All pastors, priests and rectors have a history outside of the churches they serve, but not many can claim a stint as a collegiate synchronized swimmer.
Not only did St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church rector Lou Parsons participate in collegiate synchronized swimming, she lettered in the sport.
"When I went to Sewanee for the first time, I was in the fourth class of women accepted at the university," she said. "Some of the staff and faculty were still struggling with the change, including the swim team coach, who wouldn't allow women on the swim team, so we formed our own synchronized swimming team."
For Parsons, her collegiate synchronized swimming was more than just a way to stay in shape. Being on the team actually helped shape her view of God, she said.
"Synchronized swimming is a different beast because it's done in a different medium," said Parsons. "In synchronized swimming you are always surrounded by the support of the water, and that's kind of how I feel about God as I sometimes do things that take me upside down, backwards and blindly."
Although she wanted to join the ministry directly out of college, at that time the Episcopal Church did not allow female rectors, Parsons said. Instead, she pursued a medical career until she and her husband permanently relocated to Tennessee in 1993. Then, in 1998, Parsons attended seminary.
"I am not a pioneer," she said. "I cannot make that claim. I didn't go to seminary until 20 years after the church allowed the ordination of women."
But Parsons admits that the community of female church leaders is relatively small in the Chattanooga area and she sometimes receives a negative reaction as a female rector.
"I remember my first encounter with a very strong negative reaction," she said. "I am trained as a chaplain and was at Erlanger hospital when I knocked on the door and entered a patient's room. I introduced myself as a chaplain and he sat straight up and looked at me and said, 'Women aren't supposed to preach.' I told him I wasn't there to preach, that I was there to talk to him about the love of God. He agreed and we had a wonderful conversation."
As a pastor, but especially as a female pastor, Parsons said it's important to remember that God works in a variety of ways and through a variety of people.
"It's important that I be aware that I might not be the person God is going to use to help that person," she said. "When someone is in crisis it's not the right time to make a point."
At her church, Parsons said she has never felt unwelcome as a female rector and is so thankful to have served at St. Francis for just over three years.
"This church has a great history of welcoming people however they come to us," she said. "I can't take credit for this but the church's mission statement is to 'Find the lost, heal the broken and celebrate God's love for us all.'"
That love is sometimes celebrated in uncommon ways, whether it's the annual pet blessing service where congregants bring their animals to church for a day of prayer, or the church's emphasis on outdoor worship.
The church property is home to a small retreat center, walking paths, a labyrinth and a scenic view of the Ooltewah area.
"The labyrinth and outdoor space is open to anyone," said Parsons. "There are so many ways to be with God in nature out here as well as in the building."
St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church is located at 7555 Ooltewah-Georgetown Road. For more information visit www.sfaec.org or call 238-7672.