The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


August 10, 2011

A 'debt of gratitude': Church executive Dorothy Marple dies

Dorothy Marple, pioneering church executive and coordinator of the transition team for the ELCA (1986-1987), died Aug. 8 at Artman Lutheran Home in Ambler, Pa. Marple, a member at St. Michael Lutheran Church, Philadelphia, was 84.

“Dr. Marple was gracious but firm, precise and thorough, conscious of detail and yet mindful of the bigger picture,” retired ELCA pastor and former ELCA Secretary Lowell Almen told ELCA News. “She was crucial in completing the commitment made by the ELCA’s predecessor churches in 1982. In that year, the ALC (American Lutheran Church), LCA (Lutheran Church in America) and AELC (Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches) voted to form a new church in a step toward greater Lutheran unity for the sake of effectiveness in mission. Dr. Marple shared that vision and worked tirelessly toward its implementation.”

Marple broke ground in 1975 as the first woman and the first layperson to be named a bishop's assistant in the Lutheran Church in America. She came to that role after serving as the first executive director of the LCA women's organization from 1962 to 1975.

A lifelong pioneer, she was also the first in her family to graduate from college and to earn advanced degrees, including a doctorate in education from Columbia University, New York.

"The adjective to describe Dorothy is outstandingly competent," said James Crumley, a retired ELCA pastor and former bishop of the LCA. "She had an accurate and detailed knowledge of the entire Lutheran Church in America; its history, work and function. Dorothy was always contributing to the work of the entire group. We especially valued her contribution to our church's ecumenical work and the Lutheran World Federation."

The late LCA President Robert Marshall selected Marple as a bishop's assistant in 1975 — "something that was most fortunate for me, in following Dr. Marshall," Crumley said. "There is no way I could say too much about Dorothy. In the 1980s, Dorothy and all of us spent a large portion of time planning for the ELCA. A formidable series of tasks had to be done to make the ELCA happen. After the ELCA was approved, she did an extraordinary job coordinating the transition team. She was just a wonderful person."

Marple held many other leadership roles throughout the years, including: dean of women and foreign student adviser at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa. (1953-1961); board member of Church Women United (1962-1975); assistant general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCCCUSA) from 1988-1989; NCCCUSA governing board member (1970-1987); LWF Executive Committee member (1977-1984); chair of the LWF Commission on Church Cooperation (1984-1989); member of the board of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (1989-98); member of the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia (1989-98); and chair of a task force studying theological education in the ELCA (1989-1994).

Phyllis Anderson, president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif., and one of Marple's colleagues on the theological task force, called it "one of the singular privileges and joys of my ministry to be [Dorothy's] staff partner." Anderson formerly served as executive director of the former Higher Education and Schools churchwide unit, which had responsibility for the task force.

"The whole church owes Dorothy Marple a debt of gratitude for the tireless, focused, eminently fair leadership she gave to the ELCA Study of Theological Education, which was her trademark," Anderson said. "That study continues to inform the directions and decisions of our seminaries today."

President Michael Cooper-White of Gettysburg Seminary said Marple was the epitome of a churchly servant leader. “She never sought the limelight of center stage, but her quiet competence shone in so many corners of the church, especially in her work helping lay a solid foundation for the ELCA,” he said.

Retired ELCA pastor Ralph Eckard knew Marple for 48 years, including the 27 years he served as an assistant to LCA presidents and later bishops. "Dorothy and I served as colleagues from 1976 until the merger in 1988," Eckard said. "She was a prodigious worker and a great colleague in every sense of the word. She had a breadth of experience, which she could apply to any situation."

Marple's funeral service is set for Saturday, Aug. 13, at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church, Ambler, Pa. She is survived by a sister, Virginia Reynolds; nine nieces; and a longtime friend, Lois Leffler.

Memorials can be sent to ELCA World Hunger, P.O. Box 71764, Chicago, IL 60694-1764. 

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