‘Juggling act’: Deacons learn to balance ministry, family

Deacon Thomas R. Dubois, the executive director of the National Association of Diaconate Directors (NADD), thought about the priesthood when he was a child.

But as he grew older, he said, “It really wasn’t a ministry for me. I didn’t fit in. I got married, and I thought that there really wasn’t an opportunity for me to do anything in the Church.”

Combining the vocations of marriage and ordination wasn’t even a consideration when he was young.

The role of the permanent deacon had fallen by the wayside in the fifth century, and it wasn’t restored until the Second Vatican Council.

By the 1970s, many bishops began establishing formation programs in their dioceses, and the vocation began to grow.

Deacon Dubois’s journey to ordination was a gradual one. The challenges he faced when his wife fell ill brought him closer to God, and as he became more active in his parish in the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, many people asked if he ever thought about becoming a deacon.

“The more I thought about it and the more I prayed about it, the more I realized that this was the calling I had as a kid, but it hadn’t been restored yet,” Deacon Dubois said. “I was called to serve others.”

Balancing act

When Deacon Dubois, 62, was ordained in 2000, he joined the ranks of Catholic men who are clergy but also have families. They serve the Church sacramentally, but many (those who aren’t retired) still have jobs.

Deacon Thomas R. Dubois holds his granddaugher, Grace, at her baptism, which he performed, in Toledo, Ohio, in November 2016. Courtesy photo

“They are no longer a layperson,” he said. “A deacon is 100 percent clergy 100 percent of the time and lives in the world as a cleric, a representative of the Church who responds to the people in ordinary circumstances where they already are.”

NADD has numerous programs, conferences and resources for member diaconate directors in Roman Catholic dioceses and Eastern Catholic eparchies in the United States and Canada. They offer support through formation, ministries and the personal lives of men who are committed to dual vocations. The challenges of widowhood and maintaining celibacy can even be part of the journey.

“The deacon is called to model what the family life should be like,” Deacon Dubois said. “His wife needs to understand ... how life is going to change, and she is no longer another member of the parish, but the wife of the deacon. The kids are now the deacon’s kids. You try to provide enough time for the family and get all the stuff done that you are supposed to do. The responsibilities at home don’t go away. You have the house, the car, the yardwork, homework, and then the ministry starts getting more involved. I had my wife’s permission to do this, and my daughters understood, and it was something that they accepted.”

Once when he was away, one of his daughters gave him a note: “Don’t forget about us. When you come back let’s spend time and play together.” He still has that note tucked into the cover of his Bible.

“Being a deacon becomes a juggling act and a growth experience for the whole family,” Deacon Dubois said, adding that through it all, “My wife remains my best friend.”

Continuing education

Deacon Blaine Westlake is the director of the diaconate program of the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas.

“This is a big commitment for a man and for his wife, who we require to attend most of the process so that she has an understanding of what they’re getting into,” he said.

“Sometimes she’ll be alone at Mass while her husband is up front. It’s a big challenge for the whole family. The majority of our men are employed outside the parish, and their limited hours available becomes a struggle, especially if they have younger children.”

Deacon Westlake, 68, retired from the FBI when he was 57. He was drawn to the ministry when he was in his 40s and his children, now grown, were teenagers.

About half of the priests in his diocese are international, and their coming and going creates an instability that can be anchored by deacons who remain in their home parishes.

The Church’s increasing Hispanic population creates another challenge for deacons who don’t speak Spanish. About half in the diocese do, and the others have opportunities to take language classes or have immersion experiences in Mexico.

Deacons in the Diocese of Lubbock, Texas, attend four continuing education sessions a year and two annual retreats for deacons and their wives so that they can keep up with the needs of their ministries and their families. They come together to share their experiences and to offer each other support.

“A deacon is very active in the parish community, but he still has to take care of his family,” said Deacon Juan Cavazos, vicar of deacons in the Lubbock diocese, who is involved in the ministry of deacons and their wives after ordination. “The majority of the men begin formation in their mid-40s, so they are still working and are being called to take on a second vocation.”

Their vocation journeys continue throughout their lifetime. Continuing education focuses on liturgy, spiritual direction and resources for their ministries such as responding to families in crisis.

Meanwhile, deacons are vulnerable to the same challenges that others are facing with their own marriages and parenting.

“The deacons’ lives are not different from the laity,” Deacon Cavazos said. “They have experiences that are similar to everyone else.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.