By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
Talk about the best-laid plans of mice and men going awry (to paraphrase poet Robert Burns).
Phyllis Bates, a 43-plus year member of the staff of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board (formerly Executive Board) retired on Feb. 28. My plan was to write an extensive feature story and a column.
My feature story idea disappeared quickly after a short interview with Phyllis. It would be easier pulling a tooth from a grizzly bear than it is getting Phyllis to talk about herself.
But then, I really didn’t expect any other response.
I have had the privilege of working with Phyllis Bates for nearly 29 of her 43-plus years. She is one of the sweetest, most kind, caring, and hardest working people I have ever met. Phyllis does not like being in the limelight. She loves staying behind the scenes, doing what she does best — serving and ministering to others.
A native of Strawberry Plains, Phyllis moved to Brentwood in 1971 with her husband David. A schoolteacher by education, Phyllis applied for a part-time job with the Executive Board until a teaching position opened up. Well, a position opened, but it wasn’t in the school system. Phyllis joined the TBMB staff full time in the fall of 1973. And in her words, “I’ve been here ever since.”
She’s literally a walking encyclopedia of Tennessee Baptist life. “I’ve seen a lot of history,” she acknowledges.
Phyllis, however, has never viewed her tenure here as a job. It’s always been a ministry and the TBMB staff has been her family.
During her tenure Phyllis has worked with five executive directors (Ralph Norton, Tom Madden, D.L. Lowrie, James Porch, and Randy C. Davis). She has been the executive assistant for four of those, beginning with Madden.
William Maxwell, administrative coordinator for the TBMB, estimates Phyllis has attended 43 annual meetings of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, 129 board meetings, and at least 645 committee meetings. And no one (except her husband) actually knows how many hours she spent at home after hours transcribing minutes. But that’s Phyllis at her best. Growing up on a farm, she learned a tremendous work ethic from her parents, Judson and Alvereta Davis.
In addition to the staff she has worked with countless numbers of Tennessee Baptists who have served on the Executive Board and now the TBMB. Whether they were one of the giants of the denomination or a pastor or layperson from the smallest of churches, it didn’t matter to Phyllis. She treated everyone with kindness and respect.
Though Phyllis won’t talk about Phyllis, a lot of people will. Here’s just a sampling:
“Tuesday, Feb. 28, marked the end of an era unparalleled in Baptist life. After more than 43 years, Phyllis Bates retired from her excellent and faithful ministry as executive assistant to four TBMB executive directors. Grace, poise, loyalty, wisdom, excellence, competence, faithful, and beautiful are the words easily used to describe Phyllis Bates.” — Randy C. Davis, president and executive director, Tennessee Baptist Mission Board
“Phyllis Bates has been such a tremendous help to me during my time on the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. It is not cliché to say that Phyllis has a servant’s heart. It is the truth. Her insight, attention to detail, and organizational skills will be greatly missed by those who have worked with her. The thing I will miss the most is the kind-hearted, gracious spirit she exhibited every time I was around her. Tennessee Baptists have been richly and deeply blessed by Phyllis Bates and her service to this convention.” — Michael Sams, chair, board of directors, TBMB, and pastor, First Baptist Church, Martin
“In serving our Tennessee Baptist Mission Board (and former Executive Board) over these years, I have never met a more kind, compassionate, and considerate servant of the Kingdom than Phyllis Bates. Miss Phyllis and I often reflect on our shared birthdays, and the fact that even though we share the same birthday — Miss Phyllis has served our mission board longer than I have been alive. She exemplifies Colossians 3:23-24 in her dedication to hard work, passion, and dedication to Kingdom service! She is an extraordinary example of servant leadership and an inspiration to us all!” — Steve Freeman, president, Tennessee Baptist Convention, and pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Springfield
“Miss Phyllis is the embodiment of grace, style, and sophistication. She truly values each and every person that crosses her path. Her commitment to the work of the TBC and TBC churches goes far beyond just the 43 years of her service. Heaven only knows the influence she has had in the lives of pastors, church staff, and laypeople across this state. Her knowledge of TBC history is unparalleled and will never be replaced.” — William Maxwell, administrative director, TBMB
“Miss Phyllis has proven she has what it takes to meet challenges, overcome obstacles, and pursue excellence. She has been and will continue to be a godly example and role model for me. She always has a contagious smile and encouraging words for all. She is someone I personally look up to and want to be like.” — Bernie Baker, TBMB staff member and coworker for 22 years
“Phyllis Bates is stoic, yet very warm; professional, yet personable; and confident, yet never arrogant. She operates with excellence in all that she does. She is a strong shield to the position of executive director and is a pit bull safeguard to the person of executive director. I cannot fill her shoes, but I promise to try my very best to continue her excellent standard in filling her position of executive assistant.” — Cathy Odom, coworker and new executive assistant, effective March 1
“Phyllis Bates made my work as executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention much easier. She was always ready to implement decisions that I made, and by her counsel help me make wiser decisions. Her relationship with other staff in the building was always mature and supportive. Alice and I had opportunity to observe her Christian commitment in her church since we attended the same church with her and David. I truly want to rise up with those who call her ‘blessed’ and add my praise. I will thank God upon every remembrance of her.” — D.L. Lowrie, former TBC executive director (1989-1992)
“Phyllis Bates, a perennial student of the culture of people called Tennessee Baptists, pursued her calling with grace, candor, and a growing repertoire of convention history. I was honored to serve with her for a season encompassing 6,580 days. Her devotion to her ministry included the rarely found trait of gentle correction — quite often her perspective of an issue supplied me with a wise voice of the people in the pews of the convention churches. … A person effectively serving as long as she served, ministering with her unique quality, constantly maturing in the grace of her Savior, leave indelible footprints. Thank you, Phyllis.” — James L. Porch, retired TBC executive director (1993-2010)
Phyllis will read this and tell me I wrote way too much. Perhaps, but she truly deserves this moment in the spotlight. She has been in the background long enough. On a personal note, Phyllis has been a dear friend to me since I joined the B&R staff nearly 29 years ago. We’ve had a lot of long conversations over those years and I will miss those in the future.
As I was completing this column on Phyllis’ last day she walked by my office with cleaning supplies in her hand. Though it is not in her job description she was determined to leave her office clean and neat for Cathy Odom who became the new executive assistant on March 1. That’s Phyllis in a nutshell. Even on her last day, she was making sure her “last i was dotted and t was crossed.”
On behalf of all Tennessee Baptists, thank you Phyllis for a job well done. Enjoy your retirement. You have earned it.