Have you noticed how newsletter articles, sermons, blogposts, and other writing from before the pandemic can either feel completely irrelevant now or eerily prescient? The title of this post, adapted from a chapter title of my recently-released book, resonates stronger than ever for me post-March 2020. For church leaders, on whom fall the burdens to innovate and receive all the frustrations of church members with change, grief and loss, the painful answer to this question often seems to be “nobody.”
In that particular chapter, I describe clergy mothers navigating how to celebrate our own family members' Christian milestones within our congregations and figuring out when to find outsiders to provide pastoral care for them (and us). When mothering pastors exhibit both of our roles publicly, it strikes a complex chord with members transferring many reactions from solidarity to deep-seated disappointments in their own family systems.
Needless to say, the congregation is not always as supportive and nurturing of an environment for the leader's family as we try to create for others. Like mothers at the center of a family unit, pastors and staff may receive few voluntary offers to ease the load. We must explicitly ask for every support we hope to receive.
Instead of dwelling on the hopeless and possibly self-pitying answer of “nobody is being the Church for us,” I offer church leaders two alternative perspectives.
First is to consider deeply the solidarity of a God who mothers us in myriad ways.
From coaching us into independence to bargaining to carrying the lion's share of emotional labor in our relationship, God behaves as a mother many times throughout Scripture. Embracing how these behaviors echo the experience of mothering, which many of us know intimately, gives caregivers the strength of solidarity, even in the midst of a pandemic. God is a mother, and this identity matters deeply to ministry. Our labor may be largely invisible, but we know it is crucial, just as God's mothering shapes people of faith into who we are. It is strengthening to feel seen, if nothing else. But that is not all.
Together, we are empowered to organize for mutual support.
Recognizing God's own mothering means that we who are in similar roles of unsung leadership can risk being vulnerable, revealing our needs to one another.
Church leaders may be accustomed to thinking of ourselves as stable enough, strong enough, and resilient enough to carry everyone else's needs. But we all need help, and the volatility of this moment in church life makes leaning on one another absolutely essential.
After all, even God depends on help, leaning on Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others to guide the children of God. This is a reminder all church leaders need right now: You will have to be the one to arrange for your own spiritual director, therapist, support group, or life-giving confidant, plus regular days off, physical activity, and relational connection. But so many people depend on you, that you have to prioritize your own well-being, so consider compassionate, mothering self-care part of your calling.
Find another “mom friend” to hold you accountable to it, and you can hold each other up.
After finding our own sources of support outside of the congregation, church leaders may also dig back into the life of the congregation to challenge the pattern of nobody “being the Church” for the leader. It is a core part of our theology that every member of the Body of Christ supports the others. Care-giving is not just the pastor's role, as it is not only the role of the mothering adult in a family unit.
I will testify that my children definitely do care for me sometimes, and I try to encourage and cultivate their practicing empathy. Congregations have supported me with thoughtful gestures, surprise gifts, and frankly, a salary that values my leadership. Those congregations where I have been the first woman pastor have listened and learned when I pointed out how they might be treating me differently than a male pastor.
Now is a time like no other to be transparent about what supporting our church leaders means in concrete action.
Even the ways we create surveys about how to hold worship right now (online, in-person, inside or outside) can steer the conversation away from a consumer mentality about whether or not the church leaders are doing what individuals want for themselves right now. If we are truly all co-care-givers in this faith community, then members and leaders can be honest about the impossible scenario of pleasing everyone and cover the process in grace and forgiveness.
An additional challenge of leading in the church right now is that the emphasis on digital rather than in-person connection means that we may feel compelled to be connecting electronically way more often, not drawing firm boundaries around our time.
Our own minds can rebound with resiliency when we turn them elsewhere for awhile.
So taking that mental break is one way we can let God minister to us through creation, the wondrous gift of our own resilient minds. This is a parenting and self-care strategy for renewal I know well. Take it from a mother, when I get some time away from care-giving, I am better able to delight in my children, and it puts our struggles in perspective even if there are no answers. I imagine the same principle applies to the Church.
I hope that as a church leader, your response to the title question is no longer a cynical: “nobody!” It takes a long-term commitment to develop a church culture that cares for its leaders too, but our mothering God and the mothering role of leadership in the Church were never short-term proposals.
I invite you to keep looking, keep asking, and keep co-creating the faith community you and all leaders need for sustainability and health in ministry.
Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an interim pastor in the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, digital content editor for The Faith+Leader, and author of Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, Inc, 2020). She also blogs at leeannpomrenke.com.
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