Pfeiffer Celebrates the Life of Susan Carmichael, an Inspiring and Influential Professor of Christian Education

Susan Carmichael
Religious Life

When the Rev. Kathleen Hughes Kilbourne ’79 arrived at Pfeiffer to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Christian education, she knew very few women who worked professionally in that field.

In Margaret Susan Carmichael, a professor of Christian education at Pfeiffer from 1961 to 1993, she found the perfect role model.

Carmichael, who died November 25, 2020 at age 96, taught, advised and mentored Kilbourne in way that would profoundly shape the trajectory of her career, which would last about 40 years. And she did the same for countless other students of Christian education at Pfeiffer.

Carmichael “pushed me to be the best I could be, not just to get by,” Kilbourne said. “She believed in me before I could believe in myself. She taught me not to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Carmichael’s influence continues to be felt, often in ways that resemble a family tree:

For many years, Connie Elzey ’79 has been a Christian educator at Myers Memorial United Methodist Church in Gastonia, NC. Her husband, David, was also a student of Carmichael’s, graduating in 1982. Connie, who’s now the Director of Christian Education at Myers Memorial, first became interested in Christian education as a teenager attending Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC.

Alyce Robertson McSwain ’69, the Director of Christian Education at Aldersgate when Connie was a member there, had studied with Carmichael at Pfeiffer and suggested that Connie do the same. Today, Tresca Hollis McSwain ’06 MCE, Alyce’s daughter-in-law, serves as the Director of Youth & Young Adults at Myers Memorial.

In 2018, Carmichael became one of the Legends of Educational Ministry chosen by Christians Engaged in Faith, a professional organization of United Methodist Christian Educators, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, in 2018. The organization is now called Christians Engaged in Faith Formation.

“Susan was tough on us and expected the best,” Kilbourne wrote in a Legends tribute. “She encouraged us to engage others in ministry, ‘to work ourselves out of a job’ by equipping others to be in ministry with us and not just doing ministry for others.”

The Rev. Dana McKim ’82, one of Carmichael’s Christian education students in the 1970s, echoed these sentiments. He would later work at several churches and serve as the Minister to the University at Pfeiffer. He said that Carmichael “always worked to make all of us better.” When McKim wasn’t measuring up, Carmichael would tell him that he had embarked “on a road paved with good intentions” or that he thought well on his feet.

Kilbourne said that Carmichael “committed her heart and soul” to preparing her students to become servant leaders who would transform the world. Kilbourne would play the role of transformer:

In 1997, after serving three North Carolina churches as an educator with a primary focus in youth ministry and adult and family life, she returned to her alma mater to become the first full-time Director of the Master in Christian Education program, now called the Master of Practical Theology. This is one of only two designed for working adults. It grew to be the largest MA program offered throughout the UM system.

Dr. Bill Benfield, the first director of the Master in Christian Education program at Pfeiffer, credited Carmichael for planting the idea for it.

Carmichael lived a long and rich life. She was born in Laurel, Mississippi, on Christmas Day, 1923, one of six children raised in a Christian home. She was educated at Jones County Junior College and at Scarritt College in Tennessee, which has since closed, having evolved into the Scarritt Bennett Center.

After graduating Scarritt, she became Director of Christian Education at St. Luke's Methodist Church in Jackson, MS, where she remained until 1961. Along the way, she obtained a master’s degree in Christian education from Scarritt.

In 1961, Carmichael left St. Luke's to work at what was then Pfeiffer College in its Department of Christian Education, where she trained students for work as directors of Christian education. She retired as Professor of Christian Education in May 1993 but continued to live on campus until 1996. Along the way, she was commissioned a deaconess and a diaconal minister.

Carmichael made her presence felt in many ways off Pfeiffer’s campus by, for example, serving the Western North Carolina Conference in various capacities.

It was during a conference gathering at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center that the Rev. Joy Thornburg Melton ’77 first met Carmichael. (After studying Christian education with Carmichael at Pfeiffer, Joy would marry the Rev. David Melton ’76, who did the same. He’s the Minister to the Congregation at Dunwoody UMC, in Dunwoody, GA)

Joy was just 16 (and still in high school) at the time she met Carmichael – and became touched by her magic.

Unknown to Joy, Carmichael had nominated her to be a delegate to the conference’s Council on Youth Ministries. This meant that Joy would have to give an impromptu talk on what she wanted to do with her life.

Joy remembers saying she could make a great difference in people’s lives by practicing law – and, in time, she earned a law degree from Emory University and is a partner at Hindson & Melton, in Atlanta. She has also authored several Safe Sanctuaries books, which aim to reduce the risk of abuse in churches.

“None of this would have happened without the seeds that Susan planted,” Joy said.  

A private family service for Carmichael is being planned. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in her memory to: Margaret Susan Carmichael Christian Education Endowed Fund, Pfeiffer University, Office of Advancement, P.O. Box 960, Misenheimer, NC 28109 or to Groce United Methodist Church, 954 Tunnel Road, Asheville, NC 28805.