Illustration: Neil Webb

Topics: May 2020, UCC in Focus | Relationships

When daughters follow their mothers into ministry

Diaconal and ordained ministers on their unique connection with their mothers


Soon after she became a mother, Martha Martin went back to church. She hadn’t been part of a congregation for two decades since leaving the United Church as a teenager in the 1960s, and never imagined she’d later become a minister. Instead, she’d briefly studied journalism at university and moved cross-country as part of an Irish music group. But after she had her first child, everything felt bigger. She reconnected with her faith.

A few years later, she found a course calendar from the Centre for Christian Studies (CCS) that had a term she wasn’t familiar with: diaconal ministry. The United Church has two equal but different streams of ministry; while both serve in all aspects, ordained ministers are formally called to word, sacrament and pastoral care, while diaconal ministers are formally called to education, service, social justice and pastoral care. The diaconal calls appealed to Martin’s interest in adult education and international development work.

In 1986, she began the program at CCS, but between juggling parenting and a move for her husband’s career, didn’t finish until 1998. By then, she had a third child, a daughter named Alana. When Martin got her first position at St. John’s United in Halifax, five-year-old Alana went, too. She spent board meetings colouring in a corner.

Martin felt guilty dragging her daughter along. Little did she know, she was laying a foundation for Alana’s own career. Today, Alana Martin, now 29, is completing her diaconal studies and is minister to the GO Project, a youth mission program at Toronto’s Islington United — the very church her mother, now 66, went to as a child.

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While many male ministers’ sons have also followed in their fathers’ footsteps, mothers and daughters in ministry haven’t been as common across the church’s history. The United Church has ordained women since 1936, and female ministers make up more than half of its clergy today, but the challenges of being both a woman and a parent in a traditionally male-dominated field linger. Until 1964, the church required that female ordained ministers be unmarried, widowed or “no longer required in the home” in order to hold the position. Married women weren’t allowed to be diaconal ministers until 1970. To this day, female ministers report conflict with congregations around pregnancy and maternity leave, as well as sexist comments and harassment.

But each generation of ministers paves the way for the next, and over time it’s become easier for mothers and daughters to make ministry the family business. It’s a special experience to share a vocation, and mother and daughter ministers can provide invaluable support and guidance as they navigate it together.

“I didn’t grow up thinking I would serve in ministry — I saw how hard it can be,” says Rev. Miriam Spies, whose parents are both ministers. Asked specifically about having a minister as her mother, she added, “Being called, I am thankful I have my mom with me for what ministry brings to my life….She encourages me and challenges me, and helps me problem solve, both on a daily basis as well as in the bigger picture.”


Alana Martin’s early years colouring in the corner at St. John’s United made a huge impression. She had spent time in other churches as Martha completed field placements, but she says that walking into St. John’s for the first time felt like coming home. As she entered her teens, Alana especially loved hanging out with the church’s university-aged young adults. “They were living out their faith in amazing ways that really kind of broke boundaries,” she says.

It didn’t take long for Alana to become involved in the church herself. She began working with youth programming and became a counsellor at Nova Scotia’s United Church-run Camp Kidston. But joining the ministry wasn’t a clear path for the younger Martin, either.

In 2007, Martha was driving Alana home from Maritime Conference’s Youth Forum. At the gathering, the same young adults she had looked up to for so long had started telling Alana that she was going to become a minister. “I don’t know,” she told her mother, frustrated. “I just don’t think this is right for me.”

Martha decided to share her own story. “The way I identified it was a not-call,” she said. Becoming an ordained minister was not for her, she felt. “Then I found out there was diaconal ministry, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m called to.’” She looked over in the car and saw tears streaming down her daughter’s face.

In that moment, Alana realized what had been making her so scared. “I didn’t feel called to preach the word,” she says. Like her mother, she wanted to do education and justice work within the church.

Illustration: Neil Webb

But there was also the fact that it was her mother’s vocation. “I ran away from it for a long time because of my mom,” she says. “I wanted to be different; I wanted to have my own identity.” She chose to go to university for international development. “I really thought that was going to be the career path that I took, but then in my later teens and early 20s, [ministry] just kept lingering and stirring within me,” Alana says. “It kind of felt like I always knew that I wanted to be a diaconal minister.”

As Alana found clarity, Martha became apprehensive. She knew how hard being a diaconal minister could be from her own experiences feeling less respected and recognized than her ordained peers. She recommended her daughter speak to others as she discerned, for an unbiased opinion.

One of those people was Rev. Linda Yates, then minister at St. John’s United, who first met both Martins in the 1990s and remains close friends with them today. “In my conversations with her, it was all about ‘You’re not your mother,’” says Yates. “I think it might have been harder for Alana to discern a call than it would be for your average person because of growing up with a mom who’s a minister.” But in the end, Alana decided her mother’s career path was right for her, too. “They experience similar calls to justice,” says Yates. “They experience similar calls to serve God through the church.”

Today, Alana is busy as a full-time diaconal ministry student and minister to the GO Project, where she co-ordinates a program bringing Canadian youth together during the summer to live in a church and volunteer with activities like community gardens, daycares and meal programs.

Martha recently joined her in Toronto to become a minister at Kingston Road United, where she is continuing her feminist work in social justice and education. The pair meet for dinner every Sunday, when they catch up, watch a movie and discuss work.

“She wasn’t the only person who mentored me or inspired me, but without her I wouldn’t have had the rest of those people. She is the number one and the core.”

Both Martins say it’s a relief to have someone around who understands the challenges of their vocation. Alana says she’s received comments about her age and gender while working. “You add young, female, children and youth [ministry], diaconal, and it’s many layers of identity that are seen as secondary” within the church, she says. To handle that, Alana has mentors like her mother to look up to, and supportive friendships with other young women in ministry.

When she and Martha get together, Alana says, maintaining boundaries between professional and family life is an ongoing effort. “For about a decade now, we have been colleagues as well as mother-daughter,” she reflects, referring back to her days working part-time as a teenager at St. John’s United. “In some ways, that has made us really close, but in other ways, it’s sometimes hard to separate our familial relationship [from] our collegial relationship.”

Still, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I have always looked up to my mom and really am thankful for walking in her footsteps,” Alana says. “She wasn’t the only person who mentored me or inspired me, but without her I wouldn’t have had the rest of those people. She is the number one and the core.”

Martha’s initial hesitancy at seeing her daughter follow in her career path has blossomed into pride. Having a daughter in the ministry “has definitely strengthened my faith, in ways that have been unpredictable, surprising and mysterious,” Martha says. “I have always been in awe of her skills and joy in leading youth and children….In the early days, people would say to her, ‘Is Martha Martin your mother?’ Now, more often than not, people are asking me, ‘Are you Alana Martin’s mother?’ I know she’s doing good work. I’m very proud of where she is.”

This story first appeared in Broadview’s May 2020 issue with the title “Like mother, like daughter.”

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Laura Kenins is a writer in Toronto.


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