From prosecution to the pulpit

Susan Princehouse is the kind of pastor who prefers to be called Susan. Not Pastor Princehouse. Not even Pastor Susan. Just Susan.

She also delights, maybe more than most pastors, in the preferred attire of her profession. She swings open the door of the closet in her office in the basement of Riverside Community Church and pulls out robes and stoles of all colors and fabrics.

“This one is what Moroccan women wear,” she says, her grin spilling across her face so completely you think it must continue around the back of her closely-cropped head of red hair. The smile, impossibly, grows when she pulls out a red sequined stole, recounting the story of a gay priest who gave it to her for her ordination.

“It’s majorly fun dress up,” she says.

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Susan Princehouse, 55, is the kind of pastor she is because of the path she followed to get here. She was, until four years ago, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County, in Seattle. She’d arrived late in the legal field, starting law school at 36. Before that, she’d been a public relations director for a community college in Colorado Springs, Colo.

She joined the prosecuting attorney’s office after completing her law degree at the University of Washington and remained there for 13 years.

A divorced mother of two grown children, Susan married David Princehouse, a physicist with Boeing, in 1995.

“I was happily going along doing work that was valuable and rewarding and making a lot of money,” she says. “We had a lovely, comfortable house and were looking forward to a nice retirement.”

But then a “restlessness” started, Susan says. For a while, she ignored it. But it grew stronger. She became haunted by songs whose words and melodies were calling her to the ministry.

It was unsettling for Susan, who was far from a life-long church-goer.

“I’d actually been raised unchurched, in an Air Force, agnostic, alcoholic environment,” she says. She grew up near U.S. air bases around the world and would occasionally be “dropped off” at Sunday school at whatever church happened to be nearby.

“As a little kid, the impression I had of Jesus was that he was a really nice man who was a friend of children and sheep,” Susan says, laughing. Living in Germany at age 10, she heard a sermon that depicted God as loving and forgiving, rather than the “fire and brimstone” stories she was used to hearing.

“I remember asking, ‘What brand was that guy?’” she says. It had been a Methodist sermon, but her family moved again and she lost interest. As a teenager living in Colorado Springs, Colo., near the U.S. Air Force Academy, her interest in church again surged briefly when the Air Force cadets were bused to a church in town as the chapel at the Academy was being built. But as soon as it was completed, and there were no more handsome cadets in uniform filling the pews at the local church, Susan’s enthusiasm for church waned again.

“I always made runs of it,” she says.

Years later, after settling in Seattle, she joined the United Church of Christ, which she was attracted to because of its “theologically open” reputation.

“I started going to Bible study and singing in choirs,” she says. Her new husband, David, accompanied her to church after they got married. But when she began to feel a calling to the ministry, she resisted by pulling back from church.

“I resigned from all church committees and boards,” Susan says. To herself — to God — Susan kept saying, “I’m too busy for this. It must be the Susan a couple of blocks away that you want.”

But she learned of a program in Vancouver, Wash., that trained ministers over the course of a year-and-a-half of monthly weekend sessions. She decided to check it out and during her first weekend, she had an epiphany.

“It was one of those moments,” she says. “Within minutes I realized, this is what I’ve been preparing my whole life for. I realized, I needed to get ordained.”

She began looking into theology schools, and discovered that Seattle University was opening a school of theology and ministry that fall. She enrolled in the seminary and began taking classes while still working full-time as an attorney.

When she looks back on it, she can see clearly how God was leading her step by step toward the ministry. During her last years as an attorney, she’d created a program within her office called ACE (Alternatives to Court Enforcement), which was a deferral program for “delinquent dads” who were willing to work with the system and start paying child support. Many, she discovered, really wanted to help support their children but had foundered for some reason and then it became like a hole that just got deeper and deeper. Some had quit paying because they’d once had a job making a lot of money, then lost it and couldn’t afford the payments but didn’t know how to go about getting them reduced. Others had different hardship stories, but many wanted to re-establish a relationship with their kids.

For the first time as an attorney, Susan was working with people to solve a problem rather than just working to prosecute them.

“I had to do a good old fashioned laying on of ears,” she says. “I had to listen to them — really listen. It was an amazing spiritual transformation for me.”

In the fall of 1998, Susan decided to quit her job and attend seminary full time.

“Poor David,” says Susan, who calls her husband the “greatest, nicest guy in the world.”

“He must have felt like the biggest victim of cosmic bait and switch,” she says.

As her four years of seminary neared their end, Susan began looking at churches in the Seattle area that were seeking pastors — one, in particular, interested her because it was close to their home and seemed a perfect fit. A friend even pointed out that the sanctuary’s paint matched Susan’s hair.

“I had no intention of leaving Seattle,” she says. But, as she learned, it wasn’t to be up to her.

David, a windsurfer, had long joked that he would support Susan through seminary if they could then pursue his dream and move to Hood River. During Susan’s final year at seminary, David made one of his frequent trips to the Gorge to windsurf and discovered that Riverside Church was looking for a pastor.

Susan had been in New Mexico on one of her annual retreats at a desert monastery. There, she had recurring dreams of being restored to the Garden of Eden. Upon her return, David told her about Riverside.

“I said, ‘Oh, how nice, dear,’” Susan recalls. But she agreed to throw her name in the ring and was invited to candidate at the church during Blossom Festival weekend last spring.

On the drive down, she and David were still laughing; their ongoing joke was playing out longer than they’d expected. “We’re not really going to do this, right?” they said to each other. But driving up the Gorge, they began talking more seriously.

“We realized, our job is to find out if these people are the people, and if this is the place,” Susan recalls. If so, Susan knew, God would take care of it.

As Susan drove around the valley that weekend, witnessing its explosion of spring, she knew that this was the Garden of Eden of her desert dreams.

Three months later, she became the new pastor at Riverside Community Church.

“This church and this ministry are just incredible,” Susan says. “And this is just the most incredible place to live.”

She doesn’t regret for a moment not getting into the ministry earlier. She views her training and work as a trial lawyer — “in how you put things together” — as vital to being an effective pastor.

“I don’t imagine I could have done it any sooner,” she says.

Susan, who turns 56 in September, says her kids joke that in 10 more years, she’ll be going to medical school.

No, she tells them. She doesn’t like science.

And besides, white coats aren’t nearly as fun as sequined stoles.

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