Twists and turns

The Rev. Brian McGreevy laughs with Porter-Gaud students and others at his ordination last month. Photo by Travis Dew Photography

Just a few weeks ago, Brian McGreevy donned a golden stole for the first time to give his inaugural sermon as a priest, standing before the historic St. Philip's Church congregation that was his own.

Freshly ordained at 57, he spoke of the Easter road that Jesus' disciples traveled to Emmaus while mourning the traumatic death of their messiah. A strange man joined them.

They didn't recognize the resurrected Christ right away.

"Sometimes things seem impossible that are possible," McGreevy explained.

This he knows.

From international attorney to bed-and-breakfast owner to ordained priest in the Diocese of South Carolina, McGreevy has led a life of serious career twists.

He says he has felt guided, through every doubt and pivot, by God's plan for him, one that has led him today to shepherd young lives at Porter-Gaud School as they, too, navigate futures so full of promise.

While growing up, faith "was always part of the water in our family," McGreevy recalls.

His parents were active at Holy Trinity, and he formed early bonds at St. Philip's, whose rector was his piano teacher.

McGreevy went on to study law at Emory University and landed a job at an international finance and insurance trade association. As he ascended the career ladder, his faith stayed close.

"I loved it and thought it important, but I also was very involved in my career, which was going very well," he says.

Which is an understatement. Over 15 years, he became the association's managing director of all sales outside the U.S., negotiating multimillion-dollar joint ventures all over the world. He stayed in fine hotels entertaining ambassadors and prominent business colleagues.

But he also had fallen in love, married and welcomed three small children into the world.

"A lot of people said I had the world's to-die-for job," he says. "But it also was very, very difficult family wise."

They lived in Atlanta's swanky Buckhead community. He drove a red BMW and traveled to places, including Paris and Milan, on an expense account.

"We had all of the badges of success. But at what cost to our family?" he asks.

Their children were ages 6, 4 and 2. He recalls one time when he'd promised his oldest, Whit, a game of soccer when he returned from yet another long trip, this one to Singapore. After 28 hours of traveling, he arrived home exhausted.

Whit met him at the door, bouncing with the thrill of Daddy's arrival. And he hadn't forgotten about the soccer.

A weary McGreevy insisted he needed rest first. Whit burst into tears: "You said you would play soccer with me when you got home - and you're home!"

McGreevy played soccer. Then he fell into bed, wrestling with conflicting thoughts.

"This cannot go on," he said.

A year or so later, while visiting Charleston, he and Whit approached St. Philip's altar rail when the boy began to cry. Later, McGreevy asked why.

"I just feel like God wants us to go to that church," Whit told him. It seemed a bit odd. They didn't even live in Charleston.

Then, after a business trip to Japan, McGreevy felt a sudden sense of God telling him to move back to the Holy City and open a bed and breakfast. He didn't tell his wife, Jane.

"I'm a very rational person," he explains. "And this was just too out there."

Yet, the next morning, he woke with the idea still weighing heavy in his thoughts. For five days, it kept on and on. Finally, he went to Jane: "We need to talk."

He and Jane drafted a list of 14 criteria the venture would have to fulfill. The B&B would need to be near the Battery and have 10 bedrooms. And cost less than $600,000.

Surely that would end the whole crazy idea.

McGreevy connected with Preston Hipp, owner of a local real estate company.

"There aren't many of those on the market at any given time," Hipp recalls saying.

His actual thought? "That will never happen in a million years."

However, when he looked, he found the perfect property on King Street a few blocks off the Battery. The house was big enough, and due to long neglect, within the McGreevys' budget.

"It was a miracle, if you ask me," Hipp says.

McGreevy left his six-figure job and returned home to renovate a timeworn 10-bedroom house built in the 1700s. He still recalls waking to hear St. Michael's bells outside the B&B's windows, his family all around.

"It was just fabulous," he says.

The couple welcomed their fourth child. They met people from around the world visiting Charleston. And the B&B was featured in In Style magazine and other press. "None of which we sought," he says.

He and Jane, who has a master's in education, also home-schooled their children, which left them with flexible time to travel, especially to his beloved France.

"The hand of God was upon us," he recalls.

However, five years later, that tug pulled again.

This time, he felt God calling him to Porter-Gaud, yet another left-field idea. He'd barely thought of the school since his own graduation.

Yet, the notion persisted.

"It's not as if it is a passing thought. It's on you as if you are wearing an extra garment and you cannot take it off," he says. "You cannot not think about it."

So, he applied to teach French (and didn't get the job). Surely that would halt the whole idea.

Then two years later, he was praying at St. Philip's one Sunday when he was interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. His first thought? How rude. Then he saw it was the Rev. J. Haden McCormick, rector of St. Philip's.

"I need to talk to you," McCormick said.

The rector had just spoken to then-Bishop Edward Salmon Jr. of the Diocese of South Carolina, which later separated from the national Episcopal Church.

They both felt McGreevy was being called to Porter-Gaud's new assistant chaplain post.

McGreevy sat there, stunned. He hadn't told anyone what he'd been feeling.

About 72 hours later, he arrived at Porter-Gaud.

Discernments to larger church roles tend to lead down one of two roads pretty early on: one leads to the priesthood, the other to permanent deacons, who often work at hospitals and nonprofits but aren't ordained.

When McGreevy was hired as assistant chaplain, he headed down the deacon path.

He loved it, loved teaching and loved counseling students, parents and faculty. A gregarious guy, the role suited his keen wit and huge intellect.

And the students responded, says Josie Griffith, a Porter-Gaud senior and vestry head.

"He's just so good when you have a spiritual problem. He's always there for you," Griffith says.

The Rev. Ken Wheldon became head chaplain when McGreevy was hired and has watched him grow since.

"Kids are drawn to adults who are genuinely interested in them, and Brian genuinely cares for them," Wheldon says. "He definitely has a brilliant mind but also is extremely personal and winsome."

Yet, as McGreevy nurtured bonds with students over 10 years at the school and became its head chaplain, he had to decline requests to officiate weddings for former students. He had to call the lower school chaplain or an outside priest to bless the Eucharist. He couldn't baptize.

A year ago, Bishop Mark Lawrence flat out asked him: "Why are you not a priest?"

McGreevy explained he simply couldn't go to seminary.

"I believe you know what you would learn in seminary," the bishop said.

There was another option, one very rarely used, in which McGreevy could pursue the priesthood by taking the same written exams and oral canonicals as seminarians.

If he could pass them? The bishop would welcome him.

Suffice it to say, he passed. At McGreevy's ordination last month, he entered the priesthood at St. Philip's surrounded by students, clergy, family, friends and a strong sense of the Holy Spirit's presence.

"I felt as if I was swimming in a sea of love," he recalls.

Today, he visits families in the hospital, teaches students, holds discipleship meetings, officiates weddings, holds services, you name it.

It all leaves him to marvel at this next life journey, and how he got here.

"The entire deal he just finds incredible," Griffith says. And, he adds, students can take McGreevy's example of faith as they pursue their own new life beginnings.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.