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Outgoing presbyter reflects on ‘uncommon life’

The Rev. Susan Meier is retiring as presbyter for common life with the Maumee Valley Presbytery, for which she has overseen 68 churches in northwestern Ohio and southern Michigan for the past eight and a half years. (Photo by Sara Arthurs)

By SARA ARTHURS
STAFF WRITER

The Rev. Susan Meier has spent the past eight and a half years leading the Presbyterian Church in northwestern Ohio. Now, she’s going to embrace her identity as a theater geek.

Meier is retiring as presbyter for common life with the Maumee Valley Presbytery, which is based in Findlay and includes 68 churches in northwestern Ohio and southern Michigan. She previously served at a presbytery in Tampa Bay, Florida; as a redevelopment pastor in Flint, Michigan; and before that, a pastor in Wooster, Ohio. But no, she hadn’t always felt a calling to the ministry.

She went to Wooster to study politics, but found she was interested in sociology and religion. A professor was taking students on a semester abroad to live in Christian communities in England, Scotland and France. She was the first alternate, so she didn’t get to go on the trip, but she decided she would do it on her own.

That decision led to some time living in Iona, a Christian community on an island off the west coast of Scotland, in her 20s. She saw people there who were “living out their faith in a powerful way.” It changed her life.

The Iona community emphasized simplicity of lifestyle and daily prayer. That became the structure of Meier’s life.

“The whole day is woven with prayer,” she said.

Island residents begin their day with prayer, pray at noon, pray at night, “so there was a rhythm.” Everyone had their own jobs to do, and she made friends in Iona who enriched her life.

“Worship was glorious” and included great music, Meier said.

It was a hard adjustment coming home, but Meier went on to Yale Divinity School and decided she could see herself in the church.

The church had been part of family life as a child. Her parents’ rule was always, “You don’t have to go to church on Sunday, but you have to go somewhere.”

But like a lot of people, she was “in and out” of the church in her younger years. She was very interested in other faiths in high school, too. Her Catholic and Jewish friends took her to worship with them, which gave her an “appreciation for ritual and differences.”

The role as presbyter has been different than that of a pastor of a church. She doesn’t perform funerals, baptisms or weddings, “which I had previously loved.” Instead, she deals with many churches as organizations.

“But I’m also pastor to pastors,” she said. That is, it’s in her that other pastors confide. “You get to have a sacred trust of hearing their deepest hopes and dreams, their deeper hurts and celebrations.”

Meier initially came to the role as interim presbyter, for two years, and then was elected to the role permanently. She put herself forward as a candidate in the first place because “this is a great presbytery” with a great group of people, she said.

And church leaders had expressed an interest in hiring someone with a knowledge of congregational transformation. Meier previously had her own business centered around conflict management in churches, where she helped her clients see that it wasn’t really about the surface issues, but what was underneath.

Meier said she went through a period of life when she lost everything: her marriage, her home, her job. And “when you have lost everything” you find out what’s really important. And the death of her oldest daughter, losing someone precious to her, created in some way a feeling that the worst had already happened — making her less afraid of other changes in life.

So she is comfortable dealing with change, and conflict.

Most of the time when you’re in conflict, you are “going to attack somebody,” or share anger, she said.

“I’ve learned not to take most of it personally,” she said, adding it’s important to believe it isn’t, really, about you.

She said the other titles used in the denomination like “executive presbyter” or “general presbyter” seem to have other connotations — “executive” coming from the business world and “general” from the military. Those titles imply a hierarchical system, she said. But to her, “common life” indicates that “my job is to pay attention to all of our life together.”

The Maumee Valley Presbytery’s churches range in size from a church of three people to one with 400. It includes churches and individuals “as different as life could be,” she said. In Antwerp, in western Ohio, parishioners sing country-western music in worship. Other churches have classically trained musicians, who share their love of Bach and Beethoven. Some pastors will perform same-sex marriages while some do not.

Despite these differences, they all focus on what they have in common, Meier said. And that is faith and trust in Jesus Christ, and love of the Scriptures.

“We are biblical people. We take the Scriptures very seriously,” Meier said. “We are Christ-centered.”

They believe God is Lord over everything, and nothing in life is exempt from conversation about what God desires.

“Nothing is off the table,” she said. “Everything is there to be considered and debated and discussed.”

And the mind, heart and body are all connected, she said.

In her retirement, Meier plans to move to North Carolina. Her father is in a nursing home there, and needs a health care advocate.

But she also intends to practice being a “theater geek.” As a lover of musical theater, and her intent is to visit a regional theater in every state.

“Some people do baseball,” visiting stadiums around the country, she said. She’s interested in regional theater, which is a particular kind of theater developed in the 1960s and ’70s in an attempt to bring the experience of Broadway outside New York.

Meier’s favorite musicals include “Wicked,” “Hamilton” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” all of which she has seen on stage. She has performed in theater in the past, but mostly she loves being an “avid appreciator and supporter.” She is also an artist, who has explored several media and currently is concentrating on using stones to make tiles.

Meier said a challenge in the near future is that many of the churches in Toledo have, like a lot of churches, grown over time and kept adding on, until now they have “way too much building” and need to determine what to do.

Meier loves to talk about the Presbyterian Church USA, which right now is in the mist of major change and refocusing. Her daughter is on the 20/20 vision team to set the vision for the future of the church. They’re encouraging talking about the church with the initials PCUSA, standing for Prayerful, Courageous, United, Serving and Alive.

Presbyterian churches tend to be “very connected to their community” and reflective of who is in that community, Meier said.

During her tenure as presbyter, she has enjoyed visiting churches throughout the region. Her own home church is First Presbyterian Church in Upper Sandusky.

Lynn Bova has been appointed interim presbyter for common life.

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