Mother's Day is a particularly sensitive time in many congregations, and pastors and church leaders often don't even know it. This is true even in congregations that don't focus the entire service around the event as if it were a feast day on the church's liturgical calendar. Infertile women, and often their husbands, are still often grieving in the shadows.
It is good and right to honor mothers. The Bible calls us to do so. Jesus does so with his own mother. We must recognize though that many infertile women find this day almost unbearable. This is not because these women are (necessarily) bitter or covetous or envious. The day is simply a reminder of unfulfilled longings, longings that are good.
Some pastors, commendably, mention in their sermons and prayers on this day those who want to be mothers but who have not had their prayers answered. Some recognize those who are mothers not to children, but to the rest of the congregation as they disciple spiritual daughters in the faith. This is more than a "shout-out" to those who don't have children. It is a call to the congregation to rejoice in those who "mother" the church with wisdom, and it's a call to the church to remember those who long desperately to hear "Mama" directed at them.
What if pastors and church leaders were to set aside a day for prayer for children for the infertile?
In too many churches ministry to infertile couples is relegated to support groups that meet in the church basement during the week, under cover of darkness. Now it's true that infertile couples need each other. The time of prayer and counsel with people in similar circumstances can be helpful.
But this alone can contribute to the sense of isolation and even shame experienced by those hurting in this way. Moreover, if the only time one talks about infertility is in a room with those who are currently infertile, one is probably going to frame the situation in rather hopeless terms.
In fact, almost every congregation is filled with previously infertile people, including lots and lots who were told by medical professionals that they would never have children! Most of those (most of us, I should say) who fit into that category don't really talk about it much because they simply don't think of themselves in those terms. The baby or babies are here, and the pain of the infertility has subsided. Infertile couples need to see others who were once where they are, but who have been granted the blessing they seek.
What if, at the end of a service, the pastor called any person or couple who wanted prayer for children to come forward and then asked others in the congregation to gather around them and pray? Not every person grappling with infertility will do this publicly, and that's all right. But many will. And even those too embarrassed to come forward will be encouraged by a church willing to pray for those hurting this way. The pastor could pray for God's gift of children for these couples, either through biological procreation or through adoption, whichever the Lord should desire in each case.
Regardless of how you do it, remember the infertile as the world around us celebrates motherhood. The Proverbs 31 woman needs our attention, but the 1 Samuel 1 woman does too.
A version of this commentary originally ran on May 5, 2011.