Our interview with Susie Shellenberger

Antarctica is one of Susie Shellenberger’s favorite continents. (Photo by Rita Willaert used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

By Ronna Fisher

Susie Shellenberger is a variety of things: editor, speaker, writer and more. She spoke in chapel on March 14. Learn more about her in our interview with her.

What were you like in college? What was your major?

My major was speech communications with a minors in education, English and creative writing. I enjoyed being involved in campus activities—playing four years of varsity tennis, student government and being the first elected female as student body president.

How did you get into publishing or involved with Focus on the Family, especially from being a youth pastor and drama teacher?

I was a youth pastor for 8 years and then entered the public school system to teach high school speech, English, drama and creative writing. I’d fill my summers by speaking at youth camps.

One weekend between camps, I flew home and sorted through my mail and noticed a Focus on the Family magazine in my stack. I’d never seen this publication before. I thumbed through it and noticed an announcement saying they were going to start two new magazines—one for teen guys and one for teen girls and were looking for a male editor and a female editor.

So I simply sent in my resume and a letter. I’d written one book by that time and several published articles, Sunday School curriculum, etc. They flew me out for an interview in Southern California. Fortunately, for me, they were searching for someone with youth ministry experience who could also write. They felt it would be much easier to teach someone with a youth pastor’s heart how to edit than to try and teach a journalist how to have a passion for teens. Fortunately, I had both: I’d been a youth pastor and was currently teaching high school students and was passionate about youth ministry—traveling several weekends a year to speak at youth events—but also had some writing and publishing experience.

A week later, they offered me the job. I took three weeks to pray through on it, and resigned my teaching job and moved to CA and created Brio magazine for teen girls. A year and a half later, Focus announced we were moving to Colorado Springs. I served as editor for nearly two decades.

Have you always liked writing? Or public speaking? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Not all speakers can write. Not all writers are speakers. I happen to love both. I wrote my first “book” in fifth grade. We had to read a book and do an oral report on it. After doing that, I decided I wanted to create my own story, and the teacher allowed me to do so and give an oral report on it. And that was the birth of my love for the written word.

What advice would you give for people who want to write, get into publishing or public speaking but don’t know where to start?

Advice for public speaking: Get all the experience you can right now right where you are. Teach Sunday school or a Bible study or start a debate club. Volunteer when you hear of a group who’s looking for a speaker. Take as many speech classes as you can, and become very comfortable thinking on your feet. Consider joining a Toastmaster’s group.

For writing: Take your English classes seriously. Take as many creative writing and journalism classes as you can. Journalism and creative writing are really different. Journalism focuses more on the facts, whereas creative writing allows you the freedom of putting yourself into your writing—letting your feelings seep through in your writing. This would be editorializing in journalism. A good blogger is usually a good creative writing. A good journalist focuses on the facts and the big five: who, what, when, where, why.

I’ve read that you’ve been on every continent? Is this true? What is your favorite place you have ever travelled to?

Yes, I’ve traveled to every continent. My favorites are Africa and Antarctica. There’s something about Africa that’s simply piercing. Once you’ve been, you have to go back. You’re drawn to the beauty, the darkness, the mystique about the continent. And Antarctica? There’s nothing better than being surrounded by literally hundreds of thousands of squawking penguins and kayaking around icebergs. It’s magnificent. It’s like being on another planet.

You write a lot about mother-daughter relationships. Where do you get your information or insights?

When working with Brio magazine I’d get around 1,000 letters and emails a month from teen girls. They were telling me—and asking me—things that would have been great conversations with their moms. So I began writing about it. For a teen girl, every minute can be a different crisis. It can be overwhelming. I really believe every teen girl ought to have someone with whom she can say or ask anything. Nothing’s too risky, nothing’s too sensitive, nothing’s too “dirty”—and ideally that someone should be her mom. But when a girl can’t talk with her mom, she’s going to find another female she trusts. And thousands of teen girls feel they “know” me. Therefore, they trust me.

So I’m getting the questions their moms should be answering. I love having these dialogues with girls, but at the same time I don’t want to take away an opportunity for a girl and her mom to bond. So I always encourage girls to talk with their mom after I answer their questions. And then I started writing books for moms so I could help them draw out of their daughters what they were dying to talk about. Sadly, many girls don’t talk with their moms, because at one time when they did dare to share something confidential, the mom told her prayer group or Bible study or close group of friends. So when I’m writing or talking with moms, I really stress that what your daughter does share with you should stay between the two of you. Breaking her confidence is a recipe for disaster, and she’ll look for someone else to talk with.

The paper/magazine industry is struggling because of the internet and e-readers. What helped you make a decision to start a new magazine after Brio […]?

Brio doesn’t exist anymore. It was a paper magazine for nearly two decades—and also online—but Focus stopped publishing teen magazines in January 2009 and dismissed our staff due to the economy. I felt that teen girls weren’t ready to give up an actual paper magazine yet.

For a teen girl, a magazine is more than a magazine—it’s a relationship. It’s all about something they can smell, touch, look at, stuff in their backpack, pull out, share with a friend, etc. They feel they know the staff. It’s all relationship. When you read a magazine online a lot of the relationship is gone. You can’t actually touch it or smell it, etc. And many moms don’t want their daughters online more than they already are. So I feel the need for a teen girls’ magazine still exists.

So when Focus discontinued Brio, I launched a new magazine with a different publisher. They insisted we call it SUSIE. I didn’t want that, but they explained that my name had actually become a brand, and that it served as familiarity for Christian teen girls. So we launched in May 2009 as SUSIE in print and online. Almost four years later, I felt it was safe to now transition to a new name that really explains us better. So in January of 2013, we switched to SISTERHOOD. This is who we are—a group of Christian teen girls around the world who want to raise the standard; girls who believe in and practice purity; girls who know they’re worth waiting for. We’re the only paper magazine for Christian teen girls in the world. We’re also online, but we’re also an actual paper magazine.

How did you come to speak at SNU? What brought you here? 

Bethany is my hometown; I grew up here. My dad, Elmer B. Shellenberger, chaired the Business division for years. I moved back to Bethany last summer, so I actually live here now. Blair Spindle sent me an email and asked me to speak. I was honored to do it. I always love speaking on our Nazarene campuses. I’ve done revivals at ONU and TNU and have spoken at all the others.

From traveling with Rebecca St. James to speaking on Fox News, editing a magazine to leading mission trips, you have done an enormous variety of things. Is there anything you have done where you have surprised even yourself?

The past 16 years, I’ve taken more than 6,000 students on international mission trips. We use college students at LITS (Leaders In Training), and it’s always an amazing trip with miracles to talk about later. This summer we’re going to Peru. If you’d like to join us, go to: www.neverthesamemissions.com. God always surprises me on these trips! He’s so faithful!

What do you think?