The Modern Deaconess
Answering God’s Call to Mission
by Cassandra Heller
I serve neither for gratitude nor reward, but from gratitude and love; my reward
is that I may serve.
The life of a deaconess is an answer to God’s call to Christian service under the authority of The United Methodist Church.
Like the first deaconesses in 1888, modern deaconesses trace their roots back to Phoebe, the woman whom Paul describes as a “helper of many.” (Romans 16:1) Although their outward appearance may have changed over time, deaconesses still work toward the same goals of social justice that were part of the deaconess movement in The United Methodist Church tradition that began more than 100 years ago.
Today, deaconesses continue to advocate for social justice and, according to Becky Dodson Louter, Executive Secretary of the Deaconess Program Office, have “brought the ministry into their vocations while living a balanced life.” You’ll find deaconesses in various professions, where they feel called by God to work. Current ministries include, but are not limited to, issues related to prisons, environment, refugees, immigration, health care, education, homelessness, women and children, youth and families, senior adults, peace with justice, the working poor, and a wide variety of church and community ministries.
The modern deaconess brings her faith and her theological knowledge to people who would not otherwise be exposed to the church. “Their daily task of serving and empowering is, for deaconesses, a visible symbol of the link between the church and the world.” (Theology of Mission, p. 2 [the Deaconess Statement of Mission]) They have continued the mission of their predecessors: to be workers for Christ in society.
In 1885, Lucy Rider Meyer, seeing the unmet social needs of her day and responding to the requests of young women who wanted to be in service, founded the Chicago Training School, the first training school for deaconesses. The first three women who became deaconesses in the Methodist tradition graduated from the Chicago Training School. The Office of Deaconess was officially recognized in the Methodist Episcopal Church by the General Conference of 1888. Dr. James Thoburn, a missionary to India at the time, was a strong advocate for the deaconess movement. As part of his advocacy, he brought the preface of the Mission Committee to the General Conference, which stated, “We believe that God is in the [deaconess] movement, and the church should recognize this fact.” (As Among the Methodists by Elizabeth Meredith Lee, p. 36)
In 1939, when the three branches of the Methodist Church merged, 1026 deaconesses served in a wide variety of ministries with those who were marginalized and in settings such as settlement houses, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, and homes for immigrant women.
There were many challenges ahead. The deaconess movement went through a transition during World War II. Even after World War II, the deaconess movement failed to allow women to marry and continue in the deaconess relationship. At the same time, American society insisted that only marriage and family could fulfill a woman’s psychological and emotional needs. This became a stumbling block for women who wanted to lead a balanced life with a family and were called by God to ministry in relationship with the church.
The deaconesses upheld civil and human rights, even when doing so went against tradition. Beginning in 1945, the Office of Deaconess decided to remodel the program to keep up with the times. According to Mary Dougherty’s book, My Calling to Fulfill: Deaconesses in The United Methodist Church, a policy developed that would integrate the all African-American Central Jurisdiction into the jurisdictional Deaconess Association. The arrangement contradicted contemporary segregationist beliefs in the Methodist Church at large. It took years to finalize. In 1963, the Methodist Church’s Commission on Deaconess Work decided to incorporate deaconesses into “overlapping associations.”
Also discussed in 1945 was the role of the married deaconess. It took more than a decade to change the sentiment against married deaconesses. In 1958, married women were finally accepted as deaconesses.
Deaconesses, according to Becky Dodson Louter, continue the tradition of being on “the cutting edge of ministry” and continue to be activists in The United Methodist Church. Where Christian service was concerned, they accepted no limitations, defying the idea of a purely domestic role for women. As a politically and socially active organized community, deaconesses proved women could help transform society outside the home.
“Although the deaconesses have no idea of becoming a ‘feminist’ movement,” Betty Friedan wrote in her 1963 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, “they are greatly concerned about the status of women around the world.” The deaconess role allowed women to lead successful and influential lives in many fields of endeavor.
Other ways that the deaconess movement has influenced or helped shape ministry in the church included the development of what is now known as the US-2 program, which originally prepared young women for mission work in the United States (and today includes young men as well.) In reaching beyond The United Methodist Church to connect with the deaconate around the globe, deaconesses also became involved early on with DIAKONIA, the World Federation of Diaconal Associations and Diaconal Communities, which served further to “energize deaconesses in The United Methodist Church.” (Dougherty, My Calling to Fulfill, p. 255)
The Road to the Future
In 1988, a study authorized by the General Board of Global Ministries stated that “the role of deaconesses is an essential and vital part of the mission through the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.”
Initiatives mandated by General Conference afforded new opportunities for deaconesses to serve on the frontiers of mission, such as the National Plan for Hispanic Ministries, Shalom Zones, HIV/ AIDS ministries, substance abuse and related violence, ministries with the homeless, and prison ministry/prison reform.
To continue to adapt to the new challenges of these frontiers, deaconesses were given the opportunity to hone their technical skills for the contemporary world, to continue to be on the “cutting edge of mission” (as part of the General Board of Global Ministries), to serve where they are most needed, and to serve with the support of the church. (The Deaconess in The United Methodist Church: Presentation to the committee to Study the Ministry of the Council of Bishops, 1993.)
The Modern Deaconess
Following the completion of “The Study of The Ministry in The United Methodist church,” which lasted for a quarter of a century, the Office of Deaconess was reaffirmed by the Church and in 1996 extensive efforts to renew the Office of Deaconess began. The deaconess community wondered if the office would be closed, since at that time only 66 deaconesses were serving under active appointments in the program.
The church’s recognition of the Office of Deaconess helped the community to grow. Currently, there are 126 actively serving deaconesses, 117 retired, and a growing number in training. In 2000, only 67 women were serving and 40 more were in training.
Another factor that has attracted more women to the community is the newly established educational opportunity that enables women to complete the core study requirements. In 2001, deaconesses were able to take intensive courses as a candidate group in various subjects for one or two weeks at a time.
The women come from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, even different theological philosophies. “The greatest strength is the diversity of our community,” commented Louter. “Together we form a supportive community in which the individual can feel less isolated in the work that she does. But no matter what our differences, we are bound together by our calling to a servant ministry where we treat each other with love and respect.”
The deaconess community is made up of a diverse group of women. Unlike the early days of deaconesses, when they lived together in deaconess homes, no physical community now exists outside the biennial convocation coordinated by the National Association of Deaconesses and Missionaries (NADAM). However, they support one another through the Internet, e-mail messages, newsletters, correspondence, telephone calls, jurisdictional and local gatherings, as well as prayer suggested by the Prayer Calendar, a guide to praying for United Methodist missionaries, deaconesses, and mission personnel serving around the globe.
Deaconesses have served as a force of kindness, strength, and aid to those in need. They have built bridges for people on a national and global scale and every day continue to be faithful workers of The United Methodist Church. “Deaconesses don’t serve to people but with people,” said Louter.
Cassandra Heller is a New World Outlook intern and student at Boston University, studying English and Philosophy.
Date posted: Sep 06, 2005