Father Jerry Hill never gets tired of retiring – but he can’t seem to stay that way.
The six-year Ellis County resident and his wife Gloria are new to St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Ennis, where Hill has come out of retirement to accept a part-time position as priest after the retirement of Fr. Denis Smart.
There’s nothing tired about Father Jerry Hill.
“To me there’s no such thing as retirement, as long as you enjoy what you’re doing,” he said. “This is what God created me to do, and I truly enjoy it.”
Hill came to the Episcopal church from a Baptist background; the Episcopal denomination made sense to him because the focus is off of any one minister.
“What I fell in love with is that you don’t follow the person, you follow the faith and practice in spite of who the priest is,” he said.
“It’s a relief that I don’t have to prove how holy I am – we all stand in need of the grace of God, that’s it … It’s a relief not to have to put on a $1,000 suit when I get up in the morning. I just say, ‘What black shirt will I wear today?’” Hill said with a smile.
With the Episcopal tradition so close to that of its distant cousin of Catholicism, he also finds the elements of the sacraments important, though not something he grew up with.
“From baptism to burial, the sacramental life the church offers is very comforting to me,” he said.
If there are elements of practical psychology sprinkled in when Hill talks about his faith, perhaps it’s his extensive training in psychiatry and social work talking.
After graduating from Southern Arkansas University and seminary at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., he received his doctorate from McCormick Theological Seminary at the University of Chicago. He also did graduate work elsewhere, including at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois.
“I could easily have become a full-time psychotherapist, but that’s not where I found the answers to life. The church is where the answer to humanity’s problems are found, at the altar of God. That’s not to say medicine and psychotherapy are not important – they are,” Hill said.
That background in the science side of healing came in very handy over the course of his career. For years, he was a Skid Row chaplain in Dallas.
As director of urban ministry for the Dallas Episcopal diocese, he started The Stewpot in cooperation with First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, as well as the Austin Street Shelter and Genesis Women’s Shelter.
In all these places, he saw a pattern emerge. The problems the homeless faced were initially no different from those anyone else deals with – the difference was in their capacity to handle them.
“All problems are the same – some people can find better ways to cope than others. Those who can’t cope get lost in life,” he said, estimating that one percent of those afflicted with the disease of alcoholism end up on the street.
While mental illness stymies many pastors who are trained to approach problems from the spiritual side, Hill was able to bridge the gap between spiritual problems and psychological ones.
“My heart was with the psychiatric patients on the street – the true homeless. I was frustrated by the crackheads – they’re hell to deal with,” he said.
Since retiring from there in 2000, Hill has enjoyed getting back into a parish setting. Away from the pressing problems urban dwellers face, he’s gained a great appreciation for the uniquenesses present in each congregation he’s served.
“I enjoy being around a diverse group of people,” he said. “Characters make life great – I like character in people. We’re boring otherwise!”
He served part-time, then full-time, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Waxahachie, retiring in 2005.
Most recently, he served the Episcopal congregation at Our Merciful Savior in Kaufman for two years. When Father Denis Smart retired from St. Thomas Episcopal in Ennis, Father Hill accepted the call to come to Ennis, where attendance hovers in the 50-70 range on Sunday morning. “It’s a great size, and we welcome growth,” he said. “These are people I really enjoy being around – I find it an enjoyable church family.”
At 9 a.m. Sunday mornings, he’s teaching a class on the history, faith and practice of the Episcopal church.
He’s also co-director of the rural church ministry committee for the Dallas diocese, and he said the diocese has its eye on the growth of places a little farther flung from the Dallas doorstep – places like Mount Pleasant and Sulphur Springs and Ennis – places where schools are great and crime is low.
“A lot of smaller towns are growing because they’re wonderful to live in,” he said.
“They’re concentrating on how to help them grow.”
He points to Ennis’ bluebonnets, excellent schools and the National Polka Festival tradition as a prime example of why small towns are great.
‘This is what makes a town,” he said.
The Rev. Jerry Hill, D. Min. and wife Gloria have been married 48 years. They have two children and four grandchildren, and while they enjoy travel and backpacking, they have no immediate plans to enjoy them full-time.
“Our retirement plans went down the drain years ago,” he said with a chuckle.
St. Thomas Episcopal is located at 901 Park St. in Ennis.
E-mail J. Louise at firstname.lastname@example.org.