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The Unholy Division of Motherhood and Ministry

On June 07, 2016

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” –Jesus

I can almost hear the irritation in Jesus’ voice and see it in his face when I read this passage. In today’s language, we might say that he “face palmed” when the disciples shooed away the little children who wanted to play with him, kids who wanted a kind word or funny story from the famous rabbi. 

How would it look for the rabbi, the prophet, the up-and-coming teacher from Nazareth, to have a bunch of dirty kids running around him, hanging on his legs, and making silly faces? Simply improper. Unprofessional. Undignified.

The disciples cared about appearances. They couldn’t have this image of Jesus’ ministry broadcast to the world! Healing the sick, casting out demons, and calling out the Pharisees was serious work! Adult work! Yet Jesus rebuked them, his closest friends, those “protecting the ministry.”

Obviously, they still had a lot to learn about the kingdom of heaven. They just didn’t get it. Often, I think, neither do we.

This passage reminds me of my experience serving in a leadership position at a church several years ago. I had four children, the youngest of which was a three year-old. Like most toddlers, he wanted to be close to Momma whenever possible. Occasionally, he even managed to escape undetected out of kid’s church between services to look for me. When he found me, he did not want to let go! He didn’t make a scene; he just wanted to be close.  

I recall with great clarity when the senior pastor informed me that I was not to have a child “hanging on my leg” between services or during pre-service prayer, for appearance’s sake. I was expected to separate my motherhood from my ministry.   

How do you do that? How do you separate motherhood from ministry? If you are a mother, “Mommy” is a huge part of who you are. You are nearly everything in your toddler’s eyes. The little ones don’t understand why they can’t stand quietly with momma and pray. And why should they? What is understandable about that? How can I explain it to a three-year-old when I don’t understand it myself?  

“Sorry, honey. It doesn’t look professional. You have to leave.” 

But then again, maybe I do understand it. I just wish that I didn’t. Many people don’t take female preachers seriously. That skepticism is exponentially increased when female preachers have young children. Somehow, a female preacher with little ones has less credibility than a man with kids the same age. She has less credibility because her child loves her and wants to be with her, and it doesn’t matter to him whether she is unloading groceries or preaching to hundreds of people. He just wants to be with momma. 

Many Christians view God in heaven as one we can go to no matter what, no matter when, and to whom we as children will be granted immediate access. This concept has been illustrated in many sermons by the story of President Lincoln’s young son interrupting a war strategy meeting to make a request of his father.

However, many women in ministry are told to set aside such access for their own children when it comes to “church business.” They are expected to sacrifice their children on the altar of ministry to “protect” the professional reputation of the church. Women in ministry are forced to choose between their families and their positions.

Yet male preachers are held to a different standard. I once saw a little girl run into her father’s arms while he was preaching. He picked her up, kissed her, and kept speaking, much to the delight of the crowd. Yet I was told it was unprofessional for my child to be with me off-stage, in prayer, and between services. What an incredible double standard! 

Churches build and advertise family-friendly ministries, but keep quiet the fact that family-friendliness is for guests only, not mothers on staff. Churches work hard to develop dynamic children’s programs to attract families, yet fail to extend family-friendly policies to mothers in ministry.

When it comes right down to it, touting family-friendliness is false advertising if mothers in ministry are given less support than fathers.

I know women in ministry, both paid and unpaid, who have been told that church activities must come before anything else, even tending to sick children or taking time to receive a new foster child. I’ve heard a pastor say that if his worship leader, a mother of two, had one more child, he would fire her.  I have never heard of, nor can I imagine, that threat being directed at a man in ministry.

We present God as a parent in heaven who is always available and longs to be with us, yet many churches fail to model this attitude in ministry here on earth for mothers and children.

Jesus said not to keep the children away from him. I’d say that’s a pretty clear directive. What would Jesus say about the attitude and actions toward mothers in ministry in many churches?

I believe it absolutely breaks his heart to see women pressured to choose between their children and their ministries. To see little ones wondering why they are not allowed to join momma at the many church activities she is required to attend and support.

Could this be one of the things that causes children to stumble, to reject relationship with such a demanding God? Could this be one of the things Jesus had in mind about when he said it would be better to have a millstone about the neck and be cast into the sea than to cause a little one to stumble?

The church that I pastor has decided to be different. We are not asking mothers to sacrifice their children on the altar of ministry. We refuse to do it ourselves. Ministry should be something that brings families together, not an obligation that forces them apart.

Every Sunday during worship, my now eight-year-old son still “hangs on my leg.” He wraps his arms around my waist and we stand together and sing until it is time for me to get up and preach and for him to go to his class. I know this will stop someday; in fact, he is already starting to find his own place during worship. He will grow up, get bigger, and no longer feel the need to stand with Momma in church. But until then, I will not hinder him. The kingdom of heaven is for such as him. 


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