Breaking From Tradition: Harwich Congregational Church Names First Female Settled Pastor In 274-Year History

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Churches and Faith

Rev. Susan Thomas is the first female settled pastor of the First Congregational Church of Harwich in its 274 year history. Thomas became the new pastor on Sept. 10. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO 

HARWICH – Rev. Susan Thomas has been hired as the first female settled pastor in the 274-year history of the First Congregational Church of Harwich in 274 years.

Thomas became the pastor of the church on Sept. 10. Trustee Robert S. Buchanan said the church is embarking on a new journey as it welcomes the 63rd settled pastor in its long history.

Thomas has two master’s degrees from Columbia Theological Seminary. She grew up as a Presbyterian, but because Thomas is gay, she would have endured lengthy roadblocks to be ordained in that Church. In 2011 she joined the United Church of Christ (UCC) and was ordained in 2015.

Under UCC rules, a person can be a pastor of a small church while working to be ordained, she said. In 2015 she started serving in churches in Central Massachusetts, continuing through to 2019 when she took a job in a hospice organization. She later returned to Detroit, where she grew up, to assist her sister who was battling health issues. During that period Thomas worked part-time in a small congregation in Ohio.

“I missed the church so much, I decided to get back into the church family,” Thomas said.

The First Congregational Church of Harwich search committee began looking for a new pastor in the fall of 2018. Search committee member Lynn Carver said applications came from across the country and interviews were held via Zoom.    

Carver said Thomas was chosen as a finalist and invited to come to Harwich in July. The search committee decided to present her to the congregation after she preached one Sunday. After that the committee met and decided to call her as settled pastor, Carver said.

“We hit the jackpot,” search committee member Edie Ruggles said.

“It was great,” Thomas added. “The people were as friendly as all get out. They sang me happy birthday over Zoom.”

Thomas said she only applied to UCC churches that are “open and affirming” to all people. She said the First Congregational Church parishioners have been welcoming to her and her partner, Dawn Brooks, who has joined the choir and is serving on the mission committee.

“It’s been a tremendous reception. It’s been really warm,” Thomas said. Through its open and affirming posture, the congregation is welcoming to the LGBTQ community and people of color, she said.

“This church is trying to live out who this church is, and I feel that,” Thomas said. “Sexual orientation doesn’t matter, we embrace you.” 

The church has been working on programs to draw younger members of the congregation. With an aging Cape population, membership has been slipping and the doors to some churches have closed. The West Harwich Baptist Church is a recent example. 

Thomas said she was impressed with the efforts of the Harwich congregation to keep the church active during the pandemic when some church doors were closed. 

“This aging congregation was meeting outside and they found a way through,” Thomas said. “That takes a lot of endurance and love for each other.”

Carver said there will be renewed efforts to draw more families and younger members into the church as the pandemic settles down.

“We all have children who by and large aren’t going to church, but we’re trying to bring them in in new ways,” added Buchanan. “Something that speaks to the younger generation.”

“Younger people aren’t looking for religion, but for spirituality,” Thomas said. “They don’t have time to go to church. Younger people want to be volunteering. They want a purpose.”

Thomas said one plan is to update the church’s website and social media presence. She said she has a significant background in that technology.

In her first few weeks of services, Thomas has been leading a series of sermons on the direction of the church. She said she started by looking “backward” at the history of the church with her first sermon; she then moved “inward.” Next, Thomas said, she spoke to “withward,” looking at how the congregation goes together as a family. Last Sunday, she examined “outward” and how people look toward others. 

Next Sunday, Thomas said, she will look at moving “forward” as a community and a nation. The sermon will address seed moments, the planting of ideas the fruit of which will not be seen for months and longer, and light switch moments, which are quick to turn on and off, she said. The sermons are meant to move from the past to the future with the contemplation and examination necessary to shape the church's journey.