Husband & Wife Articles


Double Duty

An ordained deacon and family man learns that ‘to be’ comes before ‘to do’

By Joel Schmidt

“Daddy Deacon!”

That’s what my toddler in the pew called out during my homily, eliciting giggles from her older brother and sister. I pressed on with my homily but was seized by the feeling that I was in the wrong place. You don’t belong up here, I thought. You should be out there, helping your wife with the children. That old, familiar knot – the one that had nagged me throughout four years of diaconate formation – was back.

You can’t do this.

I was ordained a deacon a year ago, and it has taken us almost the whole time to find a new Sunday routine that works for our family, given my responsibilities to the parish.  When that routine gets upset, the knot comes back. I doubt it will ever completely go away.

Polygamy. That’s how one young priest described the dual vocations of husband/father and deacon. He wasn’t being cavalier. Indeed, he professed to have given the matter a great deal of thought. His point was that time spent in diaconal service is often time that would otherwise be spent with my wife and family. The ministry of presence, which both require, is a rather jealous one.

This conflict isn’t unique to deacons with young children at home. I was recently visiting with an older deacon whose children are grown and whose wife’s health is slowly declining. We found that we experienced many of the same struggles in balancing family responsibilities against the demands of work and ministry.

Yet this balancing act isn’t unique to deacons. How many of us have jobs that cut into our family time, sometimes deeply? In many families, both parents have to work, or one parent is absent, or one spouse is caring for an aging parent. The time and commitment knot is an ever-present part of the daily grind.

My wife and I receive many questions from couples discerning a call for the husband to be a deacon. Most of those questions, as one might expect, revolve around the juggling of competing responsibilities. It seems to be the primary concern most younger couples have. Without question, it’s a valid concern. However, as noted, this is not a dynamic unique to the families of younger deacons.

The point often missed is that a true vocation – not strictly in the sense of a job – is a call from God. Vocation is less about what you do than about who you are. I am a husband, not because I chose to be but because God chose me to be one. I am also a deacon, not because I chose to be but because God chose me. If the calling is truly from him, we must trust in his providence, that his grace will be sufficient to see us through the inevitable conflicts that arise.

This is also where the polygamy analogy falls apart. The vocations should ultimately be complementary rather than competitive. Becoming a better husband should make me a better deacon and vice versa. Why? Because I don’t become better at either one merely by my own power. I draw on the infusion of grace available in the Sacrament of Matrimony and the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Anything I do to develop particular skills that are useful at home or in ministry is simply a response to that sacramental grace.

The cardinal mistake we make with any vocation is reducing it simply to a to-do list while leaving out God’s grace. In this regard, it may be helpful to think of grace as the currency of love. Although we can’t earn grace, our loving Father longs to fill our account to overflowing if we ask. We can only share with others what we have first received ourselves. Regardless of what we do in the context of any given vocation, it will leave us spent if not animated by grace. However, if we tap into the riches of his grace, we will discern well how to invest our limited time and effort, and we will be conduits of grace to our spouse, our children, and all whose lives we touch.

Joel Schmidt is an ordained deacon for the Des Moines Diocese and holds a doctorate in biochemistry. He lives in Des Moines with his wife, Lisa, and their three young children. Joel and Lisa write together at The Practicing Catholic.