Obituary: Cynthia J. Bolbach / Chief officer of the national Presbyterian Church
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Cynthia J. Bolbach, a Washington, D.C.-area lawyer and editor who served as chief officer of the national Presbyterian Church, died Dec. 12 at a hospital in Arlington, Va.
Her death from cancer at age 64 was confirmed by a nephew, Ben White.
Ms. Bolbach retired in January as executive vice president of Bloomberg BNA (Bureau of National Affairs) after 40 years with the organization. Within days after retiring, she learned she had stage four ovarian cancer.
In 2010, she was elected to a two-year term as moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has 1.9 million members in more than 10,000 churches. She defeated five clergy candidates for the office, which is jokingly referred to as the "Presbyterian pope."
After her cancer diagnosis, Ms. Bolbach underwent chemotherapy treatments and lost her hair. As the public face of the national Presbyterian Church, she continued her travels around the country for conferences and other events.
In June, she presided over the church's biennial assembly meeting in Pittsburgh from a wheelchair and wearing a wig.
Ms. Bolbach's favorite color was green. At the joint worship service in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center that opened the assembly, about 200 of the delegates donned green tinsel wigs in a gesture of solidarity.
The Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister of Pittsburgh Presbytery, helped to organize the show of support. "We wanted her to know we were standing with her," he said Saturday. "When we put one of the green wigs on her head ... she was overjoyed and laughed uproariously."
As is assembly custom, Ms. Bolbach preached that morning and then presided over the election that evening of the Rev. D. Neal Presa, her successor as moderator.
"She was a very sick person when she came here," Rev. Sorge said. "But she continued all day long and into the night. She was very deeply committed to the Presbyterian Church."
After her election as moderator, Ms. Bolbach presided over a national assembly in Minneapolis in 2010 that gave local churches and governing presbyteries authority to ordain elders and clergy without regard to their sexual orientation. That "local option" was ratified by a majority of presbyteries.
"She she did not advocate ... but she made clear that she supported full participation for all people in the life and ministry of the church," Rev. Sorge said. The resulting policy was not an endorsement of ordaining gay and lesbian people for the ministry but the removal of an obstacle that had prevented that from occurring, he said.
During her term as moderator Ms. Bolbach also was quick to adopt social media, especially Facebook. "That created a kind of community that surrounded her in her illness," Rev. Sorge said.
At BNA, an employee-owned legal and regulatory news service until its acquisition by Bloomberg last year, Ms. Bolbach had been corporate secretary, overseeing the organization's stock plan, and a member of the board of directors for 10 years. She joined BNA in 1972 as a legal editor.
Ms. Bolbach was born Dec. 27, 1947, in Lancaster, Pa. As a child, she had a pet hamster named Luther and a guinea pig named Calvin, which years later would be interpreted by friends as early signs of her commitment to the Protestant reformist tradition. She graduated from Wittenberg University in Ohio in 1969 and from Georgetown University Law School in 1972.
At 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a shock of steel-gray hair, she had an authoritative, even intimidating, persona that was mitigated by a wry and ironic sense of humor that made people feel at ease, said Greg McCaffery, chief executive of Bloomberg BNA.
As corporate secretary, Ms. Bolbach always tried to lighten the traditionally long and tedious BNA annual meetings with such facetious promises as the expected appearance of guest celebrities -- such as Lady Gaga -- to read the minutes of previous meetings.
A resident of Arlington, Ms. Bolbach was an elder at the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington. She had previously been a deacon and an elder at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. She had been moderator of the National Capital Presbytery, which is the oversight body of Presbyterian churches in the Washington area.
At one point in the General Assembly proceedings that led to her election as moderator, the six candidates were asked to speculate about the consequences should they lose. The five clergy candidates gave reverent and solemn discourses. Ms. Bolbach rose and declared that if she did not win, "absolute chaos would ensue!" The assembly erupted in laughter. The Presbyterian News Service later noted that her "winsome sense of humor" helped carry the day.
In addition to her nephew, survivors include a sister, Ann B. White of Washington. For a period in the 1980s, Ms. Bolbach was a foster parent.
First Published December 23, 2012 12:00 am