BACKING INTO A CALLING– and the Ripple Effect! by Susan Yarrow Morris

BACKING INTO A CALLING and the ripple effect!

It was a vibrant time in the pioneering ecumenical effort known as Campus Christian Ministry at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington in the early 1970’s, much as it was on other U.S. campuses of both private and state colleges and universities.  On one hand, many UW students, faculty and staff were questioning “the way it’s always been done” in their particular academic and administrative settings, challenging cultural norms related to civic and community life, and taking actions responding to peace and justice issues in local communities and in the world.   On the other hand, sizeable numbers of the UW community clung to traditions (sororities, fraternities, athletic teams, etc., for example) common to campus life.  In this context, the ecumenical (eight Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic) staff was pulled together, supported by various denominational and ecumenical sources and UMHE (United Ministries in Higher Education) and charged with “doing ministry” at the UW in the late 60’s, early 70’s.

In 1972, I was invited (i.e., “called”) to join the CCM staff to design and direct a Marriage Preparation program which would reflect the ecumenical spirit of the ministry and yet honor denominational premarital particularities, an idea which had been identified as appropriate for campus ministry, by its staff and Board.  I was to be a (very!) part time staff person funded with a small stipend.  My prior experience, post B.A. in Social Work and Religion, had been in various church, agency, and health care settings.  This invitation to envision and develop such a program/ministry lit a vocational and spiritual spark for me.  I knew and respected a few of the staff members already, and was eager to be a part of this unique venture.  And so I began backing into ministry!

After consulting with CCM staff and area clergy, I designed and directed an ecumenical Marriage Prep program which became one of CCM’s many core ministries, building bridges between local parishes, communities, and CCM.  Serving over 125 couples a year in weekend or weeknight workshops, these were the primary components of the Marriage Preparation program during my 16 years on the staff (1972-1988):

~an articulated and relevant covenant theology at the heart of the process and content of the workshops, leaving specific denominational doctrines to be conveyed by the officiating pastors to couples.  Our task was to help couples sense a connection between God’s covenant with humankind and all creation and our response to live in embodied covenant love with one another.

~ an MP faculty of  40-50 persons from many denominations and faith traditions – couples and singles, clergy and lay – who became in many ways a covenant community, volunteering to lead workshops as authentic (not perfect!) human beings, to participate in ongoing continuing education events, to contribute to workshop design and content, and to explore in their personal and professional lives what it means to live in healthy, life-giving covenantal relationship with another.

~ financial, organizational and spiritual support from all participating Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic churches in the area.

~ a Participant  Couple’s Workbook of over 125 pages of exercises, resources and handouts designed for use with couples in the workshop process; these were gathered (and refined for use in the MP program) from experts in marriage and family life, theological studies, and other social and behavioral sciences, as well as my own and MP faculty members’ ongoing ideas.

~development, in the mid 80’s, of a Committed Relationship Preparation program for same gender couples, in which I invited several lgbt couples from different denominations to help rewrite all the MP materials to make them appropriate for use in such workshops, as well as adding topics unique to lgbt couples.  These couples were then trained to lead the CR workshops.  We held about two such weekend workshops a year in those years before I left CCM.  Sadly, there was little staff energy to continue that piece of the program after 1988, even though the MP program continued under new and creative leadership.  Once again, CCM was a pioneer, enabling and supporting this unique CRPrep program.  (Note:  Through the years, all the language used in exercises and resources for all the workshops became inclusive, so the same materials could be used.) (Note:  With the blessing of the UCC, I was honored to officiate in 1985 for a same gender couple’s Covenant Service, and have been privileged to witness many more in the years since.  With the passage of the Marriage Equality law in Washington state last year, many of those couples have returned to celebrate their covenants anew, as well as to marvel at the working of the Holy Spirit in the unexpected, justice making context of an election process!)

~Several participant couple follow up support programs were offered over the years, providing topical marriage enrichment gatherings, using various formats.  As well, pages of local resources and bibliographies and referral lists were provided participant couples during the workshops.

Over the years, this model for an ecumenical Marriage Preparation program was used in several other campus ministry settings in Washington; local leaders were trained and materials shared. As word of the program’s integrity and popularity spread, it became a resource not only for the UW community but for churches and pastors throughout our state and some colleagues were glad to use the MP/CR model in their parish and campus settings in other states.  I was asked to present the model, process and materials in several national and local marriage and family life conferences and agencies.  Our written materials were about to be published when Pilgrim Press went through some major bureaucratic changes, and the whole project was suspended and never revisited.

Characteristics which were most appealing and unique for this particular Marriage Preparation and Committed Relationship program model were:

~covenant theology basis for all topics (communications, roles and expectations, family of origin, intimacy, etc.),

~participatory workshop style,

~leadership community,

~workshop process (using a variety of approaches to topics),

~high value on creating a safe and trusting ecumenical setting for couples to reflect, discuss and learn;

~ inclusion of domestic violence (awareness and prevention and strategies for responding) in the topics addressed,

~its viability as a truly ecumenical ministry.

As this program and its “ripples” became the primary focus of my work at CCM and I interfaced more and more with staff colleagues and area clergy, I was invited to take on other responsibilities….preaching and speaking at the CCM’s worship services and local churches, joining colleagues to teach or lead classes, workshops or retreats in Feminist Theology, Alternative Living Arrangements (my family and two other families were living in a covenantal community on an island farm and many were intrigued with this topic – it was the 70’s, after all!), weekly Bible text study, theology of human sexuality (based on James B. Nelson’s EMBODIMENT and his consultation with us for many years) and, with David Royer, my UCC colleague at CCM, teaching courses in LIFEwork Planning with training from Dick Bolles (former campus pastor himself!)  The Vocations Working Group of the UCC, under Verlyn Barker’s guidance, was spawned from this effort and similar programs offered by colleagues around the country.

I began taking courses and seminars whenever possible in theological studies, as I “backed into” my calling.  Vancouver School of Theology in Vancouver, BC and Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA were the closest seminaries for my academic needs at the time.  It was clear that my commitment to my family and living community on Whidbey Island mitigated against leaving the area for three years to complete a B.D. or M.Div. To augment my local studies (at Seattle University’s Jesuit seminary, and independent work with theologians in the Seattle area), I attended summer sessions for several years at PSR and VST and the Institute for Campus Ministry at Valparaiso University.  I was given standing in the UCC as a Licensed Minister to serve at CCM in 1982, and was blessed for this call in a special worship service at CCM, surrounded by my colleagues of many traditions, a humbling and joyful time.

My own journey to ordained ministry continued when I chose to leave CCM in 1988 to return to local parish ministry, serving two Seattle UCC churches until my retirement.  Continued studies and a uniquely designed process led to my ordination in 1994 at Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC, in Seattle, where I was serving. I retired in 2004 after serving as Marriage Minister and Associate Pastor at Fauntleroy Church, UCC, in Seattle for eight years.  In both those churches, I continued to lead Marriage Prep, Marriage Enrichment and family life workshops and classes as part of my ministry….a great joy!  I surely believe that my incredibly rich CCM experience serving within a staff of ecumenical colleagues committed to mutual support, shared vision, and theological integrity was a seminal factor in my choice to serve in churches with multiple staff configurations for the rest of my ministry.

The moment I retired (!), I was asked by the FaithTrust Institute (Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune, Founder and Director), to write a book to help pastors feel skilled and confident addressing domestic violence in their premarital counseling.  OPENING THE DOOR: A Pastor’s Guide to Addressing Domestic Violence in Premarital Counseling was published by the FaithTrust Institute in 2006.  It includes theological underpinnings as well as specific approaches to the topic of domestic violence within workshop or individual premarital counseling sessions, several copy-ready handouts, and an appendix of related articles and resources.  It is being used, I understand, in a variety of pastoral settings, including campus ministry and chaplaincy, local parishes and seminaries.  Amazing ripples from a small program begun in 1973 in the context of campus ministry!  (to order:

Residing with my husband in a lively retirement community near Olympia, Washington since 2009, I’m occasionally invited to provide a pastoral presence for persons and couples in this community and in our local UCC/Presbyterian church.  As I use some of the same premarital resources we designed in 1975 with engaged couples in their 80’s and 90’s, I smile with deep gratitude to God and former colleagues who nudged/called me into campus ministry long ago!


Rev. Susan Yarrow Morris

August 24, 2014


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s