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”).
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.”
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?”
“Yes. I never, ever justified it to myself in the sense of saying, ‘Well, it’s okay because of this or that.’ No, I mean, it was wrong and I knew it was wrong.”
“You must,” I said, “have felt really bad.”
“Yes, I really did. I want to phrase this carefully. God uses all of us, even our brokenness, and I think there was a sense in which even that sense of my own failure, my own sin, my own brokenness, sensitized me to the hurt in other people. I was dependent on God’s grace. And I knew it, and so therefore when I preached about the grace of God in Jesus Christ, it was not to other people, it was to all of us, me included, as probably the chief among sinners. I felt great sorrow and guilt and remorse and shame. Yet at the same time, God used me in the midst of it.”
“Were you surprised by what you did?”
“By what, my failure? Yes. Looking back, I would say, ‘Yes, I surprised myself.’ But something like this doesn’t just happen, it happens gradually. It’s little steps. So it’s not like one day I just went out and committed adultery. It wasn’t that dramatic. It was small steps and small compromises along the way.”
“Yes. And then you find yourself, it’s out of a close friendship and deep affection and love, and then down the road, you look back and say, ‘What have I done?’ That was a surprise, but that wasn’t even half the surprise of another surprise. The biggest surprise was that God continued to use me. The biggest surprise was not my failure. The biggest surprise, then and now, to this moment we’re talking, is God’s grace. That was an even bigger surprise.”
I said I thought that it must have been difficult to step into the pulpit and preach, once the adulteries began.
“That’s a good question and I’m sure people ask that. Or would wonder about that. First of all, just at a psychological level, to carry on in that role you have to become a master of compartmentalization. And that was part of my problem. I knew that rationally, but we’re talking at a deep emotional level, there’s a kind of compartmentalizing that could take place.
“Another way to describe what happened is this, and I think this is the truth: I never saw myself as preaching Don McCullough. I was preaching Jesus Christ. So, yes, there was that part of me that was broken, that I knew was a sinner, but I never claimed to be anything other than a sinner. And it wasn’t just rhetoric on my part. Before my congregation I said, ‘I too am a broken man.’ They didn’t know how broken I was at that point. But I was speaking the truth. And my point was, every Sunday, not to set myself up as a paragon of faith and virtue, saying, ‘Follow Don McCullough.’ I was preaching Jesus Christ, that’s the thing that I wanted the congregation to focus on and to be aware of. So that’s how I went along day by day and week by week. I would feel guilty when I let those two worlds collide within me. Absolutely.”
I said that I thought it would have been difficult to work with his staff and to have a secret as big as McCullough’s secret.
“Yes. That probably was the hardest thing, truthfully. I would be close to people — the staff and the leaders of the church with whom I was very, very close — and have this secret.”
“People who loved you.”
“Yes. And they did love me. They loved me so much and I loved them. It was a deep mutual affection. Part of the problem was that I didn’t trust that love.”
“You must have been hungry for more.”
“Yes, well, I was. I was in an unhealthy marriage. Part of my failure was that I did not address that directly and openly and honestly — by going to counseling. I was afraid. I was afraid of the sense of failure, I was afraid if people saw I was in counseling.”
“Maybe you were afraid that if you got into counseling your marriage would succeed and you’d have to stay in it.”
“Well, that could be. That could very well be. I was afraid of a lot at that point, but I didn’t trust the love that the congregation had for me enough to say, ‘Look, I’m broken, my wife and I are in trouble, I need to go into counseling.’ Instead, I escaped in unhealthy and wrong ways, and that was part of my failure.”
“Was it wonderful in a way to be in love and to have that romance, though?”
“Yes, sure. Of course. Because it was love. I mean, it wasn’t just…I’ve been through four years of psychotherapy, trying to understand it all. But there was never any evidence of any kind of predatory behavior or addiction or anything like that. That wasn’t my particular problem. There was a deep hunger for love, and there was love. And it did, yes, it felt…you know, Eros is energizing. That’s the thing about it. I mean, God gave us this erotic capacity.
“ ‘Eros’ is a word that gets shortchanged amongst Christians. It’s too often contrasted with ‘agape’ as a word for love. And of course agape is the God-like love of self-sacrifice and giving, whereas Eros is linked with sexual love. But the truth is, Eros is that love that reaches out and wants to be filled up and expand. There’s an energy to Eros that is longing for union. And behind it, what it really is, is the longing for God.”
The power of Eros, I said, certainly was something that Paul Tillich addressed.
“Did you ever think, when this was happening, about Tillich?” (Tillich, one of the greatest of modern Protestant theologians, was infamous for his flirtations.)
“Well, yes. You mean in terms of his lifestyle?”
“Yes, I did. I read his biography. Of course, I’d read that years before. It wasn’t at the same time.”
“You’d read his wife Hannah Tillich’s book?” (Published after her husband’s death, Hannah Tillich’s From Time to Time revealed what people who knew the Tillichs already knew — the great man was an irrepressible flirt who, at least on occasion, committed adultery.)
“This was an unhappy woman.” McCullough paused, then went on. “You can’t know his [Paul Tillich’s] theology very well without wondering about the relationship there in terms of his theology of union, of coming together. I think there was interplay there, but I never, I want to make clear, I never would have ever used that as any kind of self-justification. What it said to me was that God used Paul Tillich too. All of us are broken people, and all of us have our secrets, and so therefore, for whatever reason, God continues to use me. And that, looking back on it, is the truth. God did use me during those years.
“The irony, and this is really something when you think about it, is that in those days I was put up on a pedestal and was in fact used very effectively by God but had this terrible secret and brokenness. But now, on the other hand, I am much further down the road of personal growth, I do not have that secret, I am a more complete and, to use a biblical word, righteous man. But now I’m viewed as being, well, let me put it this way, I’m no longer on the pedestal.”
“You’re kind of a pariah.”
“Yes, there’s an irony there, don’t you think?”
“How,” I asked, “did people not know about the affairs? Did they not want to know?”
“I think that’s part of it. I think it’s probably a combination of things. As I say, it happens gradually, and at a certain point you’re being cautious and very careful and you get your little patterns and you get good at lying. But I think there is also the case that people didn’t want to know. There’s a part of us that wants our heroes, people up on a pedestal, and we want them to stay there. We don’t want to know about their sins. At one level, we know that every pastor is a sinner. But on the other hand, we’d just as soon not know about it and like to think that he’s a little more holy than the rest of us. I think part of that comes out of a deep instinct that was probably an understandable and good one, and that is that people want hope. They want to think, ‘Well, this guy, if he can make it, if he really believes this, then there’s hope for me.’ This is one of the things that I’ve learned since leaving the pastorate and through therapy and my study of psychology. There is this powerful dynamic of projection that takes place. Psychological projection. People project onto a leader…”
“…what they need,” I said.
“What they need. The mistake is for leaders to take that personally and believe this is who they are. People project onto leaders. I don’t care whether it’s a politician or pastor, what they need and hope for and want, they project onto the leader, and that person becomes — to use Ernest Becker’s words — the hero, who’s going to help us defeat death. So there’s all this good stuff projected. But on the other hand, and this is what I painfully discovered, when the hero falls off the pedestal, then the reverse takes place. It becomes a mirror image. When that fall happens, all the negative stuff is projected onto the person. At one point I was feeling sorry for myself and I realized that I never complained when the positive stuff was being projected onto me. Now that more negative stuff is projected onto me than I deserved, why was I complaining about that?”
“Was there a time when this was going on that you almost got caught?”
“Yes, there were close calls.”
I said that I wondered if in a way these close calls were not exciting.
“Yes, probably. I suppose there is a part of me that, like a lot of people, likes the rush of adrenaline.”
I said that having married as young as McCullough did, perhaps there was not a lot of “dancing in the dark” in his life until the adulteries began.
“Yes,” he answered, “exactly. I think that relates to what I joked about earlier when I said that I probably should have been a more rebellious preacher’s kid. I grew up very much within the straight lines. I’ve always been, still am, a very disciplined person. One of the things my psychotherapist helped me understand is that the human being reaches for a balance, and you can be very disciplined and you can repress all sorts of stuff into what the Jungians call your shadow, but it’s going to come out one way or another. And it’s going to bite you in the backside. If I had to analyze it psychologically, I spent my life pushing things down into my shadow, living out of my persona, a very disciplined and organized persona. The persona is not necessarily bad. We have to have a persona to relate to the world and to carry out our responsibilities.
“I didn’t honor that chaotic side of me. I didn’t honor that rebellious adolescent within me, or, as you say, ‘the dancing in the dark,’ that sort of mischief maker. And you hold them down long enough, it gets out one way or another. And it did in a destructive way. That doesn’t justify anything I did. I think that’s a lot of what happened. There was the chaotic, defective side of me, or the side of me that wanted to break the rules. And so in one sense it did it. It did it in a fairly controlled way, in a secret, quiet way. But it did it. And it broke out in that. That’s one of the things that my analyst and psychotherapist helped me understand.”
Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, in 1988 and again in 1991, was caught engaging, or, trying to engage, in extramarital sex. Because, as I understood the timeline of McCullough’s life, these were years during which he was committing or had already committed adultery, I wondered how McCullough felt when he heard about Swaggart.
“Number one, I was shocked like everybody, but I suppose I felt sorry for him more than anything because I could see how all of us have a certain double life and I felt he was ridiculed. My problem was, I didn’t have a natural affinity towards him or his style of ministry. So there’s a part of me that was turned off by the Jimmy Swaggart approach to ministry to begin with. But also I could see that the people who were coming after him, they had their own problems. It takes a sinner to know a sinner and, gosh, all of us have our secrets and we never learn.”
I said I found it interesting the degree to which the Christian Church, Protestant and Catholic, focused strongly on sexual sin, on the sins of the flesh.
“Well, the Church’s reaction to me, I had to understand that this was about sex. And sex is something that, in all of us, is this deep and unconscious boiling cauldron of longings, of wishings, of guilt, of unfulfilled fantasies, of regret, of feelings of impotence. And in every person there’s this sort of cauldron when it comes to sex. Freud maybe went to an extreme, but he understood that this is such a deep, fundamental drive that so determines our psyche. And the truth is, it is.
“So what happens is, when there’s a sexual failure from somebody who should not be guilty of a sexual failure, it opens up this cauldron within us. I realized at a certain point that the reaction that so many people were having to me wasn’t just about me, it was about them too and the stuff that they brought to it, their own hurt, their own fantasies, or jealousies or fears. All of that gets into play. That’s why within the Church, the Church simply can’t deal with sex in an objective way. It brings so much emotion to it. Again, that is not to justify anything. I failed in this. I blew it.”
I said again that it seemed to me that the Church, Roman Catholic and Protestant, did tend to strongly concentrate on sexual sins.
McCullough did not disagree. “Jesus spoke very little about sexual matters, and He talked a lot about greed and pride and a judgmental spirit. But you don’t see church trials about these things.”
“What was your church trial like?”
“Who’s at a church trial?”
“It’s very much like a court of law. There’s so much in the Presbyterian denomination that is parallel to the U.S. Constitution and legal system. But it is very much like a civil trial in that there are attorneys on both sides, there’s a prosecutor who’s out to get you. In this case, there wasn’t just one judge. There was a panel of judges.”
“Was it held in secret?”
“No, it should have been, in my judgment. The reason I say it should have been is, in terms of the process, if I had been found innocent my career still would have been ruined.”
“Plus the women’s reputations.”
“Exactly. But at the very first five minutes of the trial, somebody moved that it be public and open to the press and so it was and there were people there from the San Francisco Chronicle. It was very public and anybody could come. And there were lawyers on both sides, and they called witnesses. It’s just like a civil trial. It was awful. My therapist, the ex–Roman Catholic nun, said to me, ‘Don, the only word I can use to describe that was “dark.” It was dark.’ There was a heaviness that is so hard to describe. It was humiliating to be so public. And it was hard because there was nothing I could say at that point.
“Now, in retrospect, I think I would have been better just to throw in the towel, to walk away, resign. I didn’t because I didn’t feel God releasing me to do that. I felt that it would be better for me and for the Church to come to some healing together on this. That if the Gospel was true for everybody, it was also true for me, and if it wasn’t true for me, it wasn’t true for everybody, and that we needed together to come to this and that’s why I stayed in it. But at the time, I sat there thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’
“It was held in First Presbyterian Church of Oakland. It’s a very dark building and it was in this dark room and that added to the sense of oppression. But there was nothing I could say. There were people that had decided that no matter what…” McCullough paused, then went on, “I want to be careful. I’m trying not to sound defensive with anybody that I talk with because I don’t feel that way really. I mean, I know I’m the one who failed, but part of the difficulty was that I felt that, at so many points, I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.
“For example, the prosecution brought a witness who was supposedly an expert, although I don’t know why she was considered an expert. She didn’t have a Ph.D., she was not a psychologist, but she had an interest in the ministry and sexual abuse matters, so apparently they thought she was. She never once talked to me; she didn’t know me. She said, ‘Don McCullough, after all, is a tall steeple pastor who is a gifted preacher.’ ”
I interrupted to ask, “What does it mean, a ‘tall steeple pastor’?”
“At a large church. You know. ‘Tall steeple.’ ‘That he is a preacher from a large church,’ this woman said, ‘of course means that he’s eloquent of tongue and therefore you can’t trust what he says. Because he can just manipulate language.’ And then, five minutes later she said, ‘But, you know, if he cries and breaks down, well then, of course, he’s playing to the camera.’ Now, think about that. If I said anything that sounded coherent, that wasn’t to be trusted. But if I broke down and sobbed, that wasn’t to be trusted because, of course, I was just playing to the camera. I sat there thinking, ‘There’s nothing I can say here, nothing.’ ”
McCullough’s lawyer, Robert Long, a trial lawyer and partner at Latham and Watkins in Los Angeles, was a seminary trustee and an elder in the Presbyterian Church. McCullough said that Long volunteered his services. “He told me that he had had a couple of ministers who had been in the same situation. We developed a very close friendship. He was magnificent. But it was over before it began, in many ways. So the fact that he didn’t win the case I don’t hold against him at all.
“He just was so much stronger than the prosecutor, but the problem was, he was a tall, good-looking man. I’m not trying to reduce it to all of this, but one of the things that went against me was that you had these two men on one side and the prosecutor was a woman. And a lot of dynamics came into play. It was very, very difficult, that trial. It was just awful.”
“The women didn’t file a complaint against you?”
“No, no. See, this was part of what I’ve had to deal with in terms of my own feelings and hurt and anger at the Church’s reaction. No, they didn’t. And they wouldn’t have. I had confessed this, I went into counseling, I had even confessed it to a group of pastors that was kind of an accountability group. I had been through years of psychotherapy. And, in fact, when it first came to the Presbytery of San Francisco, the clerk who is the official who administered this whole process said, ‘Don, frankly we’ve never dealt with anybody like you who has already confessed and who’s not in denial and who has already done everything we would ask anybody to do.’ She said, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do.’ Well, they made that very clear. They didn’t know what they were going to do. And the problem was, there’s a statute of limitations of three years in the Presbyterian Book of Order on sexual misconduct. So they couldn’t get me on that. So they let it drag on for months with no communication.
“A whole year of this, of just wondering what is going on, and the truth is, they didn’t know what to do. And then the rumors began to grow down in Solana Beach and they felt like they had to do something, and essentially, when it got down to it, they had to ignore everything I had done, all the counseling, and they charged me with sexual abuse, for which there is no statute of limitations; in the Presbyterian Book of Order, sexual abuse is defined in the usual ways of force or rape with a minor or that sort of thing. But then there is one little phrase that says, ‘or misuse of office.’ Well, that’s how they built the entire case. The Presbytery of San Francisco has a policy that essentially says that any pastor in any romantic relationship with somebody in the congregation is by definition guilty of sexual abuse. So that even a single pastor, let’s say, dating someone in the congregation, is guilty of sexual abuse. That is just by definition. So if I had an affair with my next-door neighbor or something, that would not have been considered — they wouldn’t have even dealt with that. So the case was, ‘Was there a misuse of office?’ and this was where the whole case came down. And there was some misunderstanding of that because I had confessed. I was not denying that I had committed adultery, and I never had denied that. I’ve never lied about it, never denied it, since it came out. I owned that. But where the disagreement was is on this business of misuse of office, because the truth could not show, in any circumstance, how I used my office. There are some who would say that just because you’re in that position of authority, you’re using your office, so therefore the women involved could not have made a rational decision. They would be so influenced by your collar and that position.
“And I understand the argument. Life is more complex than that. In fact, the two women…they knew me very well, they did not treat me as this person upon a pedestal. That’s part of why I was attracted to them. We had developed a close friendship. Had I had an affair with somebody outside the church, who looked at me as some kind of minister of this large church, that might have more of an element of power than somebody inside.
“So I felt that if the Presbytery was going to ruin somebody’s career, essentially, and destroy a ministry, they should show exactly how I used the office. We brought an expert in from UCLA who specializes in sexual abuse cases and she investigated a long time.”
I interrupted to ask, “How did you pay for this?”
“It was hard. It cost a lot of money and I’m still suffering for it financially. But she [the expert from UCLA] found no evidence of misuse of office. She said she’s developed a standard for ministers, like, ‘Does he quote scripture?’ There was none of that. But, again, as I say, the Presbytery had already decided, essentially, before the trial even began, that any pastor in any sexual abuse was guilty. Period. So that became the argument. So sometimes people thought, ‘Well, he was trying to say he wasn’t guilty.’ That’s not the case. I was guilty of adultery. I was guilty of breaking my ordination vows. I was guilty before God. And I bore more responsibility because I was the pastor. I never want to give the impression that I’m putting the blame on anybody else.”
(I was curious as to why the second woman, also a Presbyterian minister, was not charged with adultery and tried. In fact, this woman now heads a good-sized church in Northern California. McCullough, in e-mail, answered my query with this: “Because I was the Head of Staff, and she was an Associate Pastor, I was considered the guilty party. The Presbytery’s case against me was ‘misuse of office,’ and so the fact that I was this woman’s supervisor seemed the relevant issue.”)
“Who,” I asked, “busted you?”
“Who busted you to the Solana Beach church?”
“Well…I can only tell you what I think happened.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I have to be careful what I say here. There are other people involved that I don’t want to… One of the instances where there were a couple of people who really wanted it to get out for their own purposes, so they did. They began to speak and began to talk about it.”
“How did they learn about it? When I read the book, I could never figure that out. You don’t ever really say in the book.”
“I don’t. I’m hesitating here not because I don’t want to tell you but because I’m trying to be protective.”
Almost a year passed from the time McCullough learned from the seminary’s board of trustees that rumors had surfaced about his infidelities to the trial and sentencing in May 2000. “It was a year before it went to trial. And during that year, they [the San Francisco Presbytery] wouldn’t communicate with me. Here I was running a seminary, traveling all over the country. And it’s hanging over my head, ‘What is going to happen?’ ”
“Had you remarried by then?”
“By the time of the trial, not when the investigation began.”
“And you married one of the women with whom you had an affair?”
“Yes, I did. And I didn’t put that in the book because, again, I want to tell my story, not hers. She has a family and she’s been a victim in some ways of the whole thing.”
“But don’t you think that marrying one of the women changes the ‘accusations of sexual abuse story’?”
“It does to me. That’s what she’s always said. I mean, she found it a very sort of anti-female approach here, as though she as a woman just really didn’t have the ability to see me as a man, she was just overwhelmed by my position and my authority, which is, of course, contradicted now by everything because I have nothing. And she loves me with all of her heart.” McCullough paused for a moment, then said, “Yes, it does make a total difference. I mean, she loves me deeply.”
“I think that’s an important part of the story, that you married one of the women whom you were accused of abusing.”
“And certainly didn’t want to push this to any kind of a trial.”
“You were married when the trial began.”
“Yes, exactly. Yes, that’s part of this story.”
“Certainly,” I said, “you can read about this in the old news clips.”
“We just moved up to Hidden Meadows, a lovely little community. Sandi Dolbee [from the Union-Tribune] did the article. I said, ‘I’d really appreciate your not mentioning Shari,’ and she said, ‘Well, you know, we did earlier in another story.’ Shari that night spent a sleepless night because she said, ‘I was just hoping we could start a new life out there in Hidden Meadows, without my neighbors knowing everything.’ Then again, she married a husband who writes a book about these things, so I guess that’s what we expect.”
I asked, again, about the year before the trial started.
“Oh, it was terrible. It was so draining. You talk about the need to compartmentalize. There have got to be very, very few jobs in this country that are harder than being president of an academic institution with all the various constituencies and the faculty hounding me and the burnout day by day. I’d come home at night and I’d collapse.”
McCullough raised $11.5 million for the seminary. I said to McCullough that I thought to raise money, as he did, that one needed at least to appear to be rather jolly.
“Yes, you have to keep up a positive spirit. We were going through this building campaign. We transformed the campus and restored two of the most important buildings on the campus that were in ruins when I got there. From the Loma Prieta earthquake. And by God’s grace we raised the money to restore them. At just the time when we should have been celebrating, a time when I should have felt a great sense of accomplishment, at that very moment is when all this broke, and it’s as though that achievement was just gone.
“And because it happened at Solana Beach, it was as though that part of my history was gone too. And so that year that I spent as I wrote the book — the following year  — there was this sense that I had died. I had died. In the sense that my past was gone. I couldn’t go back and visit my congregation. In fact, that was taken away from me.”
“The San Francisco Presbytery, once your trial ended, said you weren’t to communicate with Solana Beach Presbyterian church members, didn’t they?”
“Yes. What happened is, the trial was divided into two parts. And the second part was my so-called punishment, and this was just truly unbelievable. There were things said at the trial from people who testified under oath, and they lied, just thoroughly lied, and I’m sorry to report that about the Church. But, nevertheless, they originally said that I wasn’t supposed to have contact. But then afterwards, unofficially, the Presbytery, the committee that had charge of me, realized, ‘This is crazy. The man is moving to San Diego. We can’t tell him that he can’t have friends, can’t be friends with these people.’
“And so they changed it. But of course they didn’t tell anybody at Solana Beach that. I mean, they told the pastors, but the pastors didn’t bother to tell their congregation. But we made it through, but it was a hard couple of years. Essentially what happened is there was a wise Presbytery executive up in San Francisco who said, ‘Don, what the censure said is you have to go to be tested, evaluated, and then go to psychotherapy, and then at a certain period, when your therapist thinks you’re okay to be brought back into the Church, you need to be retested again and then apply for readmission to the Church.’ ”
“What were you tested for?”
“My psychological fitness. Well, so, this guy who’s a Presbytery executive said, ‘Don, I don’t think you’re ever going to get reinstated. The way it is,’ he said, ‘the way these things go, committees change personnel and people.’ He said, ‘I think what you have to do is, in a sense, raise the stakes. You need to ratchet it up.’ He suggested that I go to the Menninger Clinic. I’m sure you’ve heard of that. I think it’s probably the finest diagnostic clinic in America. Certainly one of the great psychological clinics in the world. And with an impeccable reputation. So I thought, ‘That is a good idea.’ ”
“Menninger’s,” I said, “they’re expensive.”
“Yes, it was. It cost me a lot of money. I went to the Menninger Clinic that very summer, just a month or two after the trial. I went back to Topeka. They assemble a team, is what they do, a psychiatrist, a clinical psychologist who specializes in testing, and a social worker. I’m telling you, they put me through the most thorough evaluation you could imagine. It was intense. Oh, it was intense. I was a little bit on edge, because what are they going to find? I mean, how many people can go through that sort of thing without finding something in your life?
“At the end of the time that I was there, all four of us sat in the room together, and they said, ‘We believe you should be restored to the ministry immediately. You have made excellent psychological progress.’ And I’ll never forget, the psychiatrist took me by the hand, and she said, ‘Don, we believe your best years of ministry are ahead of you.’
“This is the Menninger Clinic. Well, what happened then is that they wrote the official report to the Presbytery. The Presbytery hid the report for six months. Wouldn’t even let it go to the committee.”
“Well, that’s a good question and I struggle with it constantly. The only thing I could come up with — and it’s been a concern by people at the Presbytery — is that it would raise too many questions. The Presbytery as a whole, the people who weren’t involved in the trial, these people would say, ‘Why wasn’t he tested before the trial? If he’s already made such excellent psychological progress, what is the meaning of all this punishment?’ See, essentially what happened is, the Presbytery had to ignore the four years of psychotherapy. They just ignored it because, had they taken it seriously, it would have left them nothing to do. You follow what I’m saying?”
“Why did the Presbyterian Church hold the investigation and trial and sentencing in the Bay Area, when the abuse of power took place in Solana Beach?”
“I will always wonder that. It’s a question that I’ve asked myself a lot and I think there are probably a variety of answers. I think, first of all, I was a very prominent person. I was in a very well known position. I was well known.”
“But,” I said, “weren’t there other people in the church also committing adultery?”
“Yes. Absolutely. And moreover, as we talked about earlier, the Presbyterian Church is just torn apart by sexual matters these days, and then you add into that what we talked also about, the individual people are dealing with their own unconscious sexual issues. And so here you have a prominent person, president of the seminary, for goodness’ sake.”
In Trust magazine, according to its website, has as its mission “to educate and inform those responsible for the governance of graduate theological schools of North America.” I had read in In Trust an article by Kenneth A. Briggs, formerly the New York Times religion editor, in which Briggs stated, about McCullough, that “Seminary trustees chose him, in fact, partly to help shed some of the school’s liberal edge by making it more ‘centrist.’ He was expected to attract more students sympathetic to the conservative side of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
I asked McCullough, “Did the seminary faculty like you?”
“The whole thing was so politicized. I was in a highly politicized position. Some did, some didn’t. I mean, you can’t be a president of an academic institution and do something without there being a lot of faculty that don’t like you, and so they came after me. There were different political agendas. I’m really trying to be factual about it. I’m not saying this to shift the blame.”
I said that all this must have cost him a lot of money. McCullough said, yes, that it did. “But my defense attorney so believed in this that he contributed his time. I would have just gone under. I just couldn’t have done it.”
“Did you ever think of suing the Church?”
“Yes. The thought crossed my mind at times, especially when things would happen where it felt to me as though they were just violating their own principles and processes. But in the end, I decided to leave it in God’s hands.”
“And to write a book.”
“And to write a book and to try to learn from it. What is God teaching me in the midst of this? The thing I want people to take away from the book is not, look at what the Church has done in response to what I’ve done, but, here is a man who, because of these sets of circumstances, here’s a man who’s been broken, who knows what it is to be depressed, to have his identity stripped from him, who gets all beat up, and precisely at that point, he encountered a living God and the grace of God.”
“Do you still go to Presbyterian churches?”
“Not here in San Diego. My wife and I were attending Christ Lutheran in Pacific Beach. There’s a great feeling of grace and acceptance there. I’ve had little contact with Presbyterians in San Diego. I don’t think they quite know what to do with me in their midst.”
I asked about McCullough’s restoration to the ministry.
“It happened in November 2001. The ceremony was held in January. That was hard, frankly, because I felt it was for the Presbytery and not for me. It was in San Francisco. It felt, in some sense, like they were patting themselves on the back for restoring me.”
“Did you have to say what a bad boy you were?”
“No, I didn’t say a word. They tried to turn it into a worship thing. There was a wonderful prayer that was said; everything that was said was just fine. But it was, again, kind of humiliating. ‘Let’s bring the big sinner up in front of all of us.’ ”
“Didn’t you feel kind of goofy?”
“I did. There was a mixture of feelings. Let me put it that way. I was very grateful to be restored and I am grateful for that. The question is, ‘Does the Presbyterian Church, does the Church in general, really believe in restoration?’ I mean, they do believe in it formally, officially, but will I ever be restored in the sense of received back as a leader in the Church? I don’t know.”
McCullough explained that he was “temporarily excluded. I wasn’t defrocked, that’s the final step. I was temporarily excluded from the practice of ordained ministry.”
“You must have missed that.”
“I did because it had been so much a part of my identity. Particularly, I think, for men in our culture, so much of our identity is tied up in what we do, our profession, our calling. This is part of the growing edge for me, shall we say, when that’s taken away from — when that was taken away from me, then who am I? Who am I, for goodness’ sake? I learned that I am something different from what I do, that my position does not fully define me, and that, that was a huge growing experience for me, a wonderful thing. I was exiled from the Church. I was excluded. It was not simple for my wife and me to go to church for several months. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to it, it was just so painful.”
McCullough and his second wife were not married in church, but at La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. Officiating, McCullough said, were “two different ministers, one a very loving, wonderful minister friend. It was a beautiful, beautiful ceremony. The whole thing was deeply moving, but we just felt exiled, excluded. I just can’t tell you how hard it was, even just to go to church, because we felt so set apart. I can tell you that when my wife and I first received Communion in a church — it was actually an Episcopal church — I mean, we just wept. The minister looked at us and said, ‘The body of Christ.’ I just…even now, I get choked up telling you about it because it was so moving, that, yeah, ‘This is for me.’ ”
I asked why he returned to Southern California.
“We came back to San Diego for primarily two reasons: one is my wife had a home down here and so we had someplace to come to…”
“Because you didn’t have any money.”
“Yes, right, exactly. No job. And second, our family is down here. My parents, her mother, her kids, so the families are all down here. So we came down here, but it was not easy living in this community. And my wife would go into grocery stores and longtime friends would look at her and turn around and walk the other way. Well, that’s painful. That’s painful and it is painful.”
“How did your parents respond?”
“They were fantastic. They were hurt when they first found out about all of this, as any parents would be.”
“I’ll bet your dad wasn’t surprised.”
“That’s interesting that you would say that. You may be right. He knew his son pretty well. But they were hurt. When they heard about this, I was up in San Anselmo and they were down here in Temecula. They heard during Holy Week and they called, I think it was on Good Friday, and they said, ‘You shouldn’t be alone on Easter, we’re coming.’ They flew up. They have been fabulous. Very supportive, very loving, very kind.”
I mentioned that in looking at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church’s website, I noticed that it had a form for applicants for the senior pastor vacancy. I said that $90,000 was the starting salary for the position. I asked, “Were you making that kind of money?”
“Not when I was at Solana Beach, but that was eight years ago. In San Francisco I was making more than that.” As for the website, McCullough said that he had not seen it. “I just had to remove myself. We were shocked. When I was restored, I thought the church would be jubilant, but apparently the present leadership — it made them nervous that I was in the community. Let me put it that way.”
I asked McCullough about the references to “impropriety in prior pastoral leadership” that I read on the Solana Beach church’s website.
He responded, saying, “You’d never know that I left eight years ago. That’s become part of their identity now. I don’t know whether they thought I was going to start a church in the area or what. But they didn’t want anybody in the church to talk to me. That shocked me because I wasn’t trying to be pastor of that church. I was just quietly writing my books.”
McCullough repeatedly tried to move me from talk of the bad things that happened to the good that had emerged from them. “Part of the good things is that there are a few friends from [Solana Beach Presbyterian] church, but we don’t talk about the church. And one of the blessings of this whole thing has been to see the love and support from some of the people. People have asked me, ‘Did you lose any friends when this happened?’ And I have to say, ‘No.’
“I lost people who I thought were friends but who were relating to me as seminary president or as pastor, or in some other way. When something like this happens, you understand the depth of friendship and loyalty of people. It overwhelms me with gratitude, the people that remained loyal and loving and basically said, ‘Okay, you failed, but you’ve done a lot of good things in your life, and we love you in any event, regardless of what you’ve done or not done.’ ”
“But do your friends really say to you, ‘You failed’?”
“No. They basically say, ‘Okay, that’s passed, don’t worry about it, we’re going on.’ And what’s interesting is how many people have quietly come up to me and said, ‘Don, I’ve done the same thing, it’s not public, nobody knows. But I’m just telling you.’ ”
“Did you feel sorry for Clinton?”
“I did. I really did. Just the fierceness of the hatred for him, for one thing.” McCullough stopped for a moment, then went on, “Jesus condemned a judgmental attitude, and one of the reasons was that it doesn’t work, because when you’re being pounded, even if you know you’ve failed, there is part of you that rises up in self-protection and defensiveness. The harder you’re pounded, the more you know you have to preserve yourself as a human being and so the judgment doesn’t change people, doesn’t work. The interesting thing is that it’s the grace of my friends, the love that I have felt from God, that has humbled me and made me say to myself, ‘I want to be worthy of that grace and that love and that trust.’ Not the people that wanted me to feel so bad for what I did wrong. You follow what I’m saying?”
“Yes, but I think you’re a more complicated person than the story you’re trying to tell.”
“We all are. Because what happens is in writing any book, if you approach something that has artistic integrity, you can’t say everything, you can’t communicate all of it. There has to be order that one strives for.”
I brought up something I thought was in extremely bad taste, but nevertheless true. I said, “Another thing I wanted to ask you about is this: I think that there’s a tendency among women, and maybe some men, to flirt with clergy. I think that some unhappy women tend to find themselves going to talk to good old Father So-and-So.”
McCullough did not disagree. He said, “A lot of them have husbands who not always are listening to them. Or sometimes are not as affectionate as they want or need and so then what does the pastor do? The pastor is trained to listen, the pastor is trained to be a lover, to be affectionate.”
“…is trained to be gentle, to demonstrate kindness. He seems to know God, so that makes it okay. That’s the truth behind the Church’s charge that anybody in that position is guilty there, because I think there is that element often and, frankly, I saw it a lot. But I could see it coming. And the interesting thing, and this is part of the complexity of the whole thing, that didn’t appeal to me. I ran the other direction from that and was very cautious and set up boundaries. The instances of my failure were not with women like that. They were completely opposite of it. It was more a sense of equality, treating me as a friend and a normal human being, not from one of these adoring women that put me up on the pedestal.”
“But rather as a potential bad boy?”
Churches, nowadays, carry malpractice insurance, in part to protect themselves against pastors who have sexual relations with church members. I asked McCullough about this insurance.
“That’s just a practical reality these days. Every institution, every seminary, the churches, they all have malpractice.”
McCullough returned to our discussion of pastors and women. “A pastor is in a very dangerous role psychologically because he has this adoring crowd of people around him all the time. And no matter how many people in the congregation might be upset with you, you still have a certain number of people who just think you’re fantastic and who are every Sunday saying, ‘Ah, that was a wonderful sermon, thank you, pastor.’ A pastor is used to kind of being in the center of this little world. And that’s a very dangerous place to be, because you don’t realize how much you come to feed off of that yourself. It wasn’t until I became a seminary president that I realized this, because, let me tell you, faculty don’t come up to you after a faculty meeting and say, ‘Nice meeting.’ I started thinking about the lawyers, they didn’t have people adoring them, nor did the doctors. They might have saved people’s lives, but did they get thank-you notes about how wonderful they were? No. The pastoral role is odd in a lot of ways. There is a distorted element to it that goes both ways. You’re right, there are those needy women, but the pastors don’t realize how much they’re feeding off of that. And on both sides — because it can be clothed in such spiritual language — the real danger of the whole thing is hidden from you. You didn’t get it right out in a more honest, honest way, whereas out in the secular world, a man is coming on to a woman. But in the church, it can be a matter of ‘Well, let’s pray together.’ It hides from the reality of what’s actually going on.”
Asked what he is doing now, McCullough said that he is working on a novel and also on another nonfiction title. “This one,” he said, “is about learning to appreciate life’s limitations. The working title is The Consolations of Imperfection. I’m taking the different kinds of limitations that you find in life — how bodies begin to wear out, the limitations in relationships, the limitations in achievements that we wanted to make in our lives — and asking, ‘What are the consolations of those? Are there good things at these limits?’ I enjoy writing. If that’s what God is calling me to do now, I’d like to continue, but if at some point I’m called back to being a pastor, I want to be open to that. We’re waiting to see. I do think that if God called me, I’d be a far better pastor than I ever was before, because I know what people are going through in their lives, the sense of grief and loss. I know what it is to be so depressed, to feel like a failure, those kinds of things. And I think that for some people my voice would have real authenticity.”
“What do you think that Solana Beach church members are going to think about this book?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know anybody who left the Church because of what I did, but I can tell you, I know a lot of people that left because of the Church’s reaction, and I think that there were a lot of people and there are a lot of people who are very supportive of me. But people work out their own stuff and I don’t know. Some of it is a mystery to me, why they continue — you’d think I left yesterday.”
“Eight years is a long time.”
“Yes, it is. I don’t quite get it. There are some people who are still drawing a lot of energy from that. I don’t see how the congregation will flourish if they continue to focus on the past. It seems to me that leadership is called to look to the future and hold up high ideals and go forward. I wish the congregation well. If there’s anything that I want the Church to come to terms with, it is ‘What does it mean that the heart of the Gospel is grace?’ I mean, think about it. Grace. We sing, ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.’ Yeah, right. Grace is scandalous. Grace is dangerous. If we are forgiven, if we’re home free because of God’s love, that is a dangerous idea, and unless you want to overturn the world, you’d better get rid of that idea. You’d better nail that idea to the cross.”