Three Things….

A Series for Spiritual Development 
by The Rev. Rowena Mae MacGregor

THREE THINGS…. Three reflections on the anniversary of my ordination

On Friday, December 3, I celebrated my 18th anniversary of ordained life. I came to ministry later in life and as a third career. I started out owning a small graphic design business and gradually a print shop. As a second career I worked as a case manager for the chronically mentally ill and then as an in-home child abuse prevention counselor, later the program manager. My three years of theological education at Sewanee (The School of Theology at the University of the South) with my young family were some of the sweetest years of my life. My recent trip back for Alumni Homecoming was a delightful trip down memory lane. I was ordained to the diaconate in July of 2003 in Orlando, FL, in my then home diocese, and to the priesthood six months later in Hilton Head, SC. Here are but a few reflections on my experience of ordained life.

1)  Why was I called to this? While I come from a family of priests, with a bishop back there in the late 1800’s, I was the first woman to be ordained to the priesthood. For this reason and others, I never envisioned my path replicating that of my relatives, so in my mind, what lay before me after seminary was a blank slate. In other words, I had no preconceived fantasies about the priesthood. I was just curious; I wondered where the trail would lead and was open to the process of that leading. There is always a reason to be led to a particular place at a particular time but it isn’t often discerned until one is in the midst of it; it is revealed when the time is right. 
I had worked without experiencing gender discrimination for nearly two decades in the secular world before I became a priest and it honestly never occured to me that it would be an issue. Ignorance is bliss… until one is no longer ignorant. My time in SC was a rude awakening. Seminary had been like living in a beautiful dream and landing in a diocese that I experienced as unfriendly to female clergy was like being shaken awake to an unpleasant reality. As one of my male colleagues, who was himself a gay priest, and knew a thing or two about discrimination in the church, said to me early on: “I feel badly for women in the priesthood. The truth is you’ll have to work twice as hard as a man in the same position; always proving your worth. And you’ll be judged and criticized for things no man would ever be.” I found this to be true; sometimes in a very subtle ways and sometimes in more obvious ways. As time went on I began to chronically overfunction in my role to gain approval, which of course would never be granted, and experienced failing health and broken relationships. After a long while and a lot of pain, I found the antitote simple: Be true to God’s leading and faithful to the Canons and that is enough. My experiences have made me more aware and sensitive to the subtle but real discrimination experienced by those who work outside of the perceived “norm” and guarded biases. Perhaps that is why I am so drawn to the work of Becoming Beloved Community; it gives me a place to say legitimately: Let’s clean up our house. In a wider, more general sense, it is one of the revealings to the question: Why was I called to this?
2) 25% of ordained clergy leave the ministry in the first 5 years. Ordained life is not for the faint of heart. I came very close to being part of the 25%. But out of a time of crisis came new training for transitional ministry certification and a trip to Israel for pastoral renewal. I stayed at the work and learned a lot about how to weather hard times, what to take lightly and what to take seriously. In many ways I grew up. I learned to take prayer and meditation seriously. I learned to take study seriously. I learned to take self-care seriously. I learned to take continuing education and coaching seriously. I learned to take the value of collegial relationships seriously. I learned to let go of the trappings of religious life. I am still learning; daily I am learning what to take seriously and what to let go of. The daily practice of attending to the foundational practices of the spiritual life and the letting go of both secular and spiritual materialism has made me a better pastor, teacher and critical thinker. Ordained life has given me a clearer understanding that the crises we face here on the physical plane are doorways by which we enter into the Kingdom. Each challenge is simply another opportunity for growth and an invitation to explore things yet unknown. 

3) Transformation is the whole point. I’ve been preaching now for 20 years – counting the years of field ed in seminary. It took writing a lot of sermons and a lot of hours of study and a lot of continuing education to get to this one central truth: Transformation is the whole point. I remember so clearly hearing a sermon given by my then bishop, Bob Gepert, (who would years later become and remains my clergy coach) during a pastoral visit to my then parish of St. James many years ago, that refocused my inner spiritual compass. I heard him talk about transformation – that the whole point of the gospels, all the teachings of Jesus, the work of the cross and the resurrection – it was all for the purpose of our transformation; to the end that we become Christ-like by way of our devotion to living a Christ-centered life. It took me a while to begin to grasp this concept. A long while, and I’m still grasping. It sounds simple and plainly obvious, I know. But I’ve found that, in fact, it’s not simple, or plainly obvious, for most people. The institutional church makes religious life pretty complicated a lot of the time. But the ultimate lesson of Jesus’s teachings is very simple: We must die in order to be born. We tend to want to be born without dying. But that’s not how it works. We fear being transformed because whoever gains their life must first lose it. When I was ordained I did not realize it was a kind of dying, the giving up of a different kind of life. Nearly 20 years later, I have some clarity about that. The question, Why was I called to this? is actually a declaration of dying to be born to something. It is a statement of surrender. It is a statement of transformation. It is the question that begins the dying process. It is a response to God’s beckoning call to follow in the path set before us. It is the first question of the day of every faithful Christian.