Our days are filled with the details that hold the family together: checking in on people, planning ahead, teaching, patching up a disagreement with the neighbors, waiting, being there just in case, and endless repetitive tasks which we do because somebody has to do them. We know implicitly that we are building trust, building their capacity to face adversity when it comes, but the waiting can be excruciating.
Words are our greatest tools for this undefinable process of building spiritual (or frankly any kind of) maturity. We know how to use our words to manipulate in the best sense, quote other authorities and call forth the better natures from those we love and care for. We find ourselves thinking of new and creative ways of saying the same things like, “Let’s make good decisions,” over and over again, reminding everyone of whose they are, and the vision we agreed on pursuing. Alas, the crucially formative moments rarely happen on a schedule. We have to be able to drop everything when someone needs us. Most of our time is spent on things nobody notices, unless they complain because it didn’t get done. It might be cleaning out the fridge, making sure something is washed, rescheduling appointments, overseeing repair work or making sure someone nearly-forgotten gets invited. It might be making sure our home is presentable enough for people to visit, that it feels like our home but also reflects what we say we are all about instead of having everybody’s individual projects scattered about.
You tell me whom I described above, a mother or a pastor? It turns out there is a lot of overlap.
Mother/Minister Job Description:
Set and Enforce Boundaries
Everyone in our care needs limits and boundaries to mature in a healthy way. All the books, workshops, and research back this up. We could each give a half dozen specific examples right now of cases where failing to set clear boundaries led to somebody acting out in ways that hurt everyone involved, and to correct it afterward took twice the effort. But those in our care resent when we set or enforce boundaries. They repeatedly explain why the boundaries do not apply to them, or why this time should be the exception. They need us to do what they refuse to let us do.
We understand the great privilege it is to be trusted, not just with the happy news, but also with the vulnerable, heart-breaking details of our people’s lives. Then, because we hold all their secrets and have seen them at their worst – they don’t consciously process this, but – we become lightning rods for sideways emotions with no other safe place to go. The mothering memes assuring us that our kids act their worst around us because we are their safest place can only elicit a cynical chuckle.
Navigate Family Systems
We have so much practice navigating family systems – not only our own, but the big “extended family” – because it is a matter of survival. We have to recognize our own baggage from our families of origin and how we react because of our roots, so we can separate the symptoms from actual illness or “objectively” talk about what might be underneath any given reaction. It can be a justice issue, to stand up to the way our system has always handled a particular issue, because not all the ways any family system behaves are healthy. And when we look at the whole system, it is clear who is being excluded. Nobody likes when we name this, so sometimes we just know it for ourselves, and it helps us to not feel unhinged.
Mothers make excellent pastors because the skills and details we learn to pay attention to in our family life are so often drawn upon in our professional roles. Which is also exactly why it is so draining to do both simultaneously. To need to drop everything at a moment’s notice for both children and parishioners means someone is always feeling short-changed (often it is us). Clear boundaries around our time and actual responsibilities are necessary for balance, but no one likes when boundaries keep them from getting what they want. It is a lot of emotional weight to carry everyone’s stories, the details of every personal history, trauma, allergy, triggers, etc. How do mother-pastors do it?
Moms make incredibly capable pastors. But what we need at home and church are more capable co-parents. A lot of them. Not just the kind who do things when they are asked, or assigned a particular task with a pointed amount of guilt or in a serious tone. But the kind of co-parents that see our household/congregation as their own equal responsibility, as much as it is ours to take care of, and do the work of holding everything together on their own initiative. And these blessed co-parents will do so not only because someday Mom won’t be around to clean up all the messes (that apparently only she can see) but because we are all part of this family too. It is our role to see it and deal with it and care for each other too. That is how Mama can do all she does without screaming into the night too often.