It’s 8 am on a Sunday morning.
My church bag is mostly packed. I’m waiting to run down and snag my sermon from the printer, and my brain is beginning to gather details for the morning ahead: Communion setup, checking in with the outreach volunteer, committee meetings after church. Simultaneously, I am pausing to pull my little girl into my lap for one more book before I leave, checking in with my other daughter about her school project, and does she want braids this morning?
These are the mundane movements of the mother who pastors, just as impactful and sacred as the death bed prayers and childhood tears. She embodies the space of loss, community, and worship, informed by the intersection of motherhood and ministry.
Spiritual formation is finding new momentum in Christian circles right now, as people rediscover the power of ancient practices, and begin to understand (sometimes, sadly, through tragedy and scandal) that an unformed life leads to burnout and fragmentation. While this is great news for many, at times the refreshment of such formation feels distant for some, like the pastor who is raising children. The endeavor to seek Jesus through spiritual rhythms seems unachievable, and perhaps just one more thing over which to feel guilt. But Jesus is not about producing, rushing, or shame. The Christ who calls us to wholeness and holds all things together (Colossians 1:17) has room for the clergy mother who wonders in the rare moments of quiet, “What does spiritual formation look like for me?”
The mundane movements of the mother who pastors are just as impactful and sacred as the death bed prayers she offers. She embodies the space of loss, community, and worship, informed by the intersection of motherhood and ministry. Click To Tweet
Comfort and Strength from God our Mother
The last thing I need as a mother in ministry is another study to work my way through, although that may be my preference. I need space to rest and to remember that God loves me and strengthens me for the things God has called me to do. I also need to know that God understands me – really knows me – and don’t we all? The prophet Isaiah says that the LORD is a mother who comforts, that when we receive this mothering love, our bodies find flourishing and our minds will know God’s female strength1 (Isaiah 66:13-14). This is embodied spiritual formation – the renewal of flesh and the resilience for what’s ahead. God our Mother opens her arms to the mothering pastor, and offers comfort and strength, not a task list or a spiritual goal to be met. God our Mother knows what it means to gather, to protect, to grieve with, and to share joy! God our Mother knows and provides.
The Christ who calls us to wholeness and holds all things together (Col. 1:17) has room for the clergy mother who wonders in the rare moments of quiet, 'What does spiritual formation look like for me?' Click To Tweet
Women with Women
Spiritual formation is always practiced in community, but what do you do when your church community are your flock and there are dual relationships to consider? For this conundrum, we turn to Mary and Elizabeth, two female pastoral figures in the Gospels (Luke 1:26-56). Mary, reeling from her angelic visitor and swelling with the Christ-child, turns to her cousin Elizabeth for companionship and care. Elizabeth, carrying the prophet John, welcomes her with open arms and as the two embrace, John leaps at the near presence of Jesus. The Holy Spirit comes over Elizabeth and she proclaims a word of blessing. Strengthened by the blessing, Mary preaches the Magnificat, a gospel message for the world.2 Elizabeth comes alongside Mary in her time of need as she prepares to birth a savior, speaking a message of hope to the world through her song. Clergy mothers can form spiritual friendship with one another – listening, understanding, challenging, and sharpening. God offers embodied love to us, and in turn we offer the same to one another.
The prophet Isaiah says that the LORD is a mother who comforts, that when we receive this mothering love, our bodies find flourishing and our minds will know God’s female strength (Is. 66:13-14). Click To Tweet
Love God and Love Neighbor: The Roots of Spiritual Formation
For any Christian, spiritual practices for the sake of themselves will yield no fruit. Rhythms, practices, or whatever you prefer to call the sanctified life (becoming more like Jesus), should always orient us toward Christ through the power of his Spirit so that we can love our neighbors and widen our welcome to the lost. The starting place for this kind of life is love of God and love of neighbor – thank you, Jesus, for this timeless truth. For the mothering pastor, God as a mother can show her the tender love that her heart yearns for, and her clergy sisters become her soul neighbors. This embodied love, of God and clergy neighbor, brings deep and wide spiritual nourishment as she shows Christ’s love to church and family.
It’s New Year’s Eve.
The snack buffet is spread, partially eaten; the board games stacked to the side, one almost won by a child basking in the magic of the holiday season. The phone rings and the mother/pastor picks it up because she knows the time is near. Betty is drawing her last breaths, her daughter says. The pastor/mother kisses her children and husband, drives across town to the hospital and kneels by Betty’s bed. “Betty, you are going to see Jesus soon!” Bright-eyed and calm, Betty whispers with a smile, “Yes, I am.” After a prayer and some time holding hands, the pastor departs and returns home to the giggles and music, snuggles and noisemakers.
She is a mother, and she is a pastor. God’s love is for her and always has been.
For the mothering pastor, God as a mother can show her the tender love that her heart yearns for. This embodied love, of God and neighbor, brings deep and wide spiritual nourishment as she shows Christ’s love to church and family. Click To Tweet
Alyssa Bell is an ordained minister (PCUSA), a certified spiritual director and adjunct professor, as well as the author of Calm and Quiet My Soul: A Holistic Approach to Spiritual Care for the Mothering Pastor (2023). Shecompleted her Doctor of Ministry degree in Leadership and Spiritual Formation from Portland Seminary in 2021 and has a heart for walking alongside people as they encounter Jesus’ radical love. Alyssa enjoys living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters.
1 My paraphrase of Isaiah 66:13-14, NRSV.
2 My paraphrase of Luke 1:26-56, NRSV.