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 | By Joey Reistroffer

Discerning the Diaconate

Learning to pour yourself into the faith, one step after another

Dan Crance, Jody Armstrong and Ed Villalobos are delving deep into their faith by answering the call of the diaconate. They hope to become permanent deacons as part of the class of 2025.

“I’m learning more about God, eternity and salvation,” Crance said. “How to get to heaven and bring as many people with me as I can is more important than anything else you can learn.”

Armstrong and Villalobos agree.

Crance, who attends St. Theresa the Little Flower Church in Summerville, said he grew up a cradle Catholic, went to Catholic grade school and high school then graduated from college in 1985.

“But after confirmation, we quit learning and that shouldn’t be,” he said. “We were 14. We lost a lot of that information, and we can relearn it.”

Crance’s quest for knowledge led him to the diaconate program, which he said, “is charged with teaching the faith.”

Now he is studying the life of Christ with Armstrong, Villalobos and about 20 other men.

“The quality of men in that room is astounding,” Crance said. “Their faith, their demeanor, the way they handle themselves … there are some crazy-ridiculous-smart men in there.”

It takes about nine months of discernment before being accepted into the program.

“It’s a very, very extensive application process,” said Armstrong, who began his discernment in the fall of 2019 and was accepted in the summer of 2020. 

Once accepted, the real learning starts. The program is year-around, one class per semester with three semesters a year, Armstrong said. It’s a big commitment, which includes balancing a job and family life with homework, meetings, writing papers and then traveling to Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia for intense study one weekend every month.

And, he loves it.

“I’m learning about faith, the Church, Church history and different viewpoints,” Armstrong said.

He is also studying Christology, Christian mysticism and the lives of the saints. When the program becomes a grind, Armstrong said he looks to saints like Alphonsus Liguori and John of the Cross, and closer to home, he gains inspiration from his wife, Mary, who is attending diaconate classes with him.

Meanwhile, Crance can rely on his wife Susan for a shoulder to lean on, while Villalobos has his wife Jeannie in his corner. They, too, are taking classes with their husbands.

“Jody and Mary, Ed and Jeannie, Dan and Susan are all great couples with a love for the Lord and for serving in a deeper capacity,” said Deacon Regi Armstrong, diocesan director of formation this calendar year.

“I’m excited for the future of the diaconate here in our diocese with couples such as these in the program,” he added. “Their pastors will find them to be well prepared to serve in their ministry.”

“Go for it,” Jody Armstrong said. “If it’s something you’re feeling drawn to, you should follow that as far as it goes. You get so much more out of the effort. You’re pouring yourself into your faith, and into Christ’s Church, and he rewards you for that. I wish I had started this path earlier.”

Villalobos’ path started with a retreat in 2014.

“The retreat completely changed my life,” he said. “I had a conversion of the heart.”

He said people noticed as his prayer life deepened, and parishioners began telling him that he would make a great deacon.

“One said she had a dream of me as a deacon,” Villalobos said. “That’s how it started. I heard it through the voices of people [God] wants me to serve. It’s not a coincidence. This is maybe how God is communicating to me. I got a lot of support.”

Now he is getting that support from fellow candidates and their wives.

“You develop a closeness, a trust,” he added. “They are just amazing. You feel like you come alive much more by just being around them.”

Deacon Armstrong has noticed.

“Ed [Villalobos] is the class leader and has done a fantastic job of keeping things flowing organizationally,” the director of formation said.

Villalobos admitted that the academics have been tough. It’s not easy tackling a master’s program after being out of academia for a while, but he is keeping his focus.

“You are learning with an end in mind,” he said. “I have a destination to get to. All you can do is take one step after another and trust.”

Deacon Peter Brown understands. He is a deacon at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Spartanburg who recently went through the program and was ordained in February 2021.

“If you’ve been out of school for a few decades and then you try to go back, there is a huge adjustment,” he said. That is why bonding with your fellow candidates is so important.

“Every time deacons and their wives gather,” Deacon Brown said, “they all ask about wives and their kids. There is a lot of fellowship and brotherhood that is formed.”

Candidates for the Class of 2025 have formed that bond to get them through, and they know that they must rely on each other and trust in God. And they do.

They know that God is calling them to serve his people, and they have answered, “Here I am, Lord.”

Joseph Reistroffer is a long-time writer who teaches religious education classes at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Spartanburg. Email him at