Mothers in Ministry

My wife is an aspiring minister. She is, by all accounts, an incredibly gifted preacher and a wise counselor. We have three small children, and share childcare in the ways that most families with two working parents and reasonably flexible schedules tend to do. Recently, an acquaintance who knows of her aspirations gave her a book and a note. The book dealt with the power of "mother love"; the note disavowed any intention of challenging her calling, but encouraged her to think about the power and importance of a mother's bond with her children. It was a kind and heartfelt note, raising issues that many working mothers struggle with and mindful of the difficulty of those issues. But I can't imagine it's the sort of note that any man aspiring to ministry has ever received.

Over a decade ago, in the midst of a personal crisis, I considered giving up my own career for the sake of my other two children. I too received advice from a friend -- a woman in my profession who is eminent in her fields of specialization, known to her friends as a devoted and highly competent mother, and immensely appreciated among a small circle of Christian scholars of my own generation for the caring concern and wise mentoring that she has generously bestowed upon many of us. What I was told, in no uncertain terms, is that I and my gifts belong neither to myself nor to my family; we belong to the church, and I have no right simply to give up my career and my calling even for the sake of my family. No reminders about the power and importance of the love of a father; no concerns raised about the possible conflict that might result if I continued to hold a full time job; no gift of a book to drive the point home.

The love of a mother is no more or less important than the love of a father. We all know this. But then, in general, mothers should be under no greater burden than fathers to abandon their callings for the sake of their children. The asymmetry in our responses to working mothers and fathers, then, suggests that other factors are in play. In an evangelical protestant context, the context I have in view here, there is good reason to suspect that these other factors include a tendency to devalue the gifts and contributions of women particularly in positions of teaching and leadership. In some denominations, theological arguments -- spurious, in my opinion -- are the grounds on which women are barred from such positions. My concern here, though, is with denominations, like my own, wherein women can be ordained to ministry and wherein we often find people who will nominally affirm a woman's call to ministry while at the same time undercutting it with the expectation that she live out that call only in ways that conform to more traditional gender roles.

We should hope that women called to ministry will not succumb to this expectation. One very important way of loving your children is to model for them a life well-lived; and one entirely valid conception of a life well-lived is that of a life rich with love and compassion for others, a life that makes some positive difference both at home and in one's broader community, a life marked by good stewardship of one's God-given talents and privileges. The life of a full- or part-time homemaker can be this sort of life, and not just for a woman. The life of a full-time minister can be this sort of life, and not just for a man. In neither case does the choice of vocation automatically strengthen (or weaken) bonds with one's children. We show love to and strengthen our bonds with our children by intentionally communicating our love, by helping them to grow up to be healthy, virtuous people, and by being healthy and virtuous people ourselves. One important way of doing these things is to live out our own callings, whatever they are, to the best of our ability while at the same time intentionally balancing the demands of work against other important goods and responsibilities--involvement in community and religious life, care for familial and other relationships, self-care, and the responsibilities of child-rearing.

There is another reason to hope that women called to ministry will not succumb to traditional gender expectations. God is our heavenly Father, but God is not a man; and the image of God is borne by men and women equally. The daughters of the Church, and her sons, benefit when this reality is not only paid lip service but is tangibly affirmed through the visible presence of women standing alongside men as role models in the pulpit and as equal occupants of positions of leadership and authority at every level of the ecclesial hierarchy. We could also talk about the ways in which too many men, in distinctively gendered ways, have failed the daughters of the Church. We could talk (again) about the devaluing of women's gifts, about the harms of entrenched patriarchy founded mostly on bad interpretations of isolated difficult texts, about the staggering percentage of male pastors who participate in various ways in the objectification and abuse of women, and on and on. Yes, women have their failings too. But, even so, many would be well served by having the option of turning to women instead of men for pastoral care, and by having the maternal love of God -- emphasized in many places in Scripture and throughout Christian history -- brought to us more often, including more often by women through preaching, counseling, and the administration of the sacraments.

The love of a mother is indispensable to her children; nobody disputes this. But our mothers are also called to love the Church, and some are called to do that as ministers. They are to be encouraged.