Mom as Pastor

Sometimes the Roman Catholic requirement of celibacy for priests makes a lot of sense to me. It makes sense because celibacy is the only surefire way to avoid parenthood. And there are times when I feel like my role as a parent pulls me away from the work God calls me to do as a pastor.

Like those weeks when my carefully laid plans have gone awry and I find myself trying to write a sermon on Saturday. At our home. In between making breakfast, checking homework, and refereeing fights.

These Saturdays make me particularly testy because I do not do well writing in short spurts. I am a writer that needs to be in “the zone” to write a sermon. It might take me half an hour or so to get to “the zone,” but once I'm there, watch out keyboard because my fingers will start flying.

And as soon as I start typing in earnest, the five-year-old wants a glass of milk. And suddenly I'm out of “the zone.” And all of those insightful and holy thoughts that were making their way from my brain to my fingertips have dissolved into unholy thoughts of frustration directed at my poor five-year-old who just wants to achieve a healthy intake of calcium.

Yes, there are times when I feel like my role as a parent prevents me from being a good pastor.

Like those Sunday mornings after worship when I am trying to have a conversation with one of the lovely, wise, elders of the church. And as I strain to hear her thin voice over the noise of other conversations, my 13-year-old starts yelling in my ear about having a friend over for lunch.

Like those times when other pastors in town are meeting to discuss important pastory things at three o'clock in the afternoon. “Sorry, I can't make it. I have to pick up my kids from school.”

Please understand that I am in no way making a value judgment about the relative importance of the roles of mother and pastor. I'm simply admitting that there are times when it feels like being a mom gets in the way of being a pastor.

I wonder, is it fair to my children for me to also be a pastor? Is it fair to my church for me to also be a mother?

These are hard, heart-wrenching questions. Which is why I consider something I received at a retreat to be a most valuable gift. The retreat leaders had secretly contacted our churches and asked that someone from the church write a letter of encouragement and appreciation for the pastor.

These letters were read aloud on the final night of the retreat. It was a beautiful experience. And as my letter was read, it felt good to hear nice things said about me. It felt good to know that my efforts as a pastor were appreciated—at least by one person in the church. It was a big warm fuzzy moment.

And then the the warm fuzzies gave way to the Holy Spirit seeping deep into my bones. Amidst the predictable niceties of such a letter, I heard words I never thought I would hear: “Joanna's roles as a sister, aunt, daughter, wife, and mother make her a better pastor.”

Not, “I wish she'd polish up those sermons instead of playing games with her children on Saturday nights.” Not, “I wish I could have a conversation with my pastor without one of her kids interrupting or screaming in the background.”

According to this woman, this saint of the church, the fact that I was a mother made me a better pastor. And because she wrote these words, these words I never would have constructed in my own mind, I am able to think about how they might actually be true.

Because I am a mother, I am well aware of the fact that the world does not revolve around me. There are many people with many needs, all of which deserve attention.

Because I am a mother, I am used to things not going according to my well thought-out plans. So the guest preacher forgot about daylight savings time. We'll just switch a few things around in the service.

Because I am a mother, I know that nobody is insignificant. Everyone deserves to be heard, and sometimes the best ideas come from the most unlikely places.

Because I am a mother, I know the importance of setting boundaries. Yes, the worship leader can read a quote from her favorite Buddhist writer. No, we cannot skip the scripture reading this week.

Because I am a mother, I know that we need to take time to play. The work that needs to be done can be accomplished in the midst of laughter and fun.

Because I am a mother I have sermon illustrations from Dora the Explorer. I know the kids will get a kick out of me saying the word “poop” during the children's time.

Maybe it is true. Despite the stalled sermon-writing, the interrupted conversations, the missed meetings, maybe being a mom does make me a better pastor.

This is not to say that pastors who are not mothers are worse pastors. It is not to say that pastors who are not mothers lack the qualities I have listed above. I know many pastors without kids who have all of those qualities in abundance. I'm just not sure I would have those qualities if I were not a mother.

It's not that being a mom makes women better pastors. But maybe being a mom makes me a better pastor.

That realization is the deepest gift I have received in my ministry thus far. God has called me to be a mother just as surely as God has called me to be a pastor.

God will make a way for me to fulfill both roles. Even beyond that, God weaves these roles together in ways that strengthen my family, my church, and my spirit. Thanks be to God, from whom we have received grace upon grace.

7 replies
  1. MaryAnn
    MaryAnn says:

    Well said. So well said.
    My kids are a bit younger than yours (7, 4, 2) and I’m starting to freak out, wondering how I’ll get them to their various activities as they start getting involved in them–piano lessons, swim team. We don’t plan to go overboard with those, but still, when will I work? I’m learning how to do good thinking in 45 minute bursts while waiting for dance class to let out, but it gets wearying. I finally see how being a stay at home mom can be a full-time job (and a contradiction in terms).
    Thanks for reminding me of the upside.
    I love the letter idea and am passing that on to our presbytery’s care team.

  2. Beth B.
    Beth B. says:

    As I begin my journey into motherhood (I’m in the waiting stage of adopting), and am still trying to figure out how this pastor thing works in my first year in the parish, hearing both the frustrations of the reality of combining the two, as well as the affirmation of God’s call to both roles is so welcome.
    Thank you.

  3. Alex
    Alex says:

    This is one of my favorite Moms columns EVER. I so resonate with this and, like MaryAnn, I know things will get more complicated as my brood gets older.

  4. Sarah F.
    Sarah F. says:

    Thank you, Joanna, for articulating so well the struggle that I face week in and week out. I, too, worry sometimes that my daughter is distracting, noisy and a pain in the butt to church members who are wanting to have a conversation with me (she’s not quite 5). And yet, like the author of the letter affirming your ministry, I do believe that being a mom has helped me be a better minister.
    I love the idea of a letter of encouragement, and I will pass this on to my Council and Ministry liaison team.
    Thank you, and blessings!

  5. ann
    ann says:

    i like how this piece says something that you’ve obviously found to be true for you (“It’s not that being a mom makes women better pastors. But maybe being a mom makes me a better pastor.”) without drawing totalizing, generalizing conclusions about all women, all pastors, all mothers, or some combination thereof. thanks for a great submission.

  6. Daisy
    Daisy says:

    Hello Joanna,
    I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your article but wanted to give you another view point to consider. I am a grown up clergy daughter – my mother was ordained 5 years ago when my eldest child was a baby. I grew up in a Christian household where both my parents were heavily (dare I say overly) involved in all church activities from home groups, leading music, endless committees etc. There were times when my parents total commitment to church left me feeling isolated and confused but I thought things would improve when they retired –WRONG!! Now I see my mum once a week if I’m lucky (she only lives around the corner) my children hardly ever see her. My chief motivation for taking them to church is so they can see her preaching etc and at least know who she is.
    I’m delighted for you that you feel the roles have woven together to strengthen both your family and church. I hope you manage to maintain this balance as you and your family grow older and that your ministry is a blessing on your children and grandchildren not the cause of family breakdown.

  7. Naomi M
    Naomi M says:

    Joanna, Thanks for articulating the mom- pastor dilema. I have on ocasion found myself jealous of a Roman Catholic friend in her calling as a Fransiscan Sister and her lack of family obligations. But then I too reflect that being a mom has made me a better pastor. I want to teach my girls to be strong outspoken women of the faith whether they end up as clergy or not and so I am also a better mother for being a pastor. Whenever push comes to shove they always come first and I thank God for the gift of their presence in my life.


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