How do you sum up four decades of forming leaders for education and ministry? If you’re considering the expansive and varied career of the Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer, who retires at the end of this summer’s June intensive session at CDSP, there’s no way to distill a singular theme. Perhaps the only way to accurately generalize about her ministry would be to talk about growth, change, and the constant discernment of God’s will, which seems fitting for a practical theologian who has helped several generations of leaders learn to adapt to their diverse and rapidly evolving contexts.
When asked how she has discerned about each new area of focus in her work over the course of her career, Singer said this: “There must be some little piece of me that sees something and says, ‘Why Not?’ I learned from my friend Tom Brackett to say, ‘That’s a fantastic idea, it might fail, let’s try it.’ It’s about trusting that God is at work, and if something comes across the radar screen and keeps niggling away, then it’s worth paying attention. And if you keep paying attention to it, then doors start to open.”
Singer’s career in Christian education began soon after she moved to the United States from her native England in 1981, after studying English literature at the University of Cambridge. She spent a total of 10 years at Grace Cathedral before and after her ordination to the priesthood before moving on to become the diocesan education coordinator for the Diocese of California. About those early years of her career, she says, “The 1979 Prayer Book was new, and we were just getting into baptismal ecclesiology at the time, and it was completely alien to everybody. We worked really hard to move people out of the curriculum model to a more holistic model of formation.” Living into these new paradigms led to pioneering work in the field of family ministry, a focus on the connection between formation and worship, and time spent helping to develop the capacity of congregational leaders to adapt to their context.
Over time, these experiences with individual leaders and congregations led her to consider work in theological education. In a seminary, she imagined, she could make change more effectively than by helping congregations one by one: “I could really get some leverage, and, frankly, make a bit of trouble.”
Singer also hoped to change the role of Christian Education itself in seminary education. “When I was in seminary, the attitude of the students toward the Christian Education course was terrible. The nickname of the course was ‘Crayons for Christ.’ It was a really devalued field of ministry, which really annoyed me.”
Singer spent several years traveling between Boston and the Bay Area as she earned her PhD from Boston College in theology and education, and she was hired by CDSP to teach part-time as she completed her dissertation. The courses she developed focused on how to build communities that could form reflective, active Christians in a culture that did not always support that identity. Her work at CDSP also involved building a “learning organization,” and helping the faculty to reflect on their own pedagogy.
One memorable moment in this work happened when she and others made the decision to begin creating a low-residency program, which she says has resulted in both learning which they expected and learning which surprised them. “Our instincts were right about the low-residency program: The intensive in-person experiences would carry over into the online learning.” As the faculty has learned more about building an online learning community, “We realized that this was going to change the way we teach in the classroom as well as online. CDSP itself changed at that point: The faculty embraced thinking about how they teach.” Singer reflects that, in the creation of the Doctor of Ministry program that existed for many years, as well as in the curriculum development project, the faculty has embraced the reality that “everything we do has that practical theology backbone, that it’s all about preparing students for ministry.” Often, this has involved the willingness to take risks and begin before all the details are in place. Singer reflects, “We got used to doing things on the fly and with very few resources. But what can we do? We can read a book, we can have a conversation. We can start with what we have, and we can build on it.”
As Singer reflected on her years of teaching and advising, she first described the joy and surprises that have come with watching students after their time at CDSP. “If I had to choose something that was my absolute favorite, it’s been watching my students flourish in ministry. That’s just the best. Because when they go out there and we see what they’re doing…it’s like, we knew they could do that! It’s not that CDSP did it all, but to be a part of their formation—that’s the very best.”
The Rev. Liz Tichenor ’12, ’13, a former student, reflected on the corollary of that joy as she considered Singer’s effect on her own ministry. “As we seek all kinds of new ways to pastor, teach and preach mid-pandemic, I have been leaning heavily on Susanna’s insistence to think outside the box, to engage many different modes of learning, and to see opportunity in what might seem to be really challenging constraints. I was continually struck by her unflappable way of saying, ‘Yes, let’s find a way to do that!’—even to requests that didn’t have an easy answer. She showed me that, with great heart and good questions, there is a way forward.”
Dean and President The Very Rev. Dr. Mark Richardson echoed this theme. “As a professor, Susanna has left her mark on countless students as a pioneer in her field of leadership development, always an interdisciplinary endeavor that brings contextual and critical thinking to practices of ministry. She has integrated beautifully her vocation as pastor and priest, leaving a mark on both students and faculty and staff colleagues. We will deeply miss her listening pastoral ear; her exquisite preaching that links gospel, experience, and heart; and her modeling of the spiritual formation component of life together.”
Tichenor added that Singer’s gifts for honoring the whole person, in education and ministry, have continued to resonate in her ministry today. “A few weeks into my third year of seminary, I gave birth to my first child. Just before my fourth year, my MA year, my mother died suddenly. Each event was, in its own way, life-altering. Either could have meant the end of my studies. By the grace of God, I had Susanna to walk through the joy and exhaustion of early parenthood as well as the heartbreak of my mother’s death. She saw neither situation as a liability, and instead welcomed me to show up at CDSP fully as myself, through it all. This is, in turn, how I try to live out my ministry, both in being authentic myself, and also striving to welcome others into the church fully as they are.”
Singer’s emphasis on discerning the next step has led her to the decision to retire. There are more changes coming—digital expressions of church among them—“And it’s really exciting, and this is for another, younger person.”
What’s next for Singer as she enters into retirement? “Probably finding new ways to do the things I love in different frameworks,” she said. “One of the things I’ve always done on the side is spiritual direction, particularly in discernment with people around vocation. I’ve always done a little bit of congregational consulting, especially with small congregations, so I want to do more of that. I want to serve my diocese and the national church, if that opens up. I’m also committed to and involved in the board of Episcopal Community Services. So, I suppose the answer is, I’m going to still be looking at ways to look at possibilities and new things and wondering what God might be doing next.”
As we reflected on some of the other benefits of retirement, such as getting to do things one at a time, or spending time talking with and reading to her young granddaughter over FaceTime, our conversation turned to excellent children’s literature, including the book Miss Rumphius, in which the main character encourages her young niece to consider the manner by which she might make the world more beautiful, though she does “not yet know what that will be.” As Singer said of her own next steps, “I’m going to be doing something, it’s going to be about transformation and change and the work of God in the world, but I do not yet know what that will be.”
It seems certain that those next steps will involve helping others learn and grow into their Christian identity, forming leaders unafraid of learning and making a bit of trouble, and finding new ways to make the world more beautiful.