Reverend Professor Jerry Pillay, Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria (UP), has been elected general secretary of the global faith-based organisation the World Council of Churches (WCC).
The soft-spoken churchman will leave academia at the end of the year to head the 74-year-old Swiss-Christian organisation committed to ecumenism (the belief that Christians of different denominations should work together to promote Christian unity).
“I'm wonderfully excited about it,” Prof Pillay said. “Because I've been a very strong ecumenist, I love the academic world. I'm truly going to miss being at UP; it is the most wonderful university ever. I will miss this environment and would not have left for any other academic adventure. But this is different. This is a call to be with the church and lead the world church. And that has always been in my DNA. I'm here because I serve God and want to serve the world.”
Prof Pillay has many years of service in the leadership of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa and in the ecumenical movement in South Africa and abroad. He has served as moderator of the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa from 2004-2006 and as general secretary of the same church from 2008 to 2014. He was elected as the first President of the World Communion of Reformed Churches from 2010 to 2017. He is involved in the Ecumenical movement in South Africa, serving on the South African Council of Churches, the National Church Leaders’ Consultation, and other global ecumenical bodies such as the World Council of Churches and the Council for World Mission.
“Unfortunately, I will be leaving UP, because this is a full-time, high-profile job based in Geneva. It is mind-boggling for me and the family, as we have been in South Africa all our lives. But this is going to be different and a wonderful new challenge,” said Prof Pillay, a father of three and husband to Sandra Pillay.
The WCC is a fellowship of churches consisting of more than 354 denominations, of which the United Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa, to which Prof Pillay belongs, is an affiliate. “The task is to bring all of these churches together to proclaim the mission of Jesus Christ. And the role is generally to work with issues of unity of churches, with justice, because the central focus is to bring transformation to a struggling, suffering, and broken world, where the church is also trying to seek unity among themselves.
“It's a big portfolio because this is the highest church body, consisting of several churches. And I will be leading this organisation administratively but also in many other respects, bringing unity to the fellowship and growing the fellowship of churches to speak meaningfully to the rest of the world.”
Prof Pillay completed his BTh (Hon) and MTh (cum laude) degrees at the then University of Durban-Westville, his PhD at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and received an honorary doctorate from the Reformed University of Debrecen in Hungary in 2013. Prof Pillay is also spearheading a research project on African Christianity and Development. He is also involved in doing research in the area of being African and Reformed, and ecumenical history. He has published many peer-reviewed articles in accredited journals, and chapters in books both in South Africa and internationally.
Born and raised in Merebank, south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, Prof Pillay said he joins WCC, which played a leading role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, at a time when the world is riven by conflict in Russia and Ukraine, Palestine and Israel, and current tension in Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and other parts of the globe.
“So, we look at all these challenges from biblical perspectives, trying to understand the justice focus of how people need to be liberated and cared for in these circumstances,” he said. “It's always difficult working with many people across a great sense of diversities and opinions from different churches. The idea of trying to bring all of these together collectively is a mammoth task and a very tough one. But I think the WCC succeeds in being able to communicate a message about the situation to the world.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa congratulated the pastor on Twitter: “On behalf of all South Africans, I offer my warm congratulations to our very own Rev Prof Dr Jerry Pillay on his election as general secretary – chief executive office in effect – of the World Council of Churches. We are proud of this achievement and offer the Rev Prof Dr Pillay our best wishes as he assumes this position at a time the world needs spiritual and ethical sustenance and guidance.”
Prof Pillay said he was looking forward to making an impact on the global stage. “For me, it is a genuinely proud South African moment. And to be honoured by the President with kind words in one greeting is a double honour in terms of realising that the country also realises the magnitude of the task and the WCC in South Africa.”
UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said the humble Prof Pillay has been an inspirational leader at UP, and there could be no greater endorsement of his academic credentials than being asked to fulfil a divine purpose on a world stage. “We are mindful of the role played by the WCC in South Africa’s struggle for liberation, and it is only fitting that a son of the soil has been chosen to serve the world.”
Prof Pillay starts his new role at the WCC on 1 January 2023.