The Rev. Dr. James G. Emerson, Jr., former pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, passed away on Wednesday, September 12, 2018 at 12:45PM.
Born on June 4, 1926, Jim Emerson spent a life serving communities and congregations across the nation, taking his first pulpits in New York and New Jersey, followed by appointments to churches in Colorado and California. In the 1970s, he served as General Director of the Community Service Society of New York City, where he oversaw the transition of their strategy from casework to community practice (a significant and profound shift in approach) and was a pioneer in pastoral counseling of individuals in need of support. The slogan by which he and his wife, Margaret Bonnell Emerson (Migs) lived their lives was, the Latin phrase, “The Cure (Care) of Souls” and they spent decades in pursuit of that ministry.
Background in the Presbyterian Church and a Life of Service
Through his 69 years of ordained ministry, Jim served several churches on the East Coast before he and his family moved west: Mt. Airy Presbyterian Church, near Philadelphia, Tabernacle Presbyterian in Indianapolis, IN, First Presbyterian, Forest Hills in suburban New York City, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield, NJ, and a 1,400-member church in Larchmont, NY, where his congregation included 10 CEOs and other leading executives from the greater New York City area.
In 1973 he accepted a call to Denver, where he served as Senior Pastor at Central Presbyterian Church.
Among a variety of accomplishments, “Dr. Jim” (as he was often called) organized a coalition of downtown religious communities to eliminate hunger in the Denver metropolitan area called Metro Caring Colorado, whose goal was not only to “give a ‘man’ a fish” but “teach a ‘man’ to fish” by establishing an extensive food pantry, offering cooking classes, growing their own food in a greenhouse and providing financial literacy education. The phrase, “service above self” characterized Jim’s passion and vision.
Jim and Migs also hosted a regular radio show entitled “You Count Where You Are,” which focused upon issues of theology and pastoral counseling.
Jim loved the great outdoors; skiing in the winter, hiking and horseback riding in the summer. It was during this time, in a near-tragedy, he fell from a horse on his 49th birthday suffering a concussion and broken ribs, spending a week recovering in the hospital. “I remember that I didn’t call out once for God’s help… but I didn’t have to call out, because God was there with me and I had complete faith that I was not alone.”
It was while he was in Denver that Jim was nominated by the Presbytery to serve as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Coming in second out of six other nominees, he soon saw there was a bigger purpose for his loss. This process brought him to the attention of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, which soon called him as pastor in 1979.
Jim’s leadership at Calvary had a profound impact upon those in San Francisco and the Greater Bay Area. His preaching, teaching and care showcased a wonderful balance of intellect and heart. In 1988, at the request of then Mayor Art Agnos, Jim helped form a working group of religious leaders to take on the task of sheltering the homeless. That group became the still very active and important San Francisco Interfaith Council.
After Jim’s ‘retirement’ from Calvary in 1989, he and Migs continued serving the church in Asia—with appointments in India, Taiwan, China, Korea, Thailand and Indonesia. When they returned to the States, he served as Interim President of San Francisco Theological Seminary and then as scholar in residence at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
Upon moving to the Sequoias, an elder care residence located in San Francisco, Jim and Migs returned as part of Calvary’s congregation. Migs served as a Deacon, and in 2010, Jim even served a few months as ‘acting head of staff,’ following Laird Stuart’s departure to serve as Interim President at SFTS.
In his younger days, he was an avid hiker, becoming a Hike Master and an Eagle Scout, and world traveler, preaching in cities across the globe, calling himself “an internationalist,” and becoming an avid sailor, racing his 30-foot schooner on the East Coast.
Jim Emerson, one of the oldest members of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, used to say, with little irony, “If your mind is good, then you still can contribute; when your mind goes, then forget it!” Jim first joined Rotary in Denver in 1973 for the same reason he joined the ministry, because it offered “a life of leadership in society.” When asked for a word of advice from a successor at Central, he surprised her by saying “Join the downtown Rotary. You will learn so much about the downtown and it is service oriented.” That was Jim’s heart, to be involved and a positive change in his community. He joined the SF Club in 1979, and served as President of the Club in 1990-91, when it was the only Club in San Francisco and had more than 500 members.
Over the past nine decades, Jim’s mind has taken him from the Stanford campus, where he grew up because his father was on the faculty, to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he earned a Master of Divinity, then to the University Of Chicago School Of Divinity, where he was awarded a doctorate.
Originally a member of the Congregational Church, he became a Presbyterian, “for,” as he recalled, “a very highly theological reason, because I wanted to date a Presbyterian girl.”
As an undergraduate student at Stanford University, Jim planned to go into government service—a calling his son, John, fulfilled—but Jim took a course from Elton Trueblood, the Quaker campus pastor, which influenced him to go into the ministry.
In 1950, he spent four months in the Holy Land, visiting Mount Sinai (now Mount Moses) and parts of the Mediterranean, following in the footsteps of St. Paul, which he looked back upon as “an important part of my training.”
In 1952, Jim married Margaret Bonnell, whose father, Dr. John S. Bonnell, was pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. She became a clinical psychologist with a Freudian background, while Jim was a follower of Carl Rogers. Margaret Bonnell Emerson preceded her husband in death in January of 2009. Jim Emerson is survived by his sons, John and Jed, as well as his daughter and primary caregiver, Lynne. He was also proud to be grandfather and great-grandfather of a great and diverse group of stellar young people.
It is no exaggeration to say that Jim Emerson was one of the first two people in this country to put pastoral counseling on a professional level, specializing in patient-centered therapy focused on people going into second marriages. At that time, Jim said, pastors couldn’t officiate at weddings of divorced people unless they were “the innocent party,” but he believed “there’s no such thing as an innocent party in divorce.” Accordingly, his first book was called Divorce, the Church, and Remarriage.
Jim Emerson was not a “simple” Christian, but rather a man who at various times struggled with his faith. It was in Larchmont that Jim said he “lost my faith in God,” and considered leaving the ministry entirely. During this period, he spoke with one of the church elders and volunteered to resign, but the man advised him to “talk to us about what you believe, not what you don’t believe,” which Jim says “saved me for the ministry.” As a result of that experience, he wrote a book called The Dynamics of Forgiveness.
Celebration of Life
Friends are welcome for visitation from 4:00 PM to 6 PM, Friday, October 19, 2018 at Halsted N. Gray - Carew & English, 1123 Sutter Street, San Francisco California. The Funeral Service will take place the next day, October 20, 2018 at Calvary Presbyterian Church, 2515 Fillmore at Jackson Street, San Francisco California. Interment will be in the Fraser Cemetery, Fraser, Colorado and will be private.