I’ll never forget the look on Patty’s face. What stays with me over a decade later is how embarrassed she looked. Was she embarrassed on my behalf?
Yes, I was her pastor. Yes, I was in my church office on a Sunday morning after preaching and leading worship. Yes, my office door was propped open. Yes, I was nursing my baby.
That’s when Patty walked right to the entrance of my office and stood in the doorway with something to tell me.
As I sat on the black leather loveseat nursing my baby, Patty excitedly began telling me about her sister-in-law’s pacemaker procedure. “You know, they didn’t even tell Silvia when she would be able to get back to water aerobics,” she exclaimed.
Then suddenly Patty stopped talking. Her hands, once energetically moving up and down with her jeweled bracelets catching the morning light, fell to the side of her pleated floral skirt.
Patty’s mouth froze in an oval shape, her bright red lips rounded like a plastic red capital letter “O” refrigerator magnet.
Patty gasped and said, “Oh my God! I am so sorry Pastor Sarah.”
What was she sorry for? Patty was a mother and grandmother. She said, “I didn’t see the baby there! I didn’t know what you were doing. I’m so embarrassed. I’m so sorry Pastor Sarah.”
Patty quickly spun around on her red high heels and clicked back down the hallway.
During my son’s first year of life, he came with me to work all of the time. Sunday mornings and weekday evenings the baby came with me so he could nurse. Pumping breast milk never worked for me. Being a pastor allowed me extra grace to work with my baby swaddled next to my body. He came with me to the office until he started walking.
At church council meetings, I remember moving my chair so my baby and I could sit off to the side. I was prepared to nurse my baby during the meeting. I wasn’t going to miss out on discussing the budget or planning the fundraising dinner.
During the council meeting when my baby woke up hungry, I fed him. I didn’t want to nurse him right there at the meeting table, although I could have. I felt more comfortable putting a little space between my body, my baby’s body, and the church’s elected leaders of Christ’s body. I wasn’t ashamed to be a breastfeeding pastor.
I never once thought that in order to mother I needed to stop pastoring. I knew I could both nurse my baby and oversee a church council meeting at the same time.
As a girl, I’d seen another woman do it before. I’d seen another woman standing at the altar administering the Lord’s Supper, her swollen belly filled with the life of her second child. Her body taken over, her body given over with the intimate knowledge of our Lord’s broken body and blood poured out. I’d seen a church pastor embody womanhood, embody motherhood, and embody God’s love all at once.
As a woman, my body was not broken by motherhood, but given over to it. As a woman, my blood was poured out for new life. To give birth to a baby is to embody and join with God’s new creation.
I was the first woman pastor of the church who was young enough to experience within my pastorate, starting at age 28, both holy matrimony and childbirth. I experienced a honeymoon, maternity leave, and a sabbatical with this church. My son was baptized with and by these good people. They showed me it is possible for the church to embrace the holy trinity of womanhood, motherhood, and priesthood.
During my pregnancy, as my feet began to swell, the church leaders (all women) said, “Why don’t you put your feet up? Why don’t you work more from home?”
As my belly began to swell they said, “Here’s a casserole and a pie for later. Let’s give Pastor Sarah a baby shower.”
I still have half a dozen hand quilted baby blankets the women of the church gave to me, smelling like rose water and lilacs. I have the little silver cup with my son’s name engraved in cursive sitting on my dresser. I have the silver baby spoon resting on my closet shelf. At her best, the church showered me and my family with affirmation, support, and love.
Despite the challenges of patriarchy and sexism in church systems, being a woman, a mother, and a pastor is a sacred gift. The moments when I nursed my child are among the holiest moments I’ve come to know. Breastfeeding, too, is an experience of sacrament, an embodiment of God’s divine presence breaking into ordinary time.
My body is no longer needed to produce milk for my child. Over time, the journey of motherhood is one of discovery, finding meaningful ways to produce comfort for our children at every stage of development. Mothering, like pastoring, is a journey of opening oneself to love.
As I continue on this journey of womanhood, motherhood, and priesthood, I follow the way of the mothering God. In quiet moments I find myself seeking Her wisdom, Her counsel, and Her encouragement.
Like a child, I want to climb up into Her broad and soft lap. I want to come close to Her. I want to make my home in God’s mothering heart.
Held in the arms of our mothering God, I receive the blessing of the too often unspoken sacred gift of the three in one: womanhood, motherhood, and priesthood.
Yes, I am a daughter of God. Yes, I am my child’s mother. Yes, I am a mother to the church.
Yes, I am three in one.
This post is part of the book launch blog tour for Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God. Embodied includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter, to instigate conversations that lead to support and new perspectives. The book is available this September.