The Rev. John M. Coffin, a native Texan and one of the livest wires the Presbyterian Church has ever seen, died Nov. 9 at the medical facilities related to Presbyterian Villages in Austell, Ga., where he lived with his wife, Lou Alice. He was 85 and had struggled with Alzheimers Disease in recent years.
“John was so special,” said longtime friend, colleague and fellow Texan Marj Carpenter, retired director of the Presbyterian News Service and moderator of the 1995 General Assembly. “When we all moved to Louisville (in 1988), John was the spirit of the Presbyterian Center ― he carried around candy on Halloween and jelly beans at Easter ― he was always doing something to lift everyone’s spirits.”
“He was a funny, funny guy,” said longtime colleague Ben Blake of the Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program. “You would never call him a serious guy but when the occasion called for it, he could cut through it all to the heart of the matter.”
John Coffin was born in Hillsboro, Texas. He attended Austin College and Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va. After graduation, he served as pastor of two small churches in Texas, thus fulfilling a prerequisite for overseas mission service for the former Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS).
In 1955, Coffin arrived in Leopoldville, Congo (now Kinshasa) where he organized schools and churches. Returning to the U.S. in 1957, he served in various capacities for the PCUS’s Board of World Missions for 13 years, interspersed with three more pastorates in Austin, Calvert and Mayfield, Texas.
In 1973, the Coffins moved to Atlanta, where John joined the General Assembly Mission Board staff of the PCUS. Over the course of the next 14 years he served as director of partnership services, associate for planning and budgeting and overseas missionary personnel and recruitment officer.
When the post-Presbyterian reunion Structural Design for Mission was approved in 1986, creating nine “ministry units” for the PC(USA), Coffin was fought over, with at least two of the new units seeking him as their director. On March 26, 1987 Coffin accepted the call to be founding director of the Stewardship and Communication Development Ministry Unit at the brand-new Presbyterian Center in Louisville.
He held that position until 1994, when he retired after the ministry unit structure was dismantled to make way for a more streamlined organization.
Coffin’s office at the Presbyterian Center was a treasure trove. He sought ― and was denied ― permission to remove the “standard issue” built-in desk in his office to make way for an heirloom desk he inherited from his grandfather.
“So he brought in a hatchet and chopped down his office desk and moved his grandfather’s desk in anyway,” Carpenter recalled.
This reporter recalls a glass display cabinet Coffin kept in his office. The only item in the cabinet was the jawbone of an ass ― Texan, too, no doubt. A sign on the cabinet read: “In case of Philistines, break glass.”
“John Coffin was one of the most fascinating people I ever met,” said the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, another Texan who served alongside Coffin as director of the Global Mission Ministry Unit and later as General Assembly stated clerk. “He had so many experiences and stories and he told them all so well.”
Kirkpatrick, who now teaches at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, added, “I’ll always be thankful for John’s joy of life and joy of the gospel.”
In addition to Lou Alice, John Coffin is survived by five sons and a number of grandchildren. Memorial service arrangements are pending.