Marj Carpenter, reporter who became Presbyterian head, dies

DALLAS (AP) — Marj Carpenter, who pushed international missionary work while briefly leading the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination in the mid-1990s following a journalism career in West Texas that included covering millionaire swindler Billie Sol Estes, has died. She was 93.

Carpenter, who once described herself as “sinfully proud” of being Presbyterian and traveled to more than 120 countries on the behalf of Presbyterian Church (USA), died Saturday at an assisted living facility in the West Texas city of Big Spring, her son, Jim Bob Carpenter, said Monday.

He said she had a “weak heart,” so they assumed it “just finally gave out.” Carpenter said his mother was “completely sharp” till the end.

“Marj was truly one of a kind,” said the Rev. Cliff Kirkpatrick, stated clerk emeritus of the church’s General Assembly, or top legislative body. “She had a true-life story for every occasion, and they all came together with an overflowing love for Christ and for this community known as the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

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After working as a small-town newspaper reporter in West Texas, she joined Presbyterian News Service and during her 15-year tenure eventually became its director. The attention she gained in that role and by traveling internationally to visit mission sites helped her get elected moderator of the church’s General Assembly — the top elected post within Presbyterian Church (USA), which today has over 1.3 million members.

She served for a year as moderator of the Kentucky-based mainstream denomination as it struggled with divisive issues such as gay clergy. The mother of three from Big Spring urged members to focus on carrying out the church’s global mission, especially helping youth, instead of what she called smaller individual issues.

“I’ll tell you what — we can do great things together in this denomination if we can get back to basics,” she said the day she was elected to the prestigious post in July 1995. “We argue too much about individual issues like homosexuality. The church needs to get centered around its mission.”

In 2011, the church authorized gay ordination and in 2015 it approved gay marriage.

Although Carpenter spent only a year as moderator, she remained popular within the church’s moderate and liberal ranks long after her tenure.

At the time of Carpenter’s election, only seven of the 400 moderators in church history had been women; the Presbyterian church began ordaining women in the 1950s. Carpenter was not a pastor, though she served as an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Big Spring.

Carpenter’s journalism career included a stint in the West Texas town of Pecos just as Estes’ empire began crumbling. Estes was accused of fraud for borrowing money to build fertilizer tanks that were never constructed. A dozen major finance companies lost about $24 million.

Carpenter worked with the semiweekly Pecos Independent and Enterprise, which frequently criticized Estes and became locked in a newspaper war with his upstart Pecos Daily News. During an interview in 1995, Carpenter recalled several dangerous encounters during that time, including someone putting an “old gray snake” in her car and a sign on the steering wheel that read: “This could have been a rattlesnake.”

She also said someone tried to set the Independent’s offices ablaze but she quickly extinguished the fire.

Her funeral will be held Thursday in Big Spring.

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Former Associated Press writers Matt Curry and Betsy Blaney contributed to this report.

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