The Reverend Mother – or why every nursery worker should receive a free margarita after church

Today’s motherhood story comes to us from Nikki Collins MacMillan. Nikki and I met during our seminary days, and since we are both Georgia girls, we had the grace of reconnecting and staying close all these years later. I cannot begin to tell you what a gift Nikki and her family are to me, so instead I will tell you all the cool things she does for her church and community. About eight years ago Nikki went out on a limb and agreed to be the minister of a new church planted within a coffee shop. Though Nikki loves coffee, she had no idea how to run a coffee shop. Never to be deterred by silly details and always believing in God’s providence and a good dream, Nikki has led this seed of an idea into its fourth year of ministry. She has become a guru of sorts on how to do church in a new way, using third spaces for ministry, being missional in your own community, and of course making a delicious latte. In the midst of all her work for others, she has managed to raise two amazing young men. If you have ever wondered what it is really like in a pastor’s family or what is up with those PKs, this is your lucky day! Below is her story of being a momma preacher and what it is like to raise church babies.

mosaic of motherhood

graphic by Jennifer Tucker

When we found out we were pregnant with our first child, my husband and I were six weeks shy of graduating from seminary. We had just accepted a call to be co-pastors of a church in a small town in Arkansas. The math told us this child was conceived in March. We had done what we said we’d never do if we had anything to do with it. Well, we had everything to do with it – ok not EVERYTHING – but quite a lot – and we’d managed to conceive a child who would be born in December – to a father and a mother who would be pastoring a church for the first time at Christmas. I counted the months on my fingers while looking at that little test strip and immediately said to my husband, “I will NOT be Mary on a donkey in a Christmas pageant EVER!”

Sure enough, when we told the leaders of our new church that we were pregnant upon arrival and that the child would be due in December, sweet Bob Milton immediately said, “Can you arrange to have that child in the sanctuary during our Christmas Eve service? That would be GREAT for attendance!” Ummm… I don’t really know you and I’m sure I’m gonna’ love you, but No. Bob more than made up for himself when I went into labor on Sunday, December 12th and he had to jump in and lead worship for us. There was a sweet sort of magic in that right there, friends.

photo credit: Ben Husmann via Flickr

photo credit: Ben Husmann via Flickr

Two boys and fifteen years into this gig of raising preacher’s kids will put a few gray hairs on a girl. I’ve come at it from every possible angle: co-pastor and mom of a new-born, stay-at-home pastor’s wife who taught occasional Bible studies and filled empty pulpits on occasion, part-time pastor and room mother, Elasti-girl stretching between two part-time pastoral positions, and, finally, full time new church development pastor and coffee shop manager. Likewise, my children have been a part of small congregations and large ones, historic communities and brand new church plants. They’ve done traditional, contemporary, and coffee shop church. They have checked out every nursery, Sunday school class, and mid-week kids’ program known to Christendom. Once my son even sat behind me while I preached to a small congregation of elderly folks. He didn’t know anyone there, so at four, he insisted on sticking close to mom. When I noticed a little old man waving from his pew, I looked over my shoulder to see my son leaning around me and waving back and grinning from ear to ear. Clearly, their exchange was the holy moment of the morning. If I’d been smarter, I would have said, “Amen” and sat down.

I guess what I have to offer Dena’s amazing series on motherhood is a peek around the pulpit and into the lives of our family of preacher(s) and preachers’ kids. For a minute, put down what you imagine happens in your pastor’s house and take a look at what ours is really like:

First, my children love Communion bread – and they love it when the leftover bread comes home with us. I think they really get the grace that comes to us in the Sacrament. But the most holy meal our family shares is every Wednesday when we mark Hump Day with tacos. Whatever squabbles were happening come to an end. The events of the day are processed and shared. Inappropriate jokes are made. Colorful stories are told. The boys take way too long cleaning the kitchen. When it is all said and done, these meals – with their crunchy, spicy, saucy flavor – are the meals in which we are known by one another, when we go slow and linger in rituals of redemption.

And we treasure this time like no other. For our family, holidays and Sundays are work days. We claim our sacred time in the middle of the week. What I hope is happening for us is that our children don’t wait for the calendar to say it’s a special day. I hope they will know that every moment is holy if you give it your attention and bow your head to its gifts.

But if they are learning that every day is holy, they also know that mom and dad are not. The aura of wise pastor quickly fades when the car turns towards home. Especially now that they are teens, it is clear that mom knows nothing. In fact, she even failed to come up with the word “Bible” for the 7th grade religion class crossword puzzle homework. (Just don’t over think it, girls. I definitely did.)

Probably one of my biggest worries these days is that as my sons begin to define themselves over and against me – as they should in this adolescent stage – they will find the need to separate themselves from the faith I so long to be their own. It’s not their eternal salvation that worries me. I completely trust that these children belong to God and not to me. God has them – in every way and through every struggle. I just want them to have trust and confidence in that good news.

And that is where YOU come in. For those of you who teach Sunday School, lead youth groups, heck, even sit in the pews with kids like mine, know that YOU are their pastors. Their parents are not. We are the people who sign permission slips, shop for clothes, put limits on dating and parties and Xbox. We are the ones who lose our $#!* with them over stupid, stupid stuff. God, I hope they learn about grace from us, but when we fail, we – and they – are looking to you to help them find their way. (During my pastor’s-wife-stay-at-home-mom phase I decided we would be able to recruit and retain nursery volunteers if they were each provided a gift card for a free margarita at the Mexican restaurant after church. I stand by this claim though no church I’ve ever been associated with has taken me up on the suggestion.) What I’m saying is that I know your job – in the nursery, the Sunday School room, the youth lounge – is one of the hardest jobs in the church, and I – as a pastor and a mom – am grateful for your faithfulness in ways you may never know because I am banking on the fact that when my son is at his wits end with me, he will turn to you and you will lead him and love him in ways that I cannot because I am not his pastor. I am his mom.

When I was pregnant with my second son, a dear woman named Betty West said to me, “You get to have church babies. There’s nothing sweeter than having a church baby.” I don’t know how she knew because she wasn’t a pastor or a pastor’s wife, but she was right. Having a community of faith to surround my children is a precious gift. And it is especially sweet when these strong souls recognize that my children are not just church children. They are not preacher’s kids. They are God’s children – sometimes funny and a little irreverent, sometimes wise in ways that didn’t come from me, sometimes hurting and afraid, sometimes rebellious and surly. They are entrusted to us for a while to love, to nurture, to shape, and to forgive – to laugh with, and work with, and wrestle with. They beckon us to pay attention and to bow our heads to all that is good, and holy, and true. And when we do, we are blessed.

Nikki Collins MacMillan is a Presbyterian minister and the ministry director at Bare Bulb Coffee, a Presbyterian new church plant located in a local, fair trade coffee shop. She preaches grace, she mothers (her own children and the rest of us), and she makes a mean cup of coffee. When not running between all her different roles, she can be found soaking in God’s grace and beauty in her favorite spot on her back porch.

For a related link, read Amy Yoder’s thoughts on being a momma pastor here.