DMin, Leadership and 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,

[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