by Liz Colver—

I got married two weeks before I turned 21 years old. I had my first child when I was 25 and began seminary at 27. I’m certainly not the youngest to do any of these things, so I was surprised one morning when, as I was dropping off my oldest child at preschool, a new student’s mom came up to me with a friendly smile. “Can you give me Hazel’s mom’s phone number? I’d like to set up a playdate with her and my child.” I looked at her with confusion and responded, “I’m Hazel’s mom.” The other mother’s expression stumbled between shock, embarrassment and amusement. “Oh! You’re so young, I thought you were the nanny!” She took my number and scurried away.

Later that same day, during a class at the seminary, a professor asked a question about our experiences, but when I raised my hand to respond, she passed over me with a smile and said, “We’ll listen to your responses about experience when you have a few gray hairs!” The whole class, filled with second-career students, got a good chuckle at my expense.

Now at 37 years old, 17 years married and with three children, I have left the world of young adulthood behind with nary a white or gray hair—much to my dismay, since I believe I’ve earned a few silver strands! As a rostered deacon in the ELCA, I often feel like I’m swimming upstream. While deacons are newish in the ELCA, the ELCA Deaconess Community to which I have been called has been part of the ELCA since birth.

Three years ago, an action at the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly called for combining the ELCA’s three rosters of lay leaders (associates in ministry, diaconal ministers and deaconesses) and giving all of them the title of “deacon.” Deacons are actually older in Scripture than pastors. But we’re often regarded as the younger, eager, less-educated, non-gray-haired ministers in the church. I’ve had well-intentioned pastors and lay leaders make comments such as, “When are you going to become a real minister?” or “No one knows what a deacon does,” or “I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to go all the way and become a pastor.” As a candidate, it was exhausting and frustrating to have to spend so much time defending my call from God and the church as valid and valuable. It’s enough to make any deacon question their role, their roster and their educational expertise.

My greatest gift was finding the Deaconess Community of the ELCA at the beginning of my candidacy discernment. We are a community of women who have devoted our lives to proclaiming the gospel through ministries of mercy and servant leadership. We serve out this vocation as teachers, counselors, administrators, health professionals, Christian educators, youth workers, information specialists, ecumenists and more.

We serve in congregations, synod offices, hospitals, social service agencies, outdoor ministries, caring institutions, universities and beyond. Before beginning the discernment process, I’d never met one of these sisters. I first discovered the community through its website, where the language they shared was all about empowerment, intentional community, solidarity in a shared call to the diaconate, and prophetic, bold witness within and outside the church. When I chose to join this community, the sisters’ accompaniment through my candidacy was immeasurably meaningful. I was able to learn about my call to be a deacon within a community of women who had, for years, been living into diaconal calls, forming leaders in community, and hosting the stories and histories of transformative women leaders from ages past.

Sister Liz Colver serves as the Director of Vocation and Education for the Deaconess Community of the ELCA. She lives in a fully solar-powered house just outside of Seattle with her beloved spouse of 17 years, James, and their three unique, justice-seeking children, Hazel, Shepherd and Amos.

This article is excerpted from the January/February 2020 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.