St Matthew-in-the-City's first female vicar Reverend Dr Helen Jacobi lets us into her world

Reverend Dr Helen Jacobi, 57, tells the Weekly that her work is similar to running a big enterprise - and that she's a 'normal person', like everybody else.

By Fleur Guthrie
"One of the great things about my job is that it's completely varied.
One minute I'm talking with someone who's sleeping on the street and the next I'll have a meeting with a CEO, or be taking communion to older parishioners at home who can no longer physically come to church.
Being 'called' to this work has given me a window into people's lives, and that is a real privilege.
Church has always been a normal part of my world.
I grew up in Lower Hutt in a family that went to church every Sunday and were very involved in the parish. I was surrounded by strong, vibrant clergy – people who made faith a real living thing, connecting it to the world and making a difference in people's lives, and who were an important part of why I ended up in the church myself.
At 19 years old, which sounds a bit crazy now, I went to see my vicar to tell him I wanted to explore a call to the ministry.
He said, 'That's absolutely fabulous, but finish university, get married (I was already engaged) start your life off and then we'll talk again.'
That was a really sensible answer, because I was far too young!
So I did a degree in languages, then a diploma in social work before starting the more formal process of selection for ordained ministry – including a degree in theology.
A lot of clergy joke that we do all this study on theology and church history and yet end up worrying about buildings and finance. It's like running a big enterprise.
When I was first ordained in 1991, I was seven months' pregnant with my eldest daughter, which was unusual in those days but is perfectly common now.
Sometimes I forget that other more conservative churches don't have women in leadership, so tourists come to St Matthew's and see me up the front and think it's amazing because they're not used to it.
Before this role, I was the first woman to become dean of Waiapu Cathedral in Napier, where I served for nine years.
As dean, you're part of the senior leadership of the institution, so you're a little bit more restrained with what you can say.
Whereas, being the vicar of St Matthew's, I can say what I like!
I once went to a week-long workshop in strategic leadership in which nobody was allowed to tell the other participants what it was that they did until the end of the course. And that was so liberating for me.
Because the minute you tell people you're a priest they will either apologise for swearing, apologise for not attending church, or start worrying about what you're going to think of them.
We worked in teams of five on a project we were given.
Our particular one was doing branding work for Mercy Hospice and it became clear within the group that I knew something about hospices.
At dinner before our final day, we decided to do a guessing game about what each other did. I was the only woman in the group and I asked to go last.
We gradually went around everybody – all significant business leaders – until they questioned me. Was I a social worker? Was I a hospital manager? And then finally one of them goes, 'Oh, you don't work for the church, do you?'
And the first words out of (now mayor of Tauranga) Tenby Powell's mouth were, 'Oh, gosh, I'm just thinking of all the things I've said this week!' And I replied, 'Welcome to my life!'
People make assumptions on what they're going to think about me. And it's quite a burden. I'm a normal person like everybody else.
Yes, I even swear! I enjoy fashion, good food and wine...
Helen and husband Stephen (right) with their family on daughter Hannah's wedding day last year.
I met my husband Stephen at university. We were both studying French and were in a French play in which he was the lead and I was in the chorus.
He became a diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and we had two overseas postings.
I always say I followed him to Paris and Ottawa and he followed me to Napier. A fair exchange!
A great influence in my life has been my mother, who had polio as a child but showed determination to lead a normal life, despite being on crutches. She's now 86 and is an extraordinary woman who was recognised with a QSO in 1996.
Not only did she have a disability, she worked and held enormous roles in community leadership at a time when women mostly stayed at home.
I remember when I was 12, my father sitting me and my sister down before going on holiday to Australia.
He said, 'Now, we're only able to do this because your mother worked to pay for it.' He was quite a feminist and so proud of her and wanted us to realise her contribution.
Being made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit was astounding and very humbling.
When the letter came in the mail, I initially thought, 'Oh, I've been invited to a function at Government House. How lovely!' When I opened it up, you could have knocked me over with a feather.
The other part of the award was for my work on the board of the Touch Compass Dance Trust, one of New Zealand's leading inclusive arts organisations for performers with disabilities.
When you see dancers perform from a wheelchair, or who have Down's Syndrome, and the way they create a piece of theatre just as well as anyone else, it changes people's mindsets. And of course a non-profit organisation works in many ways like a church – big visions but never enough money or staff."
Do you relate to The Vicar of Dibley TV show?
Oh yes! When I was newly ordained, I attended a women's clergy conference. One evening they put a couple of episodes on and we were laughing so loud you couldn't hear the dialogue playing. There was so much that rang true for us!
The most confronting thing every day is…
The homelessness in Auckland. It's terrible that society treats it as "normal", when we should be more outraged about it.
Plans for life after St Matthew's?
I doubt another role could be as much fun.

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