After a long career at the Central Intelligence Agency, Nancy chose to honor her faith by becoming a Unitarian Universalist Minister. She went from addressing international problems to ministering to the needs of individuals, as chaplain to the patients and staff of a cancer center in South Carolina.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. My parents helped shape my identity and contributed to engendering my strong social conscience. They set an example by putting their faith into concrete practice and choosing to be teachers rather than pursuing careers in more lucrative fields.
I went to Dartmouth College where I was in the second class that included women at this traditionally all-male school. This was a character-building experience, to say the least! I became a fervent advocate for equality for women. At Dartmouth, I was significantly influenced by an international relations class, where we read An Inquiry into the Human Prospect by Robert Heilbroner. The book described the three greatest problems facing the world: poverty, environmental deterioration, and the threat of nuclear destruction. This class inspired me to seek a career in the field of nuclear arms control.
I went on to earn master’s degrees in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. After graduate school, in 1980, at 25, I began my career at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a military analyst at a time when there were few women in that field. My job involved providing support to the US-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Weapons Talks and the nuclear inspection and verification process.
I had two children in close succession and took nine years off from the CIA to be a stay-at-home Mom. I decided that life was long and I didn’t need to try to do everything at once. I was fortunate to be able to save up money and work things out so that I could stay home with my children. I wanted to teach them the same values that my parents taught me. During that time, I did a lot of volunteer work serving as president of an ecumenical group of 25 churches, helping my church find a new pastor, and resettling a homeless family.
In 1993, at 38, I went back to the CIA, part-time at first, to allow me to balance work and family. My work at this time focused primarily on nuclear security concerns, which became paramount after 9/11. During the Iraq war, I became an Iraq military analyst assessing the Iraqi insurgency. I had the opportunity to brief President Bush and other policymakers. I was inducted into the CIA’s Senior Analytic Service in 2005 and served as an intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. I loved my work at the CIA and admired the expertise, dedication, and professionalism of my colleagues, but there was something else I wanted to do.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I had a deep awareness for many years that I wanted to become a minister. I have been interested in seeking answers to religious questions from a young age when I developed the belief that God is love, God dwells inside each person, and it is our responsibility to try to bring out the God within others. Participating in the church has always been a central part of my life.
Although it may seem strange to go from being a CIA analyst to becoming a minister, it actually all fits together. My new direction is not really a new direction but a continuation of a desire to want to make a positive difference in the world. I worked on a macro level to help solve international problems during my twenty-year career as an intelligence analyst at the CIA and I wanted to turn my attention to working on a micro-level with individuals.
I did have an “aha” moment several years ago. I was visiting my mother in my hometown and went with her on Sunday morning to our family’s church. This time the minister at the church was a woman. As I was sitting in the pew looking up at this minister I said to myself, “I can do that. This is what I want to do.” I had a very sure feeling that I wanted to become a minister.
What is your next act?
I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, serving as chaplain at the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. I provide pastoral care to both patients and staff. I am also the Affiliated Community Minister at The Unitarian Church in Charleston, where I preach periodically and participate in leading worship.
I was raised going to a small Methodist church and I was very active in my Presbyterian church as an adult for 22 years. I loved these churches and was very close to the people in them. When I moved and decided to become a minister, I chose to become a Unitarian Universalist (UU) primarily because of the way UUs respect diversity of belief and have a strong commitment to social justice.
Most of my time as a chaplain is focused on visiting patients while they are having their chemotherapy treatments in the infusion center. I have gotten to know many patients well, who come in repeatedly overtime for their treatments. Using active listening techniques, I open myself to hearing patient’s stories about how cancer is a humbling experience and what it is like to realize that you are not in control.
As an interfaith chaplain, I meet patients where they are, whatever their religious or nonreligious perspectives. Rather than being directive, I try simply to be a healing presence. I have also initiated a practice of periodically shadowing doctors and nurses in their clinics. In this way, I have been able to offer spiritual support to patients, especially when they have received difficult news.
I also minister to the staff. I have a yearly blessing of the hands ceremony to celebrate their work and a service of remembrance in memory of patients who have died. I check in with staff members informally to see how they are doing in the intense environment of the cancer center. We gather for prayer or meditation when facing particularly difficult times.
What do I love about my work? It is an honor and privilege to have patients share their stories with me. It is inspirational to see how people cope with challenging situations. I am reminded what a gift life is every day. I also love working with the nurses and medical staff at the Hollings Cancer Center. They are amazing people and truly care about the patients. They go above and beyond to meet patients’ physical and emotional needs and to make sure everything is the best that it can be.
My church is important to me because I believe the church is a community where people support each other, take time for spiritual renewal, and work together to achieve social justice. I believe that God works through people. There are many people at the Unitarian Church in Charleston working hard to make a positive difference in our community and our world.
Why did you choose this next act?
Becoming a minister was something that I had thought about doing for a long time. I wanted to study religion and have the opportunity to delve into religious questions such as, “If God is all-good and all-powerful, why do bad things happen to good people?” I love studying and learning new things. I considered possibly being a social worker or a psychologist but I wanted a spiritual dimension to my work.
I believe in the church as an institution for social change. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the church must be more than an “arch defender of the status quo” or an “irrelevant social club.” In Charleston, a faith-based group of 27 culturally, economically, and religiously diverse congregations called the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, works for justice in our local area. The important relationships forged by this group stood us in good stead in the aftermath of the tragic shooting at the Emanuel AME Church.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
It was hard to take the plunge because I enjoyed my previous job at the CIA and liked working with my colleagues there. I knew I would miss the challenge and excitement of participating in the policymaking process in Washington. But I was ready to move on.
Becoming a minister is a rewarding but long and arduous process. I first had to get my Master of Divinity Degree. I went to Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, full time for three years, starting in 2009, at age 54. I loved my professors there and learned a lot from my classmates who came from many diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. While half of my classmates were younger than me, the other half were older, so I did not feel out of place at all. I did chaplaincy internships in Baltimore, MD, and in Hanover, NH to complete my requirements for Clinical Pastoral Education, involving 400 hours of clinical and educational work.
I then did a yearlong full-time ministerial internship at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, MD. I had a wonderful mentor there and loved being a part of this amazing congregation. After that, I had to go before a nine-person interview panel of the Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Fellowship Committee, where I preached a sermon and answered questions taken from 16 different areas of ministry. I was ordained and entered a preliminary fellowship as a minister in 2013. If all goes well, I will receive final fellowship in 2017, after turning in evaluations from my work supervisor, a church evaluative committee, and my own self-evaluation every year for three years.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband, Vin, was the one who really encouraged me to follow my dream of going into the ministry. We met at our 30th class reunion at Dartmouth College in 2007 after I had been divorced for about five years. The night we met he asked me what I would do with my career if I could do anything I wanted. I said I wanted to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. He said why don’t you do it? So I did.
My children, two girls who are now 29 and 31, were very supportive. They know that church has always been important to me. My friends were not surprised either given my longtime interest in religion. My colleagues at the CIA joked that I was leaving for divinity school in order to achieve “the ultimate top secret clearances.”
My husband, the five daughters that we have between us, many family members, and friends all came to celebrate my ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister in May 2013 in a joyful ceremony at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church.
What challenges did you encounter?
The challenges have been primarily geographic. My husband and I were living outside Baltimore when I decided to go to divinity school. It was a long drive down interstate 95 and around the Washington Beltway to classes at Wesley Seminary, especially during rush hour. I was very fortunate to get an internship at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, MD, but this also involved driving over an hour, often after late night committee meetings.
The biggest geographic challenge came when we moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where my husband was recruited to be chairman of the Department of Orthopedics at the Medical University of South Carolina. Unitarian Universalist churches are few and far between in the south. Fortunately, I was able to work out a good arrangement, combining ministry as a hospital chaplain with parish work. Reverend Danny Reed, minister of the Unitarian Church in Charleston, has been very generous in encouraging my participation in preaching, leading part of the worship service once a month, teaching classes, and facilitating a support group for those dealing with serious illness.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I never thought about giving up. My journey and the process of becoming a minister were both fascinating and rewarding. When I started my job as a chaplain, it was a bit of a challenge because I had to develop a chaplaincy program for the first time in the outpatient cancer center; chaplains previously had just served primarily in the inpatient hospital. The leadership of the Hollings Cancer Center was committed to establishing a chaplaincy program, however. They supported my initiatives for working with the staff and patients, were helpful in meeting with me to discuss my plans, and were open to my suggestions.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have learned that many good things in life do not necessarily come from rational planning, although planning is important. I have learned to try to be open to the spirit and take things on faith. Being open to the spirit can lead in new directions never imagined before. I believe that tuning in to the spirit can help each of us in fulfilling our function and creating purpose in our lives. This requires making an effort to have a certain optimism, trust, and confidence in the universe and in forces beyond our control.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I would say, don’t be afraid to follow your dream. And you don’t have to do everything all at once. Life allows for many different phases: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) I have been through several phases—CIA analyst, stay-at-home mom, minister—and probably have another phase to go.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
Becoming a minister is a long row to hoe, requiring persistence and dedication. You have to be committed and willing to fulfill many requirements. Seminary is, however, an amazing opportunity to study and think about deep religious questions. Ministry is a fulfilling vocation. It is rewarding to walk with people through the joys and sorrows of their lives.
What resources do you recommend?
A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century by John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker
When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner
The Art of being a Healing Presence by James E. Miller and Susan C. Cutshall
Master of Divinity Program – Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC
Clinical Pastoral Education Program – Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, Hanover, NH
What’s next for you?
For my next, next act, in my old age, perhaps I will be a writer and write about all of my experiences.
Contact Reverend Nancy Bird Pellegrini at firstname.lastname@example.org