Deacons find balance key to ministry
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The first cadre of the archdiocese’s permanent deacons has found ministry to be pretty much what they expected — with an occasional curveball.
“There have been no big surprises,” said Deacon Jim Lavin, assigned to Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park. “I’m not doing anything I didn’t expect to do, but you never know what you’re going to find.”
Such was the case when he walked into a pharmacy one day, wearing his clerical collar.
There, the pharmacist on duty asked if Deacon Lavin could give him some holy water. Why? asked the deacon. He needed it to remove a demon from a friend, replied the pharmacist gravely.
“‘Well, holy water isn’t magic water,’” Deacon Lavin explained to him. “And I invited him to call me so we could talk.
“He was quite serious.”
It has been a busy year and a half since the first 17 permanent deacons were ordained on April 9, 2011.
In addition to working full-time jobs, they fulfill their family responsibilities and minister at a parish. Usually this involves the exercise of their ministry on the weekends, but sometimes it means weekdays, too.
Deacon Mike Schreck is assigned to the Church of the Nativity in Leawood, but he also is involved in some activities at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park.
He does spiritual direction for individuals, works with the parish youth group, preaches at Masses twice a month, and leads a Communion service at a nursing home once a month. He serves at daily Mass at Holy Spirit Parish (because it’s close to his home in Lenexa) and is involved in weeknight activities at Nativity Parish as needed.
“Actually, it’s been fantastic,” he said. “I really enjoy baptisms, just bringing children into the faith and dealing with their families. It’s one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve had . . [as well as] surprisingly, preaching.”
“Also, being able to share my faith in my workplace as well,” he continued. “It’s an important part for us who are permanent deacons to be a leaven in our work environment as well.”
The ability to witness to his faith in the workplace, as well as balance his commitments to family, ministry and work, is an important aspect of being a deacon.
“I think [permanent deacons] are called to be a witness to the call that all laity have to live out our faith in all aspects of our life,” said Deacon Schreck. “I think that deacons, in a particular way, serve as a role model in that regard.”
Deacon Lavin is not only assigned to Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park, he is employed there as a pastoral minister. He manages the parish’s technology and security.
He serves at weekend Masses and preaches at all the Masses once a month and every Friday morning Mass. He has done baptisms and a few weddings.
“When I’ve gotten together with my brother deacons, I’ve learned that everyone has different responsibilities for their assignment,” said Deacon Lavin.
“You’ll hear about some doing all the baptisms and weddings, but don’t preach much,” he continued. “Or, they may do various ministries in the evening, but don’t do a lot of liturgy. It depends on the needs of the parish and the pastor.”
Deacon Lavin is glad he has a lot of support from his pastor, Father Rick Storey, and parishioners.
“I’d say that, by and large, it has been very positive,” said Deacon Lavin. “I’m blessed to serve at my home parish, and not all deacons are assigned to their home parish. The parishioners have been with me all through the process to ordination and have been very supportive.”
The biggest challenge is achieving that magic balance — especially as he spends a lot of time at the parish and giving spiritual direction.
“I have to be very mindful of how this affects my wife and my younger son, who is a junior in high school,” he said. “I try to make sure I make time for him and my wife, and visit another son — who is disabled and lives in a group home — on a regular basis.”
“You have to make sure you’re taking care of your family,” he continued. “I couldn’t do this if I had issues within the family. We worked on this during our five years of formation. We were always told our marriage and family vocation comes first, then work, and then the diaconate.”
Another great challenge is handling some of the difficult pastoral needs of parishioners.
“They come to you with questions, problems and challenges in their lives that you’re not always prepared for,” he said. “You try to find the best way to help them and answer their questions.”
“Once you become an ordained minister, you sit on the front row of people’s personal and spiritual lives,” he continued. “They let you into their lives. You have to be careful to maintain some kind of separation, but also to provide the assistance they need.”
Often, he has had to rely on the grace that comes from ordination to handle these challenges.
“I’m not a counselor,” said Deacon Lavin. “I don’t do psychological counseling. I provide spiritual direction and whatever pastoral assistance I can. When it’s all over with, I think, ‘Wow, where did those words come out of my mouth?’ How did I have the grace not to say certain things — to bite my lip sometimes and meet people where they’re at?”
Deacon Keith Gearey, assigned to Our Lady of Unity Parish, is the only permanent deacon in Wyandotte County.
Like the other deacons, he proclaims the Gospel and occasionally preaches at Sunday Masses. He has officiated at only one wedding, but has presided over several funerals and graveside services. He does a lot of teaching — both for RCIA and for parents in the parish religious education program.
He couldn’t engage in his ministry without his family’s support.
“I’m very blessed that my wife is very understanding,” he said. “I have a teenage daughter, age 17, who understands the scope of my ministry and doesn’t feel slighted. I try to set aside time just for her, and my wife, to do things together. I’m a deacon 24/7, but you need those times when you focus on your family.”
His wife is, in many ways, a contributor to his own ministry.
“When she thinks my homily is crummy, she’ll always tell me,” he said. “Most of the time she says, ‘That’s pretty good,’ but sometimes, ‘I didn’t like that.’ She uses constructive criticism. And sometimes if I don’t have anything going on during the weekend, we’ll go to Mass at Prince of Peace and just sit out there in the congregation together. I think it’s important for husbands and wives to pray together.”
One of the challenges of being a deacon is that he’s always, in a sense, on duty.
“You represent the church and your pastor,” said Deacon Gearey. “So, when you go into some of these situations, no matter how your day went, you have to set it all aside. My constant prayer is, ‘Lord, let the words that come out of my mouth be your words.’”