Gifts of the spirit
NATCHEZ — Perhaps his infant baptism at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez cultivated the roots that had the Rev. Sam Tomlinson branch out in ministry but also pulled him home again.
Next week Tomlinson will celebrate 50 years in the priesthood. His friend and Bishop of Arkansas, Larry Maze, will lead what Tomlinson calls a “beefed up” festival service of Eucharist to commemorate his long career in the Episcopal Chuch.
Tomlinson was born in Natchez and grew up in Jackson. He attended Milsaps College where he majored in history.
Tomlinson said as a pre-teen he was very active in the Episcopal Church in Jackson and knew the priesthood was what he wanted to do with his life.
“I liked the people, I liked the church,” said Tomlinson, who at the time sang with the boys choir. “I thought it was a good place to be, so I steered myself in that direction.”
After college, Tomlinson went straight to seminary in New York City.
“The bishop thought I needed experience outside the South,” Tomlinson said. “I was scared to death, sick to my stomach, when the train pulled up to Pennsylvania Station.”
After attending seminary for three years, Tomlinson was ordained as a priest at St. Peter’s By the Sea in Gulfport on Dec. 20, 1961. He was one of four priests ordained by Bishop John M. Allen, who went on to be presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church.
Tomlinson eventually landed as a priest at a church in Corinth. From there he led a church in Canton, spent a year teaching at All Saints School in Vicksburg, and then worked at Pine Bluff Trinity Church in Arkansas for four years. Tomlinson also ministered at churches in Collins, Kosciusko, Philadelphia and most recently Port Gibson, after returning to his roots in Natchez to retire.
“In 50 years you can cover some ground,” Tomlinson said.
While Tomlinson is technically retired, he fills in when needed at Trinity Episcopal Church.
“I guess it’s time for me to throw in the stole,” Tomlinson joked.
Tomlinson has seen the church, and the culture surrounding it, change dramatically in five decades, from the Civil Rights movement to the inclusion of women in leadership.
The rewards of ministering across communities in Mississippi and Arkansas subsists with let downs too, as any career does.
“Sometimes I feel disappointed that people don’t want to grow spiritually,” Tomlinson said. “Some people aren’t interested in extra study or growth.”
Tomlinson said he thinks the dominance of television in people’s lives has a lot to do with that.
“And values have changed,” Tomlinson said.
He said that children who grew up in the church would leave for college, but eventually come home and attend church with their young families. Tomlinson said that is not really the case anymore.
“But there is a movement to recruit younger clergy,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson’s wife, Susanne, said many people pursued positions with clergy or priesthood as second careers, but she has noticed more young clergy and parishioners.
“The church deals with spiritual things, whether you’re 18 or 80,” Tomlinson said. “There can be something there.”
Tomlinson said the endless thrill of priesthood is having a presence at life’s most astounding moments — weddings, births and even deaths.
“Pastors are privileged,” Tomlinson said. “I kind of get emotional.”
Tomlinson tells couples that even if they don’t cry during a wedding ceremony, he might.
“Being with the dying is a sacred time,” Tomlinson said. “This whole person is being transformed to something else. I call it, ‘crossing Jordan.’”
Tomlinson said he has also felt surprised at times, when parishioners gleaned applicable value from things he said — words he thought might not be significant to anyone.
In 50 years of reflection, Tomlinson said there is no doubt he made the right career choice.
“I believe in the church,” Tomlinson said. “And the church has always been changing. Jesus said I will be with the church until the end of the world.”
Tomlinson said he thinks there is a good future for the church.
“(The church) can sometimes be set in its ways,” Tomlinson said. “But it has a strong nucleus who want the church to be relevant and helpful. The new, young, rector Walton Jones, is a breath of fresh air. He is doing new things to attract younger people, and the church is growing.”
For young people who might consider a future in ministry, Tomlinson has some advice.
“Think and pray,” Tomlinson said. “Find a spiritual mentor, clergy or mature Christian to discuss it with.”
Even if church leadership is not right for some individuals, Tomlinson said everyone can be ministers in their own way.
“Everyone has gifts God can use.”
A full liturgy service in honor of Tomlinson will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Trinity Episcopal Church on Commerce Street. A reception will follow. The public is welcome.