Pastor Suzanne

(creator: Judy Mitchell Rich)


Judy Mitchell Rich
Pastor Suzanne Hawkins, when we first meet her, is the Presbyterian Interim Pastor in the small village of Harvest, "a little white frame church in the middle of wheatfields south of Salina" in Kansas. This had been her third posting. She had been sorry to move from her second job in Ohio but when her husband Bell had lost his job as Director of Christian Charities he had had to revert to being a pastor at First Presbyterian in Selena. Anyway, coming from an Air Force family, she was used to being moved around, even if she does not relish the 20 mile journey from Selena that she has to make each day - and she finds the contrast beween her large and successsful previous church and this tiny one to be quite a challenge.

She had fallen in love with her husband while still at seminary and they have two children, Peter (12) and Julie (11). It is Bell who tells her that she has "an extraordinary ability to love people even before you get to know them." She is in her early forties and has a warm and attractive personality, although she likes to have things carefully planned in advance.

The Rev Dr Judy Mitchell Rich is a graduate of Fairborn High School in Ohio and went on to Muskingum College and McCormick Seminary. She has a BA, MA, MDiv and DMin and is an ordained Presbyterian pastor. She has served as an Associate Pastor, Interim Pastor and Solo Pastor in churches in Michigan, Kansas and Ohio, and on the staff of various Presbyteries. She retired in 2008, since when she has published the Pastor Suzanne books, reviewed below. She has two sons and lives in the country outside Athens, Alabama.

Like Sheep (2012)
Like Sheep is largely set in 1986. Pastor Suzanne is assigned to a dilapidated country church in the wheatfields of Kansas where she gets an unfriendly reception from the tiny congregation. Unexplained and increasingly scary events occur, involving peculiar "ghosts", a secretive artist, and anonymous phone calls.

The author explains that her goal in writing this series was to provide "a realistic picture of a pastor at work and to show the joy of Christian community as well as the insidious evil which can creep in unnoticed." She certainly paints a very realistic picture of a pastor trying to settle in with a new congregation, and, although the story is fictional, it is clearly based on her own experiences when she too worked in Kansas.

Suzanne's attempts to organise her new elders meet with resistance: 'What is a typical agenda for your meetings?" she asks.
"Huh, we never done that," she is told.
"Help me know how you are organized," she said. 'What committees do you all have?"
"We just do what's needed."
It was going to be an uphill struggle, and she also has to put up with the "ghost" that whisks away the communion cloth and wads it under the choir chairs, and hides her Bible in the basement. Or could it just be children playing?

There are a number of typos like "youu" and "it.Merciful", and the dialogue sometimes sounds a little stilted, but what matters is the way that Suzanne emerges as a real person, as when she rejects the idea of helping permanently in Bell's more welcoming church: "She didn't want to affect the confidence his congregation put in him or give an opportunity for the people to choose up sides." She tells him, "I'd sure like for our family to be in one church. But I think you and I would drive each other crazy. I'd want everything overly organized and you'd want to fly by the seat of your pants. And .... well, um." She grinned mischievously. "I'd have to be careful not to do anything better than you."
He laughed."Never gonna happen."
It makes a convincing relationship.

At one point Suzanne comments,"I think they (her congregation) need a detective, not a pastor." But when we accompany Suzanne on her round of visits, all sorts of pastoral problems emerge but she manages to combine both roles. We even hear some of the whole prayers that she uses, as when she prays for a dying woman: "Loving God, this dear woman has had a difficult life. We know you have been with her all her years, and we celebrate with you what has been good in her life. Now, she's very ill and preparing to be with you. We pray for her and for all who have known her and loved her. She has come from your arms and been welcomed on this earth, and now we know she will return to your arms and be at home. Bless her soul, Lord.We pray in the name of Christ. Amen." You can imagine the author herself using just these words. It all rings true, as do her preparations for a funeral service.: "I try to imagine what God saw in the person and loved."

It is revealing too to hear of the way that clergy of all denominations (including a friendly Roman Catholic priest) discuss problems and swap confidences at their regular Clergy Group meetings. Suzanne tells them, "The church. It's unlike any thing I've ever known.There's no music except what we can squeak out together from the limited number of hymns the pianist can play. There is no choir, no flowers usually, no stained glass, just a few pews and the pulpit and communion table, all quite plain. I know these things don't make a church a church, but I'm rethinking what is essential for a group to be a real church."
"Do you love them?" the Roman Catholic priest asked.
She stiffened. "I don't know them well enough to love them."
"Do you have to know them to love them?"
This "led to a stimulating conversation about kinds of love and depths of love pastors have for their parishioners."

When Suzanne gets a phone call and a "soft and childlike" voice begs, "Help me", she "prayed a fervent prayer that if it was really someone in need of help, she could find out who it was." And so she does. All in all, she remains an interesting character throughout, even if the book might have benefitted from a rather stronger plot.

Like a Fox (2014)
Like a Fox describes how, in 1987, Interim Pastor Suzanne is sent to the elegant and beautiful Covenant Presbyterian Church in Middleton, Kansas, which has a history of destroying its pastors, three of whom have left the ministry. Suzanne is sent to give it one last chance in the hope that she can help save the church.
Feeling it was "a call from God", she is prepared to put up with verbal and emotional abuse, alhough even her husband tries to warn her off. But she is well received. As she "looked out at the scattered individuals in the pews, she wondered who among them had caused trouble in the past and who would be a challenge for her." During her sermon ("The beginning of wisdom is the acknowledgement that we need God"), "the people in the pews looked as though they were listening attentively, and they laughed readily", all except for one man who sat in the last pew and didn't seem to participate in anything. He turned out to be the church's major benefactor.

Suzanne began to build up her congregation and as she "experienced only good will and friendliness" .... she began to wonder if the three previous parsons "had been as abusive and incompetent as various members told her." She found she "enjoyed getting to know a church's unique personality, its quirks and secrets. It reminded her of putting together a jigsaw puzzle."

She has particular problems with a man who likes to be called "The Colonel". It is he who tells her, "Those idiots at the Presbytery cause us nothing but trouble. What are they thinking sending a girl? This church needs a man with the cojones to straighten it out .... We haven't had leadership since Dr Davidson. He knew how to preach. He knew how to lead the church.The last yahoo called God 'She'. An insult to God. And now, that damn Presbytery sends us a girl. Some of us don't hold with a woman in the pulpit. They should stay home and take care of their families." He looked down at her for the first time and stared in her eyes. "What's your husband doing without you to warm his bed at night?"
Whoa, Suzanne thought. Keep your cool here." But later on she
was to discover that he was "almost a Jekyll and Hyde" who could go out of his way to help people - and eventually she is able to help him too.

Her young children, Peter and Julie, have chosen to attend her church too: "We like it here," Peter said. "They have a choir for kids our age and we like the church fellowship group". But Suzanne cannot help being embarrassed by her son's long stringy hair and earring, not to mention his tattoo. We cannot but feel for her and share her anxiety for him when he gets badly hurt. Once again it all seems so real, as do the problems she is having with her husband: "We haven't made love in months," she tells him, "I'm worried about you drinking so much beer. You don't seem to care about what I'm feeling. And I'm not feeling loved." But they all fly out to Suzanne's family In Alabama on Christmas Day and she cried when they got on the plane to go home: "I don't know why I live so far from the people I love". She missed them "and didn't want to leave the comfort of being herself instead of a person whose roles as pastor and mother – though she loved being both – hid her real self."

But what about her relationship with her congregation? Her husband warns her, "You're getting too close. You talk like you are one of them instead of their leader." And rumors are spreading that she's been getting particularly close to JJ, the funeral director. Then her young son Peter tells her that there are also rumors that she's gay! It's yet another insight into the hazards of life as a pastor. I liked too the reference to a so-called "I'm tired-and-let's-go-home prayer": "Lord. help us all to be your true people, loving you and loving each other. Amen." The author certainly knows what she is talking about.

In the end, after uncovering guilty secrets from the past, it's time for her to go. She has to tell her congregation, "I'll have to distance myself so you can welcome a new pastor and forge a new pastoral relationship." It is another revealing gllmpse into a pastor's life.



The author has her own website, complete with questions for discussion - but at least they are not in the book!



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Like Sheep cover
The cover for the first book (above) looks distinctly amateurish, but that for Like a Fox is more attractive and the lettering is much more legible.
Like A Fox cover
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Holmes