Can We Talk?

Can we talk?  The well-known catch phrase coined by Joan Rivers (not one of my favorites but I do like the phrase enough to ignore where it comes from) that means something on the order of “I have something on my mind.”

Here’s what’s on my mind – every so often I “wax nostalgic” and my mind spins down memory lane to check out all the stops along the way. I’m not sure why – I don’t like to dwell on things and I try hard to let go of the bad stuff and concentrate on the good stuff – but I still do it occasionally. It’s usually triggered by a current event or by an object with memories attached, which is the culprit this time.

I moved last Saturday – downsizing from a rather roomy 2 bedroom apartment with a sun room, a large living room, 2 bathrooms, a dining room, and a large kitchen to a 1-bedroom apartment with a large living room, but no dining room, a bath and a half, a tee-niney kitchen, and a bedroom about half the size of my former digs. So, as you can imagine, I spent the last month or so cleaning out, sorting, discarding, and – yes – pondering the past as it appeared from closets, boxes, and shelves.

When you read my book, you will understand why pondering the past is not particularly pleasant for me. In 20 years of ministry, I have been rejected, patronized, ignored, yelled at, accused, and – worst of all – betrayed by people I thought were my friends. In the ordination process, I faced blatant discrimination by men and women alike, lay and clergy, even Bishops and then as I innocently launched into parish ministry, I discovered that most church folks, even those who say they think women make fine priests and they have no problem with women being ordained, harbor an insidious bias that is both hurtful and destructive to all parties.

I survived. I didn’t always feel like surviving and I didn’t always think I was doing it very well, but when I look back, I can honestly say – “I survived the best I could.” What I mean is that I met discrimination and prejudice head-on and I responded every time with understanding and compassion – what I call “taking the high road.” I figured early on that if I met those negative attitudes with another negative attitude, I would just be proving the critics right. I would just be showing them and the rest of the world that women are indeed too emotional to be spiritual leaders, too flighty to be good managers, and too focused on the cause of women in the ministry to pay attention to the needs of a parish.

I worked very hard at controlling my unattractive and unproductive emotions, at being responsible, organized, and effective at the administrative duties that I quite frankly despised and didn’t really do too well, and at making the “main thing” the “main thing.” When I first arrived in Albany, New York – the first woman to be the Rector of a parish in the Diocese of Albany, I told our then Bishop, David Ball, that he would never find me on the steps of the capitol with a placard and he would never hear of me preaching anything from my pulpit but Jesus and him crucified. I made it clear that I was not a “cause fighter” and that I was a priest – not a woman priest and nothing more than any other priest in the church and I did not intend to change anyone’s mind about women’s ordination.

I believe that my practice of “just being the best priest I could be” made more of a difference in the lives of people I encountered with my “priest hat” on than any argument I could have presented to them. Time after time, in parishes all over Southeastern Virginia and then in Albany, New York, I was greeted after a service by a man or a woman grabbing my hand and saying something like, “I didn’t think women should be ordained until I met you” or “I started not to come today but I’m glad I did – you’re OK in my book.”

Did I look like this?
Did I look like this?

Besides all those noble reasons, I found myself feeling compassion for these critics out of my own discomfort. It was easily 2, maybe 3, years before I could look at myself in the mirror before a service without thinking, “How strange!” I had to honestly admit my own reservations about women being priests, which I had to quash before entering the process and still I felt that “strange” little twist for a long time. It made me much more patient with those slower than I to take that leap.

If you’re a woman in the ordained ministry, in the process of ordination, in seminary, or just living out your ministry in non-traditional ways, you have most likely faced some of the same situations and issues I have and I would love to hear from you. I can commiserate, offer consolation and even advice if you want it, and I will assure you that you too will survive. I did it and so can you.

So, can we talk?

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    Susan Bowman, is an ordained Episcopal Priest, a Grandmother, and a Professional Writer. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986 and has a story to tell that will speak to all women who are functioning in a traditionally male role.  She has written a book about her experiences of discrimination within the church’s ordination process and in the parishes she served. It is now available on Fill out the form below to enter your contact information.

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