It will literally take two people to fill the Rev. Dr. Don Dawson’s shoes. The director of both the World Mission Initiative (WMI) at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the New Wilmington Mission Conference (NWMC) retired from the two positions at the end of October, closing a successful run of service that brought renewed focus and education to mission work.
In July of 2000, a joint committee from WMI and the NWMC called Don, creating 16 years of cooperation between the two organizations that left them both stronger and more influential because of it.
“Don has leveraged a great many professional networks, church connections and friendship circles around the globe to expose both the Conference and the Seminary to a remarkable pantheon of preachers, speakers and missionaries,” said the Rev. Ralph Hawkins, chair of the World Mission Initiative Advisory Board and Executive Presbyter and Stated Clerk at the Presbytery of Shenango. “He has practiced hospitality for so many and so likewise has received the same from saints all around the world. Preachers like me are far better disciples for having been exposed to the witness of so many from so many corners of the church.”
Don served two congregations in the Synod of the Trinity prior to becoming director at WMI and the NWMC. His first call was at Buffalo United Presbyterian Church in Sarver, PA (1976-82) before spending the next 18 years at Hampton Presbyterian Church near Pittsburgh (1982-2000).
“I loved being a pastor,” Don said. “I thought that was my identity for my full ministry career, but this kind of brought it together in a global sense. It was a sweet spot (for my career) because it allowed me to contribute even more to the whole of the larger church.”
Led by Dr. Glendora Paul, a mission advocate who had previously worked with the Presbyterian Women in the Synod of the Trinity, and Professor Scott Sunquist, a group of Presbyterians gathered to discuss issues related to Presbyterian missions at Pittsburgh Seminary in 1996. At that meeting WMI was born. It would eventually call Don to be its director.
“The goal of WMI is to help the church live out its central calling as the sent people of God,” Don explained, “and doing that by helping students to gain an understanding of and a passion for being engaged in God’s mission, and doing the same thing alongside congregations. It’s a dual focus with students and congregations.”
WMI and the NWMC are not officially partners, but a common bond quickly emerged through their shared director. The NWMC is the oldest mission conference in the United States dating back to 1906.
“In their by-laws, neither one has a statement officially saying ‘partners with,’ but that partnership has been very clear and very strong and lived out above all through me as the common director of both organizations,” Don said.
With Don’s retirement, as well as the exit of the Rev. Jen Haddox, who was Don’s colleague at WMI for 10 years, both groups have hired new directors. The Rev. Dr. Hunter Farrell, the former head of World Mission for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has been named the new director for WMI. Meanwhile, the Rev. Ginny Teitt, who served on the Board of Managers and in other capacities at the NWMC, will take over for Don as the leader of the conference.
“Looking ahead, I am very excited for both organizations,” Don said. “I couldn’t have imagined a better successor than Hunter. I think the Seminary is well positioned to allow for a new chapter in the life of World Mission Initiative.”
A key component of Don’s work with WMI was coordinating and leading the short-term mission experiences for students at Pittsburgh Seminary.
“These trips are transformational in terms of the students being stretched,” Don said. “As they are stretched, they become more dependent upon God, naturally, and begin to see a bigger picture of how God’s at work and then begin to envision how they ought to be leading the church in their roles – mostly as pastors and in other roles as well. It’s about equipping them. They’re really pushed to reflect about the experience so that it becomes an informative learning experience for them.
“We also expose them to guests from the global church that come to the area. In September and October, we had 13 different individuals or groups from the global church who came through Pittsburgh. We organize a lunch conversation, but oftentimes it’s more than that for the visitors who were there for a longer period of time.”
At the NWMC, Don was charged with organizing the annual week-long conference, which is normally held during the last full week of July. There is programming for all ages, with parallel programs for everyone from young elementary to adults. Child care is also planned for at the conference.
“Our purpose states, ‘NWMC invites all to be transformed by the Spirit of God, to be inspired, called, equipped and sent into God’s mission,’” Don said. “Both organizations are about mobilizing the church in mission, which for me is very important. As a pastor for 24 years I saw that churches that were strong, healthy, vital and growing somehow had a better missional understanding. Those that weren’t were more internally focused. Internally focused tend to be dying. My sense of call to both of these organizations was to help bring renewal to the church through engagement in God’s mission.”
Holding down those two director positions made for plenty of busy days for Don. But his tireless efforts didn’t go unnoticed by the people who participated in the programs and events he planned.
“Over the course of more than a dozen years, Don Dawson has brought remarkable breadth and depth to both the New Wilmington Mission Conference and World Mission Initiative,” Ralph said. “By breadth, I refer to his remarkable gift for connecting followers of Jesus in one part of the world to followers in another. By depth, I give thanks for Don’s obvious and mature love for God and passion for ministry. We are all the better missionaries in our own contexts by virtue of his work for the Lord.”
While Don aimed to bring fulfillment to the students at Pittsburgh Seminary and to those who gathered each summer at the NWMC, he, too, was gaining plenty of spiritual gratification as the years went by.
“It brought fullness to my sense of call to ministry, which began with a sense of call to missionary vocation, but then it turned towards a calling to pastoral identity, which was great,” he said. “It turned in the end to be a combination of the two of a missionary type of vocation without going overseas that reinforced the pastoral element. A great joy for me, a great sense of fulfillment for me. I’m kind of in awe of it. God gave me the opportunity to be engaged in mission in this way and learn from brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.”
Even though Don is keeping his hands in WMI until Hunter takes over fully in January, he’s certainly looking forward to retirement when he can spend more time with his wife, Ginny, and five grandchildren, three of which are in Africa with his daughter’s family, who are mission co-workers in Niger.
“I know I have to continue to be involved in ministry and mission, so this is a period of discerning exactly where and how,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that period of discerning the places God has in store for me to continue to be involved.
“God’s always out in front. I have been able to be attuned to the spirit. That’s been the good part. If we’re attuned to God’s leading and following where God’s leading then we are in a good place. The more we are attuned to God, the more God is able to work in us, the more we’re able to be used in good ways by God. It’s been a good journey for me.”