, evangelist and former 3ABN president
It was a strange place to begin a friendship.
Bob Folkenberg and I were very nervous as we stood in line waiting for our final grades before graduation from Andrews University in 1962. Bob shared with me his reason for concern.
“I’ve made straight A’s on every report card since the first grade, but I am concerned about this last report card because I may have slipped to a B in Greek II with Blazen,” he said, referring to Ivan Blazen, the professor of Greek and New Testament.
I shook my head in mock sympathy. I also was worried, but my concern was whether or not I had passed Greek I. All I needed was a passing grade.
When Bob received his grade, he jumped, nearly hitting the ceiling, and shouted, “Whoopee an A!” Then he ran down the hall.
“Wow, well done!” I thought. “Straight A’s since first grade!”
Bob was long gone when I received my grade and erupted in similar celebration, announcing “Whoopee a D!” with even more exuberance.
We went on to graduate that weekend, Bob with honors and me — just barely! Both of us were eagerly looked forward to embracing that which the Lord had given us a love for: sharing Jesus with the lost.
The next thing I knew, Bob was the singing evangelist for the Roger Holley evangelistic team in the Columbia Union. And because no one else would take the job, they made me the Southern New England Conference evangelist.
Bob learned evangelism from Roger Holley, a man who had studied at the feet of Fordyce Detamore, who knew more than anyone about the “science of soul-winning,” as the pen of inspiration calls it. And Bob learned it well during his two years with the team from 1964 to 1966. When he left Pastor Holley to accept a call to the Inter-American Division, the practical knowledge that God had blessed him with proved key to the unprecedented growth of that division.
“Thousands were baptized because Bob had the faith to hold big meetings for the Lord,” evangelist Kenneth Cox told me.
Elder Cox, working with evangelist Benny Moore, held evangelistic meetings with Bob in Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.
“Anytime we had an opening, Bob would ask for our team to come,” recalled Elder Moore.
Bob served as evangelist for the Panama Conference and then as president of the Honduras Mission and president of the Central American Union. Soon he was elected assistant to the president of the Inter-American Division, where his emphasis was on evangelism.
In 1985, Bob returned to the United States with his wife, Anita, and two children, Bob Jr. and Kathi, to serve as president of the Carolina Conference.
The Carolina Conference soon led the Southern Union and North America in soul-winning. Bob would often call me, and we would discuss some new soul-winning idea that he had, always on the cutting edge of technology. I was amazed at his great personal energy and his total commitment to spreading the gospel.
In 1990 I was chosen as a delegate to the General Conference Session in Indianapolis, Indiana. When I arrived at the airport, I saw Richard Barron, a great youth leader who had also served as a conference president, and he said to me, “Gilley, there’s change in the air.”
He was so correct. I soon saw what he meant.
Only three people were chosen from the Southwestern Union delegation to participate in the Nominating Committee, and miraculously I was one of them. Initially Bob was not chosen to represent the Southern Union. But one of those selected to serve declined, and Bob was picked as the replacement — another miracle.
When the Nominating Committee was organized, Bob was quickly elected as chairman, to the surprise of everyone.
We immediately saw his strength with that committee, and it suddenly occurred to me that he could be nominated to the office of General Conference president.
I pointed this out to several people, and the next morning told Bob that I thought that he would be asked to be president before the day was over. He looked at me as if stunned and said, “Jim, you are the second person to tell me that this morning.”
But things didn’t go that way. The Nominating Committee ended up choosing George Brown, president of the Inter-American Division, as General Conference president. However, Elder Brown declined the position after a time of prayerful consideration and because of his concerns about his wife's health at the time.
When we reconvened, Elder Charles Dudley arose and nominated Elder Robert S. Folkenberg Sr. Delegates on the floor elected Bob, and at the age of 49 he began his presidency at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Bob hit the ground running, putting Global Mission into action worldwide and adopting the suggestion of then-Lake Union president Don Schneider and his committee to launch World Wide Web evangelism in partnership with 3ABN. The Seventh-day Adventist Church entered a time of the greatest growth in its history, with Bob leading the way in opening evangelism in the former Soviet Union and parts of the world known as the 10/40 window.
Problems arose during Bob’s second term of office, and he decided in a moment of discouragement to resign. It was a very dark time of his life. He could have easily become bitter and avoided former friends and contacts. He actually could have taken advantage of a little-known policy that states that a former General Conference president can maintain an office at the General Conference headquarters on full salary and be available for counsel if needed. He could have occupied the “seat of the scornful.”
But Bob didn’t.
Bob returned to the Carolina Conference and its president, Ken Coonley, who had served as executive secretary when he had worked as Carolina president. He began a project he called Global Evangelism but later changed to ShareHim, which organized laymen and youth to hold evangelistic meetings all over the world. ShareHim is owned and operated by the church as a department of the Carolina Conference but is funded exclusively through direct donations.
The other day I contacted Benny Moore, who after retiring from denominational work joined ShareHim, to ask about the results of ShareHim under Bob’s leadership for the past 20 years. Not all totals are known. But ShareHim conducted almost 6,000 evangelistic series resulting in 300,000 baptisms in the 11 years from 2000 to 2011. An average of 50 people were baptized per series.
Over the past four years, the ministry has continued to enjoy outstanding successes, including 250 young people traveling to southern Mexico to conduct evangelistic series earlier this year. Arriving at the General Conference Session in San Antonio last summer, they shared their thrilling experiences with delegates and others attending the session. Bob’s greatest ministry came after being General Conference president. ShareHim has literally affected the lives of millions for Jesus!
On Christmas Eve, Bob went to sleep in Jesus. When Bob Jr. called to tell me, I was driving with my son John in my pickup. I stopped the truck and reflected on Bob’s life. I thought back to Andrews University and standing in line for our grades.
One day we will once again stand in line, and Bob will hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” Bob may have worried that he had slipped to a “B,” but once again I believe he made an “A.”
May our friend Bob rest in peace!