On December 11, 2022, I received a text message from a church elder. The nominating committee had met that evening and nominated me to become a deaconess. I have been a member of my church for over a decade. Though I didn't know exactly what the church office entailed, I had been exposed to some deaconess work at my childhood church, and this one too. In the Spanish-speaking church I grew up in, deaconesses mainly assisted with children’s stories, cleaning up after lunch, folding the communion tablecloth, and washing communion dishes. At my current church, I knew there were deaconesses, but my only direct knowledge of their responsibilities was in regard to the communion tablecloth. Despite my years-long critique of the distinction between deacon and deaconess roles, I decided to accept, partly to see how it would all unfold.
When I informed my family about my nomination, my brother told me he had also been nominated to be a deacon. Since we had attended this church for the same amount of time and he is only a year younger than me, I found this to be normal. Regardless, early on, I anticipated a differentiation between our roles and the treatment we would receive from the church leadership.
The Friday before the first quarter Sabbath of 2023, I learned that my brother had been informed that he, along with other new deacons and elders, would be ordained the next day. Even though I was also nominated to a new position, no one had told me about the ordination or advised me, like my brother, to wear my best clothes for the special ceremony.
Needless to say, being left in the dark about the ordination service, and anticipating my being left out of it, shocked me. Though I had not been explicitly told that the ordination service was for men alone, I knew in my bones that I would not be called to the platform on Sabbath morning. My brother had no seniority over me at the church, no spiritual leverage, yet his gender had made him worthy of a ceremony where leaders in the church would recognize his office, pray over him, and ask that the Holy Spirit be with him.
It is still inconceivable to me that a woman’s gender should affect her need or her worthiness to receive such a ceremony. Yet on that Sabbath morning, every elder and deacon was called up, new and old, from our church and others, and not one deaconess rose to the platform. The pastor, head elder, and head deacon prayed for the newly inducted deacons and elders. There was no mention of the deaconesses, no reading of our names, no recognition of our nominations.
As it all happened, I could not help but writhe in my pew, tears welling in my eyes. A righteous indignation caused my hands to shake. I could hardly say an amen when the prayers ended or recognize the ordination at all. Praise God for these men, their calling, and the Holy Spirit. But what about the newly appointed women? The head deaconess and deaconesses who were starting a position for the first time? Where is the Holy Spirit for us? No one in the church was even informed of our availability to help them. Our names were not sent out in a church email beforehand, placed in a bulletin, put on the church announcement slides, or read from the pulpit at a separate point. We were invisible from the service, and have remained invisible.
That evening, my outrage led me to Twitter, where I sent a short tweet detailing what I perceived was an injustice. One of my followers commented a link to the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, page 80, which allows ordination services for deaconesses. When I brought this to the attention of my family, I felt that my feelings of injustice were rightful. I had known I was not wrong, but I knew now that there was precedence for the procedure. I was not inventing a new thing.
While I did not press anyone in my circle to say anything, that Sunday my dad, a deacon at our church, reached out to the pastor with the simple question: “When is the ordination service for the deaconesses?” The pastor responded that it was not customary for there to be an ordination service for deaconesses. My dad then directed him to page 80 of the Church Manual. The pastor replied, “That is the new manual.” A little bit later, the conversation ended with the pastor’s statement, “I hope this does not cause division in our church.”
My dad kept me informed about the conversation, and I expected that the division the pastor spoke of might have been an indication that he would correct his error. Maybe the church would hold an ordination service for the deaconesses because of this page in the manual and the feared division would be in response to this. I knew there was a church board meeting coming up in two weeks, and I wondered if they would vote on it.
The two weeks are now past and the board meeting is done. I now understand the feared “division” would come from the lasting choice to not have an ordination service for the deaconesses. No decision has been made to have an ordination service and the deaconesses remain unrecognized from the pulpit, even during announcements. The head deaconess is my grandmother, and the issue has not been brought to her attention.
At the time of writing this, I remain a deaconess for a variety of reasons. One of them is that my grandmother is the head deaconess. Another is that the church genuinely needs support from young people. But the most important may be that I feel my voice is necessary in the church and my office may be significant one day. Yet I am deeply hurt and angry that the fact of who is ordained is still tied up with discriminatory ideas and gender roles. It is my conviction that “God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34, NRSVue) and “there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 NRSVue). I firmly believe that ordination should never be restricted to men and that it is un-Christlike to discriminate against women. The Adventist Church speaks a lot about perfecting characters and looking like Jesus. To achieve this goal, the church needs to eliminate discriminatory practices and move forward to embrace the image of God as displayed in all of humanity, fully recognizing the Holy Spirit wherever he moves.
Julia Alexys Willis is a pre-law senior at the University of Florida.
Image courtesy of the author.
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