How to Spot a Spiritual Mother
Mothers, first of all, gestate.
This is a hard one to spot, but often women will carry an idea or a burden for a long time before it is time for it to come to birth. Sometimes God speaks and the time is now, but other times he speaks to one or two women, and those women speak to you, and you weigh it, but God doesn’t yet affirm it to you. And they go away, but for weeks or months it sits with them, and they carry it round, praying into it, sometimes raising it with you again, occasionally praying out for it in corporate prayer gatherings, and eventually the time is right and you know you need to act on it. I don’t know if men do this too. I know they can be burdened to pray for such-and-such, or to act to change a given issue, but I don’t know if they have that same sense of carrying it like a weight inside them, nurturing it and protecting it until its time has come. But I know several women who would say that that has been part of their experience, often multiple times.
I don’t know how to tell you to affirm that in them without it sounding like a brush-off (‘I’m sure you’re right, but I’m not going to do it yet. Come back to me in nine months’ time and we’ll see…’), but I’m sure you’ll be able to find times and places to acknowledge that that is how God often works, and that there is a value in someone carrying and gestating a thought or idea, just as there is in someone carrying a child in the womb.
They bring to birth
This one definitely isn’t exclusive to women – both women and men get ministries started, and lead people to the Lord, and I can’t immediately see where the male/female differences are in that. Perhaps you can. I didn’t want to leave it out, though, since it is clearly a fairly major component of motherhood!
They feed and clothe
This can be at a practical level, like Dorcas (Acts 9) making clothes as, we can infer from the passage, gifts for the poor, or in our context perhaps those always the first to offer to host or cook for fellowship meals. But I think there is also a spiritual aspect of giving of themselves, especially to ‘baby Christians’, to nurture them and feed them from the word, and perhaps to cover them in prayer (I might be stretching the analogy too far there!).
You can spot these people either in the kitchen/behind the serving tables or getting alongside new converts and helping them take their first steps in this new life they have been given. They love to provide, and they’re never happier than when everyone is warm, well fed, and preferably still eating! Your Life Group/Community Group/Small Group/whatever-you-call-them leaders should be able to help with spotting this one. Who in their group always offers to bring something to shared meals? Who remembers everyone’s birthdays and brings cake or sends a birthday message on the WhatsApp group? Who literally gives the coat off their back to the person who arrived without one in the pouring rain? We are all commanded to do this, but the ones who do it first are probably mothers.
Mothers are constantly seeking to encourage growth and development in their children – and children cannot grow and develop without that input. Mothers – good mothers, at least – are constantly affirming their children’s attempts to develop new skills. They will push them to do things they can’t yet achieve, and be right behind them, ready to catch them when they fall, pick them up and help them try again. In Deuteronomy 32, God is described as:
“Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions.”
And in Hosea he says, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms”. Mothers see when their children are almost ready to walk, and lift them up, repeatedly, holding their hands and guiding their feet. Spiritual mothers do the same.
The mothers in your congregation are likely to be constantly inviting people along with them when they go on outreach, make the coffee or lead a Bible study. They are the ones who are saying to you ‘I got X to lead the study this week; he/she did really well’, or ‘I think Y would be great on such and such a team. I’m happy to show him/her the ropes if you like’. Again, there’s nothing inherently female about this – it’s normal discipleship, and men can and should be doing it too, but it’s an important part of the life of the family, and something to acknowledge and affirm in the women who are good at it.
Mothers see everything
We all know that mothers have eyes in the backs of their heads. They know when you’re up to something even from the opposite end of the house. They know that the time to really worry is when it all goes quiet. They are observant, not because they have some magical gift imparted to them with the gas and air in the labour ward, but because their love for their children means they pay attention.
Look at the wedding at Cana. The wine had run out. The master of the banquet hadn’t noticed, even Jesus, God himself, apparently hadn’t noticed, but Mary had, and pointed it out to the person who could solve the problem. What did Jesus mean when he said his time had not yet come? Did Mary manipulate him into doing a miracle when he didn’t intend to? If so, why now? How did she know he could help, and that he would help, if he hadn’t for the past 30 years? This is complete speculation, and I’m sure some of you scholars can put me right, but it looks to me very much as though Mary saw the need and also saw that Jesus’ time had come, even if Jesus himself wasn’t convinced. Sometimes, the quiet word of a mother can change everything.
Almost by definition, this means you may not be able to spot the mothering that is happening in the church. It’s often very quiet and hidden. Once you’ve managed to find one woman who notices things, though, she will spot others and point them out to you.
Mothers bring security
There are some people whose very presence in the congregation creates a sense of safety and security. You may only have noticed it subconsciously, but if you think about it, you may remember a time when you’ve been sharing something heavy with the congregation and you have been grateful to see those one or two people sitting in their pews, just projecting stability, confidence, and love for you and the body. When they are there, it feels like everything is going to be OK. Again, I don’t think this is an exclusively female role or trait, but I think it manifests differently in men. I can only speak from my experience here, but when I’ve seen it in men it has been much more overt. There is a strength and a boldness and a confidence that exudes from them, whereas in women it is a quiet, steady security. That doesn’t mean that confident, bold women aren’t bringing something of value, they are, but it is rarely a sense of security. It might be a sense of drive, of positive ambition, of encouragement that yes, we can get this done, but you already know and have seen that; my purpose here is to point out the more hidden aspects of mothering that you may not have appreciated or thanked anyone for.
They bring comfort
Who in your church do people turn to for prayer or a hug when they’re hurting? This will most likely be women turning to women, though there are occasions when men do it too (Exhibit A: Gareth Southgate). And of course it is never wise for men to seek emotional comfort from women they are not married to (or physical sons or brothers of), and vice versa, but when God speaks of comforting Israel, the imagery he uses is of a mother, not a father, comforting a child.
They teach their children what it means to live well in this family and this world. Part of this is done through modelling – children mimic what their mothers do, and the same is true in church. Your spiritual mothers may well simply be the people who turn up in good time every week, and who sit towards the front – or always sit in a different place because they’re looking out for the newbie or the person on their own, and going to sit with them. They are faithful attendees of Life Groups, prayer meetings, women’s meetings etc etc. They are people you trust, and a great way to make sure new people ‘stick’ in church is to introduce them to your mothers.
The teaching is also sometimes more overt. Naomi taught Ruth about the customs of Israel, she coached her in how the culture worked, and how to flourish in it. Priscilla, alongside her husband, also taught Apollos – unambiguous theological training right there in her living room.
Mothers will do anything for their kids
They will give them up if it means a chance for the child to live (Moses’ mother, the true mother in the Solomon case), they will humiliate themselves for the sake of their children (the Syro-Phoenician woman, the Shunammite woman). Who in your church is always seeking the best for others, even to her own cost? Who will come running if someone has a need, even in the middle of the night? Who brings the needs of others to your attention, even when she’s embarrassed to do so? I don’t mean the whiners, moaners and complainers who have always got some gripe about how you’re doing things, or the gossips who love to tell you ‘for prayer’ who is struggling or failing. I mean the ones who will risk their own position to be a voice for those who feel voiceless. You know the difference. And if you don’t, you need to work on your discernment.
Mothers aren’t automatically good people
Of course, all these things can happen in a negative way, too. There are bad mothers as well as good ones, and they produce offspring after their own character. Jacob may have been a deceiver from birth, but Rebekah nurtured him in that, fed his rivalry with his brother, and actively taught him how to deceive Isaac. Herodias coached her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a plate.
Samson and John the Baptist both had the same Nazirite vow placed upon them in the womb, but one grew up throwing his weight around, using his blessing for personal gain and generally pushing every boundary to satisfy his own desires, while the other grew up with a servant heart, preparing the way for someone else to walk down, and waiting to glorify his younger cousin. Who set the patterns for their attitudes and taught them how to live with the blessing and restriction of such a vow?
Mothers can set the atmosphere for good or ill, or they can abdicate their position. If you’ve got a pocket of grumbling and dissent in the church, particularly among women (again, I’m sure this isn’t exclusive to women, but I’ve seen it there far more often – men tend to either confront you with their complaints or keep them to themselves, they are less likely to grumble about them together), you’ll probably either find a key player nurturing and encouraging that grumbling, or you’ll find that there aren’t any women carrying out a mothering role. There’s either negative mothering going on, or no mothering.
If it’s the former, you, church leader, need to find ways to affirm her gifting while discipling her to use it for the good of the family, not for its destruction. If it’s the latter, it’s probably a sign that for a long time the mothering gifts have gone unnoticed and unsung in the church. Your mothers have become weary in their role, as they invest in people who then outgrow them, and they are left constantly feeling like empty-nesters without understanding why. It’s exhausting carrying on your service for God when it is not recognised, even by yourself. For too long we haven’t named these things – they’re so often what women naturally get on and do, we forget that that’s because they’re part of our design, part of God’s plan for the life of his body. We have a label for leadership and preaching, and we can see them happening, so naturally they get more honour and recognition, and they become something to aspire to. How might your church begin to flourish more and in new ways if you were able to harness and release these gifts? It could mean the difference between a single-parent family and a two-parent one. Your leadership team could function in a mutually beneficial partnership with your church mothers. Imagine how fruitful that could be!