The Nazarene deaconess has been a lay order functioning from the beginning of our history alongside the regular ministry ordained to “Word and Table.” Clear lines have always separated the two types of ministry. There was a gender line. The deaconess order was specifically for women, originating in 19th-century mainline Protestantism, where women were excluded from ordination, whereas ordained ministry in the Church of the Nazarene has always been open to those of either gender. There was a clear division of responsibility as well: The ordained minster’s primary task was to preach and preside over the sacraments, while the deaconess focused on service-oriented tasks that were undefined by the Manual and determined largely by her own interests and abilities and the desire of the congregation to which she belonged and to which she was accountable.
The church ordained its elders, but consecrated its deaconesses, emphasizing the lay character of their ministry. The Nazarene deaconess worked under the supervision of a pastor and local congregation. Recent General Assembly action (1985) revising the church’s structure of ministry has maintained some of these distinctions, while steering future “deaconesses” in the track of ordained deacon—a new order of ministry for those of either gender.
In the early Church of the Nazarene, the work of deaconess and pastor often overlapped. This fact, coupled with her subordinate role in the ministry, made the Nazarene deaconess a forerunner of the modern specialized staff minister. Each deaconess had a specialized focus. Often it was oriented toward significant social ministry. Though individual specialities differed, each deaconess was expected to assist the church’s general ministry of evangelism.
The flavor of deaconess ministry was captured in reports filed in the early Herald of Holiness. Mrs. M. E. Gasaway reported in March 1919: “I am still in Plantersville, Miss., and so far in 1919 I have prayed in 125 homes, held three meetings, helped forty souls to get saved, reclaimed, or sanctified, and held two street meetings, preached six times, and have the victory just now.” In New England, Elsie Rideout wrote that her work of the previous year “proved the deaconess’ duties are manifold—called on the sick and dying, sympathizing with so many in their sorrow and bereavements, sharing their burdens, and so fulfilling the command of Christ.” In Beverly Mass., deaconess pearl Jenkins (later missionary to Africa) met physical and spiritual needs during an epidemic that swept her community. Mrs. E.J. Lord devoted much time to organizing support for a Bible school in Hutchinson, Kans., that later became Bresee College. In Oklahoma, Nellie Barrett reported a ministry to local jail prisoners, adding: “No service is too small for a deaconess to do. Each week I find time to visit the sick, the aged, the poor, and the stranger.” Deaconesses prayed with people in their homes, handed out tracts and other literature, preached, assisted revivals, and served as missionaries, often carrying the lion’s share of the local visitation program.
The decline of the Nazarene deaconess movement was apparent by the mid 1920s, paralleling the deaconess movement’s decline in Protestantism generally. In 1914, there was practically one Nazarene deaconess for every congregation, and they composed more than a fourth of the total Nazarene ministry. Twenty years later, there was one deaconess for every six churches, and they comprised only 10 percent of the denomination’s ministers. This trend foreshadowed a similar decline later of women in the church’s ordained ministry. Part of this can be attributed to the growing openness of other sectors of society to accept women in new areas of responsibility. The trend also reflects a growing tendency of the church’s second (and subsequent) generations to move away from the Methodistic models of how to be “evangelical” that had been fixed so firmly in the minds of the denominational founders.
Deaconesses continue to exercise their ministry within the Church of the Nazarene, though recent Manual changes make it possible to foresee a day when they no longer will. The heyday of deaconess ministry was clearly the first decade-and-a-half of our church’s history, when a large and active corps of women organized themselves to carry out the church’s social and evangelistic witness.
Ingersol, S. (n.d.). The deaconess in Nazarene history. Herald of Holiness, 36.