Everyone needs (to be) a parent

This Mother’s Day we interview Jane Tooher on what it means to be a spiritual parent and what this has looked like in her own life. Jane lives in Sydney with her student-aged nephews and serves on the faculty of Moore Theological College where she lectures in ministry and church history.

Jane, what does it mean to be a spiritual parent, and in particular a spiritual mother?

When someone becomes a parent—whether to biological, adopted or fostered children—it means, among other things, that they have the privilege and responsibility of teaching that child about God. Because God has revealed himself in the Bible, it means teaching their child God’s word and modelling to them what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus Christ. The child’s parents are primarily responsible for this teaching and modelling (Prov 1:8-9; Eph 6:1-4).

Yet the gospel is also taught and modelled by members of the church family more generally. God doesn’t deliver new truths to each generation, but rather each generation is expected to pass on to the next generation the truth about God (Ps 145:4).

Whether or not we’ve had the privilege of growing up in a Christian home, God in his mercy has given us brothers and sisters in Christ to help us (Col 3:16; 1 Thess 5:11; Heb 3:12-14; 10:24-25; Jas 5:16). Sometimes they are those who have been a disciple of Jesus for longer than us, and they provide mature and wise guidance and example. They become, in a very important sense, spiritual parents.

The most obvious biblical example is the apostle Paul, who often spoke of himself as a spiritual parent. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 2 he describes himself, Silas and Timothy as like a nursing mother to the people of the Thessalonian church (v. 7). They affectionately took care of their spiritual children and that is why they shared both the gospel of God and their lives with them (v. 8). They were also like a father with his children, exhorting the Thessalonians and encouraging them to walk in a manner worthy of God (vv. 11-12). It’s wonderful how this passage uses the image of both mother and father to speak of what is involved in spiritual parenting.

1 Timothy 1:2 and Titus 1:4 highlight the critical element in spiritual parenting. Paul calls Timothy “my true child in the faith” and Titus “my true child in a common faith”. It’s this common faith that makes Paul a spiritual father to Timothy and Titus—it is because of the gospel that they are united in Christ and belong to the same spiritual family.

From Paul we see that spiritual parenting is guiding someone less mature in the Christian faith towards maturity. It involves sharing the gospel with them, modelling the faith to them, sharing your life with them, and rebuking and warning them (see 1 Cor 4:14-17). It can be uncomfortable at times. It can be exhausting and discouraging and costly. But it can also be full of great joy.

Being a spiritual mother means you can help nurture others in the faith, be they male or female. But because I am a woman, I have more opportunities with other women—it is appropriate for me to meet with a woman privately one-to-one on a regular basis, whereas I wouldn’t do this with a man I wasn’t related to.

What has this looked like in your own life?

My earliest memory of this happening was in youth group when I was 13. My university-aged female leaders were of course older than me in years, but they were also much more mature in the Christian faith.

These women led Bible studies, taught me how to pray and went to church with me. I also met with a male and female leader in a mixed group to read and discuss The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. This was the first Christian book I read outside of the Bible, and it led me to read other Christian books on my own. I read books by Helen Roseveare and Corrie ten Boom, and these women, who I have never met, were also in a sense spiritual mothers to me in that they showed me clearly what it meant to have Jesus as Lord of my life. The message from these women was clear: being a Christian involved every aspect of your life, because your life now belonged to Jesus. You were bought at a price (1 Cor 6:19-20). But they were so down to earth about it, so honest about their own weaknesses and failings, that I found them very relatable and I was very much challenged and encouraged by their priorities.

Over the decades since high school God has given me a number of spiritual mothers, yet most of these aren’t ‘formal’ relationships where we meet up regularly one-to-one or in a small group Bible study. Some have continued for many years; others only for a season. One woman I see each Sunday at church; others much more infrequently.

Who have you spiritually mothered? How has it been an encouragement to you?

I’ve found there are often younger Christian women who want to meet up with an older Christian woman and learn from them. I think the best way this can happen is through reading God’s word and praying together, and this is what I have mostly done. Reading God’s word together shapes your prayers and what you choose to talk about. I have also met up with women to read through Christian books. Many of the women I’ve met with have been training for vocational ministry and so we have worked through various ministry training papers focusing on Christian character, convictions and competencies.

I’ve found that no matter how young someone is, whether in age or Christian maturity, I still learn so much from them. Not too long ago I was reading the Bible with a teenager and I was blown away each week with her insights into God’s word. It’s an enormous privilege and joy to be a spiritual mother. But it hasn’t always gone smoothly. Of course, some relationships take more effort than others. And sometimes people have later wandered from the faith.

How would you encourage those who feel grief at not having their own children in light of this?

Children are a wonderful gift from God, so it’s no surprise that most women and men (Christian or not) want to have children of their own. The grief of not having children is very real, and that grief can manifest itself in so many different ways: despair, anger, fear, insecurities, loneliness, identity issues, withdrawal from relationships, denial, feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and many more.

Being a spiritual parent is very different to having your own children and it’s important not to think they are same.

Although some may not have children of their own, they can be involved in spiritual parenting, and being a spiritual parent is an enormous blessing from God. It can be hard at times, but it can also bring indescribable joy. It can lead to great contentment because it involves you getting on with being a Christian and helping someone else do that too.

Being a spiritual parent helps us focus on the new creation and what will last for eternity—the most significant thing is not whether you have children of your own or not, but whether you are a child of God. It helps you hold lightly to the things of this age as you realise that this life is all about getting ready for the next.

What would you say to someone who feels hesitant or unqualified for the role of ‘spiritual mother’?

I think hesitancy or lack of confidence is very real. Yet we can’t live our lives in fear. God has given us all we need for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3) and our concern is to be women who trust God at his word in this. We also need to recognise we are all different in terms of gifts, abilities, personalities, Christian maturity and life situation. Spiritual motherhood will take many different forms depending on who we are, and that is good and right. Yet God has gifted each of us for the building of his Church (Rom 12:1-8; 1 Cor 12:1-31).

You don’t have to have ‘arrived’ or be a spiritual giant to be a spiritual mother. It’s about sharing your life and sharing the word with another sinful human being, and being real and acknowledging where you too need to grow. This is both helpful and important.

It’s important to keep directing people to our heavenly Father and not to create a dependence upon us as the spiritual mother. The relationship can all too easily transform itself into one where the key issue is our desire for significance, impact and relationship.

We can ask for help about how it could look in our lives from other women who have done it, but we can also ask mature Christian men, including our pastors. They may know a woman who would be good for us to meet up with—for example someone who has particular things she wants help with that we may have gone through ourselves.

I know many women who have wanted to meet up with an older woman in the faith for general discipleship, but also other women who have wanted to meet up with a woman for more specific reasons. These have included issues to do with sexuality or chronic illness, or working out what it means to be a Christian wife or mother, a wife in vocational ministry or a woman in vocational ministry.

We all influence people. None of us are ‘neutral’. As people we are by definition relational beings and we all shape others in different ways. Being a spiritual mother is one way we can be very intentional in how we influence others. We can learn so much from women of a different generation, so if you’re not already doing so, I would strongly urge you to consider being or having a spiritual mother. This ministry may be short or longer term and it will take a variety of shapes. But if you end up being a spiritual mother or daughter, I hope it’s a great blessing to you and others as the church of Jesus Christ is built.