La Verne Magazine
Boyer Breathes Her Life Into Church
by Jennifer Dodd
photography by Bailey Porter
Returning to her college Church, new La Verne Church of the Brethren pastor
Susan Boyer uses creative sermons to challenge and motivate her congregation.
Susan Boyer may be the new pastor of the La Verne Church of the Brethren,
but on this ordinary Wednesday afternoon, Boyers main priority of the
moment is juggling rides home from school for her two sons Matthew, 16, and
Brett, 12. Sometimes it gets a little hectic in the afternoons, figuring
out who is picking up who and when,laughs Boyer.
Boyers life, before she became a mother and a pastor, began far from
La Verne. Born in Nigeria, she is the youngest daughter of missionary parents.
Her father Irven Stern is a minister, and Boyer was raised as a Brethren. She
spent her early childhood in Hutchinson, Kan., and later moved to San Diego,
where she was a member of the San Diego Church of the Brethren. She attended
the University of La Verne and originally intended to be an international relations
major. That changed when she took religion classes to fulfill elective requirements.
I was so intrigued. I just loved the material and ended up being a religion
major.Boyer performed summer service volunteer work at the Bakersfield
Church of the Brethren. My being there just felt right; it felt like a
fit. That is when I started to explore what it would mean for me to be a minister.
Her most memorable moment came when the Bakersfield Church of the Brethren
sent a letter to her home San Diego Church of the Brethren congregation saying
it strongly felt she should be licensed as a minister. That really reaffirmed
externally what I was feeling internally, Boyer says. Following came three
years at the Claremont School of Theology, and she later graduated from the
Church of the Brethren Bethany Theological Seminary, located in Richmond, Ind.
What followed was 14 years as a pastoral leader at the Manchester, Ind., Church
of the Brethren.
She credits her family as a major source of inspiration in choosing her profession.
I come from a long line of storytellers. My grandfather was an incredible
storyteller, and it runs in my family, Boyer says. When I was in
college, I used to think of preaching as writing a term paper, and so I did
not want to do it. But I found by taking preaching classes and beginning to
preach that I just absolutely loved it, and that I had a really important story
to tell, the story of the way of Jesus. She has refined and honed her
sermon writing process. I still have a full manuscript when I go up to
preach, just to keep my thoughts organized, but I start out trying to make it
apply to something that I have actually experienced in my daily encounters,
Throughout her years of pastoring, she has faced many challenges as well as
a multitude of blessings. In January 1998, the 100-year-old building that housed
Boyers beloved Church in Manchester was destroyed by a fire caused by
a faulty kitchen water heater. I think that was the worst experience Ive
ever had in pastoral ministry, standing in front of my church and watching it
burn, Boyer says tearfully. For the next two years, Manchester College
provided the Sunday church setting. They gifted any space we wanted to
use for free for as long as it took us to rebuild our church, she says.
The whole experience was an example of taking absolute tragedy and turning
it into goodness, Boyer says. In the end, I think that the Manchester
Church is more alive and renewed because of it.
Then came the opening at La Vernes Church, in need of a new pastor following
the retirement of Charles Boyer (no relation). Boyers decision to apply
for the position came at a pivotal time in her familys life. My
family wanted a change, Boyer says. My oldest son was just entering
high school, and Manchester is such a small town that I think we all wanted
some anonymity. Moving to California from Manchester was like coming
home for Boyer and her husband Brian, whom she met at the University of
La Verne, where he was her dorm resident adviser. While she and Brian were once
California residents, their two sons were not, and the move was a major adjustment
for them. Boyers love and commitment to her family helped make the transition
a smooth one. I think the move was difficult for them, but they seemed
to be up for the challenge, she says. The first six months were
tough, but now we all feel that this is home.
Dr. Alfred Clark, University of La Verne associate vice president of academic
affairs, served as Church moderator and a member of the pastoral search committee.
The process of finding a new pastor is a very structured one, Clark
says. We received 20 applications and only interviewed three candidates.
Dr. John Gingrich, ULVs former dean of arts and sciences, was also a
search committee member. I taught Susan back when she was a student here,
Gingrich recalls. We chose her because she was previously a member of
our congregation and now, 17 years later, she has returned to us with a lot
of experience under her belt. Gingrich adds that Boyers main asset
to the congregation is her extraordinary preaching ability. She challenges
you intellectually in her sermons, Gingrich explains. She has the
ability to motivate the congregation and touch you emotionally.Clark says,
Her messages to the kids are always biblically based, but amazingly innovative.Clark
remembers a recent message where Boyer taught the lesson of not judging people
by appearances. She used a can of spinach and a can of peaches and asked
the children which one theyd rather open. Of course, they all picked the
can with the peaches label. When Susan opened the can, the labels had been switched,
and the children were shocked.
Boyers ability to be non judgmental also pertains to hot button issues.
Her open stance on homosexuality came under fire last year, with the Manchester
Churchs decision to accept same-sex covenant ceremonies in its congregation.
Controversy arose at the Churchs Youth Conference 2002, when members of
the Southeastern District Board of the Church of the Brethren instructed their
children not to attend any seminars conducted by Boyer. They dont
like me very much, Boyer says. But, what they dont understand
is, it wasnt only my decision, but a decision of an entire congregation.
Gingrich adds, We respected her stance on inclusivity when we were searching
for a new pastor. She is a great presence in our community.
One of Boyers passions has always been working with youth. She is an
invited regular speaker at the Churchs National Youth Conference, held
every four years. My favorite preaching experience has been at the National
Youth Conference, Boyer says. There are 4,000 really excited people.
They give you a huge preach it wave, and it is just really cool,
she fondly recalls.
She is also ardent about demonstrating for peace. The Church of the Brethren
is one of three peace denominations, along with the Mennonites and the Quakers.
The Church follows an annual conference statement that all war is sin.
The vast majority of Brethrens do not enlist in the military due to this belief.
Boyer has participated in spring 2003 anti-war protests on Indian Hill and Arrow
Highway in Claremont holding a sign that reads, Not in my name.
She stresses that it is important to be a witness. She also believes in writing
letters and doing whatever it takes to make it known that there are people in
this nation who disagree with the war in Iraq. I believe in being a peaceful
witness, though, Boyer says. It doesnt make much sense to
be an angry witness for peace.
Since moving back to California, she has nothing but praise for her new La
Verne congregation. Boyer confides, I feel absolutely privileged to be
a pastor here. There are days I just cant believe how lucky I am. I just
think that God must love me a lot to let me be able to be in the midst of peoples
lives in times of great trauma and great celebration, because those are such
sacred times. I am just so glad to be here.