 1,000 adults attend Bible studies each week and 200 mothers gather weekly for the Mothers Together program. More than 1,000 children are registered in the children's ministries.

Some have called Menlo Presbyterian the Church of Silicon Valley. With a high-tech sound system, video monitors along the aisles for worshipers in the back of the sanctuary, and two huge screens flanking the lectern, the church plays to a tech-wise congregation that includes many high-powered movers and shakers.

"Competence and excellence are expected around here," says the Rev. Gerber. "It's a pretty high bar; a lot of chiefs, no Indians."

MPPC is also involved in 50 ministries in all parts of the world. Twenty-seven church members do mission work full time. Last year short- term mission teams were sent into Kiev, Ukraine; Juarez, Rancho Santa Marta and Mexicali, Mexico; and destinations in Ethiopia, China, Costa Rica, India, and Russia, among others.

Upcoming mission trips include volunteering for two weeks at a camp for at-risk youth in Kiev in July and August; or joining a team to be involved with children's ministry and light construction with members of a local church August 9-18 in Costa Rica. The church also finances scholarships for 60 Fuller Seminary students.

The church does not hold annual pledge drives or hold capital fund campaigns to raise money, yet its budget totals in the millions. The Rev. Gerber says he doesn't believe in pledge drives. When the search committee approached him 28 years ago about coming to MPPC, he told them he wouldn't come if there were pledges. "I never ask for money," he says.

The church's income from worship service offerings, mid-week offerings, program and event fees is not enough to support its programs, according to the MPPC 2002 annual report. Extra income comes from Kingdom 21 funds, which are designated gifts given to the church for expressed purposes, such as mission expansion, staff expansion, and information technology. Generous support of the church also comes from the Church of the Pioneers Foundation and private family foundations.

He is also not a builder. "I believe in investing in people, not spending millions on buildings," he says, despite some pressure over the years to build a more majestic edifice than the present church built in 1948.

Will the economy's downturn affect the church's financial health? "We're all right for the next three years, but if we have to, we'll pull in our reins," he says. "If we were tied to a mortgage, we'd worry. God will provide for us, up or down."

Even his wife, Metta, didn't know when the Rev. Gerber was planning to announce his retirement. "This is something God and I had to decide," he says.

After retiring, what next? "For a while I'll just rest," he says. "Now I'm very focused. Ministry is never easy. It takes everything I've got."

Will he assume the role of pastor emeritus? "Oh, I might sneak into the back of the church once in a while, but I won't be involved in any way. This is not my church. It never was."

Walt Gerber looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Metta, his five children and seven grandchildren. "Metta is my Rock of Gibraltar. I never could have made it without her." They intend to remain in Menlo Park. "This is our home," he says.

Three of their children, Paul, Leslie Luff and Tara Breese, live in Menlo Park. Paul is a pediatric dentist. Leslie and Tara are nurses. Son Dan works in development with Fuller Seminary in Southern California; son John works for Microsoft near Seattle.

Along with time for his five-mile walk, usually at 5 a.m., and daily workout in his home gym, there will be more visits to his favorite vacation spot, Catalina Island.

A mechanic since he was 12, he'll continue restoring classic cars from the 1950s. "I've had 293 cars in my life. For a while I was into motorcycles and had to hide under my helmet, but I gave that up."

Looking back, he says: "I'm grateful for the past 28 years. I've enjoyed the adventure, but I'm excited about the change."
Amazing statistics

The church reports that:

** Some 4,000 attend church each Sunday (9,000 over Christmas).

** It employs a total of 158 people.

** Almost 200 events occur at the church each week.

** More than 1,000 adults attend Bible studies each week.

** Some 200 mothers gather weekly for the Mothers Together program.

** More than 1,000 children are registered in the children's ministries.

** The church is involved in 50 ministries in all parts of the world. Twenty-seven church members do mission work full time.

** The church finances scholarships for 60 Fuller Seminary students.


 

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