Remember Mama: Thoughts on Motherhood and Ministry

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 9, 1979, p. 521. 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.


A person could do much worse than to imagine God as an old mother hen or an overzealous ‘Jewish mother.’ Even though our images of totally committed, self-sacrificing, lifelong love are invariably limited to our taste of that kind of love through our human parents, they are still the best images we have and about the best we can manage in thinking about God.

Just when it seemed that we had finally buried the image of the overbearing, overprotective, zealous “Jewish mother,” a psychologist has come along seeking to resurrect the deposed matriarch. In a recent book which he wrote with Herbert Yahraes, A Child’s Journey: Forces That Shape the Lives of Our Young (McGraw-Hill, 1978), Julius Segal, a staff member of the National Institute of Mental Health, says we ought to give that well-worn stereotype another look.

Segal takes issue with those who have vilified the “Jewish mother.” From the mom of comedian Georgie Jessel’s routines, with her “Finish what’s on your plate” and “After all I’ve done for you,” to the caricature of a mother who harasses poor Alex Portnoy in Philip Roth’s novel, the term “mother figure” (of whatever religion or race) has come to symbolize that one who incessantly and detrimentally hovers over her young.

Something Worse Than Smother-Love

A generation of enlightened psychiatrists has indicted these “mother figures” for producing neurotic offspring. Whether the mother who folds overprotective arms around her darlings is Jewish, Italian, Irish, black or whatever, we have charged her with smothering her children’s individuality and fostering a host of neuroses. Now Segal asks: “Just how bad for the mental health of our children is this mother who chronically hovers over her brood?” In answering that question, Segal refers to a book by John Rothchild and Susan Wolf; The Children of the Counterculture (Doubleday). Rothchild and Wolf studied a group of young mothers whose childrearing practices sharply contrasted with those of the traditional “Jewish mother.” The group was composed of dropouts of the 1960s, young counter-culturists now in their early middle years. The authors visited diverse groups of “families” in both urban and rural communes and even a number of collectives established by new religious sects. How was life in the communes turning out for the children? What were the new parental approaches of young mothers who felt that their own parents’ child-rearing notions were inadequate? How were these 1960s revolutionaries rearing their own children, far removed from the traditional middle-class values of an older generation’s “Jewish mothers”?

The findings were not encouraging. In their, interviews and observations, Rothchild and Wolf found children who were not so much physically neglected as emotionally and culturally deprived. They were struck by the widespread boredom, apathy and melancholy among the youngsters, many of whom showed clear signs of emotional disturbance and psychological disorganization. Segal concludes that there is something much worse for a child than to suffer the domination of the stereotyped Jewish mother; namely, to be the offspring of valueless, unattached, self-centered parents who are unwilling to give the time or the emotional commitment that parenting requires.

In our indictment of the “Jewish mother” and her sisters of whatever religion or race, we have overlooked the fact that here were mothers who cared and were not afraid to show it. Whether standing over the piano mercilessly coaxing a budding prodigy or arguing at the kitchen table over how many green beans are enough, these mothers gave their kids something to live for, strive for, react against; struggle with and grow away from. While their methods of child-rearing may have spawned some neuroses, their children never suffered from the anger, emptiness and despair that often haunt children denied the lifelong benefits of strong, early and continuing affectional ‘bond’s. Noted psychologist Selma Fraiberg agrees with Segal’s opinion that children may indeed benefit from an excess of mothering:

Whatever tendencies Jewish mothers and fathers have to be “superprotective,” and whatever they may do in creating unusual anxieties in their children, these are at worst diseases of moral conflict, which are, after all, curable. In contrast, there is usually nothing one can do to overcome the diseases of nonattachment created when there is no bond to begin with.

Fraiberg also reminds us that the “neurotic” reactions to overprotective mothers and fathers can lead to some successful adaptations. Portnoy is not the only offspring of an excessively committed and ambitions mother. The Leonard Bernsteins, Beverly

Sillses and John F. Kennedys of this world are often products of similar homes.

Parental Disengagement

If self-centered, neglecting mothers and fathers were restricted to countercultural pockets of our society, there would be less cause for concern. But Fraiberg fears that culturally legitimized neglect of children may be infecting all segments of society:

After 30 years of experience in the field, I am seeing for the first time in the past decade forms of neglect in educated, middle-class parents. . . . These parents may not recognize it, but their children are clearly neglected. Often both parents are working or are in school, and their young are peddled around just as many poor children are -- to various neighbors, to tenement centers, or casual and haphazard child care arrangements. Or, they are dumped off at the “Y,” in the kiddie park, anywhere. These children suffer some of the same problems that we used to see mainly in neglected slum children -- the psychopathic behavior, the “acting out,” the disorders of conscience.

Few parents would willingly admit to neglecting their children. But after interviewing 250 children in several U.S. cities, sociologist  Sarane Boocock concluded that the ties between today’s children and their mothers are surprisingly weak. Fewer children accompany their parents on chores and errands. Many mothers, Boocock found, devote as little as 15 minutes a day to communicating directly with their preschoolers. Parents deposit their two- and three-year-olds for hours at a variety of day-care centers despite voluminous research indicating that there are no “good” child-care arrangements for children of this age other than parental care. Very often, the church is the major culprit in encouraging the proliferation of preschool-age child-care centers through its willingness to have its facilities used in this way. While in certain low-income communities institutional child care may be a virtual necessity, the church in all too many instances is merely subsidizing mothers who have convinced themselves that they “have to work” to maintain their unrealistic standard of living. Child abandonment can be legitimized in a wide variety of ways.

The sad picture of parental disengagement from children applies to contemporary fathers as well. The masculine role of family provider has been an excuse for many fathers to abdicate virtually any involvement in the day-to-day, nitty-gritty duties of parenthood. Addiction to work provides a guilt-free rationalization for the father’s lack of commitment to child-rearing. The women’s movement’s call for female equality (too often expressed by a mother’s simply joining the father in irresponsibility by dumping the children and getting a job) is not the cause of the current crisis in parenthood. Its fruits merely accentuate the fact that for years many mothers have shouldered total responsibility for the nurture of their offspring.

After talking with dozens of children during the past few years, Segal claims to have heard a common plea: Give us a sense of being wanted and cherished, a sense of uniqueness, and you will have given us that which only parents can give, but that without which we cannot survive. What hurts most is your lack of guidance and your absence of conviction in leading us to discover our special contribution to the future.

The “Jewish mother,” of whatever religion, race, nationality or sex, gave a strong, unequivocal message of caring, self-sacrificing commitment to a child.

The ‘Mothering’ Minister

And while we arc on the subject of mothers, I think we in the church need to be reminded of what many detractors somehow talked us into forgetting: that any minister worth his or her salt has got to be a big mama. The late Carlyle Marney once observed that pastors seem to have a basic need to mother everybody -- if they are any good as pastors. Like Marney, I was somewhat disturbed to discover that I measured toward the feminine end of the scale on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. That I was disturbed probably said something about my inadequate images of ministry. Jesus himself longed to gather Jerusalem about him like a mama hen gathers her chicks; feminists have reminded us of this neglected image of divine compassion. Anyone who has ever incurred the wrath of an old mother hen by threatening her brood can testify to the fact that Jesus was probably speaking like an “over-zealous,” “overprotective” “Jewish” mama here. My own conceptions of divine providence rarely exceed my memories of seeing an irate hen in a flap over her chicks. Jesus says that God is like that.

Father images for ministry are fine, so far as they go. I had always hoped my hair would turn a paternal gray to enhance my image as an effective pastor. But I seem “to be getting more of a Martin Marty hairline. Of course, there are bald-headed fathers too. A score of writers have noted the potentially perverted uses of “paternalistic” styles of ministry and pastoral care -- the fostering of a congregation’s childlike dependence on the pastor, the turning of ministry into pastoral self-gratification at the expense of congregational freedom and maturity. Nonetheless, who would deny that everyone needs a mother and a father and that everyone will inevitably form an attachment to some mother or father figure should one’s natural parents prove inadequate? In an age of absentee parents, pastors can probably expect their parishioners to regard them even more as mother and father figures. The question is not, Will I have a father or mother figure in my life? but rather, as Freud first told us, What will that figure mean to me and how will he or she affect my humanity?

This universal need suggests to me that pastors may be called, in addition to their other callings, to responsible parenting. I suspect that we ministers flee from the parental images which our people are forever placing upon our shoulders not so much from concern over the mental maturity of our people but rather in an attempt to avoid one of the chief risks and burdens of Christian ministry. My seminary students frequently say that they want their future congregations “just to treat me as an ordinary person, just one of them.” We wish it could be so, but for the responsible pastor it cannot be. We can flee from our parishioners’ paternal-maternal images of us, and successfully detach ourselves from their needs, or we can affirm these images and live them out in responsible ways.

Institutions like the church can pervert parental images. But there is an equally damaging distortion that results from simply not caring. The in loco parentis approach to student affairs is out of fashion at today’s colleges and universities. Gone are the days when colleges tried to influence the morals or the personal behavior of their students. But is this a sign of progress and growing student responsibility or a case of irresponsibility on the part of the college? The late Margaret Mead observed that “we give our adolescents more freedom and less guidance than any society in the world.” Too many college freshmen get the message from their college’s administration: “We don’t care if you bomb out, destroy yourself, ruin your future, or fail to live up to your potential. That’s your problem, not ours. Who do you expect us to be -- Mama and Daddy?” The college avoids the “Jewish mama” trap, but does it succeed in educating anyone into his or her full humanity?

Grandmother Love

Pastors need to know that it is not all that bad to be someone’s mama. With the currently accepted definitions of masculinity and fatherhood abroad, it maybe more flattering to be accused of mothering someone than of playing a fatherly role. My grandmother-in-law has spent some 30 years as pastor of various United Methodist churches in South Carolina. She is a large woman with snow-white hair who uses the grandmother image for everything it is worth. Every church to which the bishop has sent her has protested her coming -- for who wants to have one’s grandmother living so close? Then, after she has served a few years in their parish, the church members have more strongly protested her leaving. Awhile back the bishop sent her to a nasty little church, that had run off more than one preacher, refused to contribute a dime to any national church program, and cherished a reputation for being one of the most hostile congregations in the conference. Bessie went there with fear and trembling, expecting to have a short stay. After she had been there a few weeks, I called to ask how she was getting along in the Carolina Gomorrah.

“Oh, the people are just wonderful and as sweet as they can be,” Bessie exclaimed.

“No problems?” I asked in amazement.

“No, none that I can find,” she said. “Oh yes, we did have a little difficulty at first, but we got it ironed out.”

I asked her to tell me more.

“Well, when we were voting on next year’s budget, everything was going along fine. I was so proud to see them vote to pay all of their apportionments and askings. Then we came to the Black College Fund item. The chairman of my administrative board said, “We ain’t going to pay for no niggers to go to college. That’s the way we are.” So I said, “Tom, that’s not nice: That is definitely not the way you are. You all can do better than that.” Tom sat down and said he was sorry and recommended that we pay all of it. Why, we’ve even invited the neighboring black church choir to sing for us next week.”

Bessie is an effective pastor. After all, what Christian would talk back to his or her grandmother? The only trouble with the people at that church was that no one had ever before believed in them, pushed them, prodded them, loved them as Bessie did. She loved them unmercifully, as only a grandmother can.

Though transactional analysis and other pop psychologies may provide rationalizations for our avoidance of ministerial parenting roles, I have more than a hunch that the parental image will be with us for some time to come, not only because people need it but also because the gospel itself suggests it. At times, we all must fall back on someone’s everlasting arms, though those parental arms may be pushing us out into life even as they embrace us. We all need someone who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves, who will stop at nothing to have us be all that we can be. Sometimes the only person who will risk that kind of maternal love is one’s pastor.

Jesus showed us as much of God as we ever hoped to see. When he spoke of God, he shocked some people who like their deity abstract and aloof by referring to God as “Daddy.” When we cry “Abba, Father,” he hears us, Jesus said. To speak of God as father was not, of course, a fully adequate way to imagine God. People have varying kinds of experience with human fathers and, as soon as one speaks of God as father, some are sure to project upon God the dependency, fear, hostility or resentment that has marked their relationship with their earthly father. Even if Jesus had been so bold as to call God “Mama,” it wouldn’t have saved him from these dangers of anthropomorphic thinking.

But how well Jesus knew us. Even though our images of totally committed, self-sacrificing, lifelong love are invariably limited to our taste of that kind of love through our human parents, they are still the best images we have and about the best we can manage in thinking about God. Of course, pastors who sometimes act like fathers and mothers are not God, nor are even the best of human parents. But sometimes we earthlings cannot get much further in our thinking about such things as love, fidelity, commitment and caring than to summon forth the image of some mama somewhere who will always be for us the concrete human experience of such divine ideas.

A person could do worse than to imagine God as an old mother hen or an overzealous “Jewish mama,” and a person could do much worse than be cursed with a “Jewish mama” for one’s mama or papa -- or pastor.