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

Pastoring as Mothering: I Love It!

Written by: on May 30, 2019

There is a  very old (and not very funny) joke about pastors and their schedules.  It goes something along the lines that a pastor only works “one day a week”.  I have been told some version of this quip more times than I can count, often when running into church members or community members in a coffee shop, grocery store, or while dropping off my kids at school.  Sometimes it is at the end of a Sunday service as I greet people leaving the church: “well, you’ve worked your one day for this week, I hope you’ll enjoy the rest!” The rejoinder, which I usually provide is that pastors don’t work one day per week, “we only work one hour out of one day, each week”.

The reason that I often reply this way, is that there is no use in getting into a conversation with people about “what pastors do all week”.  I’m not interested in defending my job or trying to prove my worth by listing out my various activities.  Instead, I just play along as an accomplice, subtly suggesting that the idea that pastors don’t do much is pretty silly, and we both can grin about it.

This is the topic of Emma Percy’s enjoyable, accessible and practical book What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing.  She draws on the image of a mother who is caring for her children as a kind of metaphor for what being a pastor in a local congregation is like.  She builds this idea on top of the work of Naomi Stadlen, who wrote a book called What Mothers Do: Especially When It looks like Nothing.

The basic idea is that there are tasks related to being a mother, such as feeding a child, tending to their needs, keeping them bathed and dressed and all the rest.  And part of being a mother has to do with accomplishing those tasks each day or week or year.  At the same time, part of being a mother has nothing to do with tasks but is all about relationship.  It’s about the way you talk to your child, or the hovering presence that you provide in a home, or the non-verbal cues and modeling that help a child discover how to live.

In the same way, Percy suggests that pastoring is much like mothering, where there is a lot more going on than simply a task-oriented job.  This rich metaphor is a delight to consider.  Most pastors who come across this book will immediately see themselves in it, especially in her unpacking and exploring of all the complex ways that a pastor does her job beyond the clearly delineated job description.  She states that “parish clergy can also find it hard to find the right words to describe all the busyness of sustaining church life. It is easy to make lists of services taken, funerals conducted and meetings chaired, but how do we begin to talk about the time and energy expended on caring for all the different people in the parish?”[1]

This is the exact tension that I often feel in my own ministry and work.  As a 7 on the Enneagram, I am someone who loves to look ahead and to organize my life by making to-do lists, and then I get great pleasure out of crossing items off of the to-do list.  But the reality is that in between all of those sermons, newsletter articles, Bible studies, hospital visits, staff meetings, committee gatherings, and community engagements (all of which can be measured and can show up on a to-do list), there is a lot of ministry life that looks very different.

As Percy puts it, “central to ministry is the building up of the relationships, the quality of incidental encounters, the time spent in praying for people, the care given in walking with people through difficult circumstances and the witness that all of this is connected to the love of God known through Jesus Christ.”[2] When asked about what I enjoy most about being a pastor or working in church ministry, I always talk about those kinds of things.  The chance to have access to the holiest and hardest parts of people’s lives. To be seen as a trusted counselor, prayer partner, or just someone who can be counted on for a hug and a listening ear.

If I were to look back on all that my own mother did for me when I was growing up, I could certainly count out all the actual, listable ways that she helped or loved me.  But much more important is the overarching sense in which she was with me, and for me.  In this way, Percy’s image of ministry as mothering is really powerful.

She points out that, “Being and doing are interwoven.  There are plenty of tasks to be done but a list of tasks cannot adequately define the role. Both mothering and ministry are relationships and activities.”[3] This is a helpful schema for thinking about pastoral work, that it takes both “being and doing”. In my role as Head of Staff for our church, this is a helpful reminder to me, when I am looking at the work that others do on our staff.  After all, the front office secretaries also have a “being and doing” dual-role when people walk into the church.  It is the same for youth ministers, musical leaders, and those working on facilities issues.  None of us is meant to simply be an automaton of achievement, and the most valued church workers (of every stripe) are those who take time to mother and pastor and care about the people they encounter.

Maybe the words of Saint Paul to the Corinthian church are important to remember here, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”[4] Even with my best, task-oriented work at the church, it also takes the caring, nurturing and mothering as well.  And in the end, it all belongs to God, the one who is really at work in all that we do.

[1]Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing (London: SPCK Publishing, 2014), 4.

[2]Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing (London: SPCK Publishing, 2014), 20.

[3]Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing (London: SPCK Publishing, 2014), 22.

[4]1 Cor. 3:6-7 (New Revised Standard Version).


About the Author

Dave Watermulder

14 responses to “Pastoring as Mothering: I Love It!”

  1. Mike says:

    One Hour Pastoring, hum…
    That says a lot about your congregation I suppose. That they think spending their 1 hour in the church, once a week, checks off their spirituality box?
    I have to grin, because those comments, made from well intentioned believers (about 50% or less are probably real believers) is the weekly coup de gras from the principalities and powers that lurk in and around the church and the congregation. It is just enough to make you hear it, think about it, write about it, and focus on it instead of what you want to focus on. I am truly sorry my friend.
    When you stand at the church door, wearing your armor, the people can’t see it, but the principalities and powers definitely see when you are wearing Christ as your protective armor. Those “working 1 day a week” fiery darts will just glance off your breastplate or be quenched by your shield.
    Thanks for your ministry of presence, 7 days a week! Your people are blessed to have you.
    Stand firm,
    Mike w

  2. Jay Forseth says:


    Is your mom still living on earth? She would be so proud of you, as we all are. I bet she would smile if she know your words, “…much more important is the overarching sense in which she was with me, and for me.”

    And your last closing sentence is a home run! Well done.

  3. Dan Kreiss says:


    I like that you connected this book and your work as well as your 7 on the enneagram. I wonder how it is that you cope with all of the interruptions that occur as you go about the tasks of ‘mothering’ those in your congregation. I know this means dealing with interruptions, last minute changes, pressing needs of people under your care so that they can continue to grow and mature. So much of that goes unnoticed and unrecognized just like the work or our own mothers.

    I wish more seminary programs would take note of this text and encourage their students to prepare themselves for some of the more pastoral aspects of ministry and not just the academic/theological components as important as they are.

  4. Dave,

    Great post, thank you. I appreciated your highlighting how the culture of mothering can be applied to everyone working within a parish setting including receptionists, musicians, youth workers, and custodians. In my parachurch world, the trend is toward measurement and accountability and production… but if we value the spiritual, we must find ways to invite mothering. This slow, patient presence humanizes us all and invites us to flourish as the people of God.

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Definitely, Mark,
      I think this is why it’s such a good image– it has layers and richness that we can explore and apply in different realms of life and work. I imagine that especially in more “results oriented” work spaces that it is exceptionally hard to make room for grace or for the slowness that is called for sometimes…

  5. Jason Turbeville says:

    I too have been on the receiving end of “one day a week” I used to try to justify my work and finally just started answering with yep it’s great. Of course I roll my eyes while saying it. I resonate with your love of being involved in the good moments and the hard moments with people in my ministry. It is my favorite part as well. I love preaching and teaching but being part of others lives when needed is the best part.


  6. Shawn Hart says:

    Dave…are you kidding me!? I have to work Wednesdays too… I knew I was overworked…sheesh! I shared a story about this this in my own post this week…too funny.

  7. Kyle Chalko says:

    Dave, great job.

    perfect retort to that old annoying thing that people say. Definitely stealing that!

    You’re right that ministry is relationships. And we really can only progress our ministry by the speed of our relationships. Percy’s encouragement for pastors to remember the many interruptions that pastors experience is very helpful. I should not only grade my day based off of “real” accomplishments, but also touch points or nurturing opportunities that I was able to be faithful to

  8. Dave Watermulder says:

    Double-true. Thanks, Kyle

Leave a Reply