Full disclosure: I know Pr. Lee Ann Pomrenke. We first met in college way back when we were young and full of dreams, and we’ve reconnected over the years through our shared vocation in the Lutheran Church and our shared love of writing. So, when I found out she was going to be publishing her first book, I was eager to not only read it but offer some thoughts on it.
_Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God_ (New York/Church Publishing Incorporated, 2020) is one of those works that weaves together the practical and the theoretical delving deeply into how our conception of the Divine is not only parental, but explicitly motherly. And she doesn’t have to do much convincing, by the way. Through anecdote and story, Pr. Pomrenke just lays out the territory of how we not only conceive of God, but also interact in the church, and the result will be startling to many readers: God, in practice, is most motherly.
The brief work begins with powerful reflections on her life as an adoptive parent where she touches all the untouchable issues the church seems to shy away from, especially infertility. As we head into the Advent season, this first chapter is supremely prescient. I’ve heard from more than one family that Advent, that “season of waiting” where we celebrate miraculous conceptions and births can be a struggle for families whose waiting has lasted way past their 40 days and 40 nights.
The author addresses both the joyful beauty of parenting, and the well of grief in longing for it but feeling it is unrequited by the Divine hand. She dispels the notion that God withholds fertility outright, bring us back into righteousness (right-relationship) with the Biblical witness on the matter. “I am convinced,” she writes, “that fertility is not actually the point in many of these stories, nor are they preaching some kind of fertility gospel of pleasing God to get pregnant.” Instead, Pr. Pomrenke describes God as friend and fellow-journeyer on the road of waiting and heartache, not instigator.
The theme of “re-birth” and “new-life” run rampant through our scriptures, so why do we shy away from the idea of God as mother and, as Pr. Pomrenke points out, the Holy Spirit as doula and mid-wife to the new creations all around us? The examples are there, we just don’t see them for what they are because we’ve wired our brains toward the masculine.
Jesus, too, is more mothering than not, as the author points out. His use of touch as a way to comfort and heal brought me back to the healing touch of my own mother, cradling and rocking, and to the images of a God cradling the earth in more icons than I can remember. In this way the female pastor is indeed the embodiment of the God they point to, as the lead the gathered community to care and heal one another as a mother tending to her babies. The vulnerability of the Christ, the honesty of the Christ (as Pr. Pomrenke points out, mothers tell the truth…and so should we, in the church), and the centrality of the Christ all point toward a motherly orientation for Jesus toward his disciples and the world.
Beyond noting the glaring Biblical examples of a mothering Divine throughout our faith-narrative, I especially appreciate that the author deftly inter-mingles that deep theology with our practical congregational polity. By that I mean that she always brings the highly theoretical down to the ground of experience (embodiment at its core), and notes how the local congregation relates to the themes of family (for good and ill), adoption, and being mothered. In doing so, Pr. Pomrenke has written a book that is both useful for clergy (as they will absolutely identify with her vocational examples) as well as people in the pew, who get more than their share of tidbits to reflect on as they think about how they interact with their pastor and fellow parishioners.
Of all the chapters, I found Chapter 7, “Emotional Labor,” especially resonant with me. Parenting in general, and mothering specifically, is emotionally laborious, as is pastoring and leading a faithful life. Within the church there is much anxiety about our shared future, a taxing reality that weighs on most everything within the local parish nowadays, like a family knowing there is an impending crisis in its midst. How do we mother one another through it and stay sane? How do we retain empathy with one another while also tell each other difficult truths? This chapter is both intensely personal and universal in scope, and, along with the first chapter “Waiting” stands out as my favorite parts of the book.
_Embodied_ is half theological primer and half memoir, blending the two together in a way that engages and moves the reader. It is in no way a treatise on using feminine pronouns for God (but I think we should, hence why I titled this piece Imma), nor is it an apologetics piece for female clergy or feminist theology. It does something much more powerful, I think: it just lays out the facts.
Clergy, even those who identify as male, are motherly. God is motherly. The church, when it’s at its best, is guided by the thundering velvet hand of a mother. And the fact that we have historically had issues with this is not an indication of outright denial (though there is that), but one of consciously or unconsciously overlooking the obvious.
Pr. Pomrenke reorients us here, and does so with skill and thoughtfulness.
Which begs the very real question: why are there so few female Senior Pastors in church leadership today? Why does it take longer for female clergy to be placed in congregations, and why do they get paid less than many of their male counterparts?
While the book doesn’t explicitly ask any of these questions, I bet you will after reading it. In fact, if there’s a minor critique I would make of the piece, it’s that it doesn’t ask these questions outright.
But perhaps that’s her point. Like a good parent, a good mother, Pr. Pomrenke entrusts the decision making to us, walking with us along the way.
So, who should read this book?
I would offer it to most anyone. Clergy will find a work that names many of the joys and struggles of the vocation, especially clergy who are parents themselves and struggle with the Sunday morning wrestling of our children in the pew. Parishioners will find thoughtful examples that expand our notions of God beyond the conventional, and will be given wonderful food for thought regarding how parishes organize themselves and operate. Book groups and study groups (as well as individual readers) are offered questions at the end of each chapter that spur further conversation and reflection.
I’ve not yet read a work that so deftly intermingles mothering, parenting, and theological reflection as this work does. I commend it to you with confidence and great joy, and think it’s an especially wonderful book to pick up as we head into the Advent season.