The deaconess and home missioner movement in The United Methodist Church is rooted in Christian history and continues the legacy of women in mission.
I am usually met with one of a few responses when I tell people I am a deaconess in The United Methodist Church: “So, your husband is a deacon?” or, “Oh! So you are a female deacon!” or, “I didn’t know deaconesses existed in The United Methodist Church anymore!” These responses could not be further from reality. We have existed since 1888 and are still very much an active movement within the denomination.
What is a deaconess?
Deaconesses (and home missioners, which are the male equivalent) are laity “called by God to a lifetime relationship in The United Methodist Church for engagement with a full-time vocation in ministries of love, justice and service.” As a group, we form a “covenant community that is rooted in Scripture, informed by history, driven by mission, ecumenical in scope and global in outreach.” We are social workers, counselors, teachers, firefighters, nurses, artists, administrators and many other “diverse forms of service directed toward the world to make Jesus Christ known in the fullness of his ministry and mission.” Our ministries, according to The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016, aim to “alleviate suffering; eradicate causes of injustice and all that robs life of dignity and worth; facilitate the development of full human potential; and share in building global community through the church universal.”
Where did the term “deaconess” come from?
The earliest known usage of the term deaconess comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans, when he wrote: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2). Not much is known about Phoebe except the clues hidden in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Greek word Paul uses to describe the role that Phoebe holds in the Christian community of Chencreae is diakonos. The word “servant” comes from this original word and is where we get the deacon and deaconess terms in our Methodist tradition. By using this term, Paul introduces Phoebe as someone holding a leadership role, serving her church and community unselfishly. There were many other women like Phoebe who served in leadership roles in the early Christian church, the beginning point of our lineage as modern deaconesses.
Women continued to hold positions similar to Phoebe’s until around 400 A.D., at which time there was a notable decline in the mention of women in leadership roles. This was roughly around the time in the history of Christianity that the church became more institutionalized under the rule of Constantine, and women in leadership roles fell out of favor. In 533 at the Council of Orleans, women’s ordination as deaconesses was forbidden, and beginning in the 9th or 10th centuries, the only women ordained as deacons were nuns.
Rebirth of the movement
In 1836, a Lutheran named Theodore Fliedner started the first “mother house” in partnership with his wife, Friedricke Munster. Fliedner was motivated by the levels of poverty and suffering during his travels around Europe and invited young women to serve as deaconesses at a small charge in Kaiserswerth, Germany. Fliedner hoped to “re-activate the ancient role of men and women to serve the lost, the crushed and the poor.” Though this is a part of Lutheran history, the work of the deaconess with the suffering and the “least of these” began to spread to nearby areas in Europe, including Scandinavia and the Anglican Church in England. The deaconess movement from the Lutheran and Anglican traditions began to spread to the United States as deaconesses and pastors immigrated across the Atlantic. As emigration increased to the states, so did the need for ministries with vulnerable populations in urban centers. Many deaconesses started hospitals in cities such as Boston and Philadelphia.
The Methodist deaconess movement
The Methodist deaconess movement in the United States began when Lucy Rider Meyer and her husband started the first deaconess training school in Chicago in 1885. The school, first named the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions (later renamed the Chicago Training School for Home and Foreign Missions), taught single young women in the areas of, according to the General Commission on Archives and History, “biblical studies, theology, church history, sociology, economics, basic medical training and courses in chronicling the accomplishments of women.” Meyer “argued that women needed thorough intellectual training in order to minister to the temporal and spiritual needs of urban Americans.”
Meyer studied the ancient Diaconate, was familiar with the rebirth of the movement in Keiserswerth, Germany, and England, and saw the need for a similar movement within her own Methodist denomination in the United States. In the summer of 1887, Meyer asked that a few students from her school be allowed to study in preparation for a “ministry of visitation” in the tenement communities in Chicago. This group soon moved into its own house and established the first Methodist deaconess home. Here they offered support for immigrants, health care, and classes in child care, homemaking and Christian education. Students from the Chicago training school went out to serve as nurses, social workers, administrators and other community leaders. Women in the early deaconess homes lived as a community, did not marry and wore a uniform that set them apart when in ministry in the settlement houses in Chicago. Meyer was criticized for teaching women this curriculum and for having the women in the deaconess home wear uniforms. She defended both as necessary for preparing for a ministry in the tenement houses and for safety, so the women could be recognized as deaconesses while working. In 1888, the Office of Deaconess was officially recognized by the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the office has remained active ever since.
Early deaconesses in the United States
Methodist deaconesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are credited with starting schools and hospitals in communities where they did not previously exist, and the need for such ministries was great.
In Montana, Intermountain, an innovative children’s mental health center, was started originally as a school for children by Methodist deaconesses at the request of a Methodist pastor, the Rev. William Wesley Van Orsdel, also known as “Brother Van.”
Brother Van, motivated by the extreme suffering of the children in the mining camps of the Montana territory where he was in ministry, requested that a few deaconesses be sent from Meyer’s Chicago Training School for the purposes of starting a school to care for children in the Montana territory. The school was set up in Helena, Montana, which happened to be the end of the orphan train — a social program that from 1854 to 1929 placed orphaned children from heavily populated eastern cities on trains headed to foster families in the western part of the country.
Intermountain was originally founded as the Montana Deaconess School, a boarding school for the many orphans who arrived in Helena. Other students in the school came from nearby mining villages, with most students either attending for free or for a fee of about $50.
Deaconesses often worked under harsh conditions and in cutting-edge ministries of social service on behalf of women, children and youth. They were brave and set the path for many institutions in social service around the country today. Intermountain in Montana owes its origins to the Methodist deaconesses who followed God’s call on their life to a ministry of love, justice and service at a time when this was unpopular for women and often dangerous.
Methodist deaconesses (and home missioners) today
In 1940, the Office of Deaconess in the Methodist Church was moved under the Women’s Division, and in 1964, it was brought under the National Division of the General Board of Global Ministries of the Methodist Church. At General Conference 1998, when the category of home missionary was eliminated in The United Methodist Church, there was no place for a layman to live out a recognized calling to lifetime service. This led to the establishment of the home missioner category of service, the male equivalent to the deaconesses at the 2004 General Conference. By 2006, the first home missioners were commissioned. The Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner was brought back under the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries in 2010 and remained part of United Methodist Women when it became an independent agency in 2012, where it remains today.
Legislation was passed at General Conference 2016 to make the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner an official order within The United Methodist Church, a result of Deaconess Becky Dodson Louter’s lifetime work. Today there are at least 650 active deaconesses/home missioners worldwide, and 450 of them serve as deaconess in the Philippines.
Amanda Mountain is the associate director of development for McCurdy Ministries Community Center in Espanola, New Mexico. She formerly served as a consultant with the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and on staff with the General Board of Global Ministries. She was consecrated a deaconess in The United Methodist Church in 2010 and is currently a member of the New Mexico Annual Conference.
Article from Response, March 2018.