Ministry as Midwifery

by Browne Barr

Dr. Barr, a Century editor-at-large, is dean emeritus of San Francisco Theological Seminary. He lives in Calistoga, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 27-July 4, 1990, pp. 625-626, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When pain is processed in public, lifted up and shared, it releases unsuspected energy.

"I did not come to you," Paul writes to the people at Corinth, "proclaiming the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. . . . that your faith might not rest in human wisdom but in the power of God" (I Cor. 2:1) Human wisdom frames clever arguments, prizes toughness, applauds size and overlooks the use of steroids to build a strong arm or rack up impressive achievements. I come not with such spectacular and clever wisdom, Paul says, but with a message and a manner, a style focused on Jesus Christ and him crucified: weak and foolish in the world’s eyes, gentle, vulnerable, sensitive -- "in order that your faith might not rest in human wisdom but in the power of God."

A young man whom I have known for almost 30 years recently invited me to preach on this text at his ordination. The text is one of those passages that ought to come at the end of a sermon, for there is nowhere to go except to your knees after it is read. It reminded me of an incident from that young man’s life, a Memorial Day holiday when he was 15 or 16 years old. The church staff was on a retreat at his parents’ mountain cabin, and Jim had come along with his mother and father to help. With them came Laska, a magnificent Siberian Huskie. Laska was so pleased with the beautiful surroundings that she decided it was time to bring forth a litter. From the first sign of the impending births until the last puppy was safely delivered, many hours later, Jim scarcely left Laska’s side. He was present to that dog all day and all night. Often down on his knees, he protected her, encouraged her, stood by her. And when the night of her labor was spent, he carefully shared her production with us and his eyes shone with the beauty and mystery of this moment in creation.

Paul’s text has helped me find in this memory a paradigm, a warm, rough model for the ministry: the ministry is like the role of the adolescent boy playing midwife to his beloved dog. Like all comparisons, there are certain dangers in this one. A minister friend quipped, "Sure, the midwife and the minister have lots in common. They both deal with messes." If so, the model offers a good dose of reality, which makes ordination vows even more impressive. But the comparison goes deeper than that.

The boy midwife was on his knees, his attention rooted before the mystery and wonder of creation. He persisted there, hour after hour, energized by anticipation and by hope in his prayers and his service. But his prayers and his service were not intellectual exercises. Both were rooted in feeling. Curtis Berger shocked his Columbia University Law School associates at a convocation for the opening of the school year by saying, "I do not assert that legal education makes our graduates evil, but I do believe that [it makes them] less feeling, less caring, less sensitive to the needs of others,. . . even less alarmed about the injustices of our society than they were when they entered law school." Seminarians also run the risk of dulling the warm, real center of their faith as they study Greek, Hebrew, sociology, psychology, hermeneutics and theodicy.

The boy midwife on his knees, engaged by his own life of feeling, was, as Webster defines the midwife, "the woman with." May he always be "the woman with." May he grow into that power to feel with others and find no limiting chauvinistic anxiety compelling him to be "the man apart" who stands at a distance and pontificates because he is not strong enough in self or in God to risk being touched in soul and body. "The man apart" claims objectivity; too often the truth is that he cannot risk subjectivity and is threatened by the warming of his heart.

But Christian midwifery is even more than being "the woman with." It requires initiative with love. It seeks out another’s pain. Laska, the dog, retreated from public view as her pain increased. The midwife sought her out and made her place of retreat his place of midwifery. He did not set up office hours on the front porch (the clinic model) and send out a general announcement to all dogs in the neighborhood that he was there if they cared to come. He went to Laska, finding her huddled in misery and bafflement. He sought her out. How long has it been since your physician, your teacher, your lawyer has come knocking at your door, saying, "I just stopped by to check up on you. How’s it going?" That kind of visit is not only a professional’s prerogative, but the minister’s personal privilege, now too often surrendered in favor of the clinical model and the unlisted telephone number.

This boy midwife was "the woman with" and the one who took initiative, but he did not presume to have all the answers or what Paul calls human wisdom. He had only the power of simply staying close and standing by. He had no particular skill except himself. He was asked to be not the solution to the pain but a channel of comfort, to stand by like the child who was late coming home and explained she had encountered her friend who had broken her favorite doll on the sidewalk. "And you stopped to help her pick up the pieces?" her father asked. "Oh, no. I stopped and helped her cry."

So it is to share the pain, not to explain it or arrest it or fix it up. Jesus Christ crucified does not have all the answers to Job’s moral pain, but instead takes it into his own being so that it becomes God’s pain too. Picking it up, he goes public with it. As Walter Brueggemann and Dean Thompson have helped us see, when pain is processed in public, lifted up and shared, it releases unsuspected energy. It releases the remarkable and powerful energy of compassion, social imagination and brand-new ways of looking at things. It is the divine prelude to resurrection. They remind us of this point by citing part of recent history: when Rosa Parks went public with her pain and refused to ride in the back of the bus, she released energy, the energy to take a giant step in righting a great wrong and to lift many a burden.

The boy midwife and the ancient text remind us that the church ordains its ministers not because they are great or wise or even good but because they promise to be "the woman with," and to stand by and process the pain of the earth and its people. They are ordained to be the mid-wife to the church in order for the church to be the midwife to the world in its labor. The church possesses God’s pain made public in Christ, releasing the energy of compassion.