by Amber Mann Riggs

Our eyes would connect at our church service each week as we sought one another out to embrace. Her eyes, tired from the failing health associated with a long-life-well-lived – and mine, exhausted from a lack of sleep well-known to mothers of four young children.

Unrelated except through the blood of Christ, she let me call her Grandma Marybell, and I delighted in hearing her South Texas drawl pronounce me a granddaughter.

We had only been part of the same congregation for a few years, so over the span of her life we actually spent relatively little time together. But that does not diminish her influence. In making peace with her death, I began to recount her presence throughout my life. A cabin-mate at my first ladies’ retreat when I was just 11, then at youth rallies at the church her husband pastored when I was a teen.

She and Grandpa Melvin were the ones to sow their wisdom into our lives with pre-marital counseling as my future husband and prepared to begin our lives as one. They were among the first after-church-dinner-guests we hosted as newly weds…in which she was instrumental in helping me avert a near disaster in the mashed potato department.

Grandma Marybell was the first to affirm that “something’s not right” a few months before I was diagnosed with depression. Years later, when I was an overnight guest at her home, she prayed over my firstborn and me and brought calm when I knocked on her door in tears because my baby refused to succumb to sleep.

But I wasn’t the only one who called her grandma. There were dozens of us.

Recognizing Church Mothers

The influence of church fathers is well-recorded, but Grandma Marybell was of a kind that often goes unacknowledged in historical records – a church mother.

Church mothers use their wisdom and influence to nourish faith in ways often unseen and unheralded. They understand that the church is a family and that its children are the children of the church. Children primarily entrusted to biological parents, yes, but also enfolded into a family of faith that comes alongside their parents to love, heal, comfort, and disciple.

Church mothers have been pillars in the family of God for generations. They instruct, serve, encourage, make peace, organize, and meet tangible needs in a variety of creative ways.

Who are the church mothers in your congregation? There are likely more of them than you realize. Mothers can be stealthy creatures, moving in the shadows of more glorified ministries to carry out operations unnoticed until one day those services remain undone.

A church mother may be old, young, married, single, childless, or packing a full quiver. Try to imagine a church without adult women in it, and you will catch a glimpse of a church with no church mothers.

Honoring Church Mothers

Jen Pollock Michel notes, “The typical church leadership structure boasts plenty of church fathers. But we can’t forget the significance of church mothers, lest the church risk functioning as a single-parent family. When we celebrate these women, we reflect a more complete picture of the home within the family of God”.

Just as there is no one-size-fits-all approach to motherhood, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to church motherhood. However, when we publicly draw attention to the broad scope of mothering it empowers women to walk in that calling with greater confidence.

When the church specifically prays over, blesses, and commissions women in ministry, it sets off a domino effect of increased maturity and effectiveness within the life of the church.

In An Open Letter to Pastors {A non-mom speaks about Mother’s Day}, Amy Young laments that there are many adult women in the church who have not been blessed with this vision of spiritual motherhood. As a result, they choose to not participate in the life of the church on Mother’s Day. Not because they don’t want to honor mothers but rather because of deep personal pain associated with motherhood. Her valuable insights on how to re-frame Mother’s Day to bring healing and honor to Christian women in a way that empowers them to embrace a more incarnational view of motherhood are worth enacting not just on Mother’s Day but at other times of the year as well.

My church congregations have always recognized childless women alongside physical mothers on Mother’s Day. Every woman gets a flower. And if there are left-overs the younger girls get them too.

As a younger person, I always thought it mildly inappropriate that a flower was bequeathed on me as well when my mom was the one in my family who deserved a special distinction. Now, however, I see the flower as a prophetic reminder of who young girls are called to become – spiritual pillars mothering future generations into maturity in Christ.

Embracing Church Motherhood

If you are an adult Christian woman, whether you have physical children or not, God is calling you to embrace spiritual motherhood.

Take note of the younger generations within your church family. How can you contribute to the nourishment and nurturing of their faith? If the only generation younger than you is children, know that this isn’t about serving in “children’s ministry”. Rather, it is about recognizing that you have an important role to play in your church family.

The more mature you become in Christ and look for opportunities to serve in your areas of giftedness, the more your life will overflow into the life of your church family, both individually and communally.

Not sure how to get started? Here are a few ideas:

  • Invite a woman from another generation to join you for lunch, or even just coffee or tea. Just spend time getting to know one another. If she is older and more mature in the faith, picture her as a spiritual mother. If she is of a younger generation, view her as a spiritual daughter. Let your relationship nurture an environment that allows you to experience the dynamic of spiritual mothering.
  • Be more intentional about greeting members of your church family beyond your own generation. Build inter-generational relationships during those moments before and after services.
  • Read this article on Why Jesus-Followers Should See Themselves as Leaders.  Spiritual motherhood is one facet of that leadership. Embrace your identity as a leader
  • Be intentional about spiritual mothering. Mothering doesn’t come naturally. Spiritual mothering doesn’t either. Church mothers do the challenging work of laying biblical foundations. They bring about restoration and reconciliation and build up the church through serving in their unique areas of giftedness. Connect with others on a similar journey with this 5 week online course on Essentials of Vibrant Leadership.
  • Discover your strengths. Download Artios Christian College’s free guide on Discovering Your Leadership Strengths.