Isaac Villegas: Leaders as mothers

Pastors -- and church leaders -- are mothers, because our labor has everything to do with creating space for new life to happen, creating space for the gift of life, for people to be reborn into the God of life.

Each of us had a stack of dossiers in front of us, one for every candidate for our next executive conference minister. As members of the search committee, we had done our homework. We had studied résumés, reference letters and the confidential ordination files sent to us from our denominational office.

Whom would we choose for the position? What characteristics did we want in someone who would lead our judicatory?

As I considered these candidates, I thought about the qualities of church leaders I’d respected over the years. I realized that the best leaders I’d known weren’t typical authority figures.

They were mothers: women and men who knew how to nurture life, who knew how to nurse people to health. To pastor is to mother: to hold people close, to receive their joy and pain, and to let them go when they move away but to remember them in your prayers.

Pastors -- and church leaders -- are mothers, because our labor has everything to do with creating space for new life to happen, creating space for the gift of life, for people to be reborn into the God of life.

This metaphor is not mine; there is a long tradition of seeing church leaders, and indeed Jesus himself, as maternal figures.

In a chapter of her book “Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages,” Caroline Walker Bynum explores 12th-century writings in which “male figures are referred to as mother, or described as nursing, conceiving, and giving birth,” Bynum writes. “Male figures so described are invariably figures whom both medieval and modern readers would recognize to be authority figures.”

Bishops and abbots and pastors were thought of as mothers, as leaders who nourished the people entrusted to their care, even if their anatomy prevented them from biological motherhood. They were called to be mothers: ministers as mothers, leaders as mothers to ecclesial institutions.

Anselm, the Benedictine theologian and pastor who served as the archbishop of Canterbury, describes the apostle Paul as a mother of the church, a mother of our faith and a model for those who serve the church as mothers.

“Gentle nurse, gentle mother,” he writes to Paul, “… O mother of well known tenderness, may your son feel your heart of maternal piety.”

Guerric, the abbot of the Igny Abbey in France, uses the same maternal language to describe the ministry of the apostle Paul: “Saul became Paul, the persecutor became the preacher, the torturer became the mother, the executioner became the nurse. …

“The whole of his blood was changed into the sweetness of milk, his cruelty into loving kindness,” Guerric writes. Paul is thus a mother, from whose breasts flows the life-giving milk of faith for people who experience new birth in the church.

These 12th-century church leaders understand the apostle Paul as a maternal figure because they pay attention to Paul’s own vision for his ministry as a mother, a theme that Susan G. Eastman explores in “Recovering Paul’s Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians.”

The apostle Paul, Eastman explains, uses maternal language to explain his role in the church, as we read, for example, in his letter to the congregation in Galatia: “My little children,” he writes, “for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth” (Galatians 4:19 NRSV).

Pastoral leadership as a motherly calling reaches back to the ministry of Jesus, whom Christians throughout the ages have honored as a maternal figure.

For example, Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons, summons Christians to be “nourished at the breast of His [Christ’s] flesh … by lactation.” Ephrem the Syrian wrote a hymn in the fourth century in which he invites Christians to worship Jesus, for “He has given suck -- life to the universe,” and “in His womb dwells all creation.”

In a devotional meditation, Anselm of Canterbury prays to “Christ, mother, who gathers under your wings your little ones, your dead chick seeks refuge under your wings. … Your warmth resuscitates the dead.”

And for Marguerite of Oingt’s 13th-century writings, the crucifixion of Jesus becomes the labor of the One who gives birth to the world: “Ah, Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth! For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross,” Marguerite prays to Christ. “And truly it is no surprise that your veins burst when in one day you gave birth to the whole world.”

Jesus Christ is our mother, according to these voices from our church tradition. And we are invited into Christ’s maternal ministry as we labor for the church, as we nurture God’s children. As pastors, as leaders, we become surrogates of God’s mothering care for her people.

The next time I interview a candidate for a church leadership position, I know what I’ll ask: “What have you learned from the mothers in your life -- your mother, the mothers in your church, and the women and men who have mothered you, who have raised and nurtured you?”