For churches in the Deep South, the de facto liturgical calendar revolves around Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Decoration Day, Father’s Day, Fourth of July and Veteran’s Day rather than Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Ordinary Time.
Early in my ministry, I discovered that Mother’s Day might be the most sensitive of all of the holidays.
I’m not sure whether our notions about what should happen in church on Mother’s Day are instigated by nostalgia or a gentile respect for the influential role of a mother.
I’m pretty sure, however, that many of our ecclesial customs need more thoughtful theological reflection, including the way that we approach Mother’s Day.
In recent years, I have tried to move away from the traditions of my early pastorates. My first pastorate had a custom of recognizing the oldest mother, the youngest mother and the mother with the most children.
Rather than eliminate the tradition altogether, I encouraged them toward a more inclusive practice of giving a flower, usually a rose or carnation, to every mother present, a practice that was adopted by the second church I served.
With time, however, I have grown more and more convinced that worship is a time to focus on God, and specific recognitions occurring on days such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day should take place before or after, rather than during, the time of worship.
Nowadays, I approach days such as Mother’s Day differently every year. Walter Brueggemann refers to this unstarched approach to worship planning as “liturgical maneuverability.”
Here are some of the assorted ways I have planned for Mother’s Day in recent years:
1. If Mother’s Day falls during a time I am preaching a series of sermons, whether topical or from the lectionary, I do not usually interrupt the series to insert a Mother’s Day sermon. I simply wish all of the different types of mothers present a “Happy Mother’s Day” during the time of welcome and continue with the sermon series.
2. Occasionally, I will plan a Mother’s Day or Father’s Day service around a theme related to the stewardship of parenting, but since these holidays are five weeks apart, I don’t plan a parenting emphasis for both in the same year.
3. Our associate minister for young adults and discipleship is a young adult parent and excellent preacher, so periodically I will ask him to preach a sermon on marriage, family or parenting on Mother’s Day.
4. Our church may occasionally plan a time for parent-child dedication on Mother’s Day. Although we have several opportunities for such dedications throughout the year, Mother’s Day seems to be an optimal time for such an observance.
5. This year I have invited some of the mothers in our church to share the sermon. I have asked six mothers – three mothers in each of our two services – to speak during worship on Mother’s Day.
I have asked them to speak for eight to 10 minutes each on how their faith shapes their parenting. These mothers represent the rich diversity of our congregation.
Two of the mothers have twins. Two of the mothers have recently adopted a child. One of the mothers is a great-grandmother with four generations present in our church and community. The final mother is now a caregiver for her mother and an encourager to her daughter, whose child was recently diagnosed with autism.
Because members of the congregation bring a variety of expectations to any holiday service, I try to keep three goals in mind as I plan for Mother’s Day:
â— I aim to plan an experience of worship that is meaningful, relevant and theocentric
â— I aim to encourage and equip those present in their journey of faith, individually and collectively
â— I aim to be sensitive to those for whom Mother’s Day brings pain or anxiety – including worshippers who have recently lost a mother, mothers who have lost a child, women who for some reason could not have children, women who have chosen not to have children and worshippers who survived abuse by a mother
Whether the service is thematic or ordinary, days like Mother’s Day present a great opportunity to speak a word of good news to the sporadic worshipper who attends out of a sense of nostalgia but leaves with an awareness of grace.
Barry Howard serves as senior minister of First Baptist Church of Pensacola in Florida.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.