By Stephanie Kirtland
A Silicon Valley titan passed earlier this month. He had no website. No blog. No Twitter account. He published no books, not even an article shows up under his byline. He developed no technology, though he was known to love a fast sports car. He wasn't on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Snapchat. On the web, this man barely registers, other than as a name in a few Google books, blogs and local articles by others, and then more as just a mention of the past. The one exception is in an article by a former staff member as an example of good leadership.
As he did mine.
Walt Gerber was the senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (now Menlo Church), one of Silicon Valley's largest and most impactful churches, for 28 years. When he started in 1974 the church had 2,000 members; when he retired in 2002 MPPC clocked in at 5,500. Some would look at those numbers and infer a "Type A" personality behind the growth. Yet, although he was at times called "a Silicon Valley entrepreneur" when it came to church ministry, Walt was caring, relational and compassionate, more concerned about "the ultimate heresy of making God boring," as he put it, than making the church grow.
But grow it did under him maybe because God isn't boring and people flocked to the way Walt presented his God as he knew him: full of love, grace, kindness and fun.
I first came to MPPC after college. I lived in the South Bay, had never been to Menlo Park or heard of MPPC. But I was spiritually thirsty and needed a place to put down roots and grow after my years away. I had "met Jesus" in a startling spiritual encounter my junior year of college in Germany, then returned to the States and had a hard time connecting the Jesus I had met with my experiences of church. But when I walked into MPPC after being told by a friend that I "must go there," I felt the difference. And knew I was home: The message was of grace, of love, of a God who longs for you to know his kindness and goodness, to encounter his presence in life-changing ways.
And Walt was the one behind it all, a kind of "spiritual father-figure" whose master's degrees in both psychology and theology helped him bridge the intellectual gap I had with the faith I knew and experienced as true, but didn't fully understand why.
Each week under Walt's rather informal but impactful teaching I felt more intellectually, spiritually and personally grounded, more at peace more loved. And more aware of the whys of my faith that have helped me navigate through all that life has offered. And I'm not the only one.
"It is impossible to think about Walt without thinking about the word 'grace.' I suppose if there is one saying associated with Walt above all others, it is this: 'The church is not a museum for saints, it is a hospital for sinners.' Yesterday he left the hospital. He's with the saints now. The church is a little sadder for a while. But the museum just got a fresh blast of joy." John Ortberg, senior pastor, Menlo Church
Walt loved his God, his wife, his family, his church. His heart was big enough to grow a large church and wise enough to pass the baton to others who would be faithful to the grace-filled teaching we all need when he left. (And Menlo Church has been blessed with several pastors since Walt who have followed in his grace-focused faith.)
A titan has passed. With the eyes of faith we know he lives on no longer plagued by vascular dementia, no longer limited to the speed of the motorized cart he used in his last months (nor even the fast-but-not-fast-enough cars he had earlier owned), living out the love and joy and grace he exemplified to those who heard him weekly for years. But with our very human hearts we grieve his passing, for those who dare to live out the grace of Jesus the way he did are hard to find.
Perhaps in this divisive time we can again remember the way he described his mission and the mission of all of us who share a faith in Jesus: "I'd like the pulpit to be a fountain of Christ's accepting love. Because that's how I experienced it."
Rest in peace, Walt Gerber. Mission accomplished.
A writer, editor and public relations consultant, Stephanie Kirtland is a member of Menlo Church.