Tell Bob Edgar the task is tough, maybe impossible. You'll only get him itching to take it on.
At 19, still in college, he became one of the nation's youngest United Methodist pastors.
At 31, with no previous political experience, he became the first Democrat in 116 years to win election to Congress from Pennsylvania's suburban 7th District.
At 47, with neither a doctorate nor college administrative experience, he took the helm of the Claremont School of Theology--then reeling from two embezzlements, precarious finances and plummeting morale. In the nine years since, Edgar quintupled the school's endowment to $22 million, built new student housing, diversified its faculty and flung open the campus doors to a broad array of religious groups and such high-risk ventures as the Center for Sexuality in Christian Life.
Now, at 56, Edgar is embarking on yet another career--and daunting challenge--as the newly elected general secretary of the troubled National Council of Churches. He will begin the job in January. Claremont has recently formed a committee to search for a new president.
The council, which recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary, is made up of churches with 51 million members in mainline Protestant, Orthodox and historically black congregations. Like Claremont a decade ago, the council is racked with severe financial problems, internal dissension and a perceived fogging of the powerful vision that built its illustrious legacy of civil rights, ecumenical outreach, refugee resettlement and popular Bible translations.
"He is going to an institution that is such a mess, some people think we should close it down," said Los Angeles Bishop Roy I. Sano of the United Methodist Church--the council's largest financial supporter.
Which, to Edgar, only makes the job more attractive.
"I like doing the impossible," Edgar said cheerfully in an interview this week at his Claremont office. "I need challenge to keep me passionately engaged in shaping the world."
Actually, he is formally the Rev. Robert W. Edgar, but almost no one seems to call him that. He's a Bob. His dress is conservative business suit, but his manner is casual, open, down-to-earth.
He's the kind of guy who doesn't talk to you from behind his desk, but sits next to you at a round table. The kind of guy whose office is filled with homey touches, like his wife's handmade quilt on his wall and the stuffed bear and frog in the corner--both fishing, one of his pastimes. The kind of guy whose puns are so frequent--and awful--that his staff and faculty fine him $1 for every one he makes.
Mention that he's about to enter a hornet's nest at the council, and Edgar quips: "I call it a bee's nest, and I'm just going to collect the honey." Ask about his wife, Merle--the couple have three children and three grandchildren--and he describes how the retired nurse now sews quilts every day "and keeps me in stitches."
The Claremont faculty ranked him third of three finalists for the presidential post but was quickly won over, in part by his willingness to listen and learn quickly, said professor emeritus John Cobbs. The trustees were impressed by his "people skills," said Roy Miller, president of the Claremont board of trustees.
During a 90-minute interview, however, Edgar also comes across as driven and focused. He speaks in a rat-a-tat manner as he quickly ticks off his accomplishments at Claremont and his secrets of success (optimism, collaboration, futurist thinking). With barely a pause, he smoothly shifts from expositions on qualities of leadership to theological education for the 21st century.
He articulates a vision of a church community that is welcoming, diverse, bighearted and farsighted.
"He will not only help get the NCC out of its tremendous financial problems, but also begin to build a spirit of unity," said the Rev. Gwynne Guibord, national ecumenical officer of the Universal Fellowship of the Metropolitan Community Churches, which serve largely gay and lesbian congregations. "He believes in inclusiveness at the table."
Those qualities were rapidly put to practice at Claremont. Edgar diversified the 23-member faculty, increasing the number of women from two to eight and going from two people of color to six. The new lineup better reflects a student body that has radically changed from mainly white males to 52% female and 40% minority. He has invited Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Disciples of Christ to share the Methodist-affiliated Claremont campus, which was moved there from USC in 1957.
But nowhere were his vision and skills more powerfully demonstrated, supporters say, than in his efforts to build bridges over the bitterly contentious issue of homosexuality.