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Staff Spotlight - Beth Hessel

August 21, 2015
An interview with Executive Director, Beth Hessel

Between strategic planning meetings, coffee talks, and work-related trips beyond Philadelphia, Beth graciously responded to my questions about her history within the PC(USA), where she sees PHS in the future, and her hidden talents (spoiler alert: sheep wrangling!). To follow is the full interview.

What do you do at PHS?

As the Executive Director of the Presbyterian Historical Society, I work closely with the senior staff in the daily functioning of our organization. With the staff, the Board, the Stated Clerk, and the Committee on the Office of General Assembly, I develop long-term visions for the health and vitality of PHS and our ability to carry out our mission. As Executive Director, I will also be taking the lead and collaborating closely with our fantastic development team and Board to broaden our donor base and increase the fiscal stability of PHS so that we may continue to “Collect, Preserve, and Share” the story of American Presbyterianism for future generations. As the Director of History and Records for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I work with the Stated Clerk and the leadership team at OGA--planning General Assembly, ensuring that the denomination’s permanent records are preserved, and working for the long-term vitality of the Presbyterian Church as we seek to live out God’s mission. All of this involves a lot of meetings, travel, and conferences!

Tell us a little about yourself?

I am the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor and a public school teacher; service runs in my bloodstream.  I am also blessed to be the mother of an amazing son and daughter. My son has already outstripped me in height, and both of my children far outmatch me in brain power! I’m a native Californian who has lived in most of the regions of this country. When not working or actively parenting, I enjoy reading, gardening, baking, running, and hiking.

Are you and your family enjoying Philadelphia so far?

How could we not?!! Philadelphia and the surrounding region are so rich in history, culture, diversity, and beautiful geography. We are excited to experience the area in successive seasons and expand our perspectives as we gradually visit more places in Philadelphia and along the East Coast.

Where do you see PHS in 10 years?

PHS will still be located here in Philadelphia, serving congregations, researchers, and denominational agencies, but our reach as a virtual archive, museum, and inspirational resource will be national and even global. In ten years, I hope that no graduate of our seminaries lacks awareness that our denomination has a national archive and a full appreciation for the many services we provide to pastors, Christian educators, and lay leaders to strengthen their congregations’ spiritual maturity and grounding in Reformed theology and history.

What is your favorite item or part of our collections?

I have not had the opportunity to explore the full extent of our collections; if I did, I would probably never attend to my actual job responsibilities! However, for my research for my Ph.D. dissertation on the relationship among former Protestant missionaries to Japan, the federal government, and the incarcerated Japanese American population during World War II, I relied heavily on PHS’ collections. We are very lucky to be the denominational archive that houses the records of the National Council of Churches in Christ, the Home Missions Council, and the Foreign Missions Council, which attest to the long commitment of Presbyterians to ecumenical cooperation. Our missionary records are rich personal faith narratives and stories of our emergence from a paternalistic theology of mission to one that embraces humility, reconciliation, and true partnership with our neighbors around the world.

What is your favorite book and movie?

I read voraciously across a variety of subjects including history, fiction, and theology. It can be difficult to choose a favorite book. I am inspired by a book I recently finished, Imagining Abundance: Fundraising, Philanthropy, and a Spiritual Call to Service, by Kerry Alys Robinson. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a powerful spiritual tale of resilience and hope during World War II. My teenage son and I enjoy reading together the work of the British master humorist P.G.Wodehouse. Greg Robinson is a consummate historian whose work on North American Japanese American incarceration influenced my own work. Walter Brueggemann and Henri Nouwen’s writings continue to challenge me theologically and spiritually.

I do not see movies very often, but was moved by the recent movie, Still Alice, about the experience of a middle-aged academic with early onset Alzheimers. The main question: how do we, or do we, maintain our core identity even as we lose our memories?, is an important one for us as people of faith.

Do you have a hidden talent?

A talent I keep hoping to discover is the ability to sing on key!

In high school, I participated in the Future Farmers of America, raising market lambs. I got quite good at wrangling sheep and chasing down runaway lambs. This experience gave me renewed appreciation for the parable of the lost sheep and the good shepherd.

What is the one thing you couldn’t live without?

After sure knowledge of God’s presence in my life and the life of the world, breath, clean water, and my children--the true foundational blocks of life: kindness and mercy.

If you could invite three famous people, living or dead, to a dinner party who would you invite and why?

This is a tough question! There are so many fascinating people I would love to engage in conversation with. I might invite Alice Waters, who helped spur the movement toward vegetarian and localism in our eating habits and has created exciting initiatives to bring vegetable gardens into school yards, cafeterias, and classrooms. Sojourner Truth, who as a former slave, a leader for women’s rights and human rights, and a participant in some of the ferment of religious excitement and innovation in antebellum U.S. history, has a fascinating story to tell. (I would love to hear it!) And Emily Dickinson, if she would deign to join in a dinner party outside her small circle of safety. I think her very presence would infuse a sense of the greater presence of God into the evening’s conversation.