Sue Fitzgerald leaves Mars Hill after 48 years of ministry
It is at the decisive points in life that people ponder the big questions of life and purpose. It has been the same for Rev. Sue Fitzgerald, who, in mid-July will leave Mars Hill, the town she has called home for 48 years. At 80 years old, she is moving to Winston-Salem to be nearer to her extended family.
“I always wondered if I really did anything,” she said recently, as she considered the upcoming move.
Like everything else Fitzgerald says, the statement is made with genuineness and humility, but for anyone acquainted with her history, it seems laden with irony.
Since coming to Mars Hill in 1963, Fitzgerald has held pivotal and trailblazing roles as the founder and only Director of the Christian Education Center at Mars Hill College, as one of the first ordained female Baptist ministers to serve in North Carolina, as Minister of Education and interim pastor at Mars Hill Baptist Church, as a teacher of seminary extension courses which gave both pastors and laypeople throughout the region access to religious education, as the founder of a program for handicapped children and adults in the late 1960s in Madison County, as a mentor and teacher to hundreds of college students, as chaplain for Hospice of Madison County, and as the most recent president and director of Madison County Neighbors in Need. During those years, Fitzgerald has received two honorary doctorates, from Mars Hill College and from Wake Forest University, largely for her work with the Christian Education Center. She has been invited to preach baccalaureate sermons at Wake Forest, as well as at her alma mater, Meredith College in Raleigh. She has had a scholarship for women seeking a career in the ministry named for her (the Fitzgerald-Bean Ministerial Scholarship at MHC). She has been featured in two books about female Baptist preachers in North Carolina and in May of 2011, she received a prestigious alumni award, called the Spirit of the Hill Award, from Andover-Newton Theological School, where she received her seminary degree.
To everyone but Fitzgerald herself, it seems obvious that she has, indeed, done something with the almost five decades she has spent in Mars Hill. But, then again, if these titles and honors were the stuff of success in Fitzgerald’s mind, she would not be the woman that the people of Mars Hill have grown to love and admire.
“Success to me is ministering to people where they are and helping them to grow and opening myself to them so they can help me too,” she said. “I always prayed, ‘Lord help me to help one person today; help me to listen.’ Because if I listen, I get more, but I also know how to be able to help.”
Even after 48 years in the mountains, the gentle southern lilt of Fitzgerald’s speech gives her away as a native of Virginia. Born and raised in Gretna, Virginia, she attended Meredith College in Raleigh, where she not only double-majored in religion and education, but she also played four varsity sports: softball, basketball, field hockey and soccer. Though she continued to play all four years, a leg injury suffered in her freshman year would never fully heal, forcing her to walk with the aid of a cane for the rest of her life.
After graduation, Fitzgerald taught religion in the public schools of Virginia for one year, a job she said introduced her to “the joy of teaching.” She then was offered a job as a minister of education at a church in Lynchburg, VA, and after much prayer, accepted the job that would effectively propel her into the ministry.
Finding that she enjoyed writing her own literature to meet the needs of the church, she decided to attend seminary at Andover-Newton Theological School in Boston, Massachusetts. She graduated in 1959 and soon after, took another position as a minister of education in Franklin, Virginia.
In 1963, Fitzgerald came to Mars Hill Baptist Church as minister of education, a position that would last for 12 years. There, she continued writing curriculum for the church and worked with the enormous collegiate Sunday school department, filled each Sunday morning with students from Mars Hill College. Always the educator, she developed an internship program with college students to help direct the program, and she met with them weekly.
“The interns would have to come to my office for weekly meetings, and I pushed them. I just felt it was my job to help them grow,” Fitzgerald said. “If we don’t think we never grow.”
Rev. David Smith, a former trustee of Mars Hill College and current pastor of First Baptist Church of Lenoir, N.C., was a college sophomore in 1966 when he began his internship with Fitzgerald. The ostensible purpose of his weekly meeting with Fitzgerald was to plan for that week’s lesson. But now, as an adult looking back, he says, “The ultimate purpose was mentoring of students-- very quiet, but very powerful one-on-one mentoring of students -- and that’s what she did for me,” he said.
Smith had not at that point decided to be a pastor, but he now credits Fitzgerald’s mentoring with guiding him toward a more mature faith. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be,” he said. “She was very kind to me, but she was also very challenging. She did not believe in sloppy thinking or shallow faith. She was always just pushing me to grow.”
In addition to her exhorting mentorship, Smith said Fitzgerald was “always giving me something to read,” and it tended to be cutting-edge, weighty material, written by theologians like Neibuhr, Cox, Bonhoeffer, and others.
“Mars Hill had a very strong religion faculty, but Sue held her weight with those academicians and challenged us to go as far as we could go,” Smith said.
Another of those students was Rev. Glenn Graves, now the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Mars Hill. Graves calls himself “one of Sue’s boys,” because of the mentoring relationship he enjoyed with her as a student at Mars Hill College.
“She was like a surrogate mother to me,” he said. “She is as transparent a person as you’ll ever meet, open, loving and caring.” But, according to Graves, her gentleness should never be mistaken for weakness. “She is also very forthright, and she has a fierce tenacity,” he said “especially when she wants you to learn something.”
Even while she was teaching and influencing college students, Fitzgerald began teaching pastors and laypeople throughout the region when she instigated the establishment of seminary extension courses through the French Broad Baptist Association.
Edith Whitt, now the registrar of Mars Hill College, has been a close friend of Fitzgerald’s for many years. She first got to know Fitzgerald as a 17-year-old girl, when she took her first seminary extension course.
According to Whitt, Fitzgerald not only started courses in the French Broad Association, but across western North Carolina. “She taught courses in Bryson City, Asheville, Weaverville, Spruce Pine and other places. I went with her to some of them,” she said.
Though she was, effectively, a minister, Fitzgerald at first refused to be ordained. Her reasoning was that all Christians should be ministers. And yet, she said she felt led of God to be ordained. She prayed about the matter repeatedly, and said the urging in her heart would not go away.
She said: “Finally, I said, ‘OK God. If you want me to be ordained, then the church has to ask me, and then I just dropped it. And it wasn’t long after that that the minister of the church knocked on my door and said the deacons wanted the church to ordain me.” So, she agreed; that was 1973.
As Fitzgerald got to know people in the small churches that dotted the hills of western North Carolina, she saw that small, rural churches did not have access to the kinds of materials, ideas and resources that larger urban churches had. Furthermore, it seemed that the state Baptist organizations that provided such materials had forgotten about the westernmost areas of North Carolina.
“A lot of people who worked in state Baptist work thought the state kind of stopped in Asheville,” Fitzgerald said. “They didn’t think about how far it is from Asheville to Murphy.”
Slowly, with much thought and prayer, a plan for meeting the educational and resource needs of small churches began to germinate in Fitzgerald’s mind and heart. Unable to put the idea down, she began to realize that it was more than an idea; it was a calling she could not ignore. Fitzgerald believed the opportunity to meet the needs of small churches in the region would come through a future church position. But she was wrong.
One Sunday morning after service at Mars Hill Baptist Church, Dr. Fred Bentley, then-president of Mars Hill College, mentioned in informal conversation his desire to hire a person to engage in church/community relations at the college. He felt that Mars Hill, a Baptist college, needed an individual whose job would be to build relationships with people in the churches of Madison County and western North Carolina.
Immediately, Fitzgerald said she saw how the needs of the college and the churches could work together. “I said, ‘I have what you want to do; I already have a plan.’ And Fred Bentley said, ‘see me in the morning in my office.’”
Fitzgerald went home and spent most of the night reworking her plan to be based out of a college, rather than based out of a church. The next morning, she went to see Dr. Bentley, and the Mars Hill College Center for Christian Education Ministries was born.
For twenty years, Fitzgerald was Director of the Center, which provided leadership and ideas as well as an ever-growing and extensive library of audiovisuals, background reading, study materials and guides covering every imaginable church need, and all free for the asking for pastors and laypeople all over the region.
“The joy that I had at the college was that it was so creative. I did all these things, not because I knew it all, but because I knew that I could give them resources and I could open up the ideas, and then they could figure how to do it,” Fitzgerald said. “If you had a problem, my philosophy was that if I give you ten ideas, you will think of the eleventh that will be your answer.”
The Center for Christian Education Ministries succeeded in fostering the college/community relationship that Bentley had envisioned. It also fostered a relationship of respect between Bentley and Fitzgerald.
“It was really a beautiful relationship,” said Doris Bentley, widow of Dr. Fred Bentley. “Fred just had the greatest respect for Sue and for the way she worked with people. He respected how she could handle situations and the way she was able to go out into the community and just bond with community people, which was rather difficult with her being a woman. But Sue was just able to in her gentle but straightforward way, to make inroads,” she said.
According to Whitt, the Center did provide much-needed resources for the small churches of the area. But the resources alone were only part of the story.
Fitzgerald visited innumerable churches, offering the services of the center, taking samples of the resources available, directing pastors on how to rewrite the literature to meet their needs, researching new resources and even providing church workshops and Bible studies when asked.
“Sue always put her ministry above her personal needs. She was always thinking of what she could do for somebody else,” Whitt said. “She has spent a lot of that time just counseling people and listening. Whether it was a pastor with a problem, or a student, she would listen and she would help. She just invested in people. And she respects and honors all people; regardless of their education level or station or position. She has given her whole life to this community. She’s been here almost 50 years, and she’s invested her life in Mars Hill.”
Though Fitzgerald was widely appreciated for her help to churches, many of those same churches were reluctant to accept a woman as a minister.
“I have been able to go into most churches and be accepted,” Fitzgerald said. “But if they didn’t accept me, I never worried about it. I could accept them and accept who they were, and not worry about it, and still help the ministers, even the ones who didn’t want me. I feel like the important thing is not whether I agree with you politically or theologically, but whether at the center of life is Jesus. That’s the important thing.”
Whitt believes that refusal to take offense is one of the primary reasons for the success and longevity of Fitzgerald’s ministry. “She didn’t let rejection affect her ability to minister,” Whitt said.
Fitzgerald’s tenacity, and her unwavering sense of calling may help explain her refusal to be deterred. “My philosophy of work is that I’m first a person, a God-created person,” she said. “And I’m second a female. I just feel strongly about that. And if I’m first person, I don’t have to show off that I’m female, or make an issue of it.”
At the time, the MHC Christian Education Center was unique in North Carolina, and even across the country. The center made Sue Fitzgerald well-known among Baptists across the state and earned her many honors, including two honorary doctorates, and invitations to preach baccalaureate sermons at Meredith College and Wake Forest University.
When Dr. Wanda Kidd first met Sue Fitzgerald in 1983, she was already renowned in the region for her work with the Christian Education Center. Now the Collegiate Ministry Consultant for the North Carolina Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Kidd initially came to western North Carolina as the collegiate ministry intern at Western Carolina University.
On the very day that Kidd drove into town, Fitzgerald was scheduled to speak at a local Baptist meeting. But a disagreement had erupted because Fitzgerald was listed on the program as “Reverend Sue Fitzgerald,” drawing the ire of a conservative pastor in the area.
Later, Fitzgerald did come to a similar meeting and chose not to stand in the pulpit.
“She just stood down there in front of the congregation with such a presence and such a humility, and she never let where she was going to speak interfere with what she was going to say,” Kidd said. “Most people would have been mad or hurt. Her demeanor did not change. Here’s a woman in the maelstrom of this controversy and she gave no acknowledgement at all that there had been any kind of issue.”
The moment was profound for Kidd. “Just that image of her, from that moment on, I thought, ‘that’s what I’m going to do as a woman in ministry in western North Carolina. I’m not going to let anyone deter my call but I’m also going to be respectful in the process.’”
Kidd later served as Bonner Scholar Coordinator at Mars Hill College and shared an office with Fitzgerald. The two women remain close friends and Kidd said she regards Fitzgerald as one of her most trusted advisors. Her combination of genuine concern and strength encourages an answering strength in those she counsels.
“She is so encouraging to me, but not in a placating way. She’s one of those people who will not so much offer you a variety of opportunities, but she will help you process how to be the best person you are called to be,” Kidd said. “She is very masterful at making you own and claim your own call.”
When Fitzgerald retired from Mars Hill College in 1995, the Center was discontinued. So, she closed in her carport to create a library in her home where pastors and laypeople continue to be welcome for research and study. In “retirement,” she served as Hospice Chaplain in Madison County for ten years. Most recently, she has been the volunteer president and director of Madison County Neighbors in Need, a ministry that provides food to families in crisis. She continues to teach a Sunday School class at Mars Hill Baptist Church and she preaches from time to time.
And quietly, without fanfare, she does very, very important things. One person at a time, she seeks to help. She comforts the sick and the dying; she speaks at funerals; she marries those who are in love; she counsels the hurting and she teaches, in both word and deed.
Speaking of his mentor and friend, Rev. David Smith said: “Only the heavenly accounting will measure the impact of one person’s life that has blessed thousands of people.”
And he’s right.