The Rev. Suzanne Redfern-Campbell, D.Min.

(formerly Suzanne Spencer)

Intentional Interim Minister

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Vision of Ministry

Summary of Experience

My Journey in Ministry

First Interim: Danbury CT

Second Interim: Columbia MO

Current Developmental: Las Cruces NM

Selected Sermons

In Others' Words

About Sue

Contact information

My Journey in Ministry

It's hardly what I'd planned for my life!

Not, at any rate, when people asked early on, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Back then, everyone knew that ministers were men.

Not, certainly, at age 16, when I rebelled against my Methodist upbringing and declared myself an atheist.

Not at 21, when I graduated from the University of Michigan with no real sense of direction. Not at 23, when I decided to go to law school.

And still not at age 30, when with several years of law practice behind me, I opened up a small law firm in Boston with several other women. No, not even then, though a longing I couldn't explain led me back to church that year, to the Arlington Street Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Boston, and to my first sustained religious involvement since the days of Methodist Youth Fellowship in Chatham, New Jersey.

When people hear that I was a lawyer, they ask, "What made you decide to leave the law and go into ministry?" Sometimes I smile and say, "It was an early midlife crisis." Sometimes I point out that it was a move towards ministry, rather than one away from law. But no single explanation is satisfactory. All I know for sure is that it was the right decision for me.

My spiritual journey, including the path to ordained ministry, is recounted in my Ministerial Record on the UUA Transitions Office web site. This section summarizes my ministries with six very different UU congregations, and with the Community of the Holy Spirit, where I spent 20 months.

The Unitarian Church of Vancouver, BC (1985 to 1992)

On a sweltering day in August 1985, I boarded a non-stop flight from Boston (my home for 17 years) to Seattle. The next day Joyce Griffiths, a pillar of the Vancouver Church, met me, helped me navigate Customs and Immigration to become a landed immigrant, and drove me to my new home and my first settled ministry.

I stayed in Vancouver for seven and a half years, serving as Associate Minister at the 600-member Unitarian Church, working first with Senior Minister Phillip Hewett, and later with Interim Senior Minister Bill Houff. UCV was the "cathedral church" for Unitarianism in Vancouver, and indeed in all of Canada. (Canadians generally use only the single designation "Unitarian," rather than "Unitarian Universalist.")

Serving as Associate in a large church provides excellent learning opportunities for a new minister. My major portfolio was religious education for children, youth, and adults; other responsibilities included pastoral care and once-a-month preaching. I was given considerable freedom to develop my ministry as appropriate; looking back, I see this period as a very creative time in which I rarely felt constrained by the "associate" designation. Always working in collaboration with others, here are some of the things we achieved during this ministry:

  • Growth in the Children's Program from 60 to 160 students, with consequent growth in the number of younger adults in the congregation.
  • Revival of the Youth Group; introduction of a "Coming of Age" program.
  • Increase in depth and variety of Adult Religious Education programs.
  • Strengthening membership practices, and programs for newcomers and new members.
  • Creating many worship services in collaboration with the Worship Committee, including some that became part of the annual calendar.
  • Raising consciousness about large church dynamics, including staffing and stewardship.
  • Initiating a program to help Central American refugees come to Canada.
  • Helping to plant the seeds for a suburban church start-up.
  • Leading the UUMA's Pacific Northwest District chapter during a period when it was struggling with issues of clergy sexual abuse.
  • Serving as acting Senior Minister during Phillip Hewett's eight-month sabbatical/vacation.
  • Helping the church move through an important period of transition, before and after Phillip's retirement.

  • In Vancouver, I had ample opportunity to learn about congregational conflict and transition. When I arrived, Phillip was just beginning to talk about retirement, and several long-term staff members had already retired or resigned. One of these was my predecessor, the previous Associate Minister, who was forced to resign both his ministry and his UUA fellowship for clergy sexual abuse. Such situations often leave in their wake a reservoir of bad feeling, which plays itself out with successor ministers ("after pastors").

    Fortunately, I was blessed with several excellent mentors who tutored me in congregational dynamics. One of these was Rod Stewart, the long-time District Executive of the PNWD, and a master at organizational development. Rod referred me to the Rev. Ron Richardson's year-long workshop on "Using Family Systems Theory in Your Ministry," and it has been helpful to me ever since. I was also fortunate to work with Rod on several district committees, including the Extension Committee and the Transition Team, where I learned a great deal.

    Living in Canada was itself a significant learning experience. Those of us who have grown up "south of the border" face a constant temptation to view the U.S. as the center of the universe. Living among Canadians, who know that neither Canada nor the U.S. is the center of the universe, produced a lasting shift in perspective.

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    The Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City, California (1993-1997)

    I was happy in Canada, and thought of staying there permanently. But when Los Angeles exploded in 1992, in the wake of the acquittal of the four L.A. police officers accused of beating Rodney King, a tug at the heart said it was time to come home. Not that I had any ideas of how to "help" the situation in my native land - I just knew intuitively that my work was now in the States. When the call came from the UU Church of Studio City, I accepted.

    UUCSC had just gone through its own explosion. The position was open because the previous settled minister had been forced to resign both ministry and fellowship for "conduct unbecoming a minister." During the fight over his tenure, the congregation had split into bitterly antagonistic factions.

    I believe the Search Committee chose me in hopes that I could (a) bring a sense of peace and healing, and (b) bring new dimensions to church life, including worship, spiritual growth, and community involvement. They also assumed that my previous experience as an "after-pastor" would stand me in good stead.

    All these were sound assumptions, I think. Nevertheless, I knew that Studio City would be a tough assignment. I'm enough a believer in systems theory to know that conflict doesn't end when the "identified problem person" resigns; in fact, the minister who steps into his/her position is in danger of becoming herself the identified problem person. Even knowing this, I accepted the call, believing I had something distinctive to contribute, but more important because I felt very much drawn to the congregation.

    During my tenure at Studio City, the congregation was able to move forward in some significant ways. Here is some of what we accomplished together:

  • Created an Endowment Fund that put the church on a much more secure financial footing, after receiving a large, unexpected bequest.
  • Entered the UUA Decisions for Growth program. While this, in the end, did not help us grow, it helped us examine many of our practices and make important changes.
  • Began to come to terms with the shabby state of our charming old building, including creating a Design and Renovation Committee. This process was not complete by the time I left, but it eventually resulted in significant improvements to the building and its layout.
  • Established a Worship Committee, and put congregational worship on a sounder footing.
  • Introduced an annual weekend Spiritual Retreat.
  • Reorganized the Caring Committee and created a Caring Network.
  • Fulfilled our role as a teaching church by having two ministerial interns.
  • Joined VOICE (Valley Organized in Community Efforts), a congregation-based community organization.
  • Held "unfinished business" workshops to try to put the past to rest.
  • Addressed issues of civility and boundary setting.
  • Despite these achievements, tensions within the church continued. By the spring of 1997, they had taken their toll on me, and I decided it was time to hand the reins to someone else. Looking back, I know that Studio City was my "baptism by fire" and, in effect, an extended interim ministry. I'm grateful for the many good times we had together, and also for the substantial learning forced upon me during my first solo pastorate. I know that the church is a much healthier place now than it was then, and I'm grateful to have been one of the catalysts for healing.

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    South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, Salt Lake City (1997-1999)

    South Valley UU Society is a plucky 25-year-old congregation located some 12 miles south of downtown Salt Lake City, a friendly offshoot of First Unitarian Church. As with all liberal churches in Utah, South Valley has a vital ministry among former Mormons, liberal seekers, and the GLBT community. In 1996, the congregation had been particularly courageous in declaring itself a "Hate Free Zone" during the Salt Lake City high school clubs controversy. The huge rainbow banner made for that occasion was draped across the front of the church again in 1998, when Matthew Shepard was murdered in neighboring Wyoming.

    During Candidating Week, South Valley came across to me as the polar opposite of Studio City, manifesting strong positive energy. Over the course of my first year, however, I discovered that many in the congregation were still in grief over the loss of the beloved former co-ministers, making it difficult for them to embrace a new minister. This grief, often enough, took the form of interpersonal conflict lurking beneath the surface - in contrast to Studio City, where it had been out in the open. This, combined with some residual resentment over specific issues (e.g. South Valley's having become a Welcoming Congregation, and having shifted from afternoon to morning worship services) often led me to feel as though I were walking through a minefield.

    In self-reflection, I conclude that perhaps I shouldn't have taken another settled ministry position so soon after leaving Studio City; I might have done better to take an interim position. I could have worked more effectively with the conflicts at South Valley had I not myself been battle-weary and working through my own transition grief. I fear that I didn't serve these good people as well as I should have, leaving after two years.

    Nevertheless, I'm gratified to look at the "farewell book" the congregation gave me when I left, to see that there was warm appreciation of my ministry with them. And I believe my short time there did have some positive impact. Specifically, I think I was effective in:

  • Helping to bring a sense of peace to the congregation.
  • Attracting new members.
  • Giving long-term members space to voice their grief over losing their previous co-ministers.
  • Helping the congregation bring submerged conflict to the surface and deal with it.
  • Encouraging them to think in terms of shared ministry between clergy and laity.
  • Being a pastoral presence in many critical situations.
  • Encouraging the congregation to start a vocal choir, when a newcomer stepped forward and offered to conduct it.
  • Encouraging them to retire their mortgage through a "Miracle Sunday," something they finally did the year after I left.
  • Introducing them to the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a program in which congregations take turns housing homeless families for a week at a time. This, too, was implemented after my departure.
  • In March of 1999, I learned that a team ministry position was opening up at the First Parish Church in Weston, a 550-member congregation in a small town west of Boston. Although I hadn't been planning to enter the search process, this position seemed tailor-made for me. I applied, and was invited to be the candidate. After deliberate and prayerful reflection, I accepted.

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    First Parish Church in Weston, Massachusetts (1999-2006)

    First Parish, founded in 1698, is "the stone church on the Town Green." As Associate Minister, my responsibilities encompassed the range of pastoral activity. I preached once a month during the regular year and weekly in July, worked with the Outreach and Denominational Affairs committees, led adult classes, and officiated at weddings and memorial services. My primary responsibility, however, was providing ministerial support to the ministries with children and youth.

    First Parish is justly proud of its Church School. Families who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism are attracted by its graded curriculum, children's choirs, handsome facilities (a two-story religious education building and a beautiful, gothic-style children's chapel), and biblically based but open approach to religious education. Alumni/ae of the Church School especially remember its focus on service, and its seventh-grade "Neighboring Faiths" curriculum.

    When I arrived in Weston, the Church School was in a state of transition. What had worked beautifully for decades needed rethinking, and in fact a curriculum review committee had worked on this a few years before I arrived. Weston's churches were also dealing with a phenomenon that affects many congregations these days - Sunday competition from town events, sports leagues, and even school activities. What Kennon Callahan calls the "churched culture" had lasted longer in Weston than in many places, but now it was beginning to crumble. This situation sparked a burning question which led me to pursue a doctoral (D.Min.) degree at one of the local seminaries; my thesis title was "Changed into Fire: Formation and Transformation in a Suburban Parish."

    It quickly became clear to me that First Parish's parents were a highly skilled and creative group of people. Often, I discovered, my main job was to encourage them in their efforts, help promote their ideas, and sometimes, to get out of their way! With the Church School, I believe my primary strengths were in these areas:

  • Supervising and supporting staff members, especially the DRE and the Youth Advisor.
  • Working with the Church School Committee in helping to provide a spiritual focus for the R.E. program.
  • Working with a Chapel Task Force to plan collaboratively the weekly chapel services.
  • Helping to revamp the eighth grade "Covenanting Year" program (a process that continued after I left).
  • Initiating a Youth Ministry Task Force, and reviving a youth group that had fallen on hard times.
  • Being the primary storyteller in church.
  • Initiating the planning of intergenerational services.
  • Generally being an advocate for the Church School in the wider congregation, insisting that children and youth are as much part of the congregation as the adult members.
  • While I was at First Parish, my life story underwent an intriguing plot twist. I found myself drawn to monastic communities, and given my contemplative bent wondered if I might be at home in one. Had there been such communities within the UUA, I would have investigated them. In their absence I turned to the liberal wing of the Episcopal Church, and discovered the Community of the Holy Spirit, which was developing a new, ecological ministry. After a two-and-a-half year discernment process, I decided that their life seemed attractive enough for me to experience for myself. On Labor Day 2006, I bade farewell to Weston and made my way to CHS's house in Morningside Heights, Manhattan.

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    Community of the Holy Spirit (2006-2008)

    CHS has two very different houses. The one in Manhattan is rather traditional, while the one in Brewster, NY is very innovative, being the locus of the community's "earth ministry." (The sisters in Brewster sometimes call themselves "Episco-pagans.") I had applied to the community because I was attracted to the earth ministry, but was assigned to the Manhattan house to start. On the whole, it proved not to be a good fit for me - too traditional and restrictive. With the support of the community's council, I moved to Brewster in mid-April, 2007.

    Being in Brewster and working on the community's organic farm turned out to be a rich experience. It was good to live a life of voluntary simplicity with people who walk the talk as well as these sisters do. In addition, I enjoyed doing work that's not always easy to make time for in parish ministry, such as cooking, gardening, and singing in a choir. I even learned a few skills I might never have learned otherwise, such as making maple syrup and singing Gregorian chant. This time in community helped me lead a more disciplined life, both practically and spiritually, and community living taught me much about myself that I could never have learned living alone.

    Perhaps the most important aspect of my time in Brewster was the opportunity to learn about the environmental implications of food and agriculture, and to think more deeply about the relationship between ecology and religion. In the summer of 2007, I was fortunate to attend a powerful 16-day workshop, "Exploring a New Cosmology," at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, NJ, which proved to be rich in both informational and transformational learning.

    Despite my positive experience with the community, I began to sense that I was being called back to parish ministry. One of the first inklings came when I woke up one morning and immediately thought to myself, "You know, your real passion is congregations." Frederick Buechner has defined vocation as the place "where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet," and I realized that my own heart's deep gladness does lie in ministry to congregations.

    I sorely missed regular preaching, teaching classes, leading retreats, being part of an intergenerational community, and working with congregational systems. I had also discovered that the deep structure of my soul, including my relationship to hierarchy and authority, is Unitarian Universalist. The UUA is the place of my history, and my heart. Thus in May, 2008, I left CHS and returned to my religious home.

    My next stops were interim ministries in Danbury, Connecticut (2008-2010) and Columbia, Missouri (2010-2012).

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    Last updated 30 September 2014. cpc