By Peter Vankevich
Some folks early in life know what they want to be when they grow up.
Ocracoke United Methodist Church’s new pastor, Susie Fitch-Slater, is one of them.
As a girl in high school sitting in church on Sundays, she wanted to do what the pastor did, but she had no idea how she could.
Back then, the only pastors she saw were men.
Born in Manteo, she grew up in Wanchese which she considers her hometown. But with her father a Navy man, they moved around including living in California and on Guam for a while where she attended Monkey Tree Elementary School.
“I think that had an impact on my foundation of education,” she laughed.
After graduating from Manteo High School, her calling led her to North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount where she majored in religion and theater.
“My mom was always afraid I was going to act religious,” she quipped, showing her homespun sense of humor that finds its way into her Sunday sermons.
From there, she continued her studies at Duke Divinity School, obtaining her master’s degree in 1981.
In her third year at Duke, she served as a student-pastor in four churches. At one of them, several men who refused to be guided by a woman pastor boycotted by remaining outside of the church.
After two weeks, Fitch-Slater met with them, convincing them to attend her next service and give her a chance. They did, liked what they heard, and that ended the boycott.
“They called me the gal-preacher which I originally found offensive but came to realize it was really a term of endearment to them,” she said.
After her first assignment as a minister in the Edenton area, in1985 she moved to Connecticut with her first husband, Michael Fitch, who pursued his doctorate degree at Yale Divinity School.
New England is not a hot bed for United Methodists and she and Michael wanted to serve as co-pastors in the same church, which they did but changed denominations to minister at West Suffield Congregational Church outside of New Haven.
Michael died of leukemia in 1994 and she later married Tom Slater.
Fitch-Slater returned to North Carolina in the late 80s to help look after her ailing mother. It was a homecoming in more than one way as she rejoined the United Methodists and has served as a pastor in several eastern North Carolina communities.
Her most recent assignment was Sharon United Methodist Church in Poplar Branch, Currituck County.
Often, Methodist ministers in North Carolina are reassigned after four or five years, causing many to speculate as to where they may be next.
“I was surprised to be assigned to Ocracoke, a nice surprise,” she said. Her appointment here succeeds that of Richard Bryant, who was reassigned after five years to a church in Pender County.
Ocracoke has always had a mystique for Fitch-Slater.
As she settles in, expectations do not always match.
“It’s a lot busier than I thought it would be,” she said.
On the other hand, as she anticipated, Ocracoke has a great sense of community.
“The need for community is very important on a remote island,” she said.
She has several challenges besides getting to know the island parishioners and visitors.
“My ministerial style is very relational,” she said. “I follow the style of Jesus who met with people and who said come walk with me. I want to find a rhythm of life here. I’m not one to come in and say, ‘let’s do it this way.’”