Saugerties Reformed Church picks as its leader a trailblazer with many careers

Ruth Kent (photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Computer specialist, tax lawyer and interfaith chaplain Ruth Kent has added pastor to her list of professions. Recently selected as the pastor of the Saugerties Reformed Church, Rev. Kent gave her first sermon there November 27, coinciding with the start of Advent. While her return to the Hudson Valley (Kent spent the first six months of her life in Hurley) was always part of the plan, her journey into theology took even Kent by surprise.

“This never crossed my mind,” says Kent. “There were no women in pulpits when I was young anywhere that I ever saw.”

It’s a long road that has brought Kent to where she is now. Born into a military family, she spent much of her childhood moving from place to place. But the seeds that would sprout into her eventual religious career were already present. She was from a family of Presbyterians — a reformed Protestant tradition. Kent credits her family for supporting her determination in all her pursuits: “My parents were feminists before I had ever heard the word. They just encouraged us to do what we wanted to do.”

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From an early age, Kent showed an aptitude for math. “It was fun,” she says. “It was like a puzzle.”

Kent never intended to be a trailblazer, but, thanks to her parents’ supportive attitude, “It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be good at math.” Graduating from college, she began to search for jobs. She found limitations. As a woman, she found it easier to get a job with the government, though it didn’t pay as much as the private sector would have. For eight years, she worked for the government as a computer specialist, including a position monitoring computers for the Navy during the Vietnam War.

Eventually, Kent began to reconsider her place of employment. “I wanted to get out of that particular workplace and I thought, ‘If I’m going to change jobs, maybe this is the time to ask the question, do I want to keep doing this work?’” One of Kent’s sisters (she’s one of seven kids) who was looking into law school encouraged Kent to consider law.  She applied, and was accepted, to Harvard Law School.

In her next round of job searches, Kent had one stipulation: “When I interviewed with law firms, I specifically asked [whether] I would be the first woman in the tax department. I didn’t really want to be a pioneer again. It’s hard work. It’s not fun.”

For 20 years, Kent worked as a lawyer in Washington. While her paid work was in corporate tax, she worked for firms that supported pro-bono work. A family tragedy prompted her to take an interest in medical ethics and end-of-life care.

That’s when Kent’s career took yet another unexpected turn. “I was not going to change careers. I was just going to study ethics from a theological perspective,” explains Kent of her decision to enroll at Wesley Theological Seminary. As she spent more time studying theology, she found herself unwittingly and at times somewhat reluctantly on the ordination track.

“I used to joke that you could see the marks of my heels being dragged down the [seminary] hall,” says Kent. The pull toward ministry was an internal one, though. As resistant as she was to changing professions again, she says it felt like the right decision. “I guess the common way of expressing it is — I felt called.”

After graduating, Kent was hired as chaplain and director for spiritual life at a continuing-care retirement community in Washington. But she was certain at the time that she still wanted to minister to a parish. While the realization of her calling was gradual, Kent says she remembers the exact moment when she changed her mind about the retirement community. Two weeks into her being there, “I was walking down the hall and I just froze in my tracks and thought, This is where I’m supposed to be.”

So she stayed — for ten years. In 2015, Kent knew it was time to retire to New York, where her family (including her father, who turns 99 this Christmas) awaited.

Kent’s retired friends advised her to take a full year off before taking anything else on. By June of this year, Kent was “pretty sure” that she wanted to find a parish to which to minister. Returning from a trip to Jordan, Kent contacted the Reformed Church of Saugerties, which was looking for a part-time pastor.

Terri Massardo, a 22-year member of the church and vice-president of its consistory, recalls the process. Since summer 2015, when pastor Terry O’Brien left the church, Massardo says the church had been going to its “pulpit supply list” of visiting preachers. “When we first got [Kent’s] resume, we realized that she was a Presbyterian minister,” and even though she had what Massardo calls “shining credentials” the six-person search committee was not sure if they could even hire her. They sought approval from the Mid-Hudson Classis, which gave them the go-ahead to reach out to Kent.

She felt an instant connection to the church. Kent describes the search committee members as “warm.” A deciding factor for her was “the openness to finding new ways of doing things.” While that openness was born of necessity, Massardo and other members of the congregation have embraced it.

“We’ve come to realize after pastor Terry left that the congregation is who makes that final call,” says Massardo. “The church belongs to the people. We want to feel like we can work together [with the pastor].”

The congregation, according to Kent, are looking into “how to do more for themselves,” which, for a woman who’d had three careers, was a perfect fit.

Massardo and others are thankful to have a new pastor at the helm. “We need her not only at the pulpit, but for spiritual guidance,” says Massardo. A pastor is crucial in counseling church members through painful situations like illness and loss of loved ones.

Kent also brings to the church her unique preaching style, honed in her chaplaincy at the retirement community. “The two things I became most invested in were a strong commitment to an interfaith posture … and multi-sensory approaches to worship services,” says Kent.

As chaplain and director for spiritual life, Kent had to make sure she didn’t alienate senior residents who came from various religious backgrounds, and sometimes from no faith whatsoever. “My first goal is not to drive anybody away,” says Kent. And that didn’t just apply to people of differing beliefs, but people of differing abilities as well. While serving a very old population, Kent learned “to include things for people to see as well as hear.” She strove to make her services an accessible and immersive experience for all.

According to Massardo, “When pastor Ruth is at the pulpit, she’s not just reading scripture and reading her message that she’s prepared. She’s giving the meaning behind the scripture.”

Both Kent and the members of the congregation have high hopes for the future. “We look forward to a wholeness in our church again,” says Massardo.

“I have a lot to learn about Saugerties,” notes Kent. “When you go into a new organization, you spend a lot of your time exploring and discerning. The congregation and I will be working together how to be church in this place in this time. We have a lot to learn together.”