Dr. Eric Holmes, shown here with Mother Joanne Smith. (Courtesy photo)

By Marnita Coleman,
Special to the AFRO

In some African American churches, the time-honored tradition of “church mothers” is still vibrant. 

For generations, pastors and congregants have cherished these devout women for their wisdom, faith, and dedication. Church mothers serve in a variety of roles across a broad spectrum. Faithful to the call, they give their time, cooperation, and financial support to the work of the ministry. Often elders before an appointed position, church mothers are competent bible-study teachers, trusted confidants and assistants to the pastor, as well as vital members of their parish.

Back in the day, church mothers were a monument of holiness and prayer, exhibiting strength and godliness. And, as many will remember, Mother So-and-so always had mints, would check your attitude in a heartbeat and side-eye you into submission if your attire was out of order. Like your own mom, church mothers watch over the young flock helping direct their way through life.

Is this enough for post-pandemic millennials or should church mothers initiate change in the church community?

Ruth Lowery, affectionately called “Mama Ruth,” a church mother at Abundant Life International Ministries, on West Pratt Street in Baltimore says, “For me, change is good in my book, as long as it’s for the goodness of the Lord. What was done years ago will not work today.”

Mother Joanne Smith is the epitome of class, beauty, wisdom and love. She is loved by so many because she is a blessing to the church kingdom and the community. I have been so blessed to have her as an adopted mother as well. My life, and the lives of other congregants at Beth-el Temple Church of Christ have been truly enriched. As you journey in life you meet people that leave lasting impressions. Mother Joanne Smith is that individual. (AFRO Archives)

A second-generation church mother, Mama Ruth, says she is all for whatever makes things better. Years ago, you couldn’t chew gum in church, she recalls. Things have changed and Mama Ruth advises being sensitive when speaking to millennials about the way they dress because “you don’t want to run them away.” The Bible says come as you are. 

Mama Ruth is the successor to her mother who was a church mother until she passed. Although church mothers’ functions may vary, they tend to fill similar roles. Mama Ruth’s duties include opening the church, conducting prayer service, keeping all financial records, paying bills, preparing communion, teaching bible study, assisting the pastor, ordering supplies, and ministering to the young, especially the boys. “If they need something in the church, I’ll get it,” she said.

In 2020, a new breed of church mothers emerged that are not disturbed by what the young people are wearing but rather focus on transparency, relatability, and resourcefulness.

“I always had a connection with the younger ladies, not only the teenagers but the young ladies who are career minded,” stated Mother Joanne Smith who was installed in 2020 as Church Mother by Bishop Richard Jerome Pender Sr., pastor of Beth-El Temple Church of Christ in Northwest Baltimore. 

“I’m the type that had a career, went to school and retired at the top of my game. So, I know about career-minded women!” 

Now 70, Mother Smith is the youngest of the church mothers on her board, the oldest being 97. Career-oriented, she has dual retirement from both the State of Maryland’s Employee Development and Training for the Department of Budget and Management Office of Personnel and 44 years with Weight Watchers as a coach.

Mother Smith is transparent with her life. In her opinion, some of the older church mothers were like “Jesus’ sister, they didn’t have a life. They didn’t know anything. They didn’t know about clubs.” She got pregnant out of wedlock but has been married to her “baby’s daddy,” for 43 years now and is the only church mother with a surviving spouse.

Through her professional contacts, Mother Smith has been able to aid college students and provide career guidance. As a former Weight Watchers coach, she is sought after for her pearls of wisdom on healthy eating, and she is often approached for relationship advice.

Mother Smith says, “If the young women don’t respect you, you’ll know it quickly.” She‘s well respected because she’s “relatable” and has a “swagger” about herself. Mother Smith is still wearing high heels and the younger women love them. 

As church mothers pivot in this season, their positions are indeed important for church growth.