The Rev. Margaret “Toppie” Bates retires from parish ministry

Article by the Rev. Linda M. Logan, priest of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boonville and Trinity Episcopal Church in Camden.

Editor’s note: For many years, our annual Diocesan Convention has passed resolutions recognizing retiring clergy. Beginning with the 153rd Convention in November 2021, the Diocese will offer our gratitude for these leaders in a new way: retiring clergy and other leaders will be lifted up in prayer at Convention, and an article about each retiring cleric will be published in diocesan communications. 

The Rev. Toppie Bates distributes Communion at an outdoor service at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Skaneateles.

“The parish adored her. She had a way of making a person feel that they were the most important person in the world. This enabled a deep attachment with persons of every age,” the Rev. Becky Coerper said. “Pastoral care was primary for her.”

Mother Coerper, rector of St. James’, Skaneateles, was speaking about the Rev. Margaret “Toppie” Bates. “Toppie,” as everyone calls her, retired from her ministry as priest associate at St. James’ this past June, having served in that capacity since her retirement as associate rector six years before.

Toppie served St. James’ from her ordination in 2004 on. She ran a year-long Bible study to which persons from other churches came. She preached and celebrated, leading a healing service with the Eucharist on Wednesday nights. During Advent and Lent, she offered Taizé services and a labyrinth to walk in the nave. And she oversaw youth conferences. But it was pastoral care for which she was most known.

She teamed up with Nancy Graham, the layperson who was doing pastoral care when Toppie was first hired. That was when the Rev. Bob DeWetter was rector. And when Mother Coerper became rector, it was the three of them who offered pastoral care to the parish.

But Toppie also ministered in the wider community. A “significant number” of people who lived at the Gateway Apartments in Skaneateles were members of St. James’, so Toppie started doing services there monthly. And when services could not be offered because of the pandemic, she still met with people at the center there.

“She’s a person of deep integrity. She has a grace-filled capacity to embrace anyone anywhere any time,” Bishop Skip Adams says. “She has a way of offering pastoral care so that people know their humanity is respected. She has a quiet way of breaking ground for people. She easily talks about God and waits for it to unfold with people.

“Because of all this, we wanted her gifts to be present and available to the Commission on Ministry. She’s a searcher, a spiritual explorer, always open, with the ability to be surprised by grace. It’s a true gift to be attentive to the discernment of the Spirit in people.”

So Toppie helped the diocese develop spiritual discernment groups to see how the Spirit might be calling people. And she has been on the diocesan Commission on Ministry ever since.

The Rev. Paul Frolick, until November 2021 chair of the commission, went through discernment with Toppie. He says that “maybe the most important part” of discernment is helping a person understand what discernment really is. He found her to be “warm and friendly but also able to say the hard things” in ways people could take in.

Toppie continues to serve not only on the Commission on Ministry but as a spiritual director on the staff of the Spiritual Renewal Center in Syracuse, a center which offers direction to persons of different faiths. And at St. James’, where she and her husband David are parishioners, she continues to serve on the Racial Justice Commission of the parish. All of which indicates that Toppie is not going to “top it.” Thanks be to God.

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A headshot of Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe+. Bishop DeDe is outside in front of a leafed-out, lusciously green tree in mid-summer. She's smiling at the camera, wearing her glasses, her collar and Bishop-purple shirt, a multi-colored scarf, and her pectoral cross.