How does a woman know she is called to the office of Deaconess? I have answered this question many times since I was Set Apart in 2003; some of the women who inquired found the answer too difficult, and they decided not to pursue the office. But that is as it should be. It is a serious matter to make vows that take us into greater service to Christ and into a more formal and accountable relationship with His Church. I purposely do not try to encourage a woman to pursue this path. What I do encourage her to do is count the cost and allow God to lead her in the path in which He wants her to go.
The first question that the Bishop asks a woman who is being set apart is, “Dearly beloved in the Lord, who are minded to take upon you this service in the Church of God, have you duly considered how weighty an undertaking this is, and are you prepared with a willing mind to take upon you this office?” While God makes His will known in a variety of ways, the discernment process of “due consideration” should begin with a self-examination that includes the following questions:
Have I demonstrated steady growth in grace and Christian character, evidenced by a life that is increasing in the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
These foundations are important for any Christian, but they are non-negotiable for anyone who wants to take on more responsibility in the Church.
What is my level of commitment to Christ, as expressed by my attendance at worship, my connection to the life of the Church, my prayer life, and my desire to study the Bible?
Take a few courses from Cranmer House or at least begin studying theology, Church history, and Christian ethics. See if you are eager to learn and apt to teach others what you have learned.
Am I already involved in many activities related to the ministry of a Deaconess, such as Altar Guild, works of mercy, teaching, and support of the work of the parish?
A related question is whether your life is overflowing with activities and obligations unrelated to Church life which you cannot give up and which would hinder your ability to serve as a Deaconess.
The preceding questions are fairly straightforward, and the answers should be evident to you. The next questions are a bit more difficult, as they are focused on assessing with your relationships with others, and as such, they require additional soul searching as well as consultation with your spiritual fathers and others among whom you currently serve. These are the points that often prevent women from pursuing the office any further.
Am I willing to submit myself humbly to the order of the Church?
There are many people who view themselves as being devoted individually to Christ but not to the Church, and who are specifically unwilling to submit to the direction of Bishops and/or Priests. One of the vows taken in the Setting Apart of Deaconesses is this: “Will you be obedient to those who are over you in the Lord, cheerfully and faithfully performing the service that shall be appointed to you as Deaconess in singleness of heart?” In one sense, as a Deaconess, I have less freedom than other parishioners, but I took my vows joyfully because in the service of Christ and His Church, there is perfect freedom.
Do my fathers in Christ see a potential in me for this ministry?
If your Rector, your Bishop, and other spiritual leaders suggest that you may want to consider the office, then you have an important road sign that validates your own assessment of a possible call. However, if you have some notion that you want to be a Deaconess, but your pastor is hesitant to support you in this decision, you should reconsider your decision. Perhaps the answer is “not yet,” not until you have developed some of the characteristics already discussed. Perhaps the answer is “not at all” because God has other plans for your life. Either way, rest in His goodness.
Are my peers confident in my ability to pursue this ministry?
If those to whom and with whom you minister are encouraging you to consider the office of Deaconess, then your desire to be Set Apart is most likely confirmed by the witness of the congregation. That is not to say that everyone you meet will believe that you should be a Deaconess. It is to say that most of the people who have been touched by your ministry should be willing to support your decision to pursue candidacy and should almost see it as the logical outcome of your loving service.
A woman who is called to the office of Deaconess will say with the Psalmist, “One thing I have desired of the LORD, that will I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4). Yet her desire for the presence of the Lord is to be turned outward in service to the Church. Her awesome responsibility, as well as her enduring joy, is to support her spiritual fathers in the care and teaching of the people of God. A Deaconess can be the official representative of the Church in situations that are made awkward by the presence of a man, and her insight can often enable a priest to provide better care to the flock.
Finally, it would be dishonest for me to close this discussion without offering a sufficient warning: the closer you get to Christ and the more committed you become to serving Him, the more Satan will torment you. If you do become convinced through prayerful discernment that you are called to be a Deaconess, expect resistance and spiritual warfare like you have never seen. Satan will try to convince you that you are unworthy, unable, unprepared—in short, he will do anything to turn you back from your commitment to service. But Christ is sufficient even in times of persecution.
So if, after all of the hurdles I’ve presented, you are still convinced that God is calling you, talk to your parish priest to see if it’s time for you to start the process of submitting an application.
— Dss. Teresa R. Johnson
Adjunct Professor of Deaconess Studies, Cranmer Theological House