Deacons on the Front Lines: Marj Oughton

Wednesday, March 17th, 2021

Marjorie Oughton

In our ongoing series spotlighting deacons across the diocese. To learn more about becoming a deacon, email us at

In 2003, my daughter and son-in-law were expecting their first child.  I was invited to the delivery room.  At the time, I was living in Oregon and they were living in Virginia.  I went to my Human Resources (HR) department and told them I needed a couple of months off for this event.  I was given a menu of things I could cobble together to get the needed amount of time.  I had spent a 30+ year career doing technology planning and management: budgeting, staffing, project planning.  I had never done anything important in my life without a plan. 

I told HR that I was going to retire.  Then I went and called my financial planner so we could figure it all out.  I was only 59.

When I returned to Oregon after the birth, I was faced with the decision of what to do next.  Someone had given me a great retirement book, My Time, which had lots of suggestions: volunteer, read, write, travel, learn something new.  God, however, had a different plan which, amazingly, included all of those same activities.  God told me it was God’s time.  I was to be a servant for God.  So, I downloaded the Peace Corps application but every time I tried to complete it, I got stuck.  It didn’t feel right. 

One Sunday after church at coffee hour, I was talking to a friend and his wife.  He was a seminarian working on his third career.  He said that he thought I was being called to the diaconate.  I told him God was definitely not calling me to be a priest.  He told me about the diaconate which I had previously known about only as a transition to the priesthood.  He suggested I read The Diaconate: A Full and Equal Order by Barnett.  I went to the church library which was large.  When I walked to the long wall of books opposite the door, there it was right in front of me.  I read it that afternoon and I understood what I was being asked to do.  As time passed, my call became clearer and clearer. 

I came to understand that my call was to care for the elderly and their families, especially those affected by dementia.  I resisted the call because I wasn’t particularly fond of “old” people and was nervous around people with mental health issues.  Someone gave me the name of a well-respected chaplain at a local continuing care residence (CCR).   I called him and asked if I could meet with him.  He and I chatted for a few hours and I was invited to shadow him for a few days.  After those opportunities, I asked if I could volunteer there.  I was hooked – and my love for the elderly has grown over the years. 

Recognizing that my call was to work in long term care, not acute care, I sought out a clinical pastoral education (CPE) program where I could work with the elderly and those with dementia on a long term basis. The supervisor of the CPE program at the Oregon State Hospital (treating mental illness) was enthusiastic.  Most people who came to him for CPE wanted to work with the young population.  I “enlisted” for four extended units of CPE (only one was required for ordination) and worked in the geriatric units.  I loved the folks in my units and the staff, and stayed on as a chaplain for another two years after I completed my CPE program.  I left when I moved to Pennsylvania.

Once here, I was able to work as a chaplain at Holy Redeemer/St. Joseph’s Manor with personal care, skilled nursing, and secure dementia unit residents.  I have found that faith and ritual and companionship provide comfort for the patient/residents.  The families need a lot of pastoral care, as they grieve the loss of their loved ones bit by bit. 

As I look back to those many years ago, I realize that God and the book were correct: In seminary, I read and I wrote and I read and I wrote.  I learned so many new skills in seminary and CPE and in my ministry.  I traveled to New Orleans right after Katrina with a group of deacons to do demolition and clean up and provide spiritual care for the residents of homes in the area most affected by the storm floods.  (New skill learned then: how to use a crowbar).  That experience was so powerful that I took some of my parish members back to help rebuild. (New skill learned then: hanging dry wall and mudding). 

Today, I am a deacon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chester.  I love supporting our parishioners with issues of aging and illness.  I have had opportunities to work with seniors living at Episcopal Place in leading groups and providing religious services.  St. Paul’s is currently working with Widener University (as part of a diocesan effort) to open a family practice wellness clinic which will operate on a schedule that will allow patrons of the Chester Eastside food bank and clothing closet, housed in our building, to take advantage of health care services. 

I had no idea when I retired that God had so many more blessings awaiting me.  Being a deacon is an opportunity to do God’s work and to grow in God’s grace.  I would love to talk to anyone who feels called to serve God’s oldest friends.  They are a blessing.