Every Friday, Baptist Women in Ministry features a fabulous minister on this blog. Today, we are pleased to interview Susan Allen. Susan IS what a minister looks like!
Susan, tell us about your ministry journey and the places and ways you have served and are serving.
I began my ministry journey as a pre-teen as I participated in the ministry of my church, Immanuel Baptist Church, in Lexington, Kentucky. I was involved in the mission’s education programs of the Woman’s Missionary Union, and through my leader’s mentoring and opportunities for service I began to sense that God was leading me to professional ministry. I had no idea what I would like to do, nor how to accomplish it, but I knew there would be a path for me to minister. Now that I look back on my certitude, I smile, because the opportunities were limited for a Baptist young woman in 1980’s.
I began college at Western Kentucky University and became an active member of the Baptist Student Union. I served on the leadership council, led Bible studies and prayer groups, and served as a summer missionary four times. During those four summers, I taught Vacation Bible School, led day camps, developed programs for resort missions, took kids to camp, counseled teens, and worked alongside partners, pastors, and missionaries. I began forming a pastoral identity and learned that I loved working outside of the church walls.
After college, I promoted summer missions programs for the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board and worked in Calgary, during the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. I thought the mission field would be where I would serve as a minister.
I enrolled as a student at Southern Seminary in 1988, and the transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention greatly affected my journey; ministry doors began closing for women and for moderate Baptists. Despite the discouragement and pain, I forged through seminary believing I would have a place of service. I did campus ministry work, a WMU internship, and youth ministry for a short time, but I did not feel I was using my best gifts. I began a Clinical Pastoral Education program in a University hospital during the fall of 1995, and I knew within a week that I had found my place of ministry. I finished by chaplaincy training, had two sons, and journeyed to South Georgia where my husband served as a pastor. Though I was not actively serving in a professional role, I loved being at home with my sons, teaching Sunday School, and loving the church members. As life would have it, it was nine years before I returned to hospital chaplaincy. I have now been a staff chaplain at Baptist Health Lexington for thirteen years. Chaplaincy is my niche. It affords me the opportunity to use my best gifts and be in a setting that I love.
What have been your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
I love being with people who are in the midst of heath challenges and sometimes life-threatening diagnoses and walking with them as they discover their spiritual strength and vulnerabilities. It is an honor to enter into a person’s life to support them and sometimes challenge them to look into themselves for spiritual fortitude and to find peace. I have followed one patient through years of his care; I first met him in the ER during his cardiac arrest and supported him through his heart surgery and many setbacks. I ministered to him when his mother died in the hospital, and I supported him through his heart transplant. He and I have developed a special bond over the course of his illness, and I have appreciated the gift of developing a long-term ministry with him and his family. Healthcare chaplains most often have short-term relationships with patients; it is the nature of our ministry. Honestly, that is a relief when I am dealing with difficult folks, but for me this relationship has offered special joy.
My other joy is working in an inter-disciplinary environment. I have the pleasure of working alongside and ministering to nurses, food service employees, physicians, therapists, pharmacists, and environmental service employees. Collaborating with others to provide excellent care and meaningful support are two of the things I love most about healthcare chaplaincy. The staff members are like my “regular attenders.” I perform their weddings, counsel them, mentor them, laugh with them, and support them in the midst of a stressful work environment. Occasionally, I am one of the few pastors that they know and feel like they can come to when they need a pastor. Staff ministry is a required ethical obligation as a board certified chaplain, yet it never feels that way to me. Instead it feels like I have entered a sacred space. Healthcare chaplains are intimately aware of the challenges of the healthcare professions; my ministry with staff is what gives me energy and life when the other responsibilities of my profession feel too much to bear.
What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered in ministry?
Without hesitation, the greatest challenge I face in ministry is the changing demands of healthcare. Chaplain productivity is measured, research is expected, and time for staff care is diminishing. I am witnessing a shift in the environment of care as faith-based hospitals join healthcare corporations. I am making the necessary shifts in care and trying to meet expectations that are not always well defined. I am in the midst of the greatest challenge and stress that I have experienced in my chaplain career.
What advice would you give to a teenage girl discerning a call to ministry?
My advice is to persevere. So much has changed since I entered ministry, and I am optimistic that opportunities for women in ministry will only expand in the future. Baptists have lagged behind the mainline denominations regarding the opportunities for women ministers, but I think we are now at the tipping point. That said, I am not naïve. Women will experience gender discrimination; at times male colleagues do not invite women to the table. My advice to a teenage girl is to use your voice to challenge the patriarchal systems within the church. I encourage you to look for the unexpected opportunities for ministry; women are uniquely qualified to find creative ways to minister, because so often we minister on the margins. I am grateful to minister outside of the church walls, so to speak; it is exciting out here.