Last week, we shared Tricia Bruce’s summary of her 2021 study, “Called to Contribute: Findings from an In-Depth Interview Study of Catholic Women and the Diaconate.” Below, workshop co-presenter Bridget Deegan-Krause shares her reactions to the work – and where we go from here.
By Bridget Deegan-Krause
I am excited to have shared with the NACC a groundbreaking study about us – about women in ministry.
When I first read Tricia Bruce’s study through the Discerning Deacons project, when I read the careful accounts of other women in ministry, sounding so much like my own, the tears flowed. (In fact, I will warn those of you who have not had a chance to read the study, to have a box of Kleenex close by.)
But the tears were nicely complemented by curiosity. This study offers concrete words, concepts and frameworks that for me accurately described this complex reality of being a woman called to ministry in a church that doesn’t always know what to do with my gifts.
In a remarkable way, I felt seen. And I felt valued as I realized that my complex reality as a Catholic woman in ministry would be worthy of scientific, sociological study.
Tricia’s study has shown me there’s a word for various versions of “you couldn’t possibly be called.” Or for what happens when I am patronized. Or when someone demeans my ministerial contributions with some reductionistic convoluted theology. It’s called Repudiation.
And there’s a word for being beholden to the good graces of my Jesuit brothers, or working at the whim of a clerical man, or counting on a letter of recommendation from someone who does not have my education or skill or experience and really no idea of the powerhouse he is dealing with. It’s called Contingency.
And there is a name for that “what are you?” or the ridiculously long explanation that I have to give, defining myself by what I am not, or the need to constantly prove and re-prove myself. It’s called Ambiguity.
The study has words for the ways I respond to these constraints, in creative and sometimes exhausting ways that are damaging or even demeaning. These constraints even lead me sometimes to do things that aren’t good for anyone, like playing small or not rocking the boat. There’s a name for that: It’s called Strategic Deference.
Or my creative workarounds and codeswitching – like the U.S. Catholic Church calling it a reflection when it’s really preaching. It’s called Strategic Dissent.
As I clench my teeth. As I work twice as hard. As my household makes serious sacrifices, both financial and emotional. As I put off other opportunities and wait while people my age, my level of education and influence, run the world. As my children and nieces and political scientist spouse watch this talented woman’s reality denied. As I invest mightily in my career and well-being, enlist the help of spiritual directors and a good therapists and a whole lot of wonderful colleagues – and lots and lots and lots of prayer – to be able to live with the cognitive dissonance. It’s called Emotional Management. Something I have become very good at.
My workarounds, my overcompensating, my playing small, my working and reworking – it takes its toll on me. But it also takes its toll on the Church. When gifts are squandered and the dreams and realities of far too many are denigrated. When women and girls are told implicitly and explicitly that their bodies do not belong in the sanctuary. When you don’t hear me preach, you don’t hear my unique take on the gospel. The Church loses out.
The word that sociologists like Tricia and others use to describe institutions like ours is Precarious.
We are wise as a church to take seriously the social science and analysis of Tricia and others as we consider the future and discern the way forward together, as we have been called by Pope Francis to do in the Synod on Synodality (see the Vatican’s extraordinary synthesis report, released in October, especially paragraphs 60-64 on the participation of women).
We are wise as chaplains to think together, to strategize on how we thrive in these constraints, and continue to offer our rich diaconal ministry to a church so in need of what we have to offer.
In 30 years of professional ministry, I am now learning to trust my instincts, my call, my voice. To take it to my prayer and the prayerful feedback of others. This study, and the conversations it has engendered, have made me feel more powerful. It has given me a way to talk about my experience. It has helped me set better limits and be self-aware about what I am experiencing, and the importance of good structures of support. It has made me grateful for the NACC’s gold-standard peer certification process, and most importantly for the community that supports me and holds me accountable.
Tricia and her team have given us a sturdy framework and categories for our own ministries, male or female. We are in good company with our brother in ministry Jesus – who knew repudiation and ambiguity, who had to be wise in his words, who engaged the hard conversations. Who knew his call even when the world denied him. Who served and was served by women time and again – in what the New Testament calls diakoneo, the root word of “deacon.”
So, my colleagues in ministry, let’s tell our story – as scary and at times as unwelcome as it is. We can practice with each other. Let’s try to get clear on who we are. Please stop calling it lay – we are professionals. It’s preaching, not a reflection. It’s presiding, not facilitating. It’s diaconal, in the model of Jesus the servant, bringing the Gospel to the margins. And it deserves to be recognized, celebrated and sanctified. Not just for my sake and your sake, but for a church that can no longer afford to squander its best resources.
It starts with sharing our truth, telling the story of our ministry, even when it feels a little risky. We can start with each other.
And for God’s sake – let’s stop playing small.
Bridget Deegan-Krause, BCC, is a formation consultant for Catholic institutions and national advisor for the Discerning Deacons project.