Solana Beach Presbyterian Church members felt hurt and betrayed and outraged and surprised when they learned that for more than ten years their former pastor, a trim and handsome married man, had been sexually intimate with two church staff members, one of whom was the church’s associate pastor. No one guessed at the extramarital liaisons. For 14 years Donald McCullough had served as the church’s senior pastor. Everyone whom I queried said that the congregation loved McCullough, his wife, and their two daughters. Even women and men who still seethe with anger at McCullough’s duplicity, who deplore his treatment of his wife (“a lovely, lovely woman”), were quick to say that he was a “great intellect,” a “magnificent preacher,” and a leader under whose energetic management the church grew from 500 to 2000 members. In 1994 when McCullough and his family left Southern California for the Bay Area, where McCullough became San Francisco Theological Seminary’s president, Solana Beach Presbyterian members gave him a $20,000 sailboat as a going-away gift.
One church member with whom I talked learned about the infidelities only when the North County Times on May 24, 2000, reported that the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) had suspended the then-51-year-old seminary president from the ministry and ordered him to seek rehabilitation. The Times went on to note that McCullough had “committed ‘sexual abuse by misuse of office and position’ after he engaged in extramarital affairs with two staff members working under him from 1984 to 1994” and that after he left Solana Beach he had “continued an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with one of the women from the Solana Beach church” who had enrolled at the seminary where McCullough was president.
According to McCullough’s own account, one year after he and his wife settled in the Bay Area, he confessed his infidelities to her (“I admitted, with shame, that I had been unfaithful to her”). He entered psychotherapy with a former Roman Catholic nun, a woman trained as a clinical psychologist and Jungian analyst. Four years after the McCulloughs left Solana Beach, they were divorced; Mrs. McCullough returned to Southern California, where she still resides. By 1999, talk about McCullough’s infidelities had reached the Aero Drive offices of the Presbytery of San Diego. (According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, in current Presbyterian usage, a presbytery is the Church court, which has oversight of and jurisdiction over a particular area. A Presbyterian minister is ordained by it and is subject to it.) The San Diego Presbytery reported this talk to the Presbytery of San Francisco. The San Francisco Presbytery began an investigation. This investigation led in May 2000 to a trial and sentencing.
The North County Times on May 24, 2000, reported that “the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ruled the Rev. Donald McCullough can only seek reinstatement to the ministry if he completes a counseling and rehabilitation program. The therapy is to focus on the misuse of power to commit ‘sexual misconduct and sexual abuse’ and setting ‘boundaries appropriate for the clergy,’ according to the commission’s ruling.… McCullough also must acknowledge the ‘wrong’ he committed and show ‘genuine remorse and repentance’ to seek reinstatement, the ruling states. The San Francisco Presbytery, which handled the church trial, will decide if McCullough should be reinstated.”
Some Solana Beach church members with whom I spoke said that since 2000, when McCullough’s infidelities were made public, their church has been in turmoil and that members have decamped to other churches. Other members told me the church had not been in turmoil and that members had not left. Whatever the facts, it is clear that revelation of McCullough’s adulteries had its effect on the church. In the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church’s job-application form for senior pastor, a form that can be accessed on the church’s website (www.solanapres.org), there is a section that plainly refers to McCullough. “Guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit through a season of adversity resulting from impropriety in prior pastoral leadership, SBPC has been humbled and renewed throughout the congregation and staff and is now poised to move forward seeking God’s future plan for the church.”
The now-53-year-old McCullough also is poised to move forward. McCullough and one of the two women with whom he was intimate — not the associate pastor — were married in 1999. In May 2000, McCullough resigned his seminary presidency shortly before the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of San Francisco tried and sentenced him. The newlyweds then moved back to San Diego, to the new Mrs. McCullough’s Encinitas home. More recently, in November 2001, the San Francisco Presbytery voted 107-80 to restore McCullough “to active ministry in the Presbyterian Church.” And, McCullough wrote a book, his sixth, dedicating it to his second wife, Shari. Titled The Wisdom of Pelicans: A Search for Healing at the Water’s Edge, the book’s dust-jacket text notes that McCullough “found his world crashing down around him when a private confession of past infidelity became public knowledge. He lost his position, suffered the estrangement of family and friends, was cut off from church and community, and almost overnight found himself facing a bleak and uncertain future, with his faith utterly shaken.… McCullough hit bottom and stumbled forward, with nothing left to do but walk the ocean shore near his home. Then he began to notice pelicans.…”
None of the past or present Solana Beach church members with whom I talked had read The Wisdom of Pelicans. Asked if they planned to buy the book, all rather forcefully said, “No.” One spirited woman added, “I wouldn’t give that man another dime!” However, all the people with whom I talked did know about the book. Why they knew was that Sandi Dolbee, the Union-Tribune’s religion editor, on June 14 reported the book’s publication, mentioning that it had received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly (“McCullough’s greatest accomplishment is to talk openly and intimately about his despair without ever crossing the line into self-pity”) and a blurb from Nobel Peace Prize winner South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu (“This is a searingly honest account of one man’s descent into a personal hell of despair and recrimination, only to be surprised to find God there, and the subsequent exhilarating discovery of grace as he surfaced, guided by the wisdom of pelicans. A beautiful and deeply moving story”).