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  • Courtney Ellis

You, Doing That Thing You Do

I receive many confessions. I’m Presbyterian, so we don’t do capital-C confession, but when people discover I serve in ministry they tend to react in one of two ways: they politely step back, sometimes apologizing for any profanity they’ve uttered in my presence (It’s okay, friends. We’ve heard it all before.), or they tell me things.

Middle-aged men in grocery store checkout lines admit they don’t call their mothers. College students on airplanes describe their dreams to own their own businesses. All sorts of folks explain to me that they are spiritual but not religious. That one’s never as novel as they think it is.

But the conversations that lodge in my heart like popcorn kernels wedged between molars, come from the women who tell me they wanted to serve the church, but couldn’t.


Years ago I sat in a Wisconsin midwife’s office watching her hands sliding firmly atop my watermelon of a belly.

“That’s a head,” she said, nudging the rounded knob near my ribcage. “We need to try to flip this little person around so you’ll both be ready for the birth.”

I trusted Dr. Kate like no healthcare professional I’d met before. Her kind, warm, no-nonsense demeanor meant that I usually spent our appointments sitting on her white-papered examining table and sobbing through my deepest fears. A first pregnancy can be a fraught thing, tender in its newness and uncertainty. When she’d ask how I was doing—really doing—I’d fold like an accordion.

Labor didn’t worry me, not really, but moving through the world in a vastly enlarging shape felt like running a daily gauntlet. I was a well-known pastor in a very small town. Nearly everyone had an opinion on my size: much too big. Nearly everyone proffered a birth horror story or two: eleventy-thousand hours of labor, agony worse than when they were bucked off their horse, ripping open from here to here.

I cried during every one of our appointments.

Pray for a C-section, whispered one woman, or you’ll never sit down again.

So Dr. Kate would pat my hand and tell me I was doing great, that my tears were healthy, my belly perfect, my baby thriving. She mined the depths of my angst, offering parables of motherhood that somehow helped me believe I, too, could be as resilient and good humored as the implacable woman before me.

I cried during every one of our appointments.

She only cried once.

“How is your church?” she asked, breaking the fourth wall of doctor-patient care. We’d talked bodies and babies, bowel movements and breastfeeding, and she would soon see me naked and pushing a baby into the world, but we’d always stayed within the boundaries of midwifery. This was new.

“They’re very excited to meet the baby,” I said, wondering if that was what she wanted to know. She paused. Sighed.

“I wanted to be a pastor,” she said. “But my childhood pastor told me I couldn’t. So now I do this.”

I grabbed her hand from my belly and squeezed it between both of my own.

“You would have been a great pastor,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“Because,” I said, “you are ministering to me.”

The church needs the voices of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, to speak the gospel with boldness and love.

Weeks later, in a darkened hospital room, my husband, my doula, and a tiny, soft-spoken nurse assigned to my care had been begging me for a quarter of an hour to move to the hospital bed for assessment. I wouldn’t budge. The three of them had never birthed a baby. They didn’t know my pain. In my animalistic, wild-eyed terror, I’d decided they didn’t know anything.

When I’d checked in an hour earlier, the on-call nurse told Dr. Kate she wouldn’t be needed for hours, so she’d rolled over and gone back to sleep. It was 3 a.m. after all. Moments later, she sprang from her bed and got into the car.

“How’d you know?” my husband asked Dr. Kate moments later as she pulled on exam gloves.

“God told me in a dream,” she said. “Now, Courtney, get up on that bed.”

I looked her square in the eye. She knew everything I needed her to know. I got on the bed.


The church needs the voices of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, to speak the gospel with boldness and love. Dr. Kate would have preached down the rafters, and I have no doubt the church suffered from the loss of her voice.

But we also need a more holistic theology of vocation, one that embraces work like hers while imparting the knowledge that bringing new life into the world is a holy and sacred calling, blessed by the same God preached from our pulpits.

The church needs midwives, CEOs, and bricklayers. If we minister in Christ’s name by offering a cup of cold water to a person in need, we do the same working as an honest mechanic, a winsome teacher, a realtor with integrity. Journalists who tell the truth do so unto the Lord. Editors who make prose sing participate in the creative work of God.

I will never forget Dr. Kate, though we moved hundreds of miles from her practice nearly a decade ago. I will always remember the women who confess to me their sadness at being hamstrung on their way into the work of the church.

Yet even in that heartache, I am reminded of this truth:

The pastorate is a holy calling, but it is not the only one that ministers.

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