It’s been 24 years (on January 25th) since the day I was ordained a priest. (Lady Father was written in 2011 so it has now been 33 years.) On February 23rd, I will celebrate the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. This is totally amazing to me for several reasons:
It means I’m old enough to have been doing the same thing for a quarter of a century!
Since I didn’t get started until the age of 38, this means I’m over 60!
Prior to this, the longest I ever did any one thing was 7 years as an employee of the City of Petersburg VA (but I still had 3 different positions), except for being a mother – 14 years.
It means that, when I add the 10 years I did active lay ministry in the church before being ordained, I’ve been doing this for more than half my life!
So now I feel old! But I also feel a lot of other things. First, I am thankful. It has been a remarkable journey and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve my Lord as a priest. I love being a priest. I love touching people with love and compassion and I love being the vehicle through which faithful people are touched by God through the sacraments. I absolutely love being used by God!
I once heard a testimony by a priest who was distressed because one of his most beloved parishioners was desperately ill. He shared his feelings with a missionary friend lamenting that he just didn’t know what to do. His friend looked at him in shock and said, “Well, you grab your Bible and you go over to that hospital and you pray for him to be healed.” The priest was even more dejected and he said, “I can’t heal him – I can’t heal anyone.” The missionary grabbed him by the hand, pulled him up from the chair and started for the door, chastising the priest, “Of course, you can’t heal him; only God can do that. You’re just the donkey he rides into the room on.” I’ve never forgotten that and I’m grateful that God has seen fit to ride into many a room on my back.
I also feel sad – sad that the past 24 years brought so much pain into my life, even while I was given so much joy. My sadness is not only for myself as I look back and realize how much of my ministry was consumed by controversy, conflict, and upheaval – not to mention confrontations which wasted so much of the time and energy of all concerned. My sadness is also for the churches which were robbed of so much by the pettiness and prejudice of a few people. I know that I was not blameless in some of the situations which arose in my parish experience; but I know in my heart that there were so many times when I was the brunt of collective and individual anger at the church aimed at me as a female daring to take the place of a man in the traditionally male priesthood.
I feel some anger at the waste, although that has dissipated to just mostly sadness, and I feel regret at the times I misread, miscalculated, and misplayed the many hands I was dealt as a priest. I also feel regret that I was unable to break through the wall of discrimination and suspicion that surrounded most females in ordained ministry in the 80’s and 90’s and even into the 21st century. I am still sad over what I have deemed to be my failure to bring in the masses to fill the churches I served. I had colleagues who enjoyed long and prosperous ministries – adding so many new members to whatever parish they served and I have to confess to being jealous of them and their success. The addition of new members in my parishes were always offset by the losses representing those who left because I was a woman.
All that being said, as I ponder 24 years of ministry, I feel proud – not the kind of proud that goes before the proverbial fall, but the kind of proud that acknowledges that I did my best to serve God as I was called to do, that I was faithful to that call and to my priestly vows, and that I made a difference in the lives of many people. I preached well and treated people as I know Jesus would have treated them, even in the face of crass discrimination and even hatred. I took the high road even when it was not fun and got me in trouble but I always treated people with love and kindness, no matter how they treated me.
So I feel what I would call pride in a job well done, tinged with sadness for a job which many times felt undone. I guess next year – my 25th anniversary – will bring another round of reflection and, hopefully, some celebration; for now, I am still happy to be God’s priest and grateful that God still uses me.
Susan Bowman, the “LadyFather” has written a book on her experiences in the ordained ministry. Aptly named “Lady Father,” it is slated for re-release in the near future. Subscribe now to receive a publication announcement and check out Susan’s Facebook page at http://facebook.com/ladyfather.