A recovery of the feminine
I’ve benefited from reading Emma Percy’s fresh book on clergy, even though I’m not ordained nor in pastoral ministry. Her work exposes how the way we view life is often diminished by an entrenched, gendered perspective; masculine models predominate in pastoral ministry. Flipping things around allows for the exploration of creative solutions of problems that would otherwise confound us. Traditional models, especially in the past twenty years in Western culture, have celebrated the CEO-model, inspired by a business context, or the celebrity-model, inspired by Hollywood. These are highly inadequate images which have been infected by our materialist culture. As a result, we have “pastors” whose main purpose seems to be to sell books, drive television ratings, or host conferences, rather than doing the simple, often unassuming and unheralded, work of pastoring.
By utilizing the metaphor of mothering, Percy reveals the beauty of a pastoral vocation which recovers some of the integrity of this calling. She states,
“Parish ministry, like mothering, is a way of life. Its rhythms do not conform to traditional boundaries between work and home, on and off duty, public and private space … Those who move into these practices learn to move to a different beat, to know that the interruptions are as central to the meaning as the organized and planned elements. They need to develop an attentiveness which enables them to respond quickly to a change in pace, the urgency of a cry for help or the slowing down to delight in the wonder of ordinary miracles. Clergy learn to weave the ordered organizing necessary to provide the places that sustain people with the openness to chance surprise and unplanned encounters.”
A mother is there at all times. It is a way of life, bleeding into every encounter in the parish, not to rescue but to orientate children towards maturity. It often is expressed in subtle, insignificant ways – through listening, through presence, through attending, through patiently waiting.
Others seem to agree with this recovered emphasis. Nicola Slee writes in Theology:
“Percy applies insights from motherhood to the practice of ministry … She offers helpful and nuanced discussions of humility and power, forgiveness and trust. She highlights the work that clergy do in offering comfort, cherishing relationships, practising embodied ways of communicating, multi-tasking, homemaking and housekeeping as well as weaning and managing change.”
I had a helpful, grassroots reminder of what ‘mothering’ entails this week when visiting my son in Toronto. He is a stay-at-home dad to my granddaughter, a bright and convivial fifteen-month old. We don’t see them much due to distance, regretfully, but I had two hours with them. We stuck little stickers on a page of colouring. We read Alligator Pie several times with funny voices. We piled blocks in rows, by colour and by size. We sang ‘You are My Sunshine’. The time was spent focused exclusively on this little girl, with adult conversation fragmented into sidebar spurts.
Measuring the efficiency and effectiveness of such time spent with a small loved one is, frankly, irrelevant. Yet capitalistic-infected orientations to ministry are tempted to reduce pastoring down to souls saved, people counselled, sermons preached, prayers prayed, and programs started. Pastoring as mothering, instead, nurtures and attends to the other, creating space for maturation and growth.
Despite my whole life in evangelical or charismatic churches, the time I felt most truly pastored was, surprisingly, a decade ago within a Catholic parish by my local priest. Unlike former pastors in my life, this one was not concerned with seeker sensitive services or being relevant. He just plodded along day-by-day, administering the sacraments, opening the doors of the church to those in need, doing visitation in the hospital and the seniors’ home, lingering after masses in the sacristy if anyone wanted to follow up with a word. Following a liturgical calendar and rhythm freed him to be present to those in need, including me.
I was in a dark place, but the priest patiently waited with me. We had very few conversations around my own depression, but his constant welcome and consistent presence eventually freed me up to find a measure of healing. When I sat with him, I felt at home. I’d say he was acting as a mother would.
Recovering a sense of the feminine in church life, including in the pastoral role, is critical to healing the woundedness of our harsh postmodern, alienated landscape. We all need mothers. Let’s find them in our pastors.
 Emma Percy, What Clergy Do, Especially When It Looks Like Nothing (London: SPCK, 2014), 163.
 Nicola Slee, “Emma Percy, Mothering as a Metaphor for Ministry.” Theology 118, no. 6 (November 2015): 452–53. doi:10.1177/0040571X15595911g.
4 responses to “A recovery of the feminine”
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Great post, Mark. And thanks for the beautiful pictures of Marcella on Facebook.
How would this perspective be received by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, where the priesthood is still exclusively male?
I found the same value in recovering some of the lost aspects of ministry in the feminine metaphor of mothering. I mentioned in response to several other posts that I wish I had been given this book years ago as it may have saved some stress and heartache as I tried to be all things to all people and never understood ‘good enough’.
I believe that your experience with the priest is far less common than it should be as many churches have adopted a business model of ministry in an effort to seem relevant and use resources wisely. But, it seems that the plodding priest was exactly what you needed at a critical time in your life. I am glad he was there and that you shared that story for others of us in ministry to recognize.
I agree the time for the CEO or celebrity pastor needs to come to an end, there are too many hurting people for us to treat this calling any other way than nurturing and healing. There is an instagram I follow called preacher sneakers which highlights these celebrity pastors and the expensive clothes they are wearing, it really is sad what pastoring has turned into.
Nice. I think you are exactly right. That was a very mothering moment. Your description of the the pastoring/mothering made me think of how selfless mothering is. I think many pastors unfortunately have their own ideas of ambition mixed in somewhere, and might consider long-term, slower paced, mothering as less than. Great job.