Longtime Minister at St. Peter’s Keeps His Flock in Tune
Clayton Cobb on the rocks at Abalone Cove. Photo by David Fairchild
You could say that the Rev. Dr. Clayton Cobb is passionate about playing his guitar. You could also say that he’s passionate about running with Tom Sullivan. Both statements are true.
But most of all, you could say without a doubt that this 57-year-old senior minister at St. Peter’s by the Sea Presbyterian Church is most passionate about the relationships he has fostered among his 1,000-member congregation for the past 16 years.
The affable and verbal longtime cleric recently recalled his early and continuing call to faith during a lengthy interview in his airy office, silently accompanied by Chloe, the 18-year-old dowager “church cat,” comfortably curled in a large basket on a wide shelf in a corner of the room. “She’s my partner,” he explains, with a smile in her direction.
“Chloe even accompanies me to staff meetings,” he went on, “and when I’m with mourners while arranging a memorial service, she unfailingly sits next to the person who has suffered the greatest loss.”
So it is with Clayton Cobb, whose journey of faith began at a Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tenn., when he was a teenager. “I’d been confirmed in the Episcopal Church where my parents were members, but my faith moment occurred in the Presbyterian youth group where I was chasing girls, and heard a fascinating speaker—his name was Rollin Wilson–during one of those weeklong sessions they sponsored.
“At the time, I remember vividly that I wanted to give my life to Christ—but I didn’t want it to happen right at that moment.”
Songs from the heart
His passion for music might have prompted his reluctance. “When I was 10, my grandmother gave me a guitar, and I took lessons,” he said. “By the time I was attending the University of Memphis, I was in a band, teaching guitar and financing my education with music. But I realized I was resourceful, not creative. I didn’t compose.”
But he continued worshipping at Second Presbyterian, where its pastor, Gary Dennis, was his mentor. One day, Rev. Cobb recalled, “He said to me, ‘Clayton, I think God has called you to ministry.’ I was 19 at the time.”
When Dennis left the church in 1973, Rev. Cobb said, “He called and offered me a job to work with him at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. With his call came applications to USC and UCLA, and I moved to Hollywood that fall.” As for finances, he explained that the church paid his part-time salary. In 1974, his salary—which covered his tuition at UCLA (his chosen school) and then at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena — was paid by a grant from the Eli Lilly Co.
And in the relaxed manner that is characteristic of his conservational style, Rev. Cobb continued chronicling his journey of faith.
“While at Hollywood Presbyterian, I was assigned to work with youngsters at Hollywood High School under the supervision of Principal Jim Tunney. I would say that my time there was the most significant period of my life. I worked with 90 nationalities. It was just incredible and life giving—something completely different from anything I’d ever known.
“It was during those years — the ‘70s — that I married the gal back home and earned my Master of Divinity Degree from Fuller in 1978.”
Movement and growth
Not long after receiving his degree, he was called to the large Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church as associate youth minister. “Jim Little, the senior pastor there, was my most significant mentor, and he’s still my most significant mentor,” Rev Cobb explained. “The foundations for my leading a church were built there.”
He spent 12 years “getting the most thorough training possible as an associate pastor for youth. That congregation really taught me,” he said, clearly grateful for the experience. It was during those years that his daughter, Carly, was born in 1980, followed by a son, Austin, in 1983.
However, in 1990, Rev. Cobb was called to serve as senior pastor at Novato Presbyterian Church. It was also during this period that he obtained his Doctor of Divinity degree from nearby San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo.
“Then, out of the blue in 1994, I received the call to St. Peter’s. I have a deep appreciation for this congregation and their support, especially later, at the time of my divorce…,” he said. (The Cobbs were married 33 years, separated for three, with the final decree issued a year ago.)
“But,” he went on, “this has been my richest time of spiritual growth. My experience of God’s grace and healing has never been greater.”
St. Peter’s – today and tomorrow
Of his intentions for the continued growth of St. Peter’s, Cobb said, “We say ‘yes’ anytime we can help someone grow in the faith. As we honor each other’s diversity, relationships get closer (and we become) better followers of Christ.”
Rev. Cobb is assisted in this pursuit by two associate pastors, Chuck Hunt and Barbara Buck, who help realize his commitment “to kids and the young, which is unwavering” and to “mission, which has soared.” And to music and worship, which, under the direction of Dr. Jean Gothold since 1995, has won high praise. (She has been on staff since 1990.) He admitted with a smile that he frequently attends weekly choir practice, plays his guitar or sings with the group. He also is known to perform during the church’s contemporary service.
A founding member of the Dawn Unity Group that was created 10 years ago, Cobb endorses its purpose of interfaith understanding and participates in its quarterly panel discussions on the varieties of faith traditions. “It’s very important to be a part of Dawn,” in furthering his pledge of bringing people together, he said.
Cobb considers it to be very important to play his guitar at the contemporary service, to sing and play and share his music. “My commitment to music has persisted all these years,” he said, glancing at the decal-covered guitar case sitting near the door of his office.
It’s also just as important for Cobb to run with blind author Tom Sullivan three days a week, continuing a practice that began 15 years ago when a friend suggested the two get together. “I had to learn how to guide him, how to be partners,” he explained. “There’s so much mutual respect [in that activity].”
The Rev. Dr. Clayton Alan Cobb, who was born at Camp Polk, La., where his father was being discharged from the Army and where his parents selected the given name for their only child from a roster of soldiers in the camp, continues his commitment to an ongoing pledge: “It’s to help people grow.” PEN