Theologian, minister, and Menlo Park resident John Ortberg has been senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church since 2003. In addition to services held at two Santa Cruz Avenue locations, the 140-year-old the church, which is the oldest in Menlo Park, has campuses in San Mateo and Mountain View.
John is also the author of several books, most recently Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, and a number of participants’ guides for spiritual formation and group study. We talked with him in one of the church’s side gardens, coincidentally soon after he’d learned that one of the most important mentors in this life, Dallas Willard, had died. He took time out from writing a tribute to the philosopher and USC professor for the publication Christianity Today.
InMenlo: Theologian, preacher, author — when you wake up in the morning who are you? How do you view yourself?
John: I work before I get out of bed, directing my thoughts toward God. If I don’t do that, it’s too easy for me to get caught up in the long list of things I need to do in those roles. So, I think about God and that I’m his child.
InMenlo: When and how did you receive your call to the ministry?
John: It was incredibly undramatic and glacially gradual. When I was in grad school, I was studying clinical psychology. I thought I was going to be a therapist until I started seeing clients and realized I was a terrible therapist. People would actually get worse when they saw me. And I felt depressed.
About that time I started to work at church. I love the church. Love to build spiritual communities. Communicating about faith, life changes, God, compassion, justice. Those are the issues that really matter. Over time, I got a sense that the ministry was the best way I could use my life.
InMenlo: How has your experience at MPPC shaped, changed you?
John: This has been a very developmental place. Across our campuses, it’s tremendously diverse — micro climates in terms of human beings.
Being here has made me a more thoughtful person. Those of us in the church tend to speak in cliches. People around here don’t let you get away with cliches.
I’ve had to think more, learn more, be more open and fair minded in the way that I communicate.
Because our church is 140 years old, I’ve come to appreciate its legacy and the rootedness that the church offers people.
InMenlo: What is the best book you’ve read that’s not the Bible — and why did it get your attention?
John: Of course it’s particularly top of mind today, but I’d say The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives by Dallas Willlard. It’s the most profound book on the human condition. I’ve read parts of this book literally 50 times.
InMenlo: What do you think people would find surprising about you?
John: In terms of temperament, I’m a little bit more introverted than extroverted. People see me in public as a speaker. And athough I love communicating and speaking, I recharge my energy more in solitude than in crowds. There will be times I go home at night and tell my wife, “I’ve used up all my words.” Nancy is a complete and total extrovert — and never uses up all her words!
Photo by Scott R. Kline