There once was a time when women were discouraged from pursuing a call to ministry. Our place was in a home, taking care of a family. Engaging in ministry and acts of Christ-like service to others was seen as having a negative impact on the order of society. The Methodist churches, following the tradition of Anglican and other Protestant denominations, did not offer any options for unmarried women to devote their lives to God. For married women, the options to answer a call to ministry were nonexistent unless the woman called was fortunate enough to be married to a clergyman.
This was the social climate when the deaconess movement began. It was a pioneering movement that gave women an opportunity to be in ministry. It continues to be a movement that pushes boundaries and engages in cutting-edge ministry, exploring the borderlands between the established church and the rapidly changing needs of society.
Deaconesses across the Christian tradition believe Phoebe was the first deaconess, claiming the origins of deaconess ministry date back to Paul’s ministry. Paul writes in Romans 16:1-2: “I’m introducing our sister Phoebe to you, who is a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. Welcome her in the Lord in a way that is worthy of God’s people, and give her whatever she needs from you, because she herself has been a sponsor of many people, myself included” (Common English Bible).
The office of deaconess had all but disappeared after the days of the early church and, aside from monastic orders, there were not many options for women called to ministry to be in an official relationship with the church. Diaconal ministries, or ministries of service, experienced a renaissance in the Protestant tradition during the 1830s. Theodore Fliedner, a Lutheran pastor in Germany, trained a woman released from prison to serve the sick and poor. She became the first deaconess in the Lutheran tradition and at the forefront of the deaconess movement, training more women for servant ministry and developing a community where they lived and cared for others. As word of their ministry spread throughout Europe and the United States, the work of these women dedicating their lives to Christian service inspired women of other denominations to answer the call.
Lucy Rider Meyer was one such woman inspired by this new deaconess movement. In 1872 she began actively campaigning for the creation of a deaconess office within the Methodist Episcopal Church. As a married woman, she herself would not become a deaconess, yet she functioned as the midwife and matriarch of the Methodist deaconess movement. Ms. Meyer founded the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions in 1885 that educated young women to serve in other countries and experimented with deaconess work in the United States. In the summer of 1887, Ms. Meyer’s students went into Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods making house visits. They were engaged in an urban ministry never seen before in the Methodist church. They educated young children, attended the sick, visited the injured workers of the city’s factories and condoled with those who had lost loved ones. These women ventured into some of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago, bringing Christian care and the Gospel message to those in need.
Isabella Thoburn, the first single woman commissioned to serve internationally by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, joined Ms. Meyer to mentor and train this group of unofficial deaconesses. Ms. Thoburn’s brother, Bishop James Mills Thoburn, followed her activity with keen interest and support. He became a powerful advocate and ally when legislation to create a denominational office of deaconess came before the 1888 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He spoke so passionately and persuasively about the need for the office that the all-male conference approved the legislation. By October 1888, the Rock River Annual Conference, which included Chicago and much of what is now the Northern Illinois Conference, consecrated and licensed the first three deaconesses.
The deaconess movement spread rapidly through Methodist, Evangelical and Brethren churches. The United Brethren in Christ established an office of deaconess in 1897. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, established the office at its 1902 General Conference. By 1903 both the Evangelical Association and United Evangelical Church recognized deaconesses. The Methodist Protestant Church established the office in 1908. When the Methodist Church was formed in 1939, there were more than 1,000 Methodist deaconesses in service around the world.
Over the years that followed, the deaconess movement adapted to changing social times. Communal homes turned into women’s residence hotels after World War I. Deaconesses began to receive pension and health benefits in the middle of the 20th century. In 1959 the church agreed to allow deaconesses to continue their appointments after they were married, opening the office to married women for the first time in its history.
The number of deaconesses declined during the second half of the 20th century, and very few deaconesses were commissioned from 1980 to 1995 while the United Methodist Church studied the ordering of commissioned and ordained ministries. Deaconess ministries received reaffirmation at the 1996 General Conference, and the movement began to grow once more. In 2004 the office of home missioner was added to deaconess as an opportunity for laymen called to servant ministry. Today there are 157 deaconesses, 10 home missioners and 11 home missionaries in active service.
Just as the deaconess movement began with cutting-edge urban ministries with immigrants, the sick and the poor, deaconesses and home missioners today still engage in emerging and innovative ministries. The 10-year vision for the movement is to be “a prophetic voice for love, justice and service so that all may experience abundant life.” Becky Dodson Louter, executive secretary for the Office of Deaconess, Home Missioner and Home Missionary, emphasized the inclusiveness of deaconess and home missioner ministries, saying, “We are showing how we can be a diverse church and united in our diversity. God calls us to serve all. We are living out that call to be out in the world.”
While most deaconess and home missioner ministries are U.S.-focused, some ministries have international ties. Deaconess Valerie Mossman-Celestin is the U.S.-based executive director for Haitian Artisans for Peace International (HAPI). One of the primary goals of this Mission Giving-supported program is to promote gender equality in Haiti by empowering women with microfinance loans and fair-trade marketing of their crafts.
“In all that we do, we emphasize respect, dignity and self-sufficiency,” Ms. Mossman-Celestin said. Haitians administer HAPI’s in-country operations, and Ms. Mossman-Celestin serves as international liaison for the organization from Grand Rapids, Mich.
Many deaconess and home missioner ministries are as unique as HAPI, yet others are more commonplace. Deaconesses and home missioners serve in food pantries, schools, shelters and community centers. On the surface, these may not appear to be cutting-edge ministries. However, the way the deaconess and home missioner community approaches these ministries is more comprehensive.
“When we are addressing immediate needs, we also look at the systemic issues,” Ms. Dodson Louter said. “Why do we have these needs? By answering this question, we can address the causes that lead to these needs.”
Olma Garibay is a deaconess serving as the multi-ministry director at Resurrection United Methodist Church in Chesapeake, Va. She primarily works with children and youth in this community, answering her calling to help young people grow and achieve their full potential. The community is predominantly Filipino American where the youth face issues of generational and cultural gaps, often leading to a crisis of identity. She helps young people get a better understanding of issues related to culture, heritage and faith, which can be challenging.
“I face resistance in ministry, especially when I teach about social issues like poverty, immigration and peace and reconciliation,” Ms. Garibay said. “I believe that there shouldn’t be a dichotomy in our faith. We should prepare and teach our young people to think critically and look at issues happening in our daily lives in the eyes of our Christian faith — the faith that Jesus has taught us through his life and ministry.”
By focusing on community and following the model of Jesus Christ, deaconesses and home missioners dedicate their lives to ministries of love, justice and service. It is a movement within the church, changing and adapting to the needs of the world and striving to be th the world.
“I receive so much more from those whom I am in ministry with than I will ever be able to give,” Ms. Dodson Louter said. Nearly 125 years after the deaconess office was established in the Methodist Episcopal Church, it is still a vital and vibrant covenant community embodying the life-giving love of Christ.
*Myka Kennedy Stephens is a United Methodist deaconess serving as an independent information professional in the Northern Illinois Conference. Her services include writing, website design and maintenance, indexing and cataloging and church library consulting. She is also founder and developer of “Mission: Information,” an online resource for library and information ministries.