What Discernment Looks Like—for Us

Many of you reading know that Jodi and I have been discerning the possibility of me becoming a deacon. A deacon in the Catholic Church is an ordained member of the clergy, meaning that like priests and bishops, they receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. An ordained deacon is a deacon for life. If unmarried, he remains unmarried; if married, he does not remarry after the death of his wife. They generally serve the Church and assist priests at the altar during Mass, with certain pastoral and sacramental duties, and with teaching and preaching. Generally, they maintain their careers outside the Church, which uniquely positions them as clergy out in the world on a regular basis.

The Church recognizes two types of deacons. Transitional deacons are ordained deacons on their way to becoming ordained priests. Permanent deacons are ordained deacons who do not intend to become priests but have answered God’s call to serve the Church in this deeper way.

 In the Catholic Church, deacon is not a volunteer position or a job, but a vocational call—and for a married couple that has a vocational call as husband and wife, it ought to be a big decision. As the Institute for Diaconate Formation (IDF) here in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis often puts it, Wives need to be comfortable with their husbands marrying another woman, the Church.

How Did We Get Here?

The possibility of becoming a deacon first arose inside me many years ago, but I was wisely encouraged to wait. Within the last several years it has emerged again, usually from the outside: priests and deacons, friends, and family, asking if I have ever considered it and encouraging me to do so.

During this time, we also watched our dear friends, Mike and Stacy Engel, journey through diaconate formation—seeing up close the blessings and challenges that formation for diaconate can pose to a busy family. (Mike is slated to be ordained this December, praise God!)

Finally, a few years ago, Jodi and I took the step of attending a Diaconate Discernment Day at the Saint Paul Seminary—an opportunity to learn more about what becoming a deacon and a deacon’s wife means and what the process looks like. It really emphasized the mutuality of the call, that both of us needed to be on board. The next step was to set up a preliminary interview with the IDF director, but before we arrived home, we had already reached the conclusion that it was not time. It was clear that with our older kids preparing to leave the nest and our youngest needing more time and attention from us, we could not dedicate the time that formation would require from us as a couple.

I emailed IDF after we got home that we would not be interviewing. I told them a bit about why, and what I was doing in the meantime to continue to discern what God might want from me, and the response was encouraging: Keep doing what you are doing, and we’ll see you in a couple years.

Round Two of Discernment

Like everything else, COVID delayed diaconate formation for for everyone involved. Finally this past spring, Jodi and I were invited to consider a preliminary interview, the step we had previously declined. We agreed almost immediately to take a step forward to see whether God might be calling us now.

The initial interview was a lot of fun: Jodi and I shared who we are, talked about our family and prayer life, and gave an honest assessment of our current thinking on diaconate: Both of us felt that I was being called to something more, and both of us were open to the call, but Jodi was not excited about diaconate formation and I did not yet feel specifically called to become a deacon. At the end of the interview, we were invited to take the next step and apply to IDF. If the application was accepted, we would be invited to interview before a larger committee comprised of clergy and deacon’s wives, who would help us ascertain whether a call was there for us to pursue.

The application was lengthy, thorough, and accepted. We were invited to interview with the admissions committee.

The Home Stretch

The past few months, encompassing the application process and leading to the admissions interview, were turbulent. Completing the application, which included a couple’s marriage inventory and a thorough physical for me, emphasized our (and my) overall health, as well as a few things we (and I) should work on. Completing the application led me to think that God may be calling me specifically to become a deacon—and as we shared where we were at in the process, more and more people affirmed our gifts and our discernment, giving us confidence to move forward

At the same time, we celebrated our 25th anniversary, which afforded numerous opportunities to reflect on our marriage and life together—and we found ourselves being called in other, new directions, just as good, and in some ways, more appealing. We were having deep conversations about our future, our desires, and our needs, and the more we talked, the more possibilities seemed to open before us.

Finally, we made a plan to take a long walk alone together this past Wednesday night to discuss a few last things from the marriage inventory and to share how we were feeling about the interview Thursday afternoon. On Tuesday, during my own personal prayer time, I began to feel as though God were nudging me in a new way:

You say you are willing to upend your life for a possible call to diaconate. But I have called you to work on your marriage and your craft [writing] for years now, and you have changed very little to respond.

I didn’t feel ashamed or guilty at this new revelation, only that it was true—and that, whether we were called to diaconate or not, I would have to work on my marriage and my craft or answer for it someday.

During Adoration on Wednesday afternoon, I took this to prayer and journaled for much of the hour. In the end, my conclusion was this: If I was asked right now what I thought we should do, I would say that we should wait and not pursue diaconate right now.

I resolved to share this with Jodi on our walk—but also to go to the interview and let the Spirit lead us to whatever conclusion He wanted.

Wednesday evening didn’t go exactly as planned, so that, by the time we left for our walk, I was frustrated and concerned about several things on the home front. We spent the first two thirds of the walk hashing these things over and recognizing that 25 years of habits (good and bad) developed when we had a house full of kids and little time to reflect would not serve us well for the next 25 years of life with just one child (or none) at home.

By the time we got around to talking about the interview, it was even clearer that we had our own work to do. Again, we resolved not to share our thoughts with the committee on this until asked, to let the Spirit lead and avoid pre-empting the conversation.

The Interview

We met with a priest, three deacons, and two deacons’ wives. They introduced themselves, asked us to tell them about ourselves, our family, and how we met, and then asked the first question, which was something like:

What is attracting you to becoming a deacon? Why is now the right time?

Jodi and I glanced at each other and started to laugh. I looked at the committee and said, “Well, to be honest with you…”

…and we proceeded to share exactly where we were with our thinking.

We talked with the committee for the full hour. They asked some more probing questions to be sure we were, in fact, discerning. They told us our application packet looked great, but reminded us that pursuing holiness and pursuing Holy Orders aren’t the same thing—that we needn’t become a deacon and a deacon’s wife to become a saints. They reminded us that saying, “Not now” is not the same as saying “never”—that we are still young enough to answer the call later should it come. And they said they found our openness and honesty enlightening.

Two things occurred to me in the course of the interview that hadn’t come forth in the same way before:

  • Since our anniversary and marriage inventory, we are having new and honest conversations that are bearing fruit in our relationship, and we should continue to pursue that.
  • We know that couples’ formation can be beautiful and rewarding, but right now, it is more likely to be a stressor for our marriage and our family.

It was a great meeting, culminating in a final question:

Clear discernment should bring a sense of peace. If we were to say that you should not move forward at this time, how would that make you feel?

I immediately felt light and peaceful. I looked at Jodi, whose face, despite her best efforts, was erupting into a grin.

“My bride is smiling,” I said, and everyone laughed. We agreed to a peaceful, joyful, and very mutual not now.

Prayer. Providence. Open and honest discussion. Peace. That’s how the Spirit is speaking to us in our marriage.

What’s Next?

We have our work cut out for us nonetheless:

  • We are called to work proactively on our marriage and family life through these changes that are coming so quickly now as our children (and we) age.
  • I am called to respond to God’s gift of writing in my life. I use it to make a living, but He wants it deployed for His Kingdom. What will I change to bear more fruit in this way?

The hardest thing in all of this for me is to tell people. So many times I’ve shared plans and dreams that have come to nothing—I’ve been encouraged by others, and fallen short of expectations, including my own. It’s hard to tell you we aren’t moving forward with IDF, and hard to share what we intend to do now.

The Enemy whispers, What if you fail?

My Lord replies, What if you don’t?

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