The Reverend Patricia Owen grew up a country girl playing in the woods and fishing in south- central Virginia.
As a teen, she felt a connection to theology and spirituality, though her local Baptist church didn't offer answers to her many questions. At age 15, she told her mom she wanted to become a preacher.
In 1985, after a brief time at Virginia Tech University, Owen joined the Air Force. She served in active duty for nine years; then transferred to the National Guard. Through the years, Owen kept quiet about identifying as a lesbian, a part of herself that also separated her from the traditional Christian church. In 2008, she retired from the military.
This year, Owen began a new career, as an ordained minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church. In September, she took on the role of settled minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tampa, a position previously held by the Rev. Sara Zimmerman and interim pastor Doak Mansfield.
Owen and her partner of eight years, Christina Arnold, whom she married in June, settled in Tampa with their three 18-year-old cats.
I spoke to Owen, 50, about her personal journey and the new job.
What led you to pursue UU ministry at this point in your life?
I found my first UU church in 2003 and knew that I was at home. It wasn't long before the little voice calling me to ministry gave me a second ring. In 2006, my congregation in Richmond, Va., called a new minister who would become my mentor in the journey to ministry. I also met my partner in that congregation. Without the support and love of those two and many others, I wouldn't be here. I went back to school to finish my bachelor's in 2010 and immediately started work on my master's of divinity at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.
What role did your faith play during your time in the Air Force? How did your military experiences shape your religious views?
I was un-churched during most of my military career. I realized that the church that I was raised in didn't really have a place for me and that journey alone can be heartbreaking. I realized after my enlistment that I was a lesbian and continued to serve under secrecy for my entire career. My faith for the most part was the faith that I could survive and the deep, unshakable belief that I was worthy of love, of respect and of a future.
My military career has shaped several things for me. I wanted nothing more than to serve my country and did so with the knowledge that I could have been kicked out because of the ideology of homophobia. Living that gave me an understanding of living as the other, the unwanted, the mistrusted and the feared. Any time we create the other we operate out of fear, and we can do better. Religion means to bind together and that is the work we should be doing, not creating more distance from one another. As a leader, I am collaborative. I'm not in the habit of barking orders. Leadership as an invitation to others to step into their potential is my style and that was honed in the military.
And our military does more humanitarian work than most people are aware — being present in times of disaster, helping those in need, being hands, feet and shoulders when people are weary. In that sense, I've still got my combat boots on. Each of us is called to serve. We must answer as best we can. Or not.
Why did the Tampa position interest you?
This congregation appealed to me for several reasons. They are resilient. They are grounded in covenant and a generosity of spirit. They are capable of expressing great joy and of addressing the deep need we have to build a more equitable and just world.
What was the selection process?
The short version is that a search committee of eight members elected by the congregation interviewed me via Skype, then invited me to Tampa to meet with them in February. In April, they invited me to be their candidate for ministry. I spent a week with the congregation which culminated in a congregational vote that affirmed their calling me as settled minister.
What will you bring to the position and the church?
I hope to bring energy.
What does UU mean to you?
Unitarian Universalism is my community of salvation. People loved me for who I was and am, and that love moved me into ministry. Unitarian Universalism is not a tradition that dictates to me what it is I should believe. It is, at its heart, an invitation to see theology, as Richard S. Gilbert says, not to become divine, but to become more human.
Who do you think the tradition attracts and why?
Seekers. … This is not a static faith. It is attractive to those who seek answers and know that answers will lead to more questions. It also attracts those who have a sense of the inequity we experience in the world. I remember being a kid in my little church and a new, young minister was hired. He invited the African American church up the road to worship with us one Sunday morning. That new, young minister didn't last long. Sadly we don't have to look far to see a continuation of inequality, mistrust, suspicion and fear in our world. I believe people who want to learn, grow and help dismantle centuries of systemic inequality are looking for Unitarian Universalism. And we are waiting for them.
What are your hopes for the Tampa UU in years to come?
That together we be co-creators in a wonderful future.
What changes do you want to make?
At my request, my office was painted a different color. That is quite enough for now.
What do you like most about Tampa?
The chances of me having to cancel Sunday services due to snow are remarkably slim. Seriously, I'm loving it here. People are really friendly. There is culture and growth. We love sports and there is plenty of that. We love being outdoors. We can't wait to kayak. Did I mention the snow that doesn't happen?
For more information, visit uutampa.org.
Contact Sarah Whitman at [email protected]