Pilgrim Congregational Church Picks Passionate, Progressive Preacher

By: Alan Pollock Location:

Topics: Churches and Faith

The Rev. Susan Cartmell starts work at Pilgrim Congregational Church next week. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

HARWICH PORT After three and a half years under the leadership of an interim minister, Pilgrim Congregational Church has hired a full-time pastor, The Rev. Dr. Susan Cartmell. Church leaders carried out a national search, but in the end, didn't have to look very far.

An author and scholar, Cartmell is also the wife of the interim minister, the Rev. Peggy O'Connor.

“The people in this church have been just incredible,” Cartmell said. And it's not because they had no problem embracing gay pastors – that's not uncommon in the United Church of Christ, which affirmed civil rights for LGBT people in 1969 and ordained its first gay minister three years later. It's because the Pilgrim congregation is forward-thinking and compassionate, she said.

“It's a very energetic group of people who have things going all week long,” Cartmell said. When O'Connor took over as transitional minister, Pilgrim Congregational had a financial deficit; it's now financially healthy and is taking on important projects, like the installation of a new energy-efficient air conditioning system and rooftop solar panels.

Church members are involved in all kinds of outreach activities, including a hands-on program that supports homeless people in Hyannis. A new church thrift shop has energized volunteers and brought in new visitors. And in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Pilgrim and other churches in Harwich organized a candlelight vigil.

Given her relationship with O'Connor, Cartmell said she wasn't sure she should apply for the pastorship of Pilgrim Congregational. The two pledged not to talk with each other about the position, and O'Connor made no effort to influence the church's leadership, Cartmell said. She was ultimately chosen from a field of 52 candidates.

“The search committee said they were much harder on me than on the other candidates,” she said with a smile. Cartmell said it was also important to her that Pilgrim's members understood that she didn't intend to be a carbon copy of her wife. To that end, she's had many group meetings and one-on-one conversations with church members so they can learn about her background and her perspectives.

A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, Cartmell was ordained in 1982 and has served UCC churches in Winchester and Needham, Mass., the latter, for 18 years. In the process of earning her doctorate, Cartmell wrote the book, “UnCommon Preaching: An Alternative to the Lectionary.” Inspired by “mega church” pastors Rick Warren and Rob Bell, Cartmell began to experiment with thematic preaching, spending a month's sermons focusing on one biblical theme as it applies to the real-world concerns of parishioners.

It's a change from the traditional weekly sermons that focus on particular passages of scripture, a practice that dates back centuries and aims to underscore the validity of Bible stories. There are more pressing questions that today's sermons should address, “like, 'How do you find peace in a world where every two or three days there's another shooting?'” Cartmell said. Thematic preaching, using a different monthly theme on a three-year rotation, engages church members more deeply “and answers more modern questions,” she said. The theme might be something like “forgiveness,” or “hospitality,” though Cartmell admits it doesn't seem as if Pilgrim's members need much help with the latter. She said she's been very warmly welcomed and feels much at home – even though she and O'Connor only moved here two weeks ago.

For O'Connor's part, a new challenge awaits. She will now become the interim minister for a UCC congregation in Duxbury (named, oddly enough, Pilgrim Church), and will commute each day from the Cape. She will deliver her final sermon in Harwich on Sunday.

Cartmell has already instituted a new worship service each week. The special, short service for peace and healing will take place Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m., and are open to all community members who need a calm, spiritual place to reflect on the recent violence happening around the nation and the world.

“I can't remember a summer like this,” she said. Following the candlelight vigil after the Pulse massacre, Pilgrim put out large white signs on the church lawn, inviting visitors to leave messages of peace using markers. That simple act has become an important ministry to residents and visitors, and the sign quickly filled up.

“We're on our third sign,” she said. The vigil is in keeping with church leaders' vision of Pilgrim Congregational Church becoming a spiritual refuge for the entire Harwich community, Cartmell said.

In the months ahead, Pilgrim's leaders will decide whether or not to officially declare the church “open and affirming,” a step that would specifically welcome LGBT worshipers. The town's other UCC congregation at First Church made such a declaration many years ago.

Asked how she differs from her wife as a minister, Cartmell doesn't hesitate.

“Peggy is a natural at administration” who can also deliver a fine sermon, she said. “I love to preach. That's my passion.”