By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
All Christians, by virtue of their baptismal vows, are called to be ministers in some way.A doctor from Tupelo and a financial adviser from Starkville are living out that call as a kind of second career.
Lynn Phillips-Gaines of Starkville and Dr. Billy Walton of Tupelo are in formation to become deacons in the Episcopal Church, a role in which they’ll serve as liaisons between the worshipping community and the broader world.
As would-be deacons, Phillips-Gaines and Walton join a group of only five individuals throughout the state who are preparing for a similar ministry.
Among other things, the two will devote themselves to identifying opportunities for the church to engage in community building, and they’ll try to keep the needs of society always before their fellow worshipers.
“I once heard it described this way,” said Phillips-Gaines, a member of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection. “The deacon is like the door to the church. The deacon urges the congregation to get out into the world, and the deacon invites the world in.”
For the time being – and most likely, even after they’re ordained – Walton and Phillips-Gaines will continue working in their careers. That’s fine, though, because they see their secular work segueing nicely into their pastoral roles.
When most Southerners hear the term deacon they think of the office as it’s exercised in the Southern Baptist and some other Protestant denominations. In that role, the deacon is an elder of the congregation, one who, by virtue of character or long-standing membership, has been selected from among the laity to serve in a leadership role.
In the Episcopal Church the office of deacon is considered equal with, albeit different from, other ordained clergy, even though that’s sometimes misunderstood since priests first are ordained deacons before being ordained as priests.
Theologically, one might see the office as an affirmation that everybody – not just senior pastors, or rectors in the Episcopal lexicon, are priests – ministers in some way.
For Walton, the decision to become a deacon wasn’t, as he put it, a “Damascus road experience.” Rather, it grew out of a sense of spiritual obligation.
“I’ve always felt compelled to deepen my faith, to grow into a more mature understanding of it, a kind of ownership of the message, and I believe that has led me into service,” said the family doctor who’s practiced medicine in Tupelo since 1991.
Following his intellectual curiosity, six years ago Walton started taking Education for Ministry classes, which are designed to prepare laity to serve around the parish.
Those courses whetted Walton’s whistle, so he took some correspondence courses in theology from Heythrop College in London. Soon he was having conversations with spiritual advisers about possibly becoming a deacon.
One thing led to another and the physician was eventually nominated by a parish discernment committee at All Saints’ to start the formation process toward ordination.
With the stamp of approval from his local priest, the Rev. Paul Stephens, and his bishop, the Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray III, Walton embarked on a new chapter in his life.
Like Walton, Phillips-Gaines had reached a comfortable place in her career. She was running a financial consulting firm with $100 million under management, but her volunteer work, with organizations like the Humane Society and Oktibbeha County NAACP, made her step back and wonder if life held something more.
Three years ago the entrepreneur was ready to cut her work hours back and completely immerse herself in theological education, but the economic gods had other things in mind.
“I was literally mourning with my clients,” said Phillips-Gaines, describing the unpleasant conversations that ensued as the recession began tightening its stranglehold on the county.
As a result she’s had to take things a little slower.
Like Walton, Phillips-Gaines took the Education for Ministry classes, then some correspondence courses through Oxford University’s Wadham College. She followed a path similar to Walton’s, and she was admitted to the diaconate program in 2008.
In her correspondence with Bishop Gray, Phillips-Gaines has noted a continuing theme.
“He’s never once said that suffering is going to go away,” she said, smiling, relating how the bishop offered her sound advice as the financial world seemed to be crumbling.
“I just hope I don’t have to learn in exactly that way, again.”
Serving the poor
Perhaps the thing Walton likes best about the Episcopal Church, to which he converted in recent years, is its broad umbrella of acceptance, and its acknowledgment that ministry takes place in many places and forms.
“The concept of grace, and the knowledge that we’re here to serve and not to judge is something the Episcopal Church seems to understand,” he said. In addition to serving on the board of directors of the Mississippi Children’s Home Society and Faith Haven in Tupelo, Walton is the medical director at the Good Samaritan Free Clinic in Tupelo.
“It’s impossible to be a doctor and not engage in some form of pastoral care,” said Walton. “I consider myself to be in the human care business.”
After he completes his work in the Clinical Pastoral Education Program, and two more years of diaconate classes for which he’ll drive every other weekend to Jackson, he might serve as a hospital chaplain.
Phillips-Gaines is near the end of her formation process, and as part of her preparation, this summer she’s serving part-time at All Saints’. A couple of days each week she helps where she’s needed, like offering pastoral care to church and community members and planning for and assisting at Sunday liturgy.
“She’s working with us to see how another congregation handles its business, how it proclaims the gospel,” said Stephens.
That the Episcopal Church is largely composed of white, middle-class people isn’t lost on Phillips-Gaines, who is all too familiar with the ivory tower opinions many Americans have of the financial industry.
“My call is to serve the marginalized,” she said. “I’m learning things that as a middle-class white woman have been invisible to me, like how overcrowded the homes of the poor are, and how little privacy they have. There’s a big difference in how truly poor people view the world.”
She’s scheduled to complete her training next year.
Although Phillips-Gaines is farther along in her formation process, Stephens hopes she and Walton will have the opportunity to interact and learn from one another.
“And I hope I can learn a lot from both of them,” he said.
Phillips-Gaines, perhaps, summed up the vocation of a deacon best. “I look at it as an opportunity to consecrate my imperfect life to God,” she said.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.