Other people’s children. I don’t remember when I started using this phrase, but I do know that it began as a joke. When looking lovingly on a baby, I will sigh and quietly say, “Wow. I sure love other people’s children.” It always gets a laugh. The implication is that I am a single, childless minister who loves the freedom to nurture children for an hour or two and then send them home with their parents who then do all of the hard work. The phrase became a tool. It succeeds in circumventing any questions about children of my own.
With time, that funny little phrase grew sacred, but not until I began to embrace that part of my calling to ministry. I had to first grow comfortable with being a childless mother-figure in the Church. Accepting this part of ministry did not come naturally. I did not have a childhood that included joyful, thriving, childless women. If there were women without children, people spoke about them with a strong dose of sadness, as if they had a terminal disease. I needed to replace those fearful and sad images with new models that offered a bit of hope.
I stumbled upon Mary Salome when my spiritual director encouraged me to find a person of faith to use as an image of inspiration. Out of curiosity, I looked up the saint for my birthday: Mary Salome or simply Salome. Who? There was little more than a paragraph available for this person on the internet. Happily, I read that she was a different Salome than the woman who danced to have John the Baptist beheaded. She grabbed my attention when I learned that she walked with Jesus through his entire life.
In the Bible, Salome is listed twice in The Gospel of Mark among the women who witnessed Jesus’ death and who later encountered an angel at the empty tomb. Mark describes the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome, saying, “These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”
Early Christian writings, however, are full of her stories and conversations with Jesus. Some claim that Mary Salome was Jesus’ aunt. Others claim that she was Jesus’ sister or Mary’s midwife. In some traditions, she is married with children and in others she is childless.
Most scholars who study Mary Salome agree on the following: she was present at Jesus’ birth. She remained with Mary and Joseph as they raised Jesus. She followed Jesus through his ministry and witnessed both his crucifixion and resurrection.
Women of the early church were familiar with Salome. They had a model for what it looked like when a woman committed to caring for someone else’s child, who happened to be Jesus Christ. What a gift! Little girls long ago were told stories of their sister in Christ, Salome, who knew Jesus’ mother and became one of his disciples.
As I grow more familiar with Salome, I wish that there were t-shirts or blogs that celebrate her ministry. It would be great to have empowering slogans, like “Following Jesus like Salome,” or “Rockin’ Ministry Salome Style” to dissipate some of the extreme awkwardness for female ministers who walk into church doors without a child or a wedding ring.
But we have no bumper stickers or t-shirts. The reality is that Christian communities have a difficult time with childless women. We catch ourselves asking the unfair question that comes to mind when meeting a kind, smart, loving woman past a certain age. Why doesn’t she have children? The question itself can open wounds or add to the experience of feeling judged for lack of children.
Perhaps some women wanted children but were not able to conceive. Some might have lost a baby and could not bring themselves to have another. Still others are called to serve God and love others without having children of their own. Many of the latter feel as if they are somehow wrong or broken because they do not feel called to be a mother.
My awareness of this tension grows with each year that passes. Before I began pastoring in Iowa, I served in the South where most women marry and have children in their twenties. As I settle into my mid-thirties, I let myself laugh a bit when someone hears my marital status and age. There is always a flash of panic or pity in their eyes that is followed by change of subject or a comment about someone they heard about once who found love in their fifties. Apparently, being thirty-ish and single is the same as being fifty-ish when you are ministering in the church.
These predictable moments are why I adopted the phrase, “other people’s children.”
Other people’s children. With time, I embraced the life that God gave me and my sarcastic little quip began to grow sacred. The shift began when I earned my commercial drivers license to drive the church bus. They never told me in seminary that the most humbling and daunting part of ministry is the trust parents give you when allowing you to drive their child through stormy weather on a busy highway. I found myself saying things like “well, I spent church money on the more expensive brakes because I am about to drive to Florida with a bus full of other people’s children.”
It happened when I arrived in the emergency room to wide-eyed and frightened college students whose roommate had been victimized the night before. I came with doughnuts and Mountain Dew. I prayed with them and asked the nurses questions that college students do not know to ask. A week later, one of the girls said to me, “Thank you for being there. We were so scared. It was like you were our mom. I’ve decided that you are kind of like the mom of our college house.” Her tone had a genuine ring with a bit of humor in it, both funny and sacred.
I like to think that Salome would have showed up to the hospital with doughnuts and Mountain Dew. She, after all, was the first Christian to show us how to walk with another woman’s son as if he were her own. Her model of ministry is seen every Sunday in the church where women of all ages and situations seamlessly love and nurture children together. At its best, church is a place where children know the love of an entire community of adults.
Where else but in the church can a child receive a smile, a correction, or a comforting embrace from any adult who passes her way? Where else does God grant us the honor of covenanting together to raise and nurture newborn babies in baby dedications? Where else, but in our inheritance of saints, does a woman witness the birth of a little boy in a manger and decide to spent her life caring for and following him?
Practically, most of my days are spent in an office or car preparing for the few precious hours each week that we have together as a church. I often forget about the mothering nature of ministry until I am in the middle of a situation and find myself loving someone as if they were my own. Those lines between pastoral care and motherhood seem to blur quite often. My ministry is made much more beautiful by the sacred passing moments when I have the honor to love other people’s children.
The above was adapted from Jenny Folmar’s essay “Other People’s Children,” in A Divine Duet: Ministry and Motherhood. (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishers, Inc., 2013), available from http://www.helwys.com.
Jenny Folmar grew up in Colleyville, Texas. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communications at Baylor University and then went on to Princeton Theological Seminary where she earned a Masters of Divinity. Jenny currently pastors Shenandoah UCC in Shenandoah, IA and formerly served as the Minister to Youth and College at Memorial Baptist Church in Buies Creek, North Carolina. Jenny most enjoys preaching, worship leadership, and late night conversations with students. She and her dog, Tina Turner, are happily adjusting to life in Iowa.