Former General Conference president Robert S. Folkenberg, Sr. passed away December 24, 2015. For nine years during the 1990s, Folkenberg was known for his passion for mission, his creativity, and his commitment in using technology for the spread of the gospel. Among the many tributes offered at the news of his passing, we chose these three.—Editors
It was a strange place to begin a friendship.
Bob Folkenberg and I were nervous as we stood in line waiting for our final grades before graduating from Andrews University in 1962. Bob shared with me the reason for his concern.
“I’ve made straight A’s on every report card since the first grade. But I’m concerned about this last report card. I may have slipped to a B in Greek II with Blazen,” he said, referring to Ivan Blazen, a professor of Greek and New Testament.
I was also 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!”
Wow, well done! I thought. Straight A’s since first grade!
When I received my grade I erupted in similar celebration, announcing, “Whoopee, a D!”
In 1990 I was a delegate to the General Conference session in Indianapolis. When I arrived at the airport, I saw Richard Barron, a great youth leader who had also served as a conference president. He said to me, “Gilley, there’s change in the air.” He was so correct.
When the Nominating Committee was organized, Bob was elected chair. We immediately saw his strength with that committee, and it suddenly occurred to me that he could be nominated as General Conference president. I pointed this out to several people.
The next morning I 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’re the second person to tell me that this morning.”
But the Nominating Committee chose George Brown, president of the Inter-American Division. However, after a time of prayerful consideration, and because of concerns about his wife’s health, Brown declined.
When we reconvened, Charles Dudley nominated Robert S. Folkenberg, Sr., and at the age of 49 he began his presidency at the General Conference.
Bob hit the ground running. The Seventh-day Adventist Church entered a time of the greatest growth in its history, with Bob leading the way in opening evangelism in parts of the world known as the 10/40 window.
After he resigned as General Conference president, Bob returned to the Carolina Conference. He began a project called ShareHim that organized lay members and youth to hold evangelistic meetings all over the world.
Over the past 15 years the ministry has continued to enjoy outstanding successes, including 250 young people traveling to Mexico City to each conduct a series in that great city and the surrounding suburbs early in 2015. Arriving at the General Conference session in San Antonio last summer, they shared their thrilling experiences with those attending the session.
When I heard that Bob went to sleep in Jesus, 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, good and faithful servant!”
Jim Gilley, a former evangelist, most recently served as president of the Three Angels Broadcasting Network.
In 1999, Robert S. Folkenberg, in office for nine years, had been named in a lawsuit alleging losses in business dealing by a Sacramento, California, entrepreneur. The Adventist Church had been named as well. Three weeks after news of the lawsuit surfaced, Folkenberg resigned as General Conference president.
A less-than-heroic end might have been the final chapter for another church leader. But if anything was true about Robert S. Folkenberg, who passed away on December 24, a few days before his seventy-fifth birthday, “conventional” wasn’t the term one would apply. In the years after his resignation, he rebuilt his image and contributed mightily to growing the church to which he devoted his life. . . .
When Folkenberg, the son of Adventist missionaries, vaulted from the equivalent of a local bishop’s office to head the world church, there were approximately 5.1 million church members on the rolls. Nine years later that number had doubled. Today more than 18 million people call the Seventh-day Adventist Church home. Every 30 seconds someone somewhere joins the Adventist Church. Every four hours or so, a new Adventist congregation is organized.
A lot of that growth was the result of Folkenberg’s pioneering spirit and efforts. As leader of the church, he placed an emphasis on outreach, establishing a Global Mission program, and spearheading evangelism meetings shared via satellite television to multiple locations.
After he left Maryland for his home in rural Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, Folkenberg devoted much of his life to ShareHim, an Adventist ministry that sends lay church members to staff evangelistic campaigns here and overseas. The notion of having lay church members share the message before groups had other effects. Many volunteers returned home emboldened to organize evangelistic campaigns in their hometowns. Many re-upped for subsequent ShareHim campaigns.
This was, I believe, part of Folkenberg’s genius: get members involved in various aspects of church outreach, and you create evangelists with a lifelong passion for sharing a message. Others might have put themselves forward as great orators or proselytizers, but Folkenberg was happy to share the labor with any willing to meet the task.
Mark A. Kellner, a freelance journalist, is former news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. This piece is adapted from one that appeared in the religion section of the Huffington Post, December 28, 2015.
I joined ShareHim and began working with Bob in November 2005. And he was “Bob” from the very beginning. Despite the 36-year difference in age, I don’t think he ever let me call him “Elder Folkenberg.” There was little formality in our relationship; just a shared enthusiasm for the work and opportunities God had given.
My wife, Jill, and I moved to Smith Mountain Lake and spent the better part of four years there, getting to know Bob and Anita. Working with Bob was a thrill. He was like a great football coach, who could build you up and rev you up for the task at hand.
Of course, Bob and I didn’t always see eye to eye. We sparred over plans and ideas, but in a positive spirit. And while I didn’t always agree with him on methods, I never doubted his motives.
For 10 years I had the privilege of working with Bob. And if you distill down those 10 years, what did I learn from him? What’s the takeaway from Bob’s life? For me, it’s simply this: Be passionate! Figure out what matters and do it!
Bob’s passion was displayed in nearly every aspect of his life. It was certainly there in his collection of neckties. I wear the one I’m wearing today in his honor.
It was there at home, as he would describe the perfect way to season popcorn or cook Cuban black beans (it was always a big production).
It was also there at play, when Bob’s face would light up with that big, squinty-eyed chipmunk smile.
And while I never got to see Bob run a board or a General Conference committee, I often saw his passion come through while inspiring groups of laymen and laywomen, pastors, or administrators to be ever more focused on sharing the Advent message.
I talked with Bob a few times before his death. His last message to me came about a week before he died. Those last words, spoken in a whisper and relayed through Kathi, were “I have some ideas for that software project.” Then he proceeded to list a number of recommendations.
That was Bob, focused to the very end.
So how do we honor Bob’s legacy? Press on! PRESS ON! “Press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
Losing Bob makes us long even more for that day when Christ returns, not only for us, but for the many others with whom we’ve had the honor of sharing our eternal hope.
Let’s make the most of the opportunities we have this year, this month, this week. Soon we will be reunited. I already know the first thing he’ll say to me: “So how did it go with that software project?”
Jeremiah Weeks serves as executive director of ShareHim. He shared these reflections at the memorial service on January 10, 2016.