Sandi Dolbee, after she talked with McCullough, telephoned the Rev. Roberta Hestenes, who, until 2000, was Solana Beach Presbyterian Church’s senior pastor. Dolbee read Hestenes several passages from McCullough’s book. Hestenes responded, saying, “He always portrayed himself as the victim, the persecuted one. He hasn’t changed.”
Even a brief perusal of McCullough’s book shows that McCullough is as exasperated and as disappointed with the Church as many church members are with him. “It’s hard enough to manage the challenges of life without the harassment of those who feed off your difficulties…the Church leader who used me to vent resentment of her own husband’s unfaithfulness; faculty members eager to get even with a president who had threatened their power; closet adulterers channeling their own guilt toward me; former ‘friends’ who have disappeared… I really want…to set the record straight, to tell the whole truth, to strike back.”
McCullough goes on to write: “I have not been able to do this, of course. My every move is scrutinized by individuals and committees to determine whether I’m really repentant, whether I’m ready for admission back into Church leadership. Rarely does anyone actually speak with me, presumably because this might disrupt the preferred flow of information: someone makes an idle comment, perhaps in ignorance, which becomes gossip, which grows into rumor, which gets accepted as ‘fact.’… A couple years ago, some in my former congregation were saying I didn’t understand the hurt I had caused, but when I offered to meet with them to express my sorrow, I was accused of meddling and being manipulative.… It seems that anything I do or say will be used against me.…”
When I finished McCullough’s book, I didn’t know how I felt about McCullough the person. What I thought of McCullough the writer was that he’d done a good job getting his story onto paper. He isn’t afraid to make himself look bad (“I caused a sexual scandal”). He writes clean, active, and graceful sentences and he pays attention to how his prose sounds, the latter no doubt the result of years of sermon writing. I quickly found the pelicans tedious, but I’m not that fond of more than a few paragraphs at a time of nature writing. I also grew weary of McCullough’s attempts to locate light at the end of tunnels. I think that McCullough, as a writer, is at his best when he fumbles in the dark.
But I was curious, about McCullough the person and his history. I wanted to know more than can be learned by reading his book and querying his former parishioners. I made arrangements with the publicity representative at Viking, the publisher of The Wisdom of Pelicans, to talk with McCullough via telephone. We ended on a recent warm summer afternoon by talking for several hours. After our talk, McCullough also answered by e-mail several more questions that I had.
Donald McCullough was born in 1949 in Ellensburg, Washington. His father, a minister, moved the family to Seattle when McCullough was ready to enter second grade. In Seattle McCullough’s father served as pastor of Bethany Community Church, an independent church; the elder McCullough would remain in this position for 36 years. The senior McCulloughs now live in Temecula.
As a child and teenager, Donald McCullough — “Don,” people called him — participated enthusiastically in church activities. “I grew up,” he said, “in the community of faith.”
Asked if he was one of those bad, rowdy preacher’s kids, McCullough laughed. “No. Not until later in my life. I was not rebellious outwardly at all. It might have been healthier had I done it that way.”
The younger McCullough felt no interest in doing what his father did. After high school, he entered Seattle Pacific University. “I intended on going into law school,” he said, “possibly into politics. But in my senior year, I felt a deep inner change of heart that happened dramatically, that now, in retrospect, I would say was a call of God that was taking place in my life and I just completely lost interest in law school and decided the only thing I wanted to do was to go to seminary.”
Nothing extraordinary happened in his life at that point, McCullough said. “Looking back, all I have is a theological answer. I think God reached down and picked me up from one side of the fence and sat me down on the other. I can’t point to any kind of crisis or anything of that sort, there was just a change that took place within life.”
Did his father have some influence on this decision to abandon plans for law school?
“I didn’t go into the ministry to please my father, not consciously, although there might have been unconscious modes in that regard. He tried to talk me out of it because he worried that I was going into the ministry because of him. That was not the case. I felt this inner call. It wasn’t like any kind of sacrifice, that I was setting aside going to law school so that I could become a minister. The truth is, I lost interest in the thought of studying about contracts when what I wanted to do was study God. And when I got to seminary it seemed completely right. I loved it.”
McCullough entered Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. He had married Karen Lee Jensen before he graduated from college, when he was 21. Several years older than McCullough, Karen McCullough worked as a teacher and supported McCullough during the three years he was at Fuller.
Fuller, McCullough explained, “is a Protestant seminary in the Reformed tradition. However, it had, when I was there, and still does, many Presbyterians. There were more Presbyterians than at most Presbyterian seminaries. So it was a place where one could easily be influenced by Presbyterianism. I certainly was. Seminary was fun for me because I love studying. Some people join the pastoral ministry because they love people and are gregarious and not necessarily students. But for me, I love the books and the studying.”