Susan Gillies never envisioned that God’s call to ministry would mean becoming the first woman to lead American Baptists, even temporarily. She also may be the first layperson to “sit in the chair” as American Baptist Churches USA executive minister, she said.
In her late teens, Gillies felt God’s call but was unsure which roles would be open to her. “Particularly for women my age, there were not many options,” she explained.
She joined a group of young men on a seminary visit, she said, but didn’t feel called to pastoral ministry or to Christian education. Instead, Gillies was interested in journalism and theatre and earned a bachelor’s degree in speech and drama at the University of Sioux Falls and a master’s degree in theatre at the University of Memphis.
Gillies also became passionate about ministry of the laity — “how do laypeople live out their faith in the real world,” she said. “God didn’t call Christians to be obnoxious.”
She lived out her commitment to God’s call to ministry through the local church and served on the board of American Baptists’ women’s ministry.
While teaching at several universities, she anchored local news and hosted public radio and television programs. She was general manager of the public radio stations licensed to the University of North Dakota and executive director of the North Dakota Broadcasters Association when called to be manager of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ Ministry of the Laity in the Workplace program.
“My passion is the ministry of the whole people of God,” she said. But she left public radio “with mixed feelings.”
The position opened more opportunities within the denomination. Four years later, she was invited to become deputy executive director of ABHMS, a post she held from 1992 to 2000. During her tenure, she served on the ABC General Executive Council and on its Task Force on Women.
In 2000, she was chosen as executive minister for American Baptist Churches of Nebraska. Although she wasn’t the first laywoman to serve as a regional executive, she was the first to retire as one. Laywoman Mildred “Millie” Myron was ordained while executive minister for the Chicago Metro region.
Since retiring from Nebraska ABC in 2010, Gillies continued as an occasional consultant for the ABC at national, regional and local levels. She does a weekly podcast and writes a weekly newspaper column.
The request to serve as interim national executive caught her by surprise. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” she said. Her lay experiences led her to ask for and to apply the local-church interim pastor role to her temporary national responsibility — “just helping people adjust to the loss of their longtime director and to look forward,” she said.
In fact, her first act in the new role was to call the American Baptist Historical Society because she wanted “to know the feelings” that marked ABC history. She wanted to know why the people felt they needed more than the home and foreign mission societies, and why they chose to form the national convention.
Exploring the past might shed light on the future. “How do we refresh those relationships?…. How do we invite the spirit to come in?” she asked. Roy Medley, now executive minister emeritus, had laid the foundation for taking that historical look, she said.
Gillies will emphasize the importance of relationships at all levels among pastors and laity — the passion that has marked her ministry from its beginning. She hopes to work on relationships at the national offices in Valley Forge, Penn., and among the regions.
“We will look at areas where we function together…. The focus will be on relationships,” she said.
Regardless of the denominational position, she has maintained her passion for the laity and has worked to be a strong bridge between laypeople and pastors. “I am always very careful not to be a wannabe [ordained pastor] but to be who I am. I have high regard for professional ministers…but I have something to offer,” Gillies said.
Remaining a layperson constantly reminds her of the people in the pew and that often they come to church for safety. She is able to help pastors understand that their people sometimes do not respond to calls for action because people are just tired.
“There is a higher percentage than in the past of wounded in the pew,” she said. “We’ve got to be mindful of our call to them for healing.”