Pastor as Spiritual Midwife

A few years back I had to write a paper exploring an image or metaphor that describes my personal vision for pastoral ministry. Here’s what I wrote. (Note: Keri was pregnant with Abby at the time).

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” Gal. 4:19

I have always limited my understanding of my pastoral identity to the primary biblical images—the five-fold ministry articulated in Ephesians 4: shepherd, teacher, apostle, evangelist, and prophet. This is a great starting place but perhaps God wasn’t providing a comprehensive list of pastoral images. Moreover, I think new times and places, cultures and contexts, may require seeking more contemporary images to describe our primary pastoral niche.

I want to unpack the foundational image of a Spiritual Midwife to describe the heart of my current pastoral ministry at MainStreet Covenant Church. The primary meaning of “midwife” is obviously “a person who assists women in childbirth.” However, a more general definition is “one who helps produce or bring forth something new.” Thus, a spiritual midwife is a person who plays a helpful role in bringing forth new spiritual life—a new understanding, new faith, new power, new awareness, new healing, a new beginning.

Paul has a similar image in mind where he himself feels the pains of childbirth as he tries to nurture the life of Christ within his people: “Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives” (Gal. 4:19). Let me unpack this unique role a bit.

First, at the heart of gospel ministry is that foundational “new birth” experience that everyone must experience. Jesus taught and modeled this pastoral role with Nicodemus, saying, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3). The new spiritual life that emerges is the work of God, but often God uses the assistance of a pastor, preacher, or ordinary believer who helps create the environment and provides the necessary conditions where new spiritual life can burst forth. While the initial “new birth” experience is foundational and unique, I believe the image of God birthing new spiritual life in a person should not be limited to that initial experience.

Second, therefore, I see my daily work of pastoral ministry as joining with God through the Holy Spirit in “impregnating” receptive souls with the spiritual seed of the Word of God (cf. Mark 4) through preaching and teaching. Then watering that seed through regular ministry of care, counseling, discipleship and teaching; and then being present as a spiritual midwife in helping give birth to new spiritual insights, transforming experiences, moments of conviction, healing experiences, and so on.

Several core convictions and theological perspectives lead me to this organizing metaphor for my ministry. They include:

1. A Deep Belief in the New Birth Experience. While many people see God’s work in their life being a slow, gradual process over a long period of time, I still believe there is a key moment when the Holy Spirit invades one’s life and a spiritual rebirth takes place. I constantly preach and minister toward that end — weekly inviting the congregation to consider whether they have had that new birth experience or not. I preach toward a decision moment or confrontation.

2. Dynamic View of Preaching. Similar to above, I believe the Holy Spirit is actively at work in the ministry of preaching each Sunday, and my preaching aims not merely to impart new information as much as it aims to facilitate a holy encounter with the Incarnate Word who is present among us through the Holy Spirit desiring to awaken, or give birth to a new spiritual vitality or intensity in the hearers. In other words, there’s a dynamic yet gentle “pushing” exchange between God and the individual, and I am there to merely help bring bring out whatever is pregnant in the people I am ministering to. (Not to “push” the metaphor too far but I pray my preaching is passionate and inspired enough at times to cause spiritual “contractions” in hearers. There may be something amiss if a woman in labor gets bored and dozes off; likewise if people can slip off to sleep during our preaching.)

3. Ministry is a painful, messy process. As I’m doing more counseling and care ministry, I’m learning to expect and embrace the fact that the birth of anything new often involves a painful, messy, and unpleasant process. The spiritual pregnancy is often long and uncomfortable, involving ongoing care and checkups. The critical moment of finally giving birth to what God has been growing in our heart often is traumatic and painful.

Tragically, many people abort the new life God is growing, unwilling to go full term with this new spiritual life for various reasons. Nothing is more painful for a pastor than watching God begin to knit together a new life in a person, and then watch them give up on the pregnancy prematurely. For example, a number of the people I have baptized over the years have not continued in the life of the church and discipleship, but have drifted away from the Body of Christ. I assure you, they all seemed genuinely pregnant at that moment they pledged themselves to Christ and went under the waters. That new spiritual life seems to have been aborted — though I pray I am wrong.

4. Knowing My Limitations. I am suspicious of leaders who mistake their role with God’s. Pastors can often try to force results, give themselves too much credit, place too much weight on their gifts and abilities, and come to think that the fruit of their ministry is largely dependent upon their clever ministry strategies, communication style, personality, and so on. I guess I am just not gifted enough to fall into that trap. Just as a midwife in the birthing room is well aware she did not create that baby nor is she pushing it out, so the pastor knows that God is the source of new spiritual life and it only comes to fruition as the person cooperates with the Holy Spirit in bringing it forth. The pastor need not be “pushy” or all that “creative.”

I have focused my midwifery largely on the Sunday morning preaching role above, yet these same convictions apply to other aspects of my ministry: leadership, vision casting, counseling, administration.

Obviously, there is needed balance in the complex and varied job of a pastor. There are certainly weaknesses and blind spots inherent in embracing the image of a spiritual midwife. For example, a midwife can easily live for those exhilarating moments of spiritual delivery and birth, and not know what to do in the daily grind between those high moments — you know, the long slow 9-month period of gestation.

For me, that means strengthening my skills in administration and strategic leadership of the organization. As seen above, I prefer to focus on the dynamic ministry of the Word, personal counseling and discipleship, and creating environments and experiences where a spiritual God-encounters happen and new births can result. My wife currently is 23 weeks along with our third child! I know she’ll be ready and alert when her time comes; yet its equally important that she tends to the daily responsibilities of scheduling regular checkups, taking her vitamins, and caring for her ever-changing body. Likewise, I must be a pastor who diligently cares for the mundane day to day needs of this Body I oversee, and not just live for the big moments!

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” Gal. 4:19

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