Updated December 27, 2015: Pastor Robert S. Folkenberg, a veteran missionary in Latin America who served as president of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination from 1990 to 1999, passed to his rest on Christmas eve at the age of 74. He was known as an innovative leader, encouraging use of the Internet and other new technology by the denomination, and was also the only General Conference (GC) president to ever be asked to resign.
His election as GC president at the 1990 session in Indianapolis (Indiana) was labeled “a surprising turn of events” and “providential” by the Adventist Review at the time. Pastor Neal C. Wilson, father of the current GC president, Pastor Ted Wilson, went to the session expecting to be re-elected after 25 years of service at the GC first as president of the North American Division and then as GC president. Much to the surprise of many, the nominating committee decided early on to send him into retirement and turned to Pastor George W. Brown, president of the Inter-American Division, the first person of color to be nominated for the top Adventist position.
Brown had planned to retire and after discussions with his family and time spent in prayer over the evening, he told the nominating committee he would not serve. This left the process behind schedule and key leaders in something of a panic on Friday morning before the first Sabbath of the session. Late Friday afternoon, the committee nominated Folkenberg who was chairing the committee at the time. He was born to missionary parents in Puerto Rico, spoke fluent Spanish from childhood and had spent two decades serving in Latin America. A New York Times report a week later saw this as one of several events at the session during which Adventists “came to terms … with the stark fact that theirs is no longer an American church.”
SERVICE AS THE DENOMINATION’S PRESIDENT
During his time as president, Folkenberg pushed the Adventist denomination forward with the use of technology and brought CompuServe, a precursor to the world wide web, making it the first denomination to use such technology. He wanted the church to be up-to-date in the latest technology and use all tools available to spread the gospel.
Folkenberg felt that Adventists had an exciting message to share and the Internet was a great way to expand the denomination’s reach. The Adventist denomination, he believed, could use the Internet to provide information, training and experiences that better demonstrate the global aspect of the denomination’s operation.
“Elder Folkenberg was filled with creative and innovative ideas regarding church work and evangelism. As president of the General Conference, he strongly nurtured the media aspect of outreach for church activities and evangelism as well as pioneered the use of Internet for communication within the church structure,” Ted Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, said in a statement to ANN.
Folkenberg also had a great passion for mission. It was the driving force of his ministry. During his time as Seventh-day Adventist world church president, he helped launch the Global Mission initiative, which has been responsible for establishing thousands of new congregations around the world.
“We could not have asked for a greater support than Folkenberg for Global Mission,” said Mike Ryan, former world church general vice president and the first director of Global Mission. “Elder Robert Folkenberg was visible, involved and passionate about proclaiming the hope of the gospel in places where Jesus’ name was not known. It mattered to him personally that the Church was organized and focused on mission and that every member made being Christ’s Ambassador their top priority,” Ryan added.
In 1999, Folkenberg stepped down from his post at the GC and Dr. Jan Paulsen replaced him as president of the Adventist denomination. Question had surfaced about Folkenberg’s business relationship with James Moore, a real estate developer based in Sacramento (California) who sued Folkenberg and the GC seeking the return of $8 million, the alleged value of a financial instrument he claimed he had turned over to Folkenberg.
On January 28 of that year the Los Angeles Times reported that three days of “tense emergency meetings” involving “40 senior leaders” of the denomination had ended “without deciding whether [Folkenberg] should be disciplined over allegations of financial and ethical misconduct.” Instead the group “voted to pass the question … to the [GC] executive committee … in March.” On February 9 the newspaper reported that Folkenberg resigned because “the controversy over his financial dealings was ‘detracting from God’s work.'”
On April 5 (1999) Christianity Today stated that Moore had been “convicted of felony grand theft in 1989,” that the lawsuit “had been settled out of court,” and that “in his resignation letter, Folkenberg said [he had] repeatedly and publicly acknowledged mistakes in [his] dealings with Moore.” The March-April (1999) issue of Adventist Today magazine provided more detail based on extensive reporting with sources that had knowledge that Folkenberg and Moore “have been business partners for many years.”
“Folkenberg’s name … appears in many of Moore’s prospectuses,” the article stated. “Folkenberg served on the board of at least one of Moore’s corporations.” And, “while Folkenberg was still in the Inter-American Division, church officials had cautioned Folkenberg about continuing to be involved with him.” There were numerous details of other business deals, and a GC spokesman admitted that Folkenberg had been placed on “something similar to a leave of absence” and was still on the denomination’s payroll.
MINISTRY AFTER THE GENERAL CONFERENCE
Folkenberg’s passion for mission and evangelism did not end after he left his position as president. Folkenberg developed the “Share Him” initiative—a mission and evangelism effort that trains individuals and local churches to hold evangelistic series in their communities and abroad.
“Elder Folkenberg spent part of his early ministry in frontline evangelistic activity and the last part of his ministry in direct evangelistic outreach through ‘Share Him.’ Evangelism and the proclamation of the three angels’ messages were the passion of his life,” Wilson said. “Whether he was in frontline or administrative work, his heart was in helping people know Christ and then become an active participant in the mission of the Church. His early ministry as part of an evangelistic team gave him the foundation for the rest of his life,” he added.
Folkenberg did not believe being an Adventist was a spectator sport and spoke often about what the Bible said regarding salvation—“if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (NKJVRomans 10:9) Throughout his career in the Adventist denomination, Folkenberg put an emphasis on “confessing” Christ—through technology, through mission and through the local churches with which he worked.
Recently, Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church in the U.S. state of Maryland decided to participate in ShareHim. Church administrator Gail Boyer said of his passion, “Bob Folkenberg’s ‘raison d’etre’ is that every person should hear the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. He lived for evangelism.” Folkenberg even visited the church, even though he had just been told his cancer had recurred. He felt the Frederick Church was committed to evangelism and bringing people to Christ, Boyer said. “We had members that responded not only to doing a church-held campaign,” Boyer continued, “but also to doing a ‘ShareHim’ series in their homes. His love for the Lord was contagious!”
Jan Paulsen, who followed Bob Folkenberg as General Conference president, said this about his colleague: “Bob was a man of ideas, high energy and a congenial spirit. He assigned responsibilities to his colleagues, and then allowed them space and time to carry out their task. Micro-management was not his style. I found him easy to relate to, both as a colleague and a leader. Since he left office he continued to let his energies and creative ideas develop and flow into the life and mission of the Church, as seen particularly in the ‘Share Him’ program, which has been a blessing to our Church widely and for which he will be long remembered.”
A LIFE DEDICATED TO MISSIONARY SERVICE
Robert S. Folkenberg was born on January 1, 1941 in Santurcee, Puerto Rico to missionary parents. He went to school in Puerto Rico and finished elementary school in Cuba. He graduated from Milo Adventist Academy and graduated from Andrews University (AU) with a degree in ministry in 1962. In 1963 he completed a master’s degree in New Testament at AU.
Folkenberg was an avid pilot. He secured a single and multi-engine airline transport pilot rating, commercial helicopter and sea rating and flew more than 2,000 hours, the majority of which were in Central America and the Caribbean while he was a missionary there. He served as a pastor in Panama, president of the Honduras Mission, secretary and later president of the Central American Union Conference. In 1980 he became assistant to the president for the Inter-American Division. From 1985 to 1990 he was president of the Carolina Conference in the United States.
“On behalf of the world church family of Seventh-day Adventists, we offer our deep sympathy, condolences and Christian love to Mrs. Folkenberg and the children, Bob Jr. and his family and Kathi and her family,” Wilson said in his statement. “What a privilege to be part of God’s great Advent movement looking forward to the time when there will be no more pain or death because of Christ’s final victory. What a marvelous reason to share HIM!”
Folkenberg is survived by his wife Anita Emmerson along with their two children Robert Jr. and Kathi and five grandchildren. Pastor Robert Folkenberg Jr. is president of the Chinese Union of Seventh-day Adventists, and Kathi Folkenberg Jensen is a registered nurse.
A memorial service is planned for January 10, at 4:00pm at the Avon Park Seventh-day Adventist Church in Florida, United States. In lieu of flowers, the family would welcome a donation to Share Him. Donations can be made online at www.sharehim.org.
The basic news release this story is based on is from the Adventist News Network (ANN) is the official news service of the denomination’s world headquarters in Washington, DC. Additional reporting was done by the Adventist Today staff.