Judy Campbell, a life of ministry
To hear her talk, one would think Judy Campbell is just starting out. And - in a sense - she is. Her plans are lush and promising, enough to fill countless 24-hour days and several jam-packed lifetimes. Although Ms. Campbell - that's the Rev. Judy Campbell, or "revdocmom," as her e-mail moniker reads - has just retired as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha's Vineyard, she has miles to go before she sleeps, or even sits down to take a breath.
"I'm still a minister," says Ms. Campbell with a compelling ambiguity that grabs the listener's ear. "My ministry is going to continue. I'm not retired from the ministry. I did not take off my collar; ordination is for life."
A few days after being sincerely praised and fondly roasted at a farewell service and celebration, Ms. Campbell sat in her bright Oak Bluffs living room, walls lined by her own paintings, a gas fire flickering cozily. While two cats took turns on her lap, she shared plans, spoke of the joys and challenges of leading a parish, and mused about ministry.
No longer a parish minister, Ms. Campbell intends to remain an author, artist, poet, retreat leader, teacher, traveler, engaged wife, mother, and grandmother. Above all, she aims to have a community ministry, which will incorporate many of these roles and offer delicious opportunity for creativity and invention. Delicious, especially, to this vibrant "revdocmom" who has reveled in reinventing herself all through her life.
Despite the fulsome praise and appreciation that parishioners, clergy friends, and others lavished upon her at her retirement fete on January 6, Ms. Campbell never meant to be a parish minister. In fact, she did not mean to be a minister at all, nor even to live on Martha's Vineyard. But life has an interesting way, a mysterious way, of getting us where we are meant to be.
Turn back to the 1940s and 1950s when Judy Campbell was growing up in Hyde Park with her mother and grandmother, both single women. Her mother, depressed and caught up in her own problems, had little time for her young daughter.
"Anything I had to do I had to do on my own," she recalled. This led her to feel that she could do anything she wanted to. "I am a resilient person."
Teaching came as second nature to Ms. Campbell: "I am an inborn, DNA-based teacher." Art was an innate talent too. She combined the two, working for years as professor of art and art education at Lesley University in Cambridge.
The journey to the Unitarian Universalist church and the ministry was circuitous. Fascinated with religion, Ms. Campbell found most conventional belief systems too fixed and restrictive. But when at last she encountered Unitarianism, its inquiring nature had a resonance for her.
In 1967 Ms. Campbell became active with the Unitarian Universalist parish in Braintree, facilitating conferences and directing the junior choir. "That's when I got the call to ministry," she said.
But with a full-time job, two very young children at home, and recently divorced, Ms. Campbell decided that ministry had to wait. Nearly 25 years later, at age 50, she began a doctoral program in Arts and Religious Studies and entered into preparation for ministry, along with meeting her husband-to-be, Chris Stokes, and receiving a book contract.
"And I survived it," she laughed.
Although she loved her training, Ms. Campbell was determined that parish ministry was "too confining" for her - "I am a free spirit." But she was drawn to community ministry, which she described as "ministry without walls, a ministry at large, self-styled." She trusted that her passion for writing and art would have a big place in her work. "The basis for my community ministry is using the arts to find the holy within."
Purely by chance, Ms. Campbell learned in 1998 that a Cambridge friend was planning to sell her Vineyard house. She decided to buy it as a vacation home, but had no plan to seek a post here. But the post sought her, and when parish representatives approached she told them her hesitations but agreed to consider the job. "It came out a win-win and they voted 100 percent to call me," she said.
Now both Ms. Campbell and her parishioners agree the match was an auspicious one. "I had no idea how much I would love it," she said. "It's been a very, very good ministry."
During her tenure, attendance has increased, committees are filled and active, and the church's profile in the community has been raised, Ms. Campbell said. She introduced the parish to the benefits of pastoral care, and was instrumental in refurbishing the organ and installing new, more welcoming doors. She is particularly proud of the parish's strong dedication to inclusivity. "You will see all preferences and all colors in our pews and holding positions in the church management and administration," she said.
Among the high points of her ministry, Ms. Campbell counts her 1996 ordination; the peace vigil she held on Sept. 11, 2001 which she repeats each year; the opportunity she had to perform a same sex marriage uniting Mr. Hensley and his partner Michael Helgert - "equal rights for all people has been a passion of mine forever." Funerals too were important times when she felt the value of serving the grieving.
"Reverend Judy has helped us become a vibrant collaborative community," said Sarah Shepard, congregation president. "Her warm and welcoming spirit has attracted many new members. We are enriched by having her among us."
Ms. Shepard said that Ms. Campbell came to a parish marked by "conflict and uncertainty about the future," and leaves it "a congregation filled with energy, appreciation, and enthusiasm."
The moving and exuberant service included a welcoming prayer by the Rev. Rob Hensley of Grace Episcopal Church, and reminiscences from the Rev. Arlene Bodge, both close clergy friends.
"The Right Reverend is one of the most irreverent people in the world and it is a joy to call her friend," said Susan Klein.
Many paid tribute, creating a multi-faceted picture of a minister who was both light-hearted and compassionate, creative and empowering, a warm friend and supportive pastor, a searcher so comfortable in her own skin that she puts others at ease.
"A good ministry is like a quilt - the pieces fit together and make a harmonious pattern," said the Rev. Richard Fewkes, a long-time mentor to Ms. Campbell, herself a gifted quilter. "Ministry an art form that the minister and congregation create together. You have done it, you have created something beautiful." Even Mr. Stokes played a cello duet with his teacher Jan Hyer to honor his wife. Both the speakers and Ms. Campbell expressed great appreciation to Mr. Stokes for his role as "minister's wife," and his overall support.
"This has been a wonderful, wonderful journey, one of learning, one of sharing," Ms. Campbell told the assemblage. "You have been patient, you have been inspirational."
Now she turns happily to multitudinous other projects. She is already turning out mystery novels whose heroine, Olympia Brown, is named for the first woman ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. She leads a writing group at the Oak Bluffs Public Library, will surely add more artwork to her walls, and hopes to lead retreats and workshops for Island groups. While much is left to be defined in her plans, the Vineyard is a constant.
"This is home," she said. "I've never been so happy in my life. I love this place. I fit here."