In which I ask you about your spiritual mothers


I use the terms Patron Saints and Spiritual Mothers to explain how I feel about the women intrinsically linked to my spiritual journey. It’s an imperfect metaphor, but I call them my mothers because, in a way, it’s like they helped give birth to some new part of me. They were the midwives – by their lives, their faith, their obedience, their work, their prayers – for the work that God has birthed in me, and through me.

These women have mothered  – nurtured, nourished, sourced, watched over – my spiritual journey.

Most of them won’t ever know that they influenced me as much as they did, but it’s true. God used them powerfully in my life, simply by living their own lives in obedience to God.

In my personal life, I have my mother, of course (if you’ve read here any amount of time, you are already well acquainted with her), and my sister, my Auntie Donna, my grandmothers, even my great-grandmothers, my mother-in-law. I have had women in my faith communities like Janet, Ruthanne, Karen, Eloise, Lisa, Tracy, Steph, Bonnie, Natalie, so many. I have plenty of “little sisters” in the faith, there, too, young women that I “mentored” throughout the years that have wound up teaching me more than I taught them like Abbie, Natalie, Bianca, Kelsey, and so many others dear souls.

There are biblical mothers like Junia and Phoebe, Huldah and Tabitha, Lydia, Mary Mother of God, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Abigail, Esther, Vashti, Priscilla.

There are the women of church history like Florence Nightingale, Mother Theresa, Dorothy Day, Amy Semple McPherson, Corrie Ten Boom, St. Therese de Lisieux, the Salvation Army’s Evangeline Booth, and Gladys Aylward, on and on.

Then there’s the writers and thinkers that mother me: Luci Shaw, Madeline L’Engle, Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott, Lauren Winner, Jennie Allen, Ann Voskamp, Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans, Phyllis Tickle, Mary Oliver, L.M. Montgomery so many more.

There are all of the bloggers, my secret tribes (otherwise, I’d link them all up), the SheLoves Magazine and Deeper Story families, and my real-life friends, a beautiful collection of souls, my very own girls.

What could I call them but a congregation of saints?

And then there are the thousands of unnamed, unnoticed women in our lineage of faith, the ones famous only in Heaven, and I honour them, too.

All of them are with me, here, as I write and work and mother and love and live into the mission of God in my right-now life. These women are with you, too, I know.

So that got me wondering, who are the women that mothered you, in your own journey of faith?

Who are your spiritual mothers?

Writers, preachers, pastors, mamas, missionaries, teachers, labourers – I don’t really care.

I’d love to make space here for their names and stories. Tell me?

(I have spiritual fathers – and brothers – too, but I’ll save them for another day soon. Stay tuned… We don’t want to forget our men.)


  • Dana

    My mother is first on my list. Elaine Spivy is like a human piece of Holy Spirit walking around, loving children back from the brink of despair and death. And she is mine. My sisters, Renee and Breanna, teach me faith that has never looked like my own even though we grew up in the same family. Strange and beautiful.

    Sheree Hill, the woman who taught me everything I know about Children’s Ministry as a calling–the one who was there when I heard the call and answered it. Sara Barton, for encouraging me not only to keep writing and teaching and learning, but to also sit still and break bread with coffee. The friendship of these two women are more precious to me than I have words to convey. They make my faith live and take shape, just by their very companionship.

    And all the mothers. The mothers of the hundreds of children I have crossed paths with in 12 yrs of ministry. They teach me everyday what it is like to be responsible for a life, while I am teaching them to be responsible for faith formation. Blessings and blessings.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Beautiful. So good.

    • Sara Barton

      Back at ya Dana Spivy~

  • suzannah | the smitten word

    i had a camp director, julie, who went out of her way to encourage a few of us in our faith and leadership. i went into ministry in part because of her legacy of love.

    great question and list. women of valor, all.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Bless Julie.

  • Preston Yancey

    So many you have named, the ones you did not, for me: St. Catherine of Siena, St. Clare of Assisi, Ellen F. Davis, Marie de France, Marilynne Robinson.

    Love this, love being called to think about them and light the candles, to give thanks.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Marilynne Robinson! Yes!

  • Soclose2myheart

    Having grown up in a non churches home with a fabulous, amazing non spiritual mother I think I have spent most of my Christian walk trying to find myself a spiritual mother to no avail. I think that what my heart longs for spiritually is to have another woman pour spiritually into me and challenge me and grow me. I know that God will do those things in me with or without a “mother” Like I said, my mother is loving, kind, giving and cares more for me then life itself but it feels missing that she could care less how my prayer life is or how my view of my heavenly father is shaped or if I feel wrapped in Gods love.

    • Sarah Bessey

      That is sucha testimony to your own mom. Praying you find what you look for, too.

  • Tara_pohlkottepress

    so funny that you should write this… I’ve been thinking about this a lot after writing about Madeleine L’Engle breaking open the sky to me again last year…and now, reading Leaving Church again, I was just telling my husband how Barbara BrownTaylor is a spiritual grandmother to me as well. you know the ones, that pull you up so close to their bosom that you are afraid you will suffocate from being so full of their presence, and later that night when you rest your head on your pillow, you catch a whiff of their perfume caught in your hair, and you smile. feeling well loved, and full the way that the love of a grandmother can make you. Those two for me reach to my toes. scoop me up and lead me.

    • Sarah Bessey

      I love BBT so much. And this entire comment, well, Tara P., you are one of my FAVOURITES.

  • Handsfull

    I don’t have blood family in my life any more, so I’m very picky about who I call family. They need to be people that I can call on who will treat me like their own. There’s the lady who lived over the road from me when I first left the cult, and let me play her piano, and prayed with me and interceded for me for months while I was deciding whether I really believed in God or not. Then there’s Kay, whom I call my God-mother. Her and her family have adopted me as one of their own. There is nothing I wouldn’t tell her, her influence on my marriage and parenting style has been huge, and her uncomplicated relationship with, and faith in God have been inspiring. There are several other women who have been (and still are) like spiritual aunties – not quite as close as mothers, but still very near and dear to me. Lyn, Diana, Val and Liz… women of God and of valour, who have welcomed me into their hearts and lives.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Beautiful, Handsfull – so thankful to read this. “uncomplicated” relationship – that’s a great phrase.

  • Jess

    Three come to mind. They were (are) missionaries in Haiti when I lived there as a single person, and I learned more from their friendship about authenticity, wisdom, service, ministry, faith,”Biblical Womanhood” . .. than I did in all of my years growing up in the church.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Oh, wow – there’s a sermon in there, Jess. Good stuff

  • Gary Ware

    My Mother,
    Barbara Lee Ware, endured great difficulties and disappointments while encouraging children and friends to trust God.

    My Spiritual Mother, Norma Barnett, worked with a 27 y.o., hardened, worldly, distrustful man as he morphed into a respectable and proper Christian, husband, and father. Took God and her 30 years and she was always there for me, my wife and daughter.

    My First wife, Jane Ware: Her love of life and tenacity for our wedding vows and commitment to God and faithfulness to me set examples for me, our daughter and many others. During her fight with cancer, she never wavered in her
    convictions or trust in her Holy, Healing, Saving God.

    My second wife, Connye Ware is, stable, wise, patient and gently reigns me in, when needed. I trust her implicitly and often seek her counsel for decisions of all levels.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Beuatiful. So good. Bless them.

  • Anne J

    There’s a woman I call my “church mom”. She is the mother of my closest friend, but my relationship with her is its own. I call her when I want to check out something spiritual to get her take. I call her when my son prays for Jesus to live in his heart forever and ever amen, but I’m not sure if at three years old that it’s for real. She joined hands with me, my mom and my bridesmaids on my wedding day and prayed over me. She wrote a special prayer of dedication for my son. She’s the lady who models what it looks like to really truly treasure a relationship with God and live it out in love.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Love that – “church mom” – so good.

  • Ashley

    Oh wow. I’ve been thinking on this one a lot. My closest friend, Summer, who was my age, but yet “mothered” me in many ways – I suppose we mothered each other – just went to be with the Lord last week after a year-long battle with cancer. I’ve been reflecting on her impact and have only now realized how much God used her to change, grow and heal my heart. What a gift she was.

    • Sarah Bessey

      I am so sorry for your loss, Ashley – what a beautiful gift your Summer! Bless her! Wish I could hug you now.

  • Miles O’Neal

    I trust it’s OK if I join this discussion…

    My Mom is first; despite growing up dirt poor on the wrong side of the tracks in Selma, AL during the depression, she taught me to trust God no matter what, and she taught me unconditional, sacrificial love. My grandmothers and my wife’s mother did the same. My Evil Stepmother (her title for herself; we just call her Mom and love her dearly) is still doing that. All of these women were nurturing, yet tough, and would listen to anything I needed/wanted to talk about, and were willing to talk about almost anything (excepting sex; neither of our Moms could talk about those with their kids, or perhaps anyone).

    Mary Land, our assistant pastor’s wife in Atlanta, was very much a spiritual mother (and surrogate mother in many ways). Several missionaries– in particular Crystal Walker (despite being our age or a little younger) and Margaret Gaines, neither of whom we got to see that often, carried what I can only describe as a spiritual motherhood mantle for entire people groups, and graciously loved on us as well, with things as simple as trust.

    Someone mentioned Madelaine L’Engle! Yes, yes, a hundred times yes! She taught me more of God than quite a few Bible teachers and preachers– especially God as loving parent–, as well as a great deal about life, coping, and relationships. Andre Norton, not even writing from a Christian viewpoint AFAICT, also falls into that category, as does Louise Fitzugh, despite her fall lower, published output.

    Some of the bloggers you mention nurture me regularly.

    This may sound weird, but I must include my wife. By being a mother to my children and to so many others, she has nurtured and taught me as well. When I was sick, she took care of me.

    These women are all priceless jewels.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Absolute it’s okay for you to join in! Beautiful post, Miles! Thank youf or every word of it.

  • Abbie Kampman

    Well, since you asked… :) YOU, of course. Honestly, the moment I officially “met” Christ was when I walked through that door and your husband gave me a big hug, then proceeded to make snarky comments about being a Hawkeye- ha! But we shared a mutual Midwest love, and for that I am thankful. Remnant taught me the fullness of God’s love. I continued to meet Christ in the many moments spent in your home, the smell of comfort was omnipresent when entering (yes, it was a smell- candles, cookies, books, WARMTH). It was a safe haven for me during an extremely tumultuous time. I cannot thank you and Brian enough for that hospitality and love, and for the many years of support since. Your marriage and bond have blessed my life in profound ways- and gave me a foundation to strive for when looking for my own husband (he’s a better man that I could have ever hoped for). Since that day, entering Remnant, I have had many spiritual mothers- women of peace who have provided God-love at both crucial and peaceful times. I always think of you first, though. Always.
    Much love to my kindred spirit :)

    • Sarah Bessey

      You’re making me cry, Abbie-girl. You and me? Always. xoxo

  • Jillie

    Hi Sarah…It’s been a while since I’ve been here. So glad I came back! Find your youthful writing style to be so refreshing. I think you’re cool!
    I’d have to say my greatest spiritual ‘mother’ was my Gramma Jessie. She’s been gone to glory many years now, but her face is still so fresh in my mind’s eye…it’s like she’s here with me right now. I see her in her rocking chair in the corner, Bible spread open on her knee, hair braided round her head, eyes closed in prayer. This is where I would first see her as I awoke on her sofa after a ‘sleepover’. She was not a church attender. She did not go ’round preaching at anybody. But I know she believed with all her heart. I think her faith was held privately, because my grandfather was a rather sullen, nasty, stern man, and he didn’t go for all the pure joy my Gramma exuded. She lived her life quietly, simply. Family was everything to her. I cannot count the number of times she whispered in my ear, “Jesus. loves. you.” I believe I am a follower of Jesus today because of the hundreds of prayers I know she prayed…for me.
    Thank you, Sarah, for the place you’ve given me here today to honour the memories of my Gramma Jessie. Oh, how I miss her.

    • Sarah Bessey

      Beautiful, beautiful, Jillie! So thankful to read this today.

  • Brenna D

    When I read this the first time, my first emotions were that of loss. There have been some here and there who pop in for a moment, but for sustained spiritual guidance I don’t have anyone. And that breaks me. My heart longs for that person who is tuned into me and my family, can give guidance, check in, and just be a presence in my life.

    Then I re-read, and started to feel lighter. And I think about my friends, who even though they don’t look like an archetypal spiritual mother, they speak life to me. And then I remember my book mommas……Madeleine L’Engle is my favorite (I fave coffee with her at my table and she always has some wisdom for me).

    I think, more than anything, your post has reminded me to leave space in my margins for others so that I can be one to them who is a presence and can speak life and nourish.

    • Sarah Bessey

      I’m glad you can reframe that, Brenna – I think there’s a bigger thought behidn all of this around where we find “mothering” and leaving space etc. You are a wise woman.

  • pamhogeweide

    TONS of spiritual mamas who have helped me along the way and continue to do so. From the first Bible study leaders I had who took a new fresh off drugs 18y under their wings, to the many missionary women I knew during my years of YWAM service….to the women who swirl around my life today, my Patina Sisters who I just gave a shout out in my blog post today.

    Women in the blogosphere and writers who help nurture and guide me include Kathy Escobar and Idelette from SheLoves….and then there are the artists who nurture and inspire me, who by their art spark creativity in me. ARtists like Kelli Rae Roberts and Trisha Gratham and my friends who come to my art parties. They mother me just by showing up to do art together.

    And sometimes my daughter, my beautiful, wise beyond her age 18y old daughter mothers me just by Being.

    great post sarah!!!

    • Sarah Bessey

      Beautiful! You are so right – we all mother each other. And I didn’t even touch on how my tinies are “growing me up” too as you talked about your daughter. Lovely, Pam.

  • Laura

    My mom, who seems to have no end for her love and grace towards others.
    My best friend, who I can trust with the darkest parts of my heart and helps me find joy.
    My “mentor”, who has lived through eerily similar trials (and because of that can understand my heart like no other) and gives me hope for brighter days.
    My bible school best friend, who held me in the worst moment of my life and pours encouragement into me.
    My lifelong friend, who teaches me to be gentle with myself and others.
    And there are more…friends, leaders, and writers….and I am very blessed!

    • Sarah Bessey

      Women of valour, all of them. Beautiful, Laura. You are so blessed, indeed.

  • Morag Renfro

    I didn’t know what had been missing in my life until I went to see a Christian counselor and discovered what unconditional love and nurturing felt like. She simultaneously opened an enormous mother wound and started to heal it and I felt like a baby duckling just hatched. Since then I have been praying for more spiritual mothers in my life.

    • Sarah Bessey


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  • Daniela

    Helen Burns tucked me under her wing many years ago, and I’ve had -another amazing woman, who Linda has loved me and shown me God so graciously. My mother and I don’t have relationship, that is a long sad story, but God has brought spiritual mothers to my life. I’ve been loved enough by these amazing women that I dont have to wonder what it would be like to have a mom around. God takes care of everything.

  • pastordt

    Oh, Sarah! This is one I want so desperately to respond to – to write a post about. And maybe I’ll be able to in a day or two. Right now, today and tomorrow, I am 130 miles from my home, tending to my one and only real mother, spiritual and in every other way, who is terrified as she is losing her cognitive abilities to dementia. And I am a hot mess tonight. Just so, so sad. So….I’ll try. But I need that cushion of time before I start. Thanks for the invitation – it’s a beautiful one!

  • Pete A.

    My own mother died when I was 2 months old, and her parents raised me. They never went to church, so, till my teens, I rarely did either, except when a cousin and his sister held a neighborhood Sunday School for about a year. My very first intro to religion came when a cousin (not a Christian) walked into my upstairs bedroom and asked whether I was Catholic or Presbyterian. I’d never heard of either one, but just assumed she knew those were the only choices. I didn’t think my 5-year-old tongue could wrap itself around the impossible-sounding word “Presbyterian,” so I said “Catholic.”

    Later I did start doing to church, thanks to a school bus friend, and had a series of what I’d agree were spiritual “fathers – but no mothers. (Oh, yes, all the pastors were married, but the pastors taught our classes, and the wives helped out behind the scenes.)

    Looking back now, who would I say came closest to being a spiritual mother? I’d have to give that honor to one of my Bible College teachers, Maxine Williams. She was a very quiet but effective teacher who taught things like Christian education and missions. She often impressed us with her insights – and sometimes shocked us. I ‘ll always remember one incident. We somehow got onto the subject of healing during that class. One of my classmates asked her why some people were healed when they were prayed for, but others weren’t. Miss Williams didn’t even hesitate. Very quietly, matter-of-factedly but assuredly, she answered, “You have to be sensitive enough to God so that, before you pray for anyone, you will KNOW whether God plans to heal them.” I think we all looked around at each other and thought “Wow! Is that even possible?” Thankfully, some of us finally learned that it WAS, and saw some marvelous examples of it – some having to do with healing, and others with entirely different things.

  • Christine Anderson

    Sarah, I can’t even begin to express what a gift your words are to me today. As I woke early this morning, I dreaded getting up and facing the day, as it is the twelfth anniversary of my Mother’s death after a long battle with lung cancer. I was barely 26 on the day that she passed away. At that moment, I had no idea the enormity of grief that would come in waves as the years have passed. When she first left this earth, I grieved her death and remained thankful that she was no longer suffering and in a place much better than anywhere that we are living. As time and years passed, I found myself grieving in the days that led up to my wedding, to a man that she would never know and love. Then, a bit later, as I grieved the loss of my first child, I also found myself in tears over my Mom yet again…tears of sadness that she would never see the children that we welcome into our family (by birth or adoption), tears of anger that she died so young and would never be an active part of my adulthood, to witness the woman I had awkwardly grown into. Twelve years later on this very day, as I reflect upon everything I can remember about her: the expressions of love from her and hearing her sweet voice singing in my mind, I choose to not grieve the void she left, but to rejoice in the memories and life lessons learned.

    My mother was my “physical” Mom and a spiritual Mother as well. I am so thankful for the women that have touched my life since her passing: girlfriends, my sisters, my sister in law, and most recently, *you* and some of the bloggers from your Haiti Blogger Team. Your stories and words are a huge inspiration to me and I am blessed to be following you on this journey…I can feel your heart in every word that you write! I hope that we can meet someday and chat over coffee about writing and Haiti and God. :)

  • Stephanie

    I’ve been reading through Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks Journals. Breathtaking and profound. I keep scribbling down quotes to remember.

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  • Jennifer Gorman

    My Gram life, her daily ministry of sacrificial love her entire life is what made it possible for me to believe in a loving, God. She was born to Polish immigrant parents in Philadelphia in the 20’s, and her mother died while my Gram was very young. She never finished high school, leaving to work as a maid and companion to an elderly woman as a teenager. She married young, moved to the countryside and had five children in a rural house, only to be widowed young as well, when my father, the oldest of the five was only 12. She became a single, working mother living in poverty, but raising those children with love. In the 70’s she ran a small town grocery store/ butcher shop with her second husband who also died, and she married again. Her youngest daughter was a true free spirit, who also abused alcohol and drugs, and ended up giving my Gram two children to raise, while she continued to be lost. My Gram was love, she did love. When she would hear of a young, struggling single mother, she quietly, privately brought her food, clothing and kind words. She scrubbed and sewed and cooked and baked and did laundry and gardened because it needed to be done for those she loved, so that’s it you just did it. Her kitchen and garden were safe havens of hugs, prayers, and confidences. Of lullabies sang to grandchildren and apple pies baked for every occasion. Of pots of tea poured into Blue Willow cups for a little girl as she listened to my dreams and stories, and secrets as I turned into a young woman and young mother. When she was in her late 70’s she had a stroke that robbed her of speech and the use of the right side of her body. But even in the nursing home in her final years she radiated joy, peace and love to nurses and strangers around her with just a touch of her good hand, the sparkle in her gentle, wise eyes, her smile. And she still was a spirited, stubborn woman as well, who refused to let them put on her sneakers just because they thought it was time, just like she bossed all of us around her whole life. She was gentle, but you didn’t mess with a Philly girl. Years before her stroke, in 1990 the year I got married, her and I decided to go to Reading, PA to a factory outlet there to look for a romantic cotton nightgown for my honeymoon with lots of lace. Reading is a very poor, urban small city near Philly, and we got terribly lost in a sad part of the city. She spotted, walking on the street, an absolutely huge African American man who looked very angry. She chirped up, sitting next to me in my old, baby blue VW Bug, “Let’s just ask this nice young guy right here how to get there!” I’m ashamed to say I was very afraid of him and said so. She ignored me and rolled down her window and yelled to him, and, of course, his face transformed into gentleness at her gentleness, and smiles at her smiles, and he gladly told us the way. All the times she was hurt in life could have made her very bitter, but they only made her more stubborn and determined to meet those painful times and answer them with servant love, finding and demanding the best in others and herself, forgiveness, hard work and enough apple pie and yard sale gifts to heal the world.

    There also my spiritual grandmothers at Rocky Ridge Mennonite, who were there for a struggling young mother who not only was in the first years after my autoimmune disease diagnosis, but was dealing with finding a diagnosis and services for my mildly autistic and ADHD young son. Their lessons from lifetimes of their own of marriage, special needs children, and living in every sense as a follower of Jesus, go as shining lights before me and behind. I carry images in my heart of their work hardened, gnarled hands ever so gently, but so knowingly and fast, finding verse after verse in the Bibles that had been with them for decades and had sustained them and shaped their lives, and during our Wednesday Bible Study mornings, they taught me. These gentle saints are with my Gram in Heaven now, and I know each of them still surrounds me, as does Jesus.