The Church of Rowing: moving forward, facing backwards

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.

Colossians 3:12-14

The Church of Rowing is what some people call our sport. I joined the competitive women’s crew at the Marin Rowing Association in 1990 and have been out on the waters of the San Francisco Bay ever since. My team has seen me through a transition out of corporate life, into seminary, through ordination, through relationships, in and out of parishes, and through the twists and turns of an ordinary life. 

The quotation from Colossians says something about the all-around temperament required of a rower. All but being “content with second place”; my team is always after gold!

I have come to say that rowing saves me every day; it heals me, strengthens me, gives me discipline and focus, and provides me with a community outside the church. I am the unofficial chaplain at the boathouse, where I am often called “Rev.” At the same time, I am simply a member of the team with none of the privileges that come with wearing the collar. We have to step on the scale in front of each other and divulge our “erg score” (a test of a rower’s strength) publicly and be “seat raced” against each other: all humbling and helpful activities. The entire endeavor is a welcome complement and contrast to my religious and church vocations. The community and the sport feed me.

I have come to believe in the absolute necessity of a passion outside the church to balance the demands of ministry. Rowing provides an intense focus; we try and find “swing,” that perfect moment when extreme effort feels easy and the boat runs out under us. We spend most of our practice time trying to work with each other to blend, match, and work as one. When we fight each other, the row doesn’t go very well. When we give in to the greater goal, we sometimes feel as though we are flying. There are deep spiritual lessons to be learned on the water — about leading, about following, about control, about winning, and losing — and I try to pay attention to them. And sometimes, I just row. 

I love waking up in the sunrise of God’s creation, inviting my body to be alive to the day’s possibilities. I love to compete, help my team go faster, and support women who have pioneered vigorous athleticism into their seventies and beyond. I love the routine, regularity, and dependability of my sport. I cherish the group of diverse, strong, committed women.
Rowers move forward facing backwards, which demands absolute trust in the one steering and directing. This surely sounds familiar to religious and spiritual people of all kinds. Rowing for me is a spiritual and physical practice of the most satisfying order.


Learn to Row workshops coming up. Click here for registration.
The national body overseeing rowing in the U.S.
Where “gym rats” can find “the erg.”
The Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston ... which almost always conflicts with DioCal Diocesan Convention.