Mother's Day Worship: Plan with Sensitivity

├é┬ęPatrick Fore Photography, Courtesy of LaGrone family

Mother’s Day is one of the unofficial “high holy days” of the church calendar. Like Christmas and Easter, the second Sunday in May often brings in visitors the church rarely sees, if only because Mom has requested that the family go to church together before their celebratory lunch.

Pastors know it will be a high-attendance Sunday and don’t want to let the mothers down, so churches brainstorm ways to honor the mothers in their midst on that special day. Common practices include having all the mothers stand, or passing out roses to all the moms.

Such practices, however—and the very celebration of Mother’s Day at all—are salt in the wounds of women who long to have children but instead struggle with infertility, miscarriage, or infant loss.

A Difficult Day

Jessica LaGrone, Pastor of Worship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church outside Houston, has seen Mother’s Day worship from a variety of perspectives. As a pastor, she wants to help families honor and give thanks for Mom in worship, and now as a mother of two, she is one of those women being honored. But for several years, Rev. LaGrone knew firsthand the pain of those women longing to be mothers, whose lack of living children made Mother’s Day a dreaded and hurtful observance.

“Mother’s Day was a really difficult day for me,” LaGrone said. “It called attention to the fact that I was different.”

After marrying at age 30, LaGrone and her husband, Jim, tried to conceive right away, but had difficulty and experienced multiple miscarriages. She chose to keep her fertility struggle private in church, to keep parishioners from feeling they would need to minister to her. That privacy kept LaGrone from having her grief “multiplied by 10,000” with each member of the church expressing sympathy, but also left her very lonely in her struggle, and left her exposed to stinging comments and questions about when we would she and Jim would have children.

Mother’s Day, during those years of infertility, especially brought to mind babies LaGrone had lost through miscarriage.

“‘Happy Mother’s Day’ gets used as a greeting just like ‘Merry Christmas,’” she said. “Just that phrase, if someone said it to me, felt like a blow rather than a greeting.”

Planning Worship with Sensitivity

Church leaders need to be cautious in planning Mother’s Day worship, recognizing the fact that, for many women in the congregation, the holiday raises painful or complex emotions.

With worship planning her main responsibility, LaGrone scheduled herself to give the prayer on Mother’s Day during those years, avoiding the difficulty of preaching or having to give a cheerful welcome to the service. Giving the pastoral prayer was healing for her, LaGrone said, and also an opportunity to pray “for all those women I knew of for whom Mother’s Day was more struggle than celebration.

“Sometimes I would list out possible reasons for the struggle, sometimes not.”

In her “Open Letter to Pastors,” written around Mother’s Day in 2012, blogger Amy Young lists out many reasons for the struggles women may feel on Mother’s Day in a prayer-like reflection she calls “The Wide Spectrum of Mothering.” The reflection, which would be ideal for use in worship, includes blessings for women of all stages and situations, with lines like:

“To those who experienced loss through miscarriage, failed adoptions, or running away—we mourn with you.

To those who walk the hard path of infertility . . . we walk with you.

. . . To those who are foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual moms—we need you.”

LaGrone advises that churches focus less on recognizing mothers and more on the fact that we all have had a mother, acknowledging all those people who have nurtured us. Rather than preaching an entire sermon on “the gift of motherhood,” for example, pastors should preach on a broader theme and weave in the observance of Mother’s Day more subtly.

The Woodlands has used “man on the street”-style videos of staff members and congregants sharing memories of their own mothers to enhance worship and keep the focus away from practices that differentiate women with living children from those without.

Young recalls how alienated she felt as an unmarried, childless woman in her late 30s when a pastor asked all the mothers to stand. “I don’t know how others saw me, but I felt dehumanized, gutted as a woman,” she writes on her blog, Messy Middle. “Real women stood, empty shells sat.”

Hope and Comfort from Scripture

The barrenness that Young suggests with the words “empty shell” is an image with a long history and many recurrences in Scripture. The Woodlands’ support group for women struggling with infertility is called Sisters of Hannah, taking its name from Old Testament prophet Samuel’s mother, who “turned her sorrow into prayer,” as LaGrone describes it.  

Israel’s story even begins with infertility, with Sarah’s barrenness as an obvious obstacle to the promise God gave to Abraham. LaGrone tells Abraham and Sarah’s story in the first session her Bible study, Namesake: When God Rewrites Your Story. “We read more about what Sarah thinks and feels than almost any woman in scripture,” LaGrone said. “Hope, failure, worry, jealousy, disbelief. Sarah is so well-described as a woman dealing with infertility.” Following Sarah, there are several more generations of infertility in the Genesis stories LaGrone will explore in her next study, Broken and Blessed.

Biblical women like Hannah, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Elizabeth are wonderful role models for women who long for children, though LaGrone cautions pastors to be careful when preaching their stories, which have happy endings.

“There is no promise that it will all work out,” LaGrone said. “‘Just pray and you’ll get pregnant’ can be a very damaging message.” The spiritual stigma of barrenness in biblical times lingers even today, with the erroneous idea that an unanswered prayer is a sign of weak faith.

The real message of the Bible’s infertility stories is not our faithfulness but God’s. Said LaGrone, “God loves to tackle stories where the odds are stacked against us.”

And that’s a message that gives hope to women and men facing any kind of struggle, on Mother’s Day and any other day of the year.

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