But when I became an adult—and particularly a parent— something shifted. While I was pregnant with my first baby, a woman grabbed my arm in the hallway at church to recruit me for the nursery; “It’s customary for mothers to serve,” she said. She wanted me to commit to dates immediately. I remember saying, “I’m due on December 30th, so if you could not put me on the schedule for that day, that’d be great.” She told me most first-time mothers delivered late, so we could just find me a sub for that day if needed. When my daughter arrived (eight days early, thank you very much), I remember sitting drowsily on the floor with her or nursing her in a rocker, completely unable to pay attention to any of the other babies and missing the teaching, music and fellowship on the other side of the wall that I so desperately needed. I resented having been asked to serve.
As we searched for churches nearer to our urban home, I found myself drawn to something different. Fewer programs, but more fellowship. Community groups became a requirement for us. It’s not that I stopped serving in the nursery (I didn’t), but we started spending time with our church friends more outside the walls of the church, communing with and serving those around us together. My church friends became indistinguishable from my neighbors and family. My life integrated.
So, as an adult, I struggled to find my place in the church. What was my ministry if I wasn’t chaperoning youth trips or holding babies or even singing on stage? As Daniel and I lamented being unsure of our gifts and how we should serve the church and others, one of our former pastors astonished me when he told us he saw the gift of hospitality in us. “Welcoming people in is your ministry," he said, "just keep doing that.”
So we adopted that as our family and individual mission statements, and we let it guide our decision making-- everything from the house we purchased to the way we schedule our weekends. It’s been a long, gradual progression for me to realize that checking a box on the bulletin at church, while helpful and sometimes necessary, is not where “ministry” ends. I can’t overstate the freedom I’ve felt from living a missional life. That old anxiety about sharing the love and message of Christ is virtually gone, because now I don’t draw lines. “Church people” and “neighbors” and “friends” and “parents at school” and “girls from MOPS” all mingle together in my crowded, messy house and life.
I'm finding courage to be who I am—the same me—with all of them now. I’m not putting on a show for the ones on the outside, innocently trying to bait them into joining me at church. I’m not always on my best behavior for my church friends. Pretty frequently I say the wrong thing. I feel humbled that people compliment me on “authenticity” and “being real” but never “appearing to be perfect.” No one says the latter to me. My college roommate once said, “I knew it was possible for Jesus to love me, because he seemed to love you, and I knew first hand that you were a mess.” So, I’ve got that going for me.
I'm not suggesting that ministry within the church isn't valuable. We need people to rock babies in the nursery, and I’m incredibly grateful for the ones who have rocked mine. I will do it again. I still sign up to organize chili cook offs; I still bake casseroles; I still sing on the stage. I will do my part to help the church function. But I’m grateful to be part of a church that recognizes that it does not exist solely to minister to the people who are already within its walls; we are meant to love indiscriminately, as an integral part of our community. Ministry doesn't have to be limited to the roles that fit inside the local church.
The day that woman cornered me into signing up for the nursery schedule, I could never have understood the freedom possible in “ministering.” Ministry, within your own gifts and callings, can look different—it doesn’t have to be unnatural and hard. And, for me, there has been tremendous liberty and purpose in living authentically and simply loving the ones I’m with.