Riess Potterveld returns to PSR as president

“My deep connections to Pacific School of Religion and my rich experiences here have called me to return to offer what I can to strengthen this school,” said Riess Potterveld, who left the presidency of Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania to take the helm at PSR on October 1. He succeeds William McKinney as the seminary’s president and will serve in the position for three years. Sharon MacArthur, chair of the seminary’s board of trustees, expressed joy: “Our search committee was hoping for someone who either knows PSR well or has been a seminary president—never imagining that both qualities would be available in one person! We look forward with great anticipation to working with Riess Potterveld in building a sustainable future for PSR.”

Potterveld, who left this seminary to become president at Lancaster in 2002, served in three administrative roles at PSR from 1993 to 2002, and he says that his development during that decade, both professionally and personally, played a role in his decision to return. “There is no other institution that could have induced me to leave Lancaster,” he said. “My ten years at PSR were both challenging and exhilarating. I was able to serve in a variety of roles and to see the school from several different perspectives—as fundraiser, vice president, and finally acting dean for two years.”

Among his accomplishments here, Potterveld oversaw an increase in the school’s endowment from $25 million to $45 million; an increase in the number of donors by over 33 percent; and, following seven years of decline preceding his tenure, a substantial increase in the school’s annual fund. In his eight years as president of Lancaster, that seminary’s number of annual donors has nearly tripled and the school has developed an elaborate system of educational programs that reach youth, lay leaders, congregations, newly ordained pastors, and seasoned pastors—providing theological education to 3,000 people annually.

Toward the end of his earlier PSR career, Potterveld was instrumental in the development and launch of the seminary’s successful capital campaign (2001-2003). He also wrote or co-authored numerous foundation grant proposals that resulted in the establishment in 2000 of PSR’s ground-breaking centers: the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, and the Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific and Asian North American Religion (PANA Institute). He also helped create a new endowment for field education stipends and a new program in congregational leadership.

Riess Potterveld was born in Milwaukee, WI in 1943. His mother’s side of the family farmed in Illinois; his paternal grandfather was a pharmacist in Dubuque, IA. (There is a Potterveld Hall at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, thanks to Riess’s great uncle.) Riess’s father, a painter, taught at and was head of the art department at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

For reasons he can’t recall, Riess grew up wanting to be a doctor. “As a boy, I would walk around on weekends with a stethoscope around my neck,” he says. “In the eighth grade, I memorized the Latin names for all the bones and muscles in the body,” he recalls, adding: “I tend to get mildly fanatical about things on which I focus.”

At Trinity College, in Hartford, CT, he was a pre-med student with a major in religion and philosophy, subjects he found very stimulating. He was president of the student body his senior year when a faculty member submitted his name for a Rockefeller Foundation Trial Year Fellowship, which at that time sent recipients to a seminary for one year. Although he was planning on a medical career, Potterveld paused for a year of divinity school at Yale.

Following the year at Yale, “I went on my own sort of Peace Corps enterprise—to the furthest reaches of Canada. I look back on this as a period of discernment, of trying to figure out who and what I wanted to be.” In the small village of Old Fort Bay, on the border between Quebec and Labrador, Potterveld spent a busy 15 months. “I taught grades 5 through 7—as high as the school went—from 8 to 2:30. From 2:30 to 5 I taught grades 2 through 4. I then ran a night school—and preached on Sundays. During the summer I ran camps for children in New Brunswick with the help of high school and college students from the US.”

He decided to give up medicine and return to Yale to finish seminary. While earning the MDiv degree, Potterveld became interested in process theology and went on to Claremont Graduate University, where he studied with one of the field’s key figures, John Cobb, and earned the MA and PhD in philosophy of religion. His dissertation (“The Church Relativistic”) was an examination of the church from the point of view of process theology. The next step in his personal process was “a great struggle” over which path to pursue, the church or the academy.

He wound up doing both, and more. In 1971, Potterveld became associate at Claremont Congregational Church and three years later senior minister at the Congregational Church of Northridge, in the San Fernando Valley. Cal State University at Northridge called in 1981 to ask if he would teach a course in its religious studies department; then two courses; how about three? “It was a unique platform for evangelism,” Potterveld remembers. “We found that 57 people associated with students from the college became connected to our church in one year.” He taught three courses a semester while continuing as senior minister for 12 years.

In 1986 Potterveld co-founded and served as president of the Valley Shelter, a large non-profit, multi-service shelter for the homeless in the San Fernando Valley. “We focused on sheltering the most vulnerable—women with children. We wound up purchasing a motel, with about 75 rooms, where we provided job training, taught food preparation, and even started a one-room school house.”

During this blur of activity, Potterveld and his wife Tara, an accomplished sculptor and painter, were also raising four sons. “My wife at one point asked: ‘Couldn’t you find one complex job?’”

That single complex job would be found at Pacific School of Religion. “God works in mysterious ways,” Potterveld says. “PSR President Eleanor Scott Myers had seen an exhibit of my wife’s sculptures in southern California and was interested in hiring Tara as artist in residence. She asked Tara to send a resume; I just tucked mine in as well. About two months later, I got a phone call, not Tara.”

Given his pulpit experience and his work in fundraising for the Valley Shelter and his church, Potterveld was named vice president for institutional advancement at PSR, starting on January 1, 1993. “I like fundraising,” Potterveld says today. “I see it as a form of ministry—building relationships over time with people who will come to revere the core values and mission of the school. It’s very rewarding to be at the connection point where people can make a profound difference to an institution. And when they do, I believe they are fulfilling their own spiritual nature.”

After serving successfully for six years in the advancement post, Potterveld was promoted to “just plain vice president” of PSR in 1998 and to acting dean in 2000. “Being dean provided a much more intimate relationship with the faculty and with the educational direction of PSR,” he says. “My combined experience led me to the notion that public relations and marketing, the education we offer, and fundraising are all intertwined: How the public and donors come to see and value the school will determine whether they are going to financially support the school.”

Having raised funds both as a vice president (here) and as a president (at Lancaster) Potterveld finds it easier as a president. “There was a noticeable change when I switched roles. As vice president, you’re preparing people for a relationship to the institution. But the president is often the one that major donors expect to close gifts—donors often want to be assured that their gift is important to the emerging direction of the school.”

Asked to describe his own leadership style, he says: “I’m very straightforward. I believe in 100 percent transparency. I believe in accountability. Communicating with people about their roles is very important to me. I spend time with staff and faculty to make very, very clear what our goals are and then hold people accountable for the outcomes.”

Potterveld’s career at PSR encompasses four presidencies: He was hired by Eleanor Scott Myers, served under interim president Thomas Henderson, and was on the search committee that brought Bill McKinney to the presidency in 1996. And now, in October 2010, he and his wife Tara have returned to Berkeley as he himself has become PSR’s president. Tara, in addition to her artistic accomplishments, is a nationally known sign language interpreter for the Deaf, specializing in legal interpreting. She is currently completing a book on legal interpreting that will be published next year.

One person who knew Riess and Tara well during their earlier period at PSR is Hubert G. Locke, former member and then chair of the board of trustees who further served both in the spring of 2003 and this past summer as acting president of the seminary. “If one were to imagine an ideal description of the next leader of Pacific School of Religion—a pastor, an expert fundraiser, a seminary president, and someone who knows PSR well—one would call forth Riess Potterveld,” Locke said. “His intelligence, character, and experience make him an inspired choice to lead this seminary. His wife, Tara, is an accomplished artist and a delightful person; and, as Linda was for Bill, Tara will be a very important part of the PSR family.”

Staff members here who worked with Riess remember his work ethic and long hours. “I haven’t lost that bad habit!” he says. But he says that in the past few years he has learned a new way to relax from the intensity he brings to his professional life: he plays the cello. “I love the cello and one day said, ‘Why can’t I be an adult learner? I preach about that all the time.’” His brother-in-law, a musician and conductor, gave him a cello; he’s since bought his own and now plays Bach’s “unaccompanied suites” (“very slowly!”). “It’s become an amazing part of my life. I play almost every day, and it’s very relaxing. I find it’s a spiritual discipline.“

Fumitaka Matsuoka, Robert Gordon Sproul Professor of Theology Emeritus, who has known the new president since both men began their careers at PSR, offers a final word: “Riess and I started our jobs at PSR on the very same day, in January 1993,” says Matsuoka. “I still recall the joys of working with him in Berkeley. And since he left PSR for Lancaster Seminary, I have had several occasions to meet and observe him at various seminary-related meetings. He embodies grace in his relations with people both personally and professionally. I believe Riess is indeed the right choice for the presidency at PSR at this time, and I look forward to seeing the school flourish under his leadership.”