I was completely and utterly embarrassed. Throughout my years in ministry, I have typically avoided preaching on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. I have usually asked my associate or youth ministers to preach on those days—even offering to preach the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a Sunday known anecdotally as “Youth Minister Sunday” because more senior or teaching ministers take that Sunday off to rest from Christmas and recharge for New Year’s than any other Sunday.
In this case, however, I was serving in my first interim ministry. I couldn’t hand this Mother’s Day sermon off. The problem was not necessarily the sermon. It was what happened after the sermon. In this particular congregation, it was customary to distribute a gift, a pen and notepad set, to each mother as they left the worship service. And, specifically, the responsibility for distributing these gifts fell to—you guessed it—the minister, even if that minister was an interim minister.
To be fair to the congregation, I had been at the congregation for a year by this point. However, my role as an interim was limited to only preaching and teaching on Sundays and Wednesdays. I was not even expected or required to provide pastoral care. So, after preaching my sermon, I scampered back to the lobby, picked up the box of gifts and assumed my position. One woman was already in the lobby and I offered her gift. “Oh, it is okay,” she said. When I offered again, she replied, “But I am not a mother. I thought you knew.” I think a bit of my pride is still littering that lobby almost a decade later.
If you are like me, you would rather preach a full month of Advent or Easter sermons than have to figure out how to pastorally and ethically preach about being a godly father or godly mother. I know that some look forward to these Sundays with great anticipation. That is cool. As we will discuss below, these two annual Sundays can become great moments for discipleship. Therefore, my focus in this essay is simple: To provide some guidance in how to navigate these complicated holidays.
‘Holy Days’ or Holidays?
First, let us be honest about something: Mother’s Day (the second Sunday in May) and Father’s Day (the third Sunday in June) are secular holidays. Now let me be clear: secular does not mean pagan; secular means simply not sacred.
Our word “holiday” comes from the idea of “holy day,” a day when a group of people celebrates a significant historical, and usually religious, event. For example, the Jewish people celebrate two “holy days” that have become staples of both Christian and American culture—Passover and Hanukkah. As Christians, two “holy days” are exclusively historical and religious—Christmas and Easter. There are also other “holy days” that have significant meaning, such as Ash Wednesday, Pentecost, and even St. Patrick’s Day. These are days that provide ecclesiastical, missional, pastoral, or devotional beats in the Christian life and define an understanding of time for those who hold these days as sacred.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, on the other hand, do not hold the sacredness of these other days. One can celebrate Mother’s Day or Father’s Day without even stepping in a church building. Granted, many people celebrate Christmas, Easter, and especially St. Patrick’s Day without honoring the deeply intrinsic religious nature of these days, it is more difficult to do so. Christmas and Easter, after all, have no meaning without Christ. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, however, are inherently American holidays designated to honor parents. Mother’s Day was established by Anna Jarvis in 1908 and became a national holiday in 1914. Father’s Day became a national holiday in 1972. There have been variations of these days throughout history, even American history. And like most sacred holy days, they have become highly commercialized, so much so that Jarvis spent her later years trying to abolish the holiday she established.
Planning Opportunities for Discipleship
That being said, there are valuable opportunities for ongoing discipleship in any opportunity we have to preach and teach. I was raised in a Christian tradition where preaching about mothers and fathers on their designated holidays was more important than preaching about Christ on Christmas and Easter because, as I was chided once by one of my ministers, “We preach about Christ all the time.” As Scott Gibson notes, in his book Preaching with a Plan (p. 40), the careful and competent preacher will give attention to “relationship topics” like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day when developing her or his sermon plan for the year.
The problem is how these sermons translate in the lives of the congregation. How do these sermons about how to be a godly mother or godly father promote ongoing discipleship and further engagement in missional witness? Too often it seems like a checkmark on a preaching schedule. This is seen in Sally Brown’s caution that “Christians are as tempted as anyone else to take refuge in such artificially homogeneous spaces” (Sunday’s Sermon for Monday’s World, p. xvii). Additionally, Gibson further notes that “a preacher should be cautious that the preaching plan isn’t swallowed by the various secular holidays or even denominational emphases that could get in the way of purposeful discipleship” (Preaching with a Plan, p. 106).
At its core, preaching, even preaching on topics like parenting, must retain both its proclamative and formative nature, remembering that Christian formation “is not always a steady process” because it “can languish or be disrupted” (see Brown and Powery, Ways of the Word, p. 238). Therefore, we must ensure the credibility and integrity of the Christian witness by engaging in “creative, faithful action in those everyday spaces where [we] carry on [our] lives, side by side with those who do not share [our] faith commitments or understand them” (Brown, Sunday’s Sermon for Monday’s World, p. 5).
To that end, here are five strategies for preaching on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Speak to All Families, Not just Nuclear Families
In a classic sermon from Romans 16, Fred Craddock walks through the names listed by Paul as persons he wishes to send his greetings to. Craddock, in a sermon preached in the early 1990s, notes that there “are not a lot of nuclear families” listed. As he masterfully weaves personal illustrations from his long pastoral experiences through his narrative exegesis, he notes the beautiful diversity of “family” that has made up the congregations that he has served.
I have served congregations made up of traditional families, single-parent families, adoptive or foster families, intergenerational families, and families where grandparents are raising grandchildren. I am sure that you have, too. Rather than only preach about families on these designated days, think of ways to talk about the family throughout the year. Single parents need to hear guidance from the pulpit just as much as grandparents who are raising grandchildren need to hear encouragement.
Affirm the Childless
This is a difficult subject to speak to, especially in such a technologically-advanced society as ours and especially if you are a preacher who has children. It is important to steer away from the default approaches of preaching sermons on praying for children (e.g., Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2) or admonishing couples to continue holding out hope for a newborn to come along (i.e., Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1).
Instead, speak to what they are actually feeling, which is generally anger, frustration, and grief. For example, in a sermon from the story of Abraham and Sarah, I opened up with this question: “Have you ever wanted something so badly that it literally caused you physical pain when you thought or prayed about it?” The focus of the sermon sought to give voice to the tension between remaining faithful despite the frustration and what it means to hold God responsible for not keeping God’s promises. The sermon concluded with an application of Psalm 13, one of the lament psalms that reminds God to remember the promises that have been made to the faithful. The application was for those struggling to pray once a day without apology or preface, simply to pray the prayer and leave the challenge with God.
Not only that, some couples have chosen, oftentimes after careful consideration, not to have children. Respect that choice. Knowing what to say from the pulpit can be difficult because the church has applied God’s command to Adam and Eve to “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) literally across the board. However, continually preaching about the need to have children will only drive these singles or couples away from the faith that they are seeking solace in. This position blatantly ignores the fact that some early Christian leaders like Paul never married or had children (1 Cor. 7:8). Instead, highlight how these persons are contributing to the congregation through faithful service and witness. One of the best Bible class teachers that I have ever known has never been able to have children. Instead, she sees the children in her elementary classes as “her kids.”
Pastor the Grieving
One of the most difficult moments in my ministry career was the Sunday morning when a young couple brought their newborn into the emergency room. The child has just been released from the pediatric ICU a few days before, supposedly recovered from what ailed her. Unfortunately, the attending pediatric intensivist could not save the child. He broke the news to the young couple and I provided the care. They were not my couple, as in I was not their minister. However, they may have been yours. Preach a funeral that honors the life of the child rather than resorting to inappropriate clichés. Take care to remember both birthdays and burial dates and reach out to these grieving parents, reminding them they never need to carry their grief alone. Honor those who are grieving when you honor parents.
Collaborate in the Pulpit
It is important to know our limits. I will only ever know what it means to be a white (currently 40-ish-year-old) male. I have been married for almost half my life. I have two (currently teenage) children. Both my parents and my wife’s parents are alive, and both of us knew our grandparents. These are my familial strengths. They shape my human and pastoral identity.
However, these strengths are also limitations because I do not know what it is like to be a mother, wife, single parent, etc. One of the beautiful strengths of “roundtable preaching” is that we can draw from others in our congregation, allowing their voices to speak in our sermons.
Try this: For your next Mother’s Day sermon, interview three women from as diverse a background as possible about their faith influences parenting styles or employment choices. For your next Father’s Day sermon, interview three men from as diverse a background as possible about who cooks the best or who has the best laundry-folding strategy. You can also crowd-source advice on social media or insert short videos into your sermon.
Provide Resources, Not Gifts
At one congregation that I served, there was a tradition to award hanging baskets to the oldest mother, youngest mother, mother with the most children, and mother with the youngest children. The problem was the same two women won the baskets for several years in a row. At another congregation that I served, the youth group provided free baby-sitting services once a quarter for couples to be able to have a night out (or in, but without their kids for a couple of hours).
I will have to admit, when I was handing out the baskets, the smiles were polite but tight. When I was welcoming the parents as they dropped off their kids, the smiles were bright and wide. Most of us have no idea what we are doing when it comes to parenting. Rather than two sermons a year, why not put together a parenting workshop, a resource library, or a secure-access online forum. Each of these builds community and promotes discipleship.
If that embarrassing moment in my interim ministry taught me anything, it taught me that I do not have to be afraid of preaching on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. It has challenged me to be both pastoral to those in my congregation while also creative about how to minister to them. This is my prayer for you!
Rob O’Lynn teaches preaching at Kentucky Christian University, Johnson University, and Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a minister in Ashland, Kentucky.