Cynthia Bolbach, a lawyer, ruling elder and moderator of the 2010 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), died Dec. 12 of cancer, less than a year after being diagnosed and less than six months after completing her moderatorial term.
Tributes bubbled up immediately from across the PC(USA), praising Bolbach, 64, for her integrity and graciousness, her fair-mindedness, her hard labor at all levels of the church (including two terms as a co-moderator of the task force which drafted the new Form of Government) and her oh-so-quick wit, which one blogger described as “wicked smarts.”
Mark Koenig, director of Presbyterian ministry at the United Nations, wrote in another blog that when Bolbach was asked during the question-and-answer session before her election in 2010 what would happen if she were not chosen, she responded: “Utter chaos,” and the whole assembly guffawed.
This was the moderator who, during the opening worship of the 2012 assembly, showed up to preach wearing a fedora — surrounded by an entourage of friends wearing green wigs. She spoke of courage and faith, saying: “I do not believe the PC(USA) is paralyzed.”
Bolbach’s memorial service was held Dec. 15 at First Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Va., the congregation where she served both as a ruling elder and as clerk of session. Those who spoke included members of her biological family, her church family and her work family.
Bolbach grew up in Lancaster, Pa., the daughter of Dorothy and Raymond Bolbach. She graduated from Wittenberg University in Ohio and from Georgetown University Law Center, then went to work for what is now Bloomberg BNA — a publisher of specialized legal and regulatory journals, acquired in 2011 by Bloomberg but for decades an employee-owned firm called BNA at which Bolbach rose to become executive vice president and corporate secretary.
Her nephew, Mark White, a Roman Catholic priest, described Bolbach on his blog as “big-time” both professionally and personally — his mother Ann’s “loving, goal-oriented, gusto-chasing sister,” an unforgettable influence both for him and his brother Ben, now a journalist in New York.
In 1987, she became the foster parent of a teenage boy, Jimmy Pelletier, who wrote on Facebook that “I was just a 16-year-old punk kid” when Bolbach took him into her home.
Pelletier, now a skateboarder and videographer, wrote on Facebook that “Cynthia was very smart and strategic on how she raised me. If she bought me a new skateboard one day, I was mowing a lawn in 90-degree heat for her coworker the next day for money to buy knee pads and a helmet. She taught me to work hard, respect others, and be kind — that you can’t just ‘skate on by’ in life … She helped shape and mold me into the man I am today.”
A cat lover, living in northern Virginia, Bolbach surrounded herself with a cadre of extremely close women friends, some of them Presbyterian pastors. “It was a close and joyous friendship, and a huge part of it was about God — that ongoing conversation about what God was calling us to do and be,” wrote Jan Edmiston, now interim associate executive presbyter for ministry of the Presbytery of Chicago.
Bolbach also communicated that sense of connection to new friends, such as Krista Phillips, a young adult advisory delegate to the 2010 General Assembly. “I like many of my peers fell in love with her,” Phillips wrote in her blog. “Cindy had a heart for the church like I had never seen before.”
The only ruling elder among six candidates to run for moderator in 2010, Bolbach also became known for the signature phrase “Elders Rule!”
At last summer’s General Assembly, Bolbach preached during opening worship from the Gospel of Mark, about the risk-taking men who lifted up the paralyzed man to see Jesus.
Bolbach said that “while struggling with cancer, I have been uplifted and supported by those disciples. Many disagree with me, but they have reached out to help me to the roof, and carried me to see Jesus … . None of [our disagreements] matter without disciples who are willing to take risks for the sake of the Gospel.
“Let’s not worry about process and structure; instead, let’s pray that we will be given the faith that Jesus saw in those disciples. Let’s commit ourselves to be those disciples who will take risks, who will carry others up to the roof …. If we commit ourselves to lift someone we don’t know, someone we don’t like, we will soar on wings like eagles, we will run and not grow weary, we will walk and not grow faint because we will be helping people see Jesus. What more could we ask for?”
In an interview with the Outlook last summer, Bolbach spoke of her gratitude for those who continued praying for her. “I want to say ‘thank you’ for those prayers,” Bolbach said in June. “They have really uplifted me over these past few months and have made such a difference to me. It brought home to me that the denomination is a community of faith just as much as a congregation.”
She also made it clear, through friends, that she did not want any maudlin or mushy tributes. Bolbach was the opposite of cloying; she also was quick to turn the spotlight away from herself, back to the broader circle, the bigger picture.
Landon Whitsitt, now the executive and stated clerk of the Synod of Mid-America, served as vice moderator of the 219th General Assembly — nominated by Bolbach to serve with her. He posted this prayer on Facebook after learning of her death.
by your creative power you gave us life,
and in your redeeming love you have given
us new life in Christ.
We commend our sister, Cynthia Bolbach,
to your merciful care
in the faith of Christ our Lord
who died and rose again to save us,
and who now lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
Goodbye, Madame Moderator.