In Memory of the Rev. Dr. Don A. Pittman

The Phillips Theological Seminary community shares the sad news that the Rev. Dr. Don A. Pittman, William Tabbernee Professor of the History of Religions Emeritus and husband of the Rev. Dr. Nancy Claire Pittman, our president, died Saturday evening (June 26, 2021) at a Tulsa, Okla. hospital.

Services for Dr. Pittman are scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday, July 2, at Harvard Avenue Christian Church in Tulsa with interment set the following week in Fort Worth, Texas.

Dr. Pittman arrived at Phillips Theological Seminary in 2000 as dean, and later as vice president of academic affairs, as the seminary’s fortunes were on an upswing but by no means secure. The school had recently been gifted the building that would become its Tulsa home on Mingo Road. But there were hundreds of small and large decisions about how best to transmute a corporate headquarters into a graduate theological school.

Executive Vice President Emeritus Dr. John Imbler remembers taking Dr. Pittman, who had flown from Taiwan to interview for the Dean’s position, on a tour of the building while it was under renovation.

“At an extended break period, Don and I walked through the skeleton of the structure wearing hard hats and stumbling through the construction rubble while I explained where the seminary had been, where it was, and where we wanted it to go,” Dr. Imbler said. “As we finished the walk-through, he looked at me and said, ‘I think I’ve caught your vision!’”

The faculty also needed to be rebuilt and shaped for the future. A few years into his tenure, a partnership with another school resulted in the dual challenge of preparing the faculty to teach an unprecedented number of students and to render classes into a video-conference format.

Dr. Pittman was well-suited to the required work. He was a serious scholar of Chinese Buddhism who taught in Mandarin, the kind of credentials a graduate faculty respects. He brought a deep knowledge and acquired wisdom regarding graduate theological education administration and of the ethos and networks of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Those skills and connections significantly strengthened the school’s faculty and administration, as well as helped to shape the campus.

Dr. Lisa Davison, the Johnnie Eargle Cadieux Professor of Hebrew Bible at Phillips, initially met Dr. Pittman in her first year of college (1984) during a pre-ministry student meeting where he represented Brite Divinity School, where she decided to attend seminary.

As one of Dr. Pittman’s graduate students and his student assistant at Brite, she came to appreciate his wisdom about Buddhism and other religions, his engaging teaching, and his dry sense of humor.

“I remember one question that somehow involved Krishna and TCU football,” Dr. Davison said. “He gave us an opportunity to show what we knew as well as discover how this material could be applied in a variety of situations. His courses helped me to articulate my Christian faith in a way that was open to the Holy’s presence in all places and had integrity. It was because of Don’s influence that I chose History of Religions as my PhD minor.”

Read Dr. Davison’s “Blessing Upon the Retirement of Don Pittman”

Dr. Pittman was also known as an administrator who enjoyed the process of attentive listening and collaborative work across the seminary.

“Don often took the lead in crafting policy revisions or new program changes,” said Dr. Joseph Bessler, Robert Travis Peake Professor of Theology. “He would then visit one-on-one with each of the faculty serving on the relevant committee, getting their insights and suggestions, revising his initial draft and revisiting those colleagues. Often, by the time those changes would come to Faculty Senate, he had already done the work that enabled consensus decision making with minimum debate. He enjoyed that process of attentive listening and collaborative work.”

Dr. Pittman’s personality was also an important companion to his skills and scholarship. The Phillips community remembers him as a fine golfer (killer at both playing putt-putt and designing a course for the staff to play), a jovial pancake flipper, a Country & Western singer, and a person who would greet new faculty with food at their doorstep.

“The phone call I received from Don offering me a position at Phillips changed my life, as did his nurture and friendship as a dean, colleague, then friend,” said Dr. Richard Ward, Fred B. Craddock Professor of Homiletics and Worship Emeritus. “He was a treasure, indeed.”

“Don’s careful attention to detail, serious scholarship, decorum and dignity, and ability to hold the banks of the faculty’s needs and energies was well-muddled with a sneaky, mischievous, understated sense of humor,” said Dr. Gary Pelsuo-Verdend, President Emeritus. “In addition, his love for the congregational expression of church and desire for an educated clergy were always evident and foundational. A great example of that love is the charge given to graduating students at the close of the commencement service.”

Read the Intergenerational Charge

Dr. Ellen Blue, the Mouzon Biggs, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity and United Methodist Studies Emerita, was the first faculty person hired by Dr. Pittman. She recalls his courage as Dean to allow her to offer an immersion course in New Orleans six months after hurricane Katrina had drowned eighty percent of the city. He also let her develop a course that focused on the unique experiences of women in Christian ministry at a time when no others were teaching that topic.

“Because of his own deep centeredness, he could treat theological education as a calling that involves risk, whether that meant stepping off a plane in Taiwan with his family or taking the academic reins at an Oklahoma seminary which often challenges the community around it. He shepherded the faculties that relied on his leadership with kindness and with integrity,” said Dr. Blue.

A former missionary in Taiwan, Dr. Pittman was an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was also a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Association for Asian Studies, the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, and the Association of Disciples for Theological Discussion.

Dr. Pittman’s primary teaching and research interests were in the History of Religions, Buddhist Studies, Chinese Studies, cross-cultural and interfaith studies, and global Christianity. He taught many different courses at Phillips, including Contemporary World Religions, Introduction to a Christian Theology of Religions, Jewish-Christian and Muslim-Christian Dialogue, and the seminary BorderLinks study tour.

His publications included Ministry and Theology in Global Perspective: Contemporary Challenges for the Church, co-edited with Ruben Habito and Terry Muck (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996) and Toward a Modern Chinese Buddhism: Taixu’s Reforms (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001), plus numerous scholarly articles (in English and Chinese), book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and sermons.

His degrees include a BA from Texas Christian University (1970), MDiv from Vanderbilt University (1973), MA from Vanderbilt University (1976), PhD from the University of Chicago (1987), and post-doctoral studies at National Cheng Kung University, Tainan, Taiwan (1994-95).

The Phillips community asks that you join in keeping Dr. Nancy Pittman, Don’s mother, Eve, and his three daughters, Merillat, Katheryn, and Debra, in your prayers. The family continues to be thankful for the support they’ve all received during Don’s hospitalization and passing.

The family has asked that memorial gifts may be made to Phillips Theological Seminary and the Parkinson Foundation of Oklahoma.

Special thanks to Gary Peluso-Verdend for his contribution to this remembrance.