By Lee Ann M. Pomrenke
It is universally acknowledged that the images we hear, speak, and sing in church shape how we understand God. Metaphors are the best we have to describe how we relate to the unfathomable God of All. Father, mother, friend, or ruler are only metaphors, not statements of fact. Yet they are the ones we use to mold our imaginations.
For example, Christianity has for many centuries leaned so heavily on the metaphor of God as father—which Jesus uses in the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere—that the default picture of God in the imaginations of many Christians is an older man with the propensity to act as judge or disciplinarian and who remains at some emotional and physical distance from us. Whether or not that describes your father or the father you are trying to be, the cultural assumptions of such roles are deeply ingrained.
But is God only like a father—and only in the ways we recognize?
Like a Mother
To pigeon-hole God does a disservice not only to God—whose reality is beyond all genders and human roles—but also to us, who tend to value more the people who resemble the roles and characteristics we associate with God.
For a long time in many branches of Christianity, the ordained office of ministry was not open to women. If the phrases “mothering God” or “God our mother” were repeated often in scripture, the trends in church leadership were different.
Yet the Bible—and Christian art and music—are not bereft of descriptions of God behaving as mother, even if the explicit word or phrase is not prevalent.
One way to correct our course from facing so far in one direction is to listen to and truly see what those who mother do and recognize those behaviors in God’s actions. I know that all who are intimately involved caregivers changed by the experience—my definition of “mothering”—reflect God’s commitment to humanity.
Who can be a case study for us? Whom are we already scrutinizing for their relative oddity among us?
Clergy mothers, of course. Our concepts of God and the clergy are already enmeshed, so perhaps we can embrace that for a moment and see God through the lives of clergy women.
In my book Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, 2020), I narrated a collection of behaviors I knew were part of my role as church leader and as mother, like two sides of the same coin: incessant waiting, divided attention, emotional labor, and much more.
As frequent targets of congregants’ transference of emotions about their own mothering figures or lack thereof, clergy women also find ourselves poised to address a favorite metaphor of insular congregations: “this church is like a family.”
That might be so. But claiming that without examining it prevents us from realizing what unhealthy family behaviors we have been passing down too. Clergy mothers are uniquely positioned to call a “family meeting” and reframe how we choose to portray ourselves in the world. What a gift this self-examination can be to the church!
Developing Our Imaginations
Now imagine a generation growing up in congregations where God is referred to regularly with both feminine and masculine images and pronouns. People hear and call upon an expansive God from the pulpit and in classrooms, in small groups and in songs. The value of equity among leadership becomes embedded in our metaphors.
Our view of God expands as well. As I unpack how much give-and-take there is in a mothering relationship—so that the parent as well as the child is changed by it—then we must ask this.
Is God also changeable? Is God also transformed by relationship with us?
If so, the incarnation means something different than satisfying a debt to a disciplinarian God. There are also—most certainly—the cringe-worthy illustrations of intimate caregiving in my life and in God’s behaviors that must be uncovered. Anger flares up so quickly and powerfully when the same children into whom we have poured ourselves then disobey us. Might we develop empathy for God as we acknowledge our shared experiences?
Now comes the moment when we take these metaphors of a mothering God—and our commitment as mothering church leaders—out into the world. In the final chapter in my book I note that, “I am convinced that the skills and passions honed by raising children are not meant to stay within our narrow definitions of family.” Nor can a more expansive, vulnerable, transformed image of God stay within the church.
If we trust that this is how God relates with humanity, then it will change how we are willing to interact with and be changed by our siblings—all children of God—far and wide.
About the Author
Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an ELCA pastor, mother, and author. She currently works as an editor for Luther Seminary’s digital resources—Faith+Lead, Working Preacher, and Enter the Bible—and hosts Faith+Lead’s Book Hub events. Her first book is Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, Inc, 2020). She lives in northwest Ohio with her husband and two daughters, blogging occasionally at leeannpomrenke.com.
Photo. The image at the top of the post if from the Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives, across from Old City of Jerusalem. At the foot of the altar is this mosaic of a mother hen gathering her chicks. The image recalls Christ’s words in Luke 13.