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The diaconal ‘je ne sais quoi’

“So … what is a deaconess?” If I had a nickel for every time I was asked that question, I would have paid off my student loans a whole lot faster! Ha! It seems that defining a deaconess is not easy. “Well, it’s a pastoral care role, but not a pastor.” Or, “It’s like the Lutheran version of a Catholic nun, but they can get married.” The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) provides a wonderfully thorough definition; however, it can be rather cumbersome to recite the full definition in everyday conversation. One could easily understand why there is still a sense of “je ne sais quoi” when it comes to defining a deaconess.

When I’m asked that question (a fairly frequent occurrence), I never fault the person for asking — indeed, it is a welcome conversation starter. To speak truthfully, I myself was well into my first quarter (possibly second) at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis before I had a solid grasp of what a deaconess is and does and can do.

I hear your pause: “Hang on, she didn’t even know what it was when she started??” Reader, I hear you. The longer version of my “How I Got to Sem” story has been shared before (you can even listen to a version on the Seminary’s discernment podcast, “Under the Fig Tree”), but here is a short version: I had heard the big questions about God and faith being asked by my youth, my friends, even posed to me by some of my college professors, and realized I didn’t know enough. Sure, I knew Bible stories and Bible history, but I was lacking a confidence in articulating truth to hurting and questioning people and that was deeply unsettling. On a chance visit to the Seminary’s campus in early spring of 2007, God planned a critical interaction with a then-current student. She was bluntly honest about what she did know, which was that at the time, the Deaconess Studies Program at the Seminary was still in what I’ve come to recognize as a “newborn colt” stage: not yet grown into its full stride. [The Seminary’s Deaconess Studies Program just celebrated its 20th anniversary in July 2022.] During the course of our talk, she spoke frankly: “You will have to fight for what you want, but at the end of the day, you get to sit at the feet of some of the greatest theological minds in the world today.” At that moment, her statement locked into words a desire I had only felt before. I wanted to know. I wanted to know how to think about God, how to understand Him rightly and how to convey that knowledge of truth to a world in deep pain and confusion. I didn’t know precisely what a deaconess was, but if it was a path to deepening my knowledge of God and strengthening my ability to share it, then I was in.

It’s hard to believe that interaction was more than 15 years ago now, and it is safe to say I have a much better sense of what a deaconess is (“I should hope so!” you say. Yes, right you are). Having met so many sisters over the years, I’ve learned that the range of personalities and proficiencies in the diaconal profession is impressive. It is this very versatility that gives the diaconal role its beauty and its usefulness. Let’s put it into bullet points.

A deaconess is a woman who:

  • is gifted with a certain set of practical skills or training,
  • has a passion to serve God’s people, and
  • operates out of a framework of God-thinking, which is earned through intense study. (Oh Lutheran, I saw you flinch at that “earned” word, but trust me, an advanced theological degree is not counted among the free gifts of God)

With this powerful combination, she is then sent out into the world, Spirit-secure in her faith and empowered to serve God’s people. What can this blend look like in real life? Let’s take some examples from deaconesses who are currently serving. How about this one? A Seminary alumnae gifted in curriculum planning and blessed with impressive executive functioning skills, who also cares deeply about discipleship and the growth of Lutheran families. We’re talking about Deaconess Ashley Bayless, currently called to serve Lutheran Hour Ministries as director of production for Global Ministries. How about this combination? A woman with extensive nonprofit management skills and mercy training, layered with a deep, abiding passion for the unborn and the well-being of women. That would be Deaconess Dr. Tiffany Manor, currently called as director of LCMS Life Ministry. Let’s look at another blend. A Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, Ill., graduate, blessed with the gift of words and sweeping emotional intelligence, professionally trained in social work, and deeply invested in helping people navigate the traumas and struggles of this life? That would be Deaconess Heidi Goehman, a published author, licensed clinician and noted speaker across the country (including being a guest presenter at the Seminary).

If you don’t know whether deaconess ministry is for you, try filling out each of those bullet points for yourself. Do you have a particular set of skills or aptitudes — music, writing, counseling, teaching, great compassion? Do you find yourself drawn toward a particular group of people —young children, the elderly, parents, refugees, those experiencing darkness in their lives? Finally, ask yourself this question, if you were to take those first two answers and combine them with a powerful, comprehensive and absolutely Christ-centered theology, what kind of impact could that have for the kingdom of God?

I don’t know your answer, but I do know that if these questions stir in you a sense of excitement and curiosity, I’d love to talk with you about it (and I bet your pastor would, too). Who knows? You might be just the woman God is preparing to serve His people as a deaconess.

Deaconess Kristina Paul received a Master of Arts with Deaconess Certification in 2010 from Concordia Seminary and is serving at Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Mo.