'One of the finest preachers I've ever encountered'
Rev. Bob Sanders wanted to make the world a better place — and he did this through decades of service.
Sanders, 73, who was the senior pastor and head of staff at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church, died Sept. 18 after a six-year battle with an aggressive form of dementia.
"He was incredibly intelligent but in a very accessible way," said Sander's daughter, Becca Bruner. "(He) read a lot, knew a lot, studied a lot, but you could sit down and have a conversation and you never felt like, 'Oh gosh, this guy's too smart for me. I can't talk to him.'"
Sanders was born in North Carolina and graduated from Miami University of Ohio with a bachelor's degree in political science. He later received his master's of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he met his wife, Deborah, while she was attending Westminster Choir College.
He also completed post-graduate coursework at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
"Upon graduation from Princeton, Bob and Debbie moved to Boulder, Colorado, where Bob served as associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church and Debbie pursued a master's degree
in vocal performance. During their time in Boulder, Bob and Debbie were blessed with two daughters, Kristin Eleanor Sanders and Rebecca Elizabeth Bruner (nee Sanders)," read an obituary written by Bruner. "After serving in Boulder for six years, Bob's pastoral career took him to Fresno, California, where he served for 10 years as the senior pastor/head of staff at University Presbyterian Church."
The family moved to Lake Oswego — the community where Sanders would live out the rest of his life — in 1991 so he could serve as senior pastor at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church.
Many who knew Sanders say he left his mark on Lake Oswego.
"He was really the reason I came to this church. When I interviewed with him, he was such an impressive person that I wanted to work with him," said Graig Flach, associate pastor at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church. "I appreciated his intelligence and his commitment to excellence. I was always so impressed."
Flach remembers when Sanders invited a speaker from World Vision — a Christian relief organization — who then challenged the congregation to pray for an "unreached people group" in Senegal. Flach said Sanders wasn't a "big mission man" at the time but remembers Sanders saying that if he was praying for people, he wanted to know more about them.
In the mid-1990s Sanders went on a trip with World Vision to Senegal, where he built relations with people there.
"His eyes were opened to the vast needs in much of the developed world; it changed his life, changed his preaching, changed the arc of what kind of congregation Lake Grove was," Flach said. "He expected the rest of us pastors and senior leaders in the church to adopt a mission partner and have a personal mission focus, and mine became Zambia.
"It really transformed the congregation,n and the church grew as a result," he said.
Bruner said her father led missions to Senegal and helped dig clean water wells. He also helped kick start others to lead missions in Zambia and Bangladesh.
Torrey Olsen with World Vision said Sanders didn't just allocate church dollars to these missions, he was deeply committed to helping the people in Senegal.
"Bob's relationship with World Vision started decades ago with a commitment to the Wolof people in Senegal, and later expanded to include Bangladesh, Zambia and a passion to bring clean water to those who didn't have it," wrote Olsen in a speech about Sanders. "Every time I saw Bob, he would share stories from his trips and speak fondly of his Wolof and his World Vision friends. I am also grateful for Bob's pastoral heart as he shepherded and encouraged World Vision employees both here and internationally."
Bruner, who is a Presbyterian pastor herself, remembers her father telling her when she was ordained to not forget the Wolof — the group of people in Senegal he helped serve.
"Don't forget what that represents," Bruner recalled her dad saying. "He never forgot."
Robin Garvin, pastor of discipleship at the church, knew Sanders both professionally and personally.
"He's one of the finest preachers I've ever encountered in 31 years in ministry. … He's also deeply grounded in life," Garvin said. "In his pastoral care with people, he was a good listener. He had the ability to listen deeply with people to empathize and understand their places of pain."
Garvin said many people in Lake Oswego were influenced and impacted by Sanders' life and the example he set forth.
"He really, I think, changed our church in so many different ways — positive ways," Garvin said. "He just was not a guy who was a self-promoter in the least. He had a humility about him; he was very self-aware and I think he just found great joy in empowering others to know and love and serve Christ, and that has made a profound difference in the lives of many here."
Sanders retired from the church in 2015.
Flach said those who loved Sanders don't understand why dementia hit him at such an early age, shortly after retirement.
"You didn't even give him rest," Flach said. "It doesn't seem fair."
Flach said Sanders was in good physical shape for his age as well.
Sanders enjoyed hiking and being outdoors.
"He loved the mountains," said Bruner, adding that mountains fed his soul.
Sanders also was passionate about music. He sang, played guitar and was part of a musical group in Lake Oswego. After Sanders died, Bruner said a friend brought over a recording of him singing "Here Comes the Sun."
"That's dad, just singing The Beatles," said Bruner, adding that her father also was passionate about his family.
"It must be said, if Bob were writing this obituary about himself, he would have insisted that any credit for his many accomplishments be shared in equal measure with his partner in life and ministry, Debbie. Truly, none of Bob's successes could have been possible without her love, her wisdom, her deep and abiding faith, and her unending support," said Bruner in Sander's obituary.
"Bob knew what a gift he had in Debbie, and he loved her, respected her, relied on her, and truly cherished her with all of his heart. Debbie is to be especially honored for her selfless care for Bob throughout the final years of his illness. Debbie loved Bob unconditionally and sacrificially, providing for his every need to the very end."
There will be a service to honor Sanders at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 9, at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church, located at 4040 Sunset Drive. People who attend the worship service must wear a face mask and follow COVID-19 safety precautions.
In lieu of memorial gifts, the family established the Bob Sanders Memorial Mission Fund at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church. Money from this fund will encourage people to attend missions. Donations can be made online or mailed to the church.
"Though Dad has died, his legacy lives on. It lives on through the people and ministries at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church. They are going to continue to share the love and hope of Jesus Christ that Dad proclaimed to them for 24 years," said Bruner in an email to Pamplin Media Group.
"And through the establishment of the Bob Sanders Memorial Mission Fund, the legacy of his heart for seeing lives changed through encountering Jesus among the poor — that will not only continue, it will grow and it will thrive."
Sanders is survived by his wife, Debbie; his two daughters, Kristin Sanders and Becca Bruner; son-in-law, David Bruner; three grandchildren, Eleanor, Benjamin and Margaret Bruner; his brother, Ralph Sanders; and sister-in-law, Janice Sanders; along with several other family members.
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