Fallen Presbyterian Leader Finds Path to Renewal

John Mulder, former president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, returns to ministry after rehab, scandal

“He had lost everything,” the Rev. Morgan Roberts said, … “He had lost his position. He had lost his reputation, which was huge in the denomination. Fortunately he hadn’t lost his marriage….” Mulder himself says, “What I did was terribly wrong. It was a violation of my marriage vows, my ordination vows. I will always live with the pain of having deceived other people and myself and God. But fortunately I found a new path.”

 

 

John Mulder retains the bearded, bespectacled look of a professor, but he speaks in less academic and clinical terms about theology than he once did.

There is less of the confident cadence of one who was once a leading statesman in his denomination, before he lost his prestige and position in a scandal a decade ago that plunged him into a long period of shame, treatment and recovery.

Mulder, 66, speaks today in more measured and deliberate tones, reflecting the one-day-at-a-time spirituality of addiction recovery.

He’s traveled “what’s called the longest distance in the world — the 18 inches from my head to my heart,” Mulder wrote in a new book, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories (2012, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., $22). “It’s like talking about Jesus for years and then suddenly, meeting him personally.”

That meeting came amid Mulder’s rehabilitation from addiction to alcohol and treatment for bipolar disorder, marked by wide swings between depression and manic behavior. The treatment followed his 2002 resignation as the longtime president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and his subsequent suspension from ministry for sexual misconduct with adult women while president.

It was a stunningly public fall for Mulder, who became president in 1981, when he was 35, and oversaw growth in its faculty, endowment and programs.

Beyond the seminary, he was known for helping lead the effort to persuade the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to move its headquarters to Louisville, Ky., in the late 1980s.

“He had lost everything,” the Rev. Morgan Roberts, a retired minister who mentored Mulder, said of his life just after the public learned of his actions and he resigned as president.

“He had lost his position. He had lost his reputation, which was huge in the denomination. Fortunately he hadn’t lost his marriage, but at the beginning he didn’t know if anything was left.”

Mulder himself says, “What I did was terribly wrong. It was a violation of my marriage vows, my ordination vows. I will always live with the pain of having deceived other people and myself and God. But fortunately I found a new path.”

The new path includes a career as public speaker and author. His new book is an anthology of Christians’ tales from the Apostle Paul to jockey Pat Day.

Mulder gives his own conversion account in a three-page afterword.

In a recent interview, Mulder said he has long been interested in the topic of conversion, and co-authored an earlier version of his book nearly three decades ago — without his own account.

“I don’t consider (the pre-crisis) part of my life a period in which I was absent from God or God was absent from my life,” Mulder said. But his subsequent experience “did represent a kind of descent into an abyss of loneliness and despair and coming out of it, and a sense of belonging to God and a new sense of mission.”

After resigning the presidency, Mulder confessed his wrong-doing to his governing Presbytery of Transylvania in eastern Kentucky as part of the Presbyterian disciplinary process. The Presbytery suspended him from ministry from 2003 to 2009.

Loved ones persuaded Mulder to go into a residential treatment program for addictions. He recalls that he kept praying, “Please Lord, forgive me,” but felt nothing but continued guilt and shame.

Finally he found himself praying: “God open me up.”

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