Deacons on the Front Lines: Barbara Tobin

Thursday, August 12th, 2021

Barbara Tobin

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

When a priest friend suggested she thought I may be called as a Deacon, I told her to go away because I had just retired, was 70 years old, and thought it was a crazy idea. When I talked with another priest friend, she said, “You have always been a deacon; you will be putting on a different uniform.” I realized then that I have always felt that I was serving God as a hospital nurse, as a hospice and palliative care nurse, and as a Nurse Practitioner serving people who lived in boarding homes in underserved neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

I fought this calling of becoming “official,” but after a lot of prayer, angst, and discussion with long time friends, I surrendered to God and here I am.

Presently, I am serving at St. Mary’s, Hamilton Village, on the campus of University of Pennsylvania.  Although small, the congregation has a long history of advocating for social justice. In 1984, St. Mary’s birthed the University City Hospitality Coalition which provides hospitality, food, and medical, dental, and legal services for those beloved children of God at five faith communities, including St. Mary’s in University City. When I first began my ministry at St. Mary’s, I encouraged more “St. Marians” to become involved in this hospitality ministry. I facilitated our Thursday night dinners and serve on the Board of UCHC. I also started a small Bible study prayer group after the dinner on Thursday nights. Unfortunately, Covid temporarily stopped my ability to participate, but a younger parishioner took my place. I also volunteer at Broad Street Ministry giving out mail to people who would otherwise not have a mailing address.

Although we promise in our Baptismal Covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself, we also promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. That, I believe, means we are called to use our prophetic voice and to right those wrongs of our society that are unjust and denigrate a person’s dignity: poverty, racism, and global warming, for example. Although necessary and one way to serve, giving away food, clothing and supplies makes us feel good and righteous. But, by doing this without confronting the root causes causing these injustices, we are not promoting the dignity of every human being. Part of my ministry involves writing weekly advocacy letters for our parishioners to send to our government representatives. Before COVID, groups of us helped with voter registration and attended demonstrations for immigration rights and women’s rights. We also displayed a Memorial to the Lost on our church grounds, partnering with our Diocesan Anti-Gun Violence Commission and Heeding God’s Call. 

Another ministry in which I am involved is pastoral care. Recently, when our Rector was on sabbatical, we had two active and beloved parishioners on hospice care who, sadly, died. It was my privilege and joy to accompany them during this part of their lives. I felt like I had gone full circle, which for me, validated my calling.

As a Deacon, I minister with my sister in Christ and Rector of St. Mary’s, the Rev. Mariclair Partee Carlsen, in preaching, liturgy and educational endeavors, including our most recent gathering delving into our National Church’s Becoming Beloved Community, Sacred Ground program.  This involves a dialogue based on film and readings which lay bare all the egregious actions our white and privileged government, society, and church hierarchy have laid upon other ethnic groups since our founding. We are now planning follow up to repair the breach, using the Diocesan’s Loving Presence document as a guide.

As a Deacon, there are many more ways one can minister, depending on your congregation and your particular calling.  Think about it …. pray about it …. and allow the Holy Spirit to guide you.