Posted April 10, 2024 in Featured News

Kathy and Craig Kephart stand next to a cake created for Craig’s retirement party at Washington Presbytery where he has spent the last 12 years as the executive presbyter.

As Craig Kephart planned a retirement date at Washington Presbytery, he settled on the last day in March to end his 12-year call. His term as the region’s executive presbyter had begun on April 1 back in 2012, so it seemed fitting that this past March 31 would be the final day, neatly wrapping up his time at the mid council after exactly a dozen years.

But after setting the date months ahead, a later look at the calendar showed March 31, 2024, was not only a Sunday but also Easter Sunday. The symbolism of the day was not lost on Craig.

“When I realized it was Easter, too, well then there was an obvious connection to new life,” he said, referring to his career transition.

Born in New York State, Craig attended college at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. After graduating with a Criminal Justice Studies degree, he spent two years as a counselor at a boys’ ranch in South Dakota connecting with troubled teens and at-risk children and youth.

“In the course of that experience, I had my own recognition of the Gospel’s centrality and my need of the Savior Christ,” he said. “The message to me was that while society can accomplish behavior modification, only the Lord can truly change a heart. That was part of my sense of call toward the Inquirer and Candidate phases of ministry preparation with my home congregation in central Minnesota.”

After graduating from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and spending a year and half as a student pastor with First Presbyterian Church of Castle Shannon in the south hills of Pittsburgh, Craig’s first pastoral call came at Venice Presbyterian Church, which at the time was also a Washington Presbytery congregation, southwest of Pittsburgh.

“I came to the seminary expecting to return to the Midwest,” Craig admitted. “I liked the Midwest very much. But I met a Pittsburgh woman (now wife, Kathy) and I’ve been here ever since.”

Craig spent 24 years as the pastor at Venice Church before being urged by several people in late 2011 to consider the presbytery’s executive presbyter opening. So it was in the spring of 2012 when he changed roles to become Washington’s E.P.

It’s been an extremely rewarding 12 years for Craig as the leader of the mid council in Pennsylvania’s southwest corner, a time that he’ll look back on fondly as he heads into retirement.

“The interactions in the local church,” he said when asked to name the “sweet spot” of his time in Washington Presbytery. “To be a guest at session meetings, to be invited into congregational celebrations… even some of the tense, trouble-shooting meetings we’ve had with congregations. There’s a sense of satisfaction coming away from each of those, even if things haven’t proceeded always in the direction you might like them to go. At least I knew the presbytery was trying to serve Christ by assisting the local church.

“The local church is huge in my ecclesiology,” Craig reflected. “That’s the front line. That’s where everything really happens… local church is really the front line of ministry, relationships and service.”

Like other mid councils, Washington Presbytery has experienced a decrease in membership and a loss of churches for one reason or another. Keeping congregations together during this ever-changing time is not an easy task for a presbytery leader, as Craig can relate.

“Growing our sense of unity as a presbytery,” he said when asked to name a focus during his period of leadership. “It’s been a constant theme for me since the very beginning, but we live in a very individualized age. It can be sometimes quite challenging to get congregation members and leaders to understand themselves as part of a broader congregation – namely, a presbytery. I tried to further a sense of the presbytery not always being ‘over’ your local congregation in authority, but rather more often being ‘beneath’ and ‘surrounding’ your local church, in support of the front-line ministry that your local congregation is engaging.”

Overall, Washington Presbytery has the resources and outreaches in place that make it an attractive region for someone sensing a call to mid council leadership.

“We’re in good shape financially,” Craig said. “We have more churches participating in per capita giving and a gradually growing understanding of unified mission. The presbytery has a mixture of churches who appreciate our Pine Springs Camp ministry (shared with Redstone Presbytery), our Christian partnership with the South West Bethel Synod in Ethiopia, and several congregations have affection for, and provide financial support for, Resurrection Power.”

Resurrection Power creates structured group living environments for those struggling to escape alcohol and drug addiction.

“Across our presbytery, almost every congregation has a significant emotional and/or financial investment with one or more of those three missions,” Craig added. “Our presbytery identity enjoys a certain cohesiveness through those ministries.”

Craig Kephart, center, enjoys a baseball game with Skip Noftzger and former Synod transitional executive Sue Wonderland in St. Louis during the 2018 General Assembly.

As the presbytery continues its search to replace Craig, he’s offered some advice to whomever will take over his desk.

“Be in the churches, be with the congregations,” he said. “Sure, there are some things you have to do on your own, in your office, in your study. But as much as possible be in Sunday worship, be at the church suppers, be at the memorial services, be at the Maundy Thursday service. As much as you can afford to be, as much as you possibly can, be present with those congregations. They appreciate it.”

That appreciation found expression in a joy-filled retirement dinner evening that the presbytery celebrated in March. As for what’s next for Craig and Kathy, they’ll take some time to settle into this new phase of life together. Their home will remain in Washington, PA, and Craig continues serving part time with nearby Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery, a role he began at the start of 2021 and will see through until at least the end of the five-year term. Their three sons and families all live within driving distance of Washington, PA, so road trips to those locations are definitely in their future.

Aside from mid council work, Craig is also an avid sports fan and enjoys traveling to local major and minor league baseball parks. He’s taken numerous trips to those stadiums with Skip Noftzger, his counterpart at the Presbytery of Redstone, someone whom he’ll continue to stay in touch with into retirement.

“I have really enjoyed the kinship with him,” Craig said. “It’s been both fun and upbuilding to have a neighbor exec who is a longtime acquaintance, and to be able to work with him and share in so many aspects of mid council ministry.”

The two have helped steer the development of Inter-Presbytery Leadership Formation, an enrichment and training program for ruling elders, especially helpful in preparing those called to commissioned pastoral service in the Synod of the Trinity’s western presbyteries.

Their friendship is just one of many relationships Craig has been able to grow during his decades serving in Washington Presbytery, and he will miss those regular interactions in retirement.

“The surrounding cast, the supporting network of people, volunteers – we have had an outstanding staff at Washington Presbytery,” he said. “That strong presbytery staff and the scores of great volunteers from all across our churches have been evidence of God’s guidance for me through these dozen years.”