On his first official day as the 11th president of San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS), the Rev. James McDonald noticed one thing in particular as he was greeted by faculty, staff and students.
“Everyone is eager to begin our work together,” McDonald said. “I could feel it right away.”
McDonald comes to SFTS with valuable insights and experiences in Christian service, which complement SFTS’s historic commitment to social justice causes. For the past 13 years, McDonald worked for Bread for the World (BFW), a faith-based advocacy organization in Washington, DC, that urges national legislators to end hunger.
Serving as BFW’s managing director/acting president the past two years, McDonald, an ordained Presbyterian minister, sees his new leadership role at SFTS as an extension of his vocation, not a career change. McDonald replaces the Rev. Laird Stuart, who served as interim president for 16 months.
“This seems like a logical step,” McDonald said. “The seminary is on the cutting edge of theological education. As I thought about the importance of theological education, I thought about how the church is changing, how the world is changing. Seminary is a place that plants and cultivates seeds of change.”
BFW is supported by more than 50 diverse church bodies. Among his duties at the nonprofit, McDonald managed day-to-day operations, spearheaded fund-raising, and focused on advocacy and strategic efforts to build a broad movement against hunger and poverty in the U.S. and around the world. With a PhD in international relations from American University, McDonald was instrumental in leading BFW’s effort to secure debt relief for the world’s poorest countries.
After receiving B.A. and M.Div. degrees from Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary in New York, respectively, McDonald worked in pastoral ministry for 15 years. He was associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington, IN, and then served Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia from 1980-90.
McDonald has always shown a passion for education that makes a difference. He was an adjunct faculty member at American and George Washington universities for nearly a decade, teaching courses on world politics, foreign policy and Latin America. In the ’80s, he helped create BorderLinks, an experiential education program focused on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This is a place I can make a contribution,” McDonald said about SFTS. “That’s a very exciting enterprise.”
In an effort to get to know the SFTS community as quickly as possible, McDonald is participating in a retreat July 18-22 at Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center on Lake Tahoe. The retreat will draw SFTS M.Div. graduates from the classes of 2000-10 to a combined reunion and continuing education event led by SFTS Professor Gregory Anderson Love.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to meet people,” McDonald said. Reflecting on the prospect of spending five summer days on the shores of Lake Tahoe, he added “It’s a tough job, but someone had to do it.”
The SFTS community held a picnic on July 8 to welcome McDonald. With majestic Mt. Tamalpais as a backdrop, McDonald already seemed at home as he dined with faculty and staff, learned about SFTS’s Korean student group and soaked up the California sun.
“People talk about the beauty of the campus and area, but there’s history here, too,” McDonald said. “What is compelling to me is that the seminary has wonderful assets.”