After he graduated from Fuller, McCullough in 1974 assumed his first pastorate at Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church in Seattle. “This was a little congregation in what then was called a ‘transitional neighborhood,’ which meant there was white flight with African-Americans and Asian-Americans moving in and a lot of fear and turmoil. My little church was all-white. And by God’s grace the church began the process of integration. We received our first black family and Asian families. We were there four years and the church grew. I still hold that church with great affection in my heart.”
In 1978 McCullough went to Edinburgh University in Scotland, where in 1980, he was awarded a Ph.D. His doctoral dissertation was on the relationship between the Church and the world in 20th-century theology. In his study of this relationship he drew primarily on the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, and Karl Barth, none of whom make for particularly easy reading.
In 1980 McCullough accepted a call to the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church. I talked with several people who recalled McCullough from his early days at the Solana Beach church. They remember him as energetic, incredibly bright and learned, ambitious, a passionate and interesting preacher, an effective organizer and leader. Several women, asked if McCullough, barely in his 30s when he first arrived, was handsome, said, yes, that he was fine-looking, although small in stature, “almost, you would say, ‘short.’ ” One of the men there when McCullough arrived noted that the young pastor “was an athlete who always kept himself in prime condition.” Asked if McCullough was “good with people,” another man said that he was, yes, but that you “always felt a wall go up with Don, you couldn’t really get close to him.”
McCullough remembered Solana Beach Presbyterian Church fondly. “In many ways, I’ll always look back and consider it the highlight of my ministry. It was a positive congregation, highly energetic; we reached out and did fantastic programs. Sometimes you hear people criticize the Church about not wanting to change. My experience with the Solana Beach church was that they were very, very open to trying new things and there was a great spirit of grace in those days in the congregation — that we’re all of us broken people, but God’s grace is for sinners. So it was a wonderful spirit and for that reason attracted a lot of people.
“I didn’t want to become a seminary president. But I felt called to do that and I left [the Solana Beach church] with deep grief. Probably every day I was a seminary president I missed being a pastor. People would talk about my promotion to being a seminary president. I never felt it that way. I always felt that it was just something else I was called to do. I missed preaching every Sunday to the same group of people. I missed being involved in people’s lives, sharing their joys and sorrows. That was wonderful.”
“What kind of hours did you keep in your job at Solana Beach?”
“Long hours. Maybe too long. Maybe that was part of my problem. But I had great staff and great lay leaders. It wasn’t as though I did it all. But it was a large church, and as the church grows, there’s more specialization amongst the staff. In some ways the hardest-size church to pastor is a midsize church because it’s large enough that they have expectations of programs like a large church. And yet, at the same time, it’s small enough so that they expect one-to-one contact with their pastor.”
I studied Solana Beach Presbyterian’s website before talking with McCullough. Mentioned on that site is the church’s membership in the Confessing Church Movement. I asked McCullough about that movement.
“In the Presbyterian Church right now, there is significant controversy. It’s gone on for 25 years, an argument, a fight really, there’s no nice way to put it, between those who believe that practicing homosexuals should be received into the ministry, be ordained as elders, deacons, and pastors, and those who do not. The Church has agreed that nonpracticing homosexuals — in other words, homosexuals who would say that they’re celibate — can be ordained, and the Church agrees that they are welcome to be part of the Church and worship.
“What happened is that several years ago, those who are opposed to ordination of homosexuals wanted to raise this issue to the status of a confessing issue, saying that there were two or three cardinal things that they confess. One is the authority of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, I think the second was the authority of scripture, and I think the third was that all sexual activity should be within bonds of marriage. So a number of churches have joined together — a minority within the denomination, but on the other hand, they reflect a growing number — to say that they are part of the ‘Confessing Church.’
“I have problems with this and why I do is that it’s clearly adopting the language of the Confessing Church Movement that took place in Germany during the Nazi era. Then and there the Gospel really was at stake. But to try to imply that this is the same kind of issue I think is certainly wrong. But that’s my opinion. Anyway, that’s why the Solana Beach church has that on their website, I guess. But it’s a recent development. It was long after I left the church that it became part of that movement.
“But one thing that relates to my whole story is that given this present controversy in the Church, any matters related to sexual misconduct raise the intensity of the debate. Let me put it that way. The emotions are already pretty intense and raw because of it, so that’s part of how it plays, I think, in my story.”
I asked McCullough’s Viking publicist if McCullough would answer questions about the adulteries. She said that he would. I asked McCullough, “Did you feel awful after the first time that you had sex out of marriage?”