Pastoring as Mothering

Understanding the meaning of ‘pastoring’ in today’s demanding, evolving social climate is not only necessary, it is an urgent imperative. The job is confusing and difficult even on normal days. Also, research indicates that those who have the clearest call are more likely to experience burnout and eventually leave the ministry.[1]

The ministry is like fly paper. We are buzzing around it and attracted to the smell, but once we get attached it can be emotionally deadly: a death of dreams and a creeping cynicism about the capacity of the church to make any difference at all.

Three Kinds of Human Activity

There are many reasons for this, but I think one of them is the need for a fresh understanding of what “pastoring” is. Recently, I heard Dr. Emma Percy, an Anglican priest in the UK, talk about her research on this very question.[2]  Her journey led to some interesting findings. We need a fresh understanding of what 'pastoring' is. Click To Tweet

Dr. Percy began with the thinking of the secular Jewish philosopher, Dr. Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958), a classic in political and social theory. Dr. Arendt categorizes Western human activity into 3 areas:


Labor [3] is any repetitive, cyclical work which is necessary for human preservation. The fruit of the Labor doesn’t last long and happens over and over. In ancient history Labor was done by slaves. Laborers are considered persons with less value, because though the Labor is necessary, it is also futile. Today examples of persons who Labor are trash collectors, yard workers, waiters and fast food workers. This category also applies to the home. Traditionally mothers take care of the family by cleaning the house, washing clothes, bathing and putting them to bed, and preparing meals.


Work involves the making and crafting of things which endure for a period of time. The object is not consumed but used. The Work has a beginning and end and has a more enduring usefulness. There is an isolated designer who conceptualizes the object. Workers have more social value because their product is utilitarian. Workers include everyone from house builders to artists.


Action is any human activity which involves the use of speech/words and action. Action reveals the unique contribution of each person. The outcomes of Action are less predictable, more organic, and are communal. Actions can’t be controlled like items fabricated by workers.  Since action is the creative engagement of the individual in community it requires the relationship necessities of trust and forgiveness. We don’t hurt each other and we are gracious to one another. Those who are engaged in Action activities are persons such as leaders, politicians, and teachers, and I will add mothers.

When thinking about which category might fit the human activity of “ministry,” we would conclude that it is Action. It is a social and unpredictable enterprise. It requires both your words and your actions. Each Actor is unique as is each community. There is no produced ‘object,’ because the outcome happens in people’s lives. Trust and forgiveness are necessary.

However, Dr. Percy makes the association of Ministry to both Labor and Action. She likens it to the activities of Jesus as both a servant and a leader.  There is an on-going, repetitive cycle to the mechanics of weekly worship, necessary for ‘feeding’ the flock, whether they like the food or not. In high church environments this is apparent with the regular use of liturgies and the Eucharist. But in all church environments there is Labor which must be done from budgets to bathrooms. An example of ministry as Labor and Action would be visiting a church member in a nursing home who has Alzheimer’s. The ‘useless’ act of driving to a nursing home and sitting with a confused, dying human being is an example of the servant and the leader, the Laborer and the Activator.

Pastoring as Mothering – Labor and Action

To translate this association of pastoring as both Labor and Action into an image, Dr. Percy equates it with Mothering. Mothering requires a huge amount of Labor, but it also requires Action. Healthy mothering usually results in children who become confident, engaged, and loving adults.

Mothering (whether done by women or men) builds safe and happy family communities. The perpetual Labor of shopping, preparing, and feeding the family brings the family together in a unique social environment where trust and forgiveness are practiced. Parents speak and model and guide the development of children, but without the mundane Labors of washing clothes and feeding bodies, the child’s sense of physical preservation would be unstable. So Mothering is an excellent image for understanding the role of the pastor. Mothering (whether done by women or men) builds safe and happy family communities. Click To Tweet

Benefits of Understanding Pastoring as Mothering

Pastoring is a combination of mundane, forgettable human activities without which there would be no church. Pastoring is also a social enterprise of word and activities, creating an environment where others might experience Christ and might know what it means to be a ‘new creation.’ Pastoring is a combination of mundane activities without which there would be no church. Click To Tweet

Understanding Pastoring as Mothering helps guard against some pitfalls which lead to cynicism and burnout:

Ministry is Labor: Embrace it

Is it not true, that a stay-at-home mom or dad often does not get the same amount of respect as an employed one? We have an unexamined bias against Labor. Cleaning toilets, grocery shopping, and picking up at the end of the day doesn’t directly produce anything. Pastors often see their value in the Action side of human activity. Endless planning meetings, budget cycles, visitations, building and ground concerns all contribute to ‘home life,’ yet these Labors feel like a wasted day. There is no glory in these things. Yet, there isn’t supposed to be. Embrace them as expressions of your service to the family of God and do them well.

Ministry is Action: Trust the Spirit

Is it not true that even when mothering is done to the best of a person’s understanding, and the child does not turn out ‘well,’ the parent is judged? I have watched too many women and men collapse in weeping at the distress and shame they feel because they have a wayward son or daughter; and that might just mean they are not attending church. Mothering is not a guarantee. Pastoring is not a guarantee. Pastoral Action requires a profound commitment to cling to Christ and to trust the Holy Spirit. The fruit is God’s, not ours. We are called to love, to build communities of grace, to help believers see God’s kingdom expressed, and to welcome others to our table. We are not called to be successful.

How Mothering Helped Me Pastor

Pastoring as Mothering gave me a theoretical frame and an image for my own experience. In my second church plant I was struggling with on-going tension among the leadership team. Though we had agreed in principle on the vision and mission of the church, each leader had a different idea about how it would be worked out in a worship service. Eventually I had an extended time of prayer asking God to help me understand what was going on. During that prayer time God asked me,

“Do you know how to mother?”

I responded, “Yes, I do.”

“Then be a Mother.”

I will leave it there, but for me a whole raft of actions clearly came to mind from those words from God. What associations might you make about Pastoring as Mothering?

[1] See Tanya Nicole Boyd, The Surprising Impact of Purpose: The Effect of Calling on the Relationship between Job Demands and Burnout (Seattle, WA: Seattle Pacific University, 2010). This effect has been documented in many service professions including physicians, nurses, emergency call center workers, psychotherapists, special education teachers, and ministers.

[2] Emma Percy, Mothering as a Metaphor for Ministry, Routledge Contemporary Ecclesiology Series (London, UK: Routledge; Revised ed. 2014).

[3] I will keep Labor, Work, and Action capitalized to differentiate them from our usual understanding of the words.

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