Kathleen Decker Szakas’ path to becoming a United Methodist minister has by no means been traditional, but her life experiences have clearly made the journey a diverse and highly respected one.
On July 1, Pastor Kathleen became the Cape Elizabeth United Methodist Church’s new quarter-time minister, joining Priscilla Dreyman, who this month is beginning her third year at the church. Together they will share the part-time ministry.
Pastor Kathleen was ordained last month at the annual UMC New England Conference while serving as the full-time provisional elder at the Highland Avenue UMC in Gardiner, Maine. She also has served as a quarter-time Licensed Local Pastor in both East Pittston and Dresden Richmond, Maine.
She lives in Winthrop, Maine with her husband Joe, who is the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Maine at Augusta. They have three children: Clara, who will be beginning her junior year at Kalamazoo College in Michigan; Lydia, who will be a senior at Winthrop High School; and Joseph, who will be a freshman at WHS. Their home in Winthrop is next to the UMC’s Camp Mechuwana.
Becoming a UMC minister was not Kathleen’s first calling.
During her junior year in high school in Upstate New York, one of her counselors recommended her for a Summer Scientific Seminar at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. She was accepted into the two-week program and “was impressed by the commitment and professionalism of the cadets who ran the program”.
After beginning college at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, Kathleen was nominated by her senator and became a cadet in the Air Force Academy’s Class of 1990. She was a Geography major with a French minor while also taking 20 credits of engineering course work.
“I was trained to be an Imagery Intelligence Officer,” she explained recently, “and the Air Force later sent me to Ohio State University for a Master’s in Geodetic Science.” With the advanced degree, she became a Mapping, Charting and Geodesy Officer.
Kathleen went on to serve a distinguished 20-plus year career in the Air Force at a variety of bases around the country and in Korea. She retired as a lieutenant colonel.
That was when her second calling began to surface.
“When I approached 20-plus years in the Air Force, I began an intentional time of discernment about what to do next,” she said. ” I considered everything from home-schooling my kids, extensive volunteer work, re-entering the workforce as a Geographic Information analyst, or work as a program analyst, or project manager.”
Years earlier she had taken a course in systematic theology from the Bangor Theology Seminary, but at the time, “I was reluctant to release myself into a life of faith”.
That all changed upon leaving military service. “Much to my surprise,” she said, “I got a clear and mystical call to ordained ministry in the UMC. It has been an amazing way to live as a ‘professional Christian’ and minister.”
Kathleen started seminary in 2012 at the Boston School of Theology on the same day her youngest child started kindergarten. She was appointed to the Highland Avenue UMC in 2016, the same year she was commissioned as a provisional elder.
Kathleen was baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church until age 13. Her parents then took the family to an Assemblies of God church where she was baptized again. While she was in high school, her family began worshiping at a non-denominational Pentecostal church. While at the Air Force Academy, she sang in the Catholic Cadet Choir and sometimes attended Protestant services.
Kathleen and Joe were married in a Presbyterian church, but after moving to Maine, they started attending the Winthrop UMC, eventually becoming members in 2005.
“In the United Methodist Church,” she said, “I heard God’s love preached and saw love lived out — and I found my spiritual home.”
She said her earliest memory of experiencing God was in the basement fellowship hall of the Catholic Church in Schenectady, New York.
“It was during some sort of congregational meal. I was about five or six years old and I remember people talking and enjoying each other, the priest laughing, and a sense of love and belonging to something much bigger than me.”
Pastor Kathleen comes to our church with a commitment to “developing trust among members, identifying their common purpose, improving communication, and promoting effective decision-making and action.”
The foundation of those goals was formed while she was an Air Force officer.
“My greatest pleasure came from encouraging and recognizing excellence in the troops under my command,” she said. “I was always mission-focused, clearly articulating our mission and priorities and the need to work together to accomplish them. I had opportunities to be an ethical voice in the room and to establish a climate of mutual respect and trust.”
After five years as a full-time minister at Highland Avenue, Pastor Kathleen is comfortable with her decision to accept a quarter-time position at our church.
“I have been in another period of discernment about how best to live a faithful Christian life — as I have pledged to do in my ordination. My sense is in our post-Christian culture, my ministry may not be fully within an established church. The appointment at 12 hours a week will allow me to sink into spiritual practice — which has been hard for me to sustain with the demands of solo full-time pastoring — and live faithfully. Part of this is to have more time to spend with my family, and to explore my other interests.
“My understanding of church as the body of Christ, leads me to believe that it takes all of us working together, under the leadership of Jesus. It seems to me that part-time pastorates make room for more people to live into their callings, and be connected to the body. My previous experiences as a quarter-time pastor were very positive and I’m expecting a similarly positive, but altogether different experience at CEUMC. In some ways it seems easier to be the body of Christ together. when we are organized in a way that necessitates cooperation and collaboration.
“From what I have heard of the people of the Cape Elizabeth UMC, there is no shortage of giftedness and faithfulness, and I’m excited to be part of this part of the body of Christ.”
Pastor Kathleen was introduced to the Cape congregation during a service on July 4 and she led her first service the following Sunday.
Welcome to our church, Pastor Kathleen!