I’ve never really fit into a mould. I’ve never had any desire to. For a season I was a rugby playing, pastor mom. (I’ve since stepped back to rugby coaching.) Nobody in my life could really reconcile that combination of identities, but I found the tensions were liberating. My final season of varsity rugby, I was humbled to receive the coach’s award. My coach celebrated my role as the ‘mother hen’ of the team. Though I might have preferred he mentioned some of my more athletic contributions to the team, nobody would have argued with him. I simply felt that looking after the team, and particularly the younger players on and off the field was necessary for their development and our team success. Clearly this is a natural path towards ministry. Percy’s book on the role of clergy as nurturer or ‘mother’ was both healing and freeing because for the first time the way I have felt called to lead over the years seems valuable. I feel assured that I’m doing it right, or at least, I’m doing “good enough.” It was an added bonus that for the first time ever I read a book for clergy that used a female pronoun. (I generally favour both, but oh the healing to not have to translate the gender pronoun to include me!)
Rev. Cannon Dr. Emma Percy was among the first women ordained as a priest in the Church of England, and currently serves as a Chaplain at Oxford. Her research in the area of mothering as a metaphor for ministry was the theme she carried through What Clergy do: Especially when it looks like Nothing, and felt like a personal gift as I’m in the thick of both those roles. While she performs a beautiful exploration of the various insights the metaphor can lead us to see, the more familiar word alignment might be empowerment. Here’s where the overlap with the predominantly male business leadership model might be found. Though Percy takes a refreshing direction away from the familiar numbers and systems strategy for church leadership. She worries that such formulas “can lead to a fixation on the programme rather than the people” and she is fully endorsing our focus as clergy to be on caring for the people rather than counting them. What is beautiful about ‘care’ as a pastoral job description is that it pairs heart and actions. It also holds the tension of having authority within a context while using that authority to lift people up. “[H]aving charge of someone or something can be understood as having a responsibility to care for them….It conveys both responsibility and care.” This understanding creates space for ministry to be both relative and relational. In order to provide care for someone, they must be seen and understood, and where possible, listened to. Just as each parent needs to parent authentically out of who they are and who each of their children are, so to will each pastor or priest need to work out of who she or he has been created to be and how their particular personality might nurture into growth the unique people in front of her or him.
A mothering perspective also normalises change and adaptation as part of healthy growth rather than as a response to something being wrong or insufficient. As a healthy child grows, he or she will learn to self feed, to walk, to communicate unique ideas, and parents“delight in the signs of independence.” Similarly, a maturing Christian will learn to have a relationship with Christ independent of the church through self feeding and walking their own walk, but still look to the church family for a place of belonging. Growth requires caring for people in the church with protection and sound teaching, and sending them out to share and explore beyond the church. This is a necessary part of growth and leads to changes in perspective and sensitivities that will influence how the individual behaves within the church. “There is an important sense in which clergy are servants ministering to the congregation, setting them free to focus on their primary task of living out their Christian discipleship in the world,” and must be ready to engage mature Christians as one would parent an adult child. Thus some parts of the family will share a more significant role in determining the culture and activities undertaken.
“We often talk about the church community in terms of a family and this seems an appropriate image, as the family is at best the place in which we grow up, developing the virtues and values that enable us to reach maturity….We learn through trial and error, and we learn best where there is forgiveness and understanding for our failings and delight and encouragement for our success.” If the world beyond the family is where questions are raised, the church is meant to be a safe place to explore how faith might respond. It must be a safe place to do the uncomfortable work of testing answers and even trying out various expressions of ourselves so that we can determine how we want to be when we move out beyond that protection. “One of the greatest things leaders can do is to believe in the people they lead. People generally rise to the level of the beliefs of the important people in their lives.” Thus the church must establish itself as a family of important people in the lives of one another. The absolute beauty of this model is that there is room for each person to be authentic—even quirky—and still fit in the family; the role of the family is to grow each unique person into a mature-faithful version of themselves able to determine their actions based on their virtues and values. “And, because we are each unique individuals, we also shape and alter the language and manners of the family by our developing personality and all that we bring into the mix.” Just as a family does not remain the same when a child is added, so too are smaller congregations transformed by each new addition and by the growth of those within. This style of “(l)eadership is not defined by the exercise of power, but by the capacity to increase a sense of power in those led.” Thus a nurturing church will be one “in which clergy lovingly care for the less obviously beautiful people” and empower them to have a divine understanding of their value and capacity for influence. If we see this family as a team, a good enough pastor will know when “it’s time to lift up our teams and help them shine.” I feel like Percy went to special lengths to nurture and affirm her fellow clergy in this book. It is my hope that I will receive her permission to value the seemingly unproductive conversations, texts, details and meals in both mothering and pastoring for what they are: the work of raising up mature, independent and beautifully unique followers of Christ. Raising up fellow mould breakers.
1. Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks like Nothing (London: SPCK, 2014), Kindle, 158.
2. Ibid., 165.
3. Ibid., 13.
4. Ibid., 19.
5. Ibid., 13.
6. Ibid., 15
7. Steve Backlund. The Culture of Empowerment: How to Champion People. (United States: Igniting Hope Ministries, 2016.) 12.
8. Percy, What Clergy do, 15.
9. Mary Parker Fowlett as quoted by Bruce J. Avolio in “Pursuing Authentic Leadership Development,” In Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, Edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Publishing Co., 2010.) Google Play, 741
10. Percy, What Clergy do, 158.
11. Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (New York: Random House, 2018) 109.