Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A new way to frame the role of clergy

Written by: on May 29, 2019

Much has been made in the Presbyterian Church (USA) about using gender inclusive terms to describe God.  Since 1971, the General Assembly (the body of the church that makes nationwide policy decisions) has taken action “encouraging the use of inclusive language in worship, education, publications, and theological and biblical reflection.”[1]  Being one of those “Gen X’ers” that likes the idea of imagining a broad and poetic a vocabulary to describe God, I have done my best to live into this by referring to God with as many names as possible that do not strictly define God as masculine.  I was given an eight page document in seminary which included all of the names for God that are written in the Bible that did not include the masculine connotation.  I often like to remind members of the church I serve that Jesus describes God as brooding over the flock like a “Mother Hen” in both Matthew and Luke.

However, this gender inclusive language for God (which to be honest is still not universally embraced among the PCUSA, though much headway has occurred) has not permeated very well into the realm of parish clergy.  I hear horror stories from my female clergy colleagues about comments that are made regarding their appearance, the clothes or the clerical attire they wear.   Sadly, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to toxic masculinity in the church.  And even though there are unrealistic expectations that are still placed on any and all clergy, the clergy demographic that faces the most difficult challenges regarding gender roles and unrealistic expectations are single women clergy that are dating.  May our prayers be forever with them!

But hear comes a reading that helps steer the conversation in a new direction.  What Emma Percy does in her moving text What Clergy Do Especially When it Looks Like Nothing, is reimagine the entire role of parish clergy by reframing the image often associated with clergy.  Percy does this by not using father, or priest, not even shepherd or servant as the metaphor for clergy, but by using the term mother.[2]  How refreshing, poignant, Biblical, and brilliant!

Percy makes her point when she describes mothering as being connected to “ideas about home, the place in which we are fed and nurtured, from which we can leave to play our part in the world and to which we can return when the world is a confusing and exhausting place.”[3]  Though she is writing from the perspective of an Episcopalian priest, this image perfectly describes the local parish in the Presbyterian world.  My favorite section was when Percy wrote about the importance of “the art of cherishing” in which she indicated that members of a congregation need “to be recognized and treated as unique.”[4]  What better paradigm to follow when it comes to that particular skill than that of the archetypal mother.

And though not my favorite, but the most immediately recognizable and applicable section to me was the chapter entitled “Constantly Interruptible.”  Isn’t every mother’s life a continual barrage of interruption?  A former colleague of mine actually had a saying about the interruptions that clergy have throughout the course of the day by congregants, or walk-ins.  She would say, whatever the work you were doing can be placed on hold, because those interruptions, those conversations you aren’t expecting to have, that is the ministry.  Perhaps no one has put that concept into words as well as Emma Percy.

I am grateful for this text.  It has helped me reframe my concept of parish ministry by giving me a new vocabulary, one that I will reflect on as my sabbatical starts in only a few weeks.  A time when many will think I will be doing absolutely nothing, but as Percy points out, that is certainly not the case.


[1] “Well Chosen Words,” Presbyterian Church (USA), accessed May 29, 2019,   https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/pw/pdfs/wellchosenwords.pdf

[2] Emma Percy, What Clergy Do Especially When it Looks Like Nothing, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2014), 3.

[3] Percy, What Clergy Do, 17.

[4] Percy, What Clergy Do, 45.

About the Author

Rev Jacob Bolton

5 responses to “A new way to frame the role of clergy”

  1. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    I am so glad you found Percy’s construct of mothering so helpful within you Presbyterian context. What have you found most helpful to view and respond to interruptions as real ministry opportunities? Congrats and blessings on your Sabbatical, may you be renewed and strengthened in your calling! H

  2. Tammy Dunahoo says:


    Your post was soothing to my soul. Thank you. I pray your generation and those following will continue on the PCUSA’s quest to remind us God is full of the characteristics of both genders as we are created in God’s image.

  3. Jenn Burnett says:

    Every time I read one of your posts I feel like I have an ally Jacob. Perhaps because we are both in the thick of parish ministry in a reformed context. Two of your points stick with me. The first is that question of how we slow down enough to be interruptible? Particularly when in a parish context where everyone is compulsively busy and that is the norm? And you and I are both parenting young children while studying? What does it look like to go slowly when a child is pulling on your arm, and someone walks in? What do we have to believe about ourselves? Our other work? Our families? To be genuinely interruptible? And what should the limits be? For certainly while pastoring is like mothering, the people I’m actually mothering deserve a mom who has set healthy boundaries around church work? My second place of curiosity is around gender diversity for the names of God. I definitely appreciate the need to explore the many biblical names for God. But I had a terrible experience as a younger leader entering ministry where I was rejected in a candidacy interview for using the term ‘Father’ in my application. This wasn’t a public document and came out of my personal (and still young) experience. If anyone had bothered to invite me to share more about it I could have explained that I appreciate this name because it is what Jesus used and I come to God through that relationship. I was very hurt by the assumptions people made about me from just that one term. So how do we both expand people’s vocabulary in terms of names for God, while preserving space for them to linger to some degree in what is most authentic for them? After all, I don’t make my kids call me by my first name or by Pastor Jenn just so they can recognize me more holistically because that isn’t our relationship. Nor do other people get to call me mom. How then do we proceed gently? Love your heart my friend!

  4. Mary Mims says:

    Jacob, so nice you are getting a sabbatical. I can relate to the constant interruptions of a parish minister since I see this with my pastor when the retirees stop by for lunch at church. I am not sure how he handles these issues constantly, but I know because people feel the pastor isn’t doing anything, they can stop by. I think balance is needed in these situations so all of the mothering duties can be fulfilled.

  5. Thank you Jacob, you’ve helped me reflect on gender inclusiveness in the church and would be interested in reading the eight page document you received in the seminary of all the names of God that does not reflect masculinity if you still have access to it. I love it that you’ve reflected on the interruptions by congregants and how important it is to embrace them as opportunities and not actual “interruptions “. I find your blogs as an invitation to walk with you and learn from your Presbyterian experience, thank you for allowing me to learn from you.

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