Post Author: Elizabeth Cluff
“You’re going to seminary? Are you sure?” This wasn’t the reaction I was expecting from my mother when I called to tell her I’d applied for admission to seminary. After all, I was finishing up my year serving in Northern Ireland as a Young Adult Volunteer through the PC(USA), so seminary shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I thought my mom would be excited to hear the news–and she was–but her questions betrayed her excitement. She seemed worried. At the time, I was perplexed (and even spent a few therapy sessions processing her concern). But now, four years into professional ministry as a solo pastor, I realize that her protective instinct was valid.
You see, my mother is also a pastor. She knows the underbelly of the church world intimately. Just as I was beginning to envision my move to New Jersey and my studies in pastoral care, theology, and the Bible, my mother was imagining disgruntled parishioners giving me not-so-constructive feedback, the headaches of financial crises that plague mainline congregations, and the relentless onslaught of committee meetings and church functions–all things she somewhat jokingly refers to as “Working for Jesus.”
Of course, I had no way of knowing what was running through my mother’s mind. I was not a traditional “preacher’s kid.” My mom began her career as a Minister of Word and Sacrament when I was finishing high school, so I never really saw her day-in, day-out life in the church. All I knew was that our family traditions around church holidays changed very drastically once Mom became a pastor. I knew how her vocation affected us, but I didn’t really know then how life as a pastor affected her. I would come to find out that her motherly concern was real.
Ministry so far hasn’t been easy. There are amazing moments of joy: teaching children new songs about how much God loves them, having lunch with my church knitting group while sharing my “wisdom” about Blue Apron, watching the church grow deeper and wider in its love for God and God’s creation. But among these affirmations, there are moments of deep struggle: wading through staff turnover, journeying with an aging congregation as they birth a new vision for their future, witnessing to the resurrections of people too young or too beloved to have left this world so soon. Ministry is a tough road; Mom’s worries were spot on.
Despite the fear and concern in that first phone conversation, my mother has been incredibly supportive throughout my time at seminary and during my first call as a minister. While I struggled through Greek and Hebrew classes, she sent a steady stream of wisdom and encouragement, not to mention her study notes for Greek paradigms! While I worked on assembling my documents for ordination, she kept me “on-track,” sending along her study guides from past ordination exams and making sure that I would be ready to receive a call when the time came. While I fretted, failed, and floundered through my first year of ministry, her advice was only a phone call or text message away. “No, you don’t need to approve the annual budget at the congregational meeting, but yes, they need to approve your change of call.” “You might not want to do a baptism on a communion Sunday–that’s a lot of moving parts in worship.” And my favorite mantra which always helps in times of crisis, “This, too, shall pass.” She even sent me flowers on my very first Easter Sunday at my church, reminding me that I wasn’t alone for the holidays.
Every time I begin to think this whole ministry thing is for the birds and that I should find a new career, she is there to remind me that this is who I am called to be and where I am called to serve. My ministry has been enriched by having my mom in the same field. As the weeks and years go by, we get to share both the joys and the challenges of ministry–even though we live states apart.
Holidays spent together are a wash now, but she understands that I don’t want to fly home on Christmas Day after finally finishing the sprint through Advent and Christmas Eve worship services. We’re finding the church low-season to be a perfect time to visit one another in person. In between visits, we connect in other ways. I call and ask her to put on her “colleague hat” so that we can brainstorm upcoming sermon series. Occasionally, I get an email in which she asks me to read her sermon to make sure it doesn’t sound heretical, and she gets similar email messages from me. I ask if she has ever done a funeral homily on whatever random passage the family has requested, and usually she can send me her notes for me to craft my own words. Because I’m newer in ministry and have such wonderful resources (like TYCWP), she will call and ask, “Can you ask your clergy women’s group about their favorite curriculum for this topic?”
We pool other resources as well, making a point to take advantage of one continuing education opportunity together each year–this year, a trip to Israel.
It is a great blessing to share this life of ministry with my mother. Though our ministry contexts differ and our theologies sometimes challenge one another, we value and affirm each other’s unique and God-given calls. I know that she still worries about me. Maybe that’s part of her calling as a mom. But I take comfort and delight in the knowledge that she will support me as I do the work I am called to do. I am grateful that she is not only my mother, but also my colleague and my friend. Thanks be to God for my Mom in ministry!
Elizabeth Cluff is a solo pastor in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. In her spare time she loves trying out new recipes, drinking Chai lattes at her favorite coffee shop, and walking her standard poodle, Gemma, by the river.
Image by: Elizabeth Cluff
Used with permission