Deacon Steve Swope entered the diaconate for the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 2008. Having always had a propensity for service, Deacon Swope found it a natural step to move toward discernment on, and finally the decision for, the diaconate. He already had been deeply involved in his parish as a volunteer training altar servers, being a St. Vincent de Paul caseworker, working on the stewardship team, heading the finance council, sitting on the parish council, lectoring and sponsoring in the RCIA program.
“While that may seem like a lot, I was only doing a few of them at any given time,” he said. “What it did was establish a regular pattern of service to others that was enjoyable, fulfilling and, I believe, helpful to our parish.”
On top of that, Deacon Swope was running his own company. In spite of that, his pastor recommended he apply for the permanent diaconate program, and he did even though he doubted he would be accepted. When he was accepted, he resolved to accept this as God’s will.
Aside from the privilege of conferring sacraments and visibly observing the action of the Holy Spirit in his life as he ministers to others, Deacon Swope finds his greatest joy in service.
“When we each live out our baptismal promise to participate in Christ’s ministry as priest, prophet and king, we live as a people of prayer, teaching and service,” he said. “Being closer to the laity as a deacon enables me to see how they are living out their own vocations. For me, that is a source of real joy.”
While there are many joys, there are also many struggles, Deacon Swope admitted. The greatest challenge comes in living a dual vocation — marriage and the diaconate. In addition, deacons live in the “real world” of secular life as breadwinners of their families. Unlike priests and religious, deacons are not sustained financially by church contributions; they must support themselves and their families. They have to create a delicate balance between marriage, ministry and work.
“There’s no way to do it in which everybody will be happy,” he said. “My first year as a deacon, I did a poor job of it.”
The difficulty came as Holy Week approached, which required a great deal of time liturgically because of special services and practices. Also during that week, his family was having a major reunion, and he needed to be there for their sake.
As if that weren’t enough, that same week Deacon Swope was to be the keynote speaker at a large professional conference. There was no way he would be able to fulfill all those obligations. He was able to talk his business partner into taking over the keynote for him, but that still left the conflict between church and family commitments.
“In retrospect, I did everything backward,” he said. “I put the Church first, thinking that was where I belonged and figured that my family would just understand. Well, a family can only understand so much. If that situation happened now, I would turn it completely around, explain to my pastor that I wouldn’t be able to devote the entire week to church because I needed to be with my family. It’s hard, but critical for all deacons to remember that the first half of us always belongs to our families.”
The false assumption, Deacon Swope points out, is if a deacon is serving his family, he’s not serving God. That could not be further from the truth.
And so he recommends that deacons have a frank conversation with their pastors to work things out from that angle. Most pastors, he said, don’t mean to divide families; rather, they’re just not aware of the difficulty for the deacon to divide his time and energy.
In the same way, Deacon Swope recommends that deacons have an honest and open conversation with their wives, allowing them to help the deacons work through stress and set clear priorities. He feels he owes a great deal of gratitude to his wife for so faithfully playing that role.
“I sit down and discuss it with my spouse and find out what she thinks,” he said. “Sometimes, she’ll say ‘great go ahead and do it,’ but at other times she’ll insist that our family needs to be first. I owe that to her.”
What frequently happens when this isn’t done, he said, is that deacons’ wives give up trying to help their husbands to create balance, and so they create a life of their own apart from their husband’s diaconate. That’s unhealthy both for the deacon’s ministry and his marriage.
One way to circumvent that is for deacons to actively seek opportunities to involve their wives in their ministry or find a ministry in which they both can serve together. Even more, Deacon Swope suggests, is that every deacon work in a ministry with his wife in which she is the leader and he is one of the followers.
“When you work together in ministry, you’ll find a new dimension for your married life and your diaconate,” he said. “Many deacons, because they tend to have leader personalities, don’t want to do this. They only want to be involved in ministries that they lead. That’s not good.”
Preaching can bring about its own set of struggles. Once a deacon is ordained, he must represent the Church at all times, holding fast to its teaching regardless of his personal opinion. That can cause conflict in relationships when what the deacon preaches doesn’t coincide with what family, friends and fellow parishioners want to hear.
That happened to Deacon Swope, when he preached about a topic from the perspective of Church teaching. A fellow parishioner, whose strong political opinions disagreed with Deacon Swope’s homily, was offended and has rejected him completely.
“When we preach the truth, it will be rejected by some people,” he said. “That’s a reality. Some people in our parish won’t speak to me because I preached the truth, and that can hurt.”
Deacon Swope has been able to work through this rejection for the most part by accepting the fact that people who reject him because of what he preaches aren’t real friends. Real friends are those who will remain with them over time regardless of what he says at the pulpit.
Another aspect of that same difficulty is that deacons are called to represent the Church in all spheres of their lives. In ministry, secular work and social events, the deacon must always be aware that what he says will reflect on the Church. Thus, he must be careful what he says to anyone.
“It becomes really hard when a deacon is struggling with a Church teaching, either because he doesn’t understand it fully or disagrees with it,” he said. “But we can’t let on to others about that struggle. It’s not like we can just pick up the phone and talk about it with anyone. We have to be careful and speak only with those we hold in confidence.”
Therefore, Deacon Swope warns, deacons should take these questions to their spiritual directors and discuss them with their immediate family and friends they hold in confidence.
“This happens to every deacon if he’s honest with himself,” he said.
“We all have doubts, and that’s why we cling to our faith. That’s the remedy. Still, regardless of our doubts, we’re responsible to teach what the Church teaches.”
There have been times that family, friends or parishioners have unkindly critiqued Deacon Swope’s services or homilies, and that can sting. Every deacon wants to do his best to please those he serves. The remedy for this is to give himself permission to make mistakes and then forgive himself for having made them.
“My skills and gifts are from God, and if I’m using them to the best of my ability after having prepared well, then that’s all I can do. Even Jesus couldn’t please everyone. They didn’t like what he said and they crucified him. How can I possibly think that I could make everyone happy if Jesus couldn’t?”
At one time or another in a deacon’s ministry, he will be asked to be present at the death of a friend or family member and officiate at the funeral. That can be gut-wrenching.
“You must park your own sorrow,” Deacon Swope said. “You must give comfort and peace when others are suffering even though you’re suffering as much as they are. Sometimes that seems not humanly possible. Even so, the heart of a deacon’s ministry is service, and so you must focus on serving the others.”
In this situation, deacons must allow themselves to process their feelings at a later time.
“I remind myself that, if I minister to these people now, God will minister to me later,” Deacon Swope said. “After it’s over, I go to Jesus and share my pain with him, allowing him to minister to me as I ministered to his people. That has great healing power.”
Prayer is Deacon Swope’s primary source for strength in living out his vocation. He finds it essential to take time to pray for guidance and support daily and to participate in daily Mass and Eucharistic adoration. He’s also grateful for his loving and understanding wife who helps him to balance his work, family and diaconate responsibilities.
Additionally, he finds tremendous encouragement in his relationship with his fellow deacons.
“Remaining close to my brother deacons, especially my father-in-law and our director of deacon personnel, really helped me during the first few years of my diaconate vocation,” he said. “They helped me accept the inevitable joys and disappointments that ministry creates in our lives.”
Above all, Deacon Swope relies on the knowledge that God cares for and loves him and will not abandon him as he strives to faithfully live his vocation in the service to God’s people.
Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.