Distinguished Alumnus Focusing on the Future

Heath Rada, 2014 Distinguished Alumnus and candidate for moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly, is an educator and bridge-builder who embraces change

Heath Rada (M.A.'70), the 2014 Distinguished Alumnus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, recalls growing up in Richmond, VA, just a few blocks from the seminary campus. “I’ve known this school and been influenced by it all my life,” he says.

In fact, Rada has been a student at both of the schools that joined in federation in 1997 to form what is now Union Presbyterian Seminary (UPSem). He took a year of courses at Union Theological Seminary in the late 1960s and sensed that God was calling him to educational ministry. So he enrolled in the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE), graduating with a master’s degree in 1970.

A decade later, Rada became president of PSCE, becoming the first layperson to serve as president of a theological institution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

He is grateful for the many other Christian leaders whose faith and vocations have been formed at UPSem and its predecessor schools. In accepting the Distinguished Alumnus award, Rada says, “I am standing in for this community of saints—for all the people across the church who have come through these halls and made such an impact.”

Rada has served at the local, presbytery, and national levels of the PC(USA) and has been a member of the boards of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Montreat Conference Center, and Presbyterian Homes of North Carolina.

He is currently one of three candidates for moderator of the PC(USA)’s 221st General Assembly (2014), which meets June 14–21 in Detroit. At first, Rada resisted becoming a candidate. “I wasn’t sure that I, as an older white male, was the face of the denomination as we’re moving into the future,” he explains.

If elected, Rada wants to help the church move beyond divisive issues and return to “the basics” of love, trust, and communication. “We were all baptized, all invited to sit at the same table,” he says. “As a church, we are a family. Families disagree, but that should not preclude our loving and seeing the value of one another as sisters and brothers.”

He says he is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of the PC(USA). “Certainly, I am concerned and sad that we are losing members and that we are not able to find common ground,” he says. But his recent travels across the church have made him increasingly excited.

“I’ve seen a renewal that I have not seen since the 1950s—not massive growth, but a return to core values and a conviction that we can redefine who we are as church.” For example, the denomination’s initiative to create 1,001 New Worshiping Communities is inspiring the formation of “communities of faith of all types and conditions that I never would have imagined 40 years ago.”

The PC(USA) is moving away from being a “top-down” denomination, Rada believes. “We are not called to be congregationalists,” he says, “but we’ve seen a shift in that much of the power and vision is coming from the local church instead of from the central offices.”

Rada also is encouraged by changes in Christian education—such as a shift from traditional Sunday schools and vacation Bible schools to “models that allow more self-directed learning.” Increasing numbers of churches are appropriating technology and media as tools for learning and growing in faith.

The role of church educator is evolving, he says, as many Presbyterians who see education as their calling are pursuing ordination as teaching elders—some of them through dual-degree programs such as the M.Div./MACE option offered at UPSem.

But Rada hopes the church will continue to affirm the valuable leadership of laypersons. He lifts up as an example his wife, Peggy, a longtime schoolteacher, who enrolled in PSCE because she wanted to be “an educated layperson.” Like her husband, she gained knowledge and skills that have enabled her to be an effective church leader.

Rada says his own experience at PSCE broadened his thinking by “helping me see new and exciting ways to witness.” Decades before the emergence of NEXT Church and other movements to envision the church of the future, PSCE was exposing its students to “new ways of telling the good news while staying solidly grounded in theology and Scripture.”

Asked which of his many accomplishments makes him proudest, Rada cites being a father to his daughters, Margaret and Mary-Talmage, who are now grown and are parents themselves. Because his own father died when he was 8 years old, Rada cherished the opportunity to help nurture his daughters on the path to adulthood.

What gives him joy, he says, is “being a presence in their lives, and seeing their faith be important to them as they are mothers.”