Restructure artist painted big picture
Written by Robert Chase
November 2000


There he sat, hunched over his laptop computer as if protecting himself from a driving rain. Through slits of windows reminiscent of a prison cell, angry clouds off Lake Erie glowered.

By late afternoon, he'd been there since before dawn, pounding, pounding away at the keyboard that connected him to the world outside. In the four and a half years that Bob Witham served as "Executive Coordinator for Structural Transition," he destroyed two of those keyboards, winning a small victory in the technobattle between flesh and machine.


If the UCC had monks, he'd seem to be one, so disciplined was his devotion to the place God had called him at the end of a long and distinguished career. The paradox of monasticism fits, too: holed up in that isolated bunker on the 9th floor in Cleveland, yet so in touch with the whole church.

With a patient heart and gentle hand, he reverently shaped and molded the future of the church he loves so much. Sure, he would recoil at the notion that he was shaping the church, but in truth his mark is all over the new structure. And why not? God has always worked through mere mortals to alter the ecclesiastical universe. In an era when we cry out for strong leadership, we should not miss this example of the very best in what true leadership represents: an open mind, a persevering spirit, a compassionate heart.

Others may have made a greater sacrifice for the faith, risked more, served longer, studied harder. But we would be pressed to find someone who has demonstrated a greater commitment to their calling than has Bob Witham these past years. He often became a focal point for frustration, a symbol for unmet needs, a target for unfulfilled expectations, a lightning rod for disaffections that had nothing to do with restructure. That's when the pastor in him kicked in. He listened intently, graciously. He counseled, he consulted, but he also was clear about his General Synod mandate: to help the United Church of Christ find a more responsive way to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ.

God granted him the vision to see the "big picture," a phrase he used like a mantra. When others of us bogged down in seeing things through our own particular lenses, Bob's gift was to paint that big picture for us—a remarkable expression of imagination and love, especially given the Spartan, grey cell and the laboring keyboard from which such radiant colors emerged. The Rev. Robert D. Witham—anchor, coach, colleague, captain, pastor, friend—will be missed in Cleveland. But what a blessing it has been for the church that he said "yes" to God's call at this important moment in our church's history.

The Rev. Robert Chase is Minister and Team Leader of the UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry Team in the Office of General Ministries. As I See It is a column to help UCC members become acquainted with church leaders and their views.

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