Midwife Theologians

When we were expecting out first child we decided to go with a midwife. Actually, there were several midwives in this particular practice. In the course of our many visits we saw each midwife so that we would be familiar with whoever happened to be on call when we arrived at the hospital. 

On the night our son was born the midwife amazed me. My wife had started induction earlier in the day and progress was slow. That night, when hard labor came, the midwife was in our room the whole time. She coached on occasion, and she waited patiently while we did what we could to make it through the contractions. When it was clear that a little more intervention was needed, she stepped right in and confidently guided my wife. 

At some point in the last few minutes the IV line pulled out of my wife’s hand. At the sight of the blood on her arm I began to panic. But the midwife looked at me with her cool face, and told me everything was fine. She was the epitome of what counselors call a non-axious presence. 

I was reminded of the work of a midwife in a conversation with my theologian, poet friend Dana. We were talking, as we usually do,  about the new energy in pockets of the church and the age old question of what a church bureaucrat is to do with old wineskins and new wine. Maybe this is the time for midwives of the church. Maybe we need those people who recognize the pain, and point to the birth of something new.

Some argue that as institutions and structures begin to crumble there are open places that emerge. These open places are the perfect place for creative and new things to take shape. What is need though, are those persons who can inhabit the fissures and work in the open space. It is a weird mix of being within the structures yet challenging old visions and dreaming new dreams. It is in this middle place of the now and not yet that the midwife is most needed.

We need coaches who know the signs of pain for pain’s sake and pain that births something new.

We need leaders who can discern what that “something new” looks like, even if it is just visible in outlines.

We need pastors who aren’t anxious and can hold the space for conflict and struggle, not taking it personally but offering counsel and guidance when those around are too mired in the structures as they are to see the possibilities. 

And we need compassionate guides who see the failures in the way things are now and can invite others into new modes of faithfulness. 

We need more midwife-theologians.


Filed under Ecclesiology

12 responses to “Midwife Theologians

  1. Beautiful and well-articulated, Josh. As always.

  2. Scott Holland

    Nice reflections, Josh.

    Our two seminaries in partnership each lost a theologian due to professional moves and we are now asking what we need and desire in the search for new theology hires.

    I like the “Midwife Theologians” metaphor. I was also struck by your new wine and wineskins reference. Often, as we ponder crumbling institutions and structures, we begin to imagine the shape of new organizations and institutions. However, in this biblical metaphor, both the WINE and the wineskins are new.

    It seems to me that even in Emergent, Neo-Anabaptist, Home Brewed and other experimental ecclesial structures we find old wine poured into new wineskins. What wine, I wonder, do we serve in an increasingly intercultural, interfaith, post-secular age?

    • Joshua Brockway


      The funny thing is I end up reading your comments in the morning over breakfast- on my phone- so I have the whole morning to come ponder a response!

      It may be surprising (note the sarcasm) that I am not completely anti-institutional. Forming an organization is one way to sustain something, keep it from depending on just a few people, and can pass along practices, values, and stories. The problem we have, especially as Brethren, is confusing the institutions (or occasionally personalities) with those practices, stories, and values. In other words, we quickly get to a point where the institution is the end to our means. I once told some creative, anxious, and energized folks that “the revolution will not be a 501c3″== by which I just meant, “do the things, don’t spin out on the bureaucratic details.”

      Maybe you have heard about the Dunker Punk stuff coming out of NYC. I recently shared some hopes with that crew here http://dunkerpunks.com/2014/08/09/heres-one-dunker-punks-thoughts-and-hopes-for-our-movement/ . The three hopes I listed are of the midwife kind. But the whole post is wrestling with how an institution can hold open the space for movements to emerge.

      The Dunker Punks get to your wine questions. Jarrod McKenna was pushing us to live out our tradition in new ways– looking back to our heritage in a way that finds new and creative ways of living it out now. It was a call to an MG Brumbaugh kind of re-forming our tradition for the age you are describing. What strikes me, using the wine analogy, is that even new wine is made from historic craft– water, sugars, fermenting. There of course are new ingredients, innovations, but the basics stay the same. Maybe the surge in “craft-brewing” can teach us something about this kind of traditioned innovation.


  3. Scott Holland

    Josh, I like your analogical imagination in linking new wine to historical, even classical, crafts! Some Yellow Springs neighbors recently opened a fine craft brewery in the village and most evenings one must wait in line for even a place at the bar. The established taverns are only attracting a handful of old bikers thirsty for a Bud.

    Stan and I first met Jarrod in Indonesia some years ago and felt he might have some new wine to offer the American Brethren.

    You know me, my greatest worry is that while we are living in an age of global pluralism we are also seeing a new exuberance and energy around sectarian identity politics. In Nigeria it is Boko Haram. In Iraq and Syria it is ISIS. In Gaza it is Hamas. A distinguished Nigerian scholar from Yolo just visited Bethany and Earlham College. He is convinced that the root of this global violence is not mere economics but sectarian energies and identities.

    In my seminary office, monthly I hear from true believers with fierce convictions identifying themselves as members of BRF or BMC or B4BA or a number of other identity collectives from our tiny denomination. Honestly, when “Dunker Punks” appeared on my screen I sighed, “Yet another one?”

    MG Brumbaugh of course was asking the question of how one might live in both Mack’s church and Lincoln’s America. This question, or an ancillary question of how to live in the EYC church and in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Nigeria, seems to disrupt sectarian fantasies in a way I’m not yet hearing from the Dunker Punks. Chimamanda, by the way, will be on campus in September.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Yes, the line is fine between sectarian and being formed in a language game/tradition.

      I recently took one of those “which denomination” are you quizes just to see how they framed the questions. Strangely enough it said I am “Roman Catholic.” I laughed because there was a time when more liturgical traditions were very appealing. And yet, I could never think of “swimming the Tiber” or leaping to Canterbury. There are just too many foundational things/theologies among the mob of Brethren. So I hope, and at times I do not hope enough, that I am working from a particular cultural-linguistic frame rather than playing identity games, planting a prideful flag in order to colonize everyone else.

      I think it is the colonizing impulse of sectarianism that is at fault in many of the cases you highlighted. I would agree with your visitor that it is a sectarian impulse in ISIS, Boko Haram, and Hamas (and dare we even say Israel). But that sectarian drive is framed in a will to power, and power by force, that is also built on economics. But we need not go far to find such an drive. We need only look to Munster in our own history to see how quickly the sectarian impulse can find its will to power by force.

      So I wonder if the midwife/craft-brew theologian isn’t someone embedded in both a language game/tradition and the current realities. Hence a midwife and brewer are always practicing– learning from past and experience in order to do the new thing.

  4. Scott Holland

    Good response. We will likely always move with something like Tillich’s Catholic Substance and Protestant Principle or Derrida’s Jew-Greek and Greek-Jew dialectic. Since you are often marked more by Catholic Substance than Protestant Principle, Josh, perhaps you can mentor the New Dunkers who are tempted to protest even a grace that comes complete nature in this blessed broken world.

    Yet it also seems to me that since all religion is mediated via cultural-linguistic contexts and communities, one seeking to draw closer to the divine and hoping to become more deeply human and humane would want to master many vocabularies and visit distant sacred sites.

    I do like your craft-brew theologian metaphor. To avoid a sectarianism of either the left or the right, I suppose a Dunker Punk must discern when to hang at the new craft brewery and when to drink a Bud with the gray bearded bikers down at the Olde Country Tavern.

  5. I just read a while back from John Phillip Newell’s book “The Rebirthing of God”. In it, he describes a vision that Carl Jung had as a boy where he essentially saw a turd descending on the throne of God that eventually crushed the walls of the church and it crumbled. Newell mentioned that imagery later in a conference on spirituality and was approached by a woman who shared that in her 25 years as a midwife she noticed that a turd nearly always comes right before the birth.

    If what we need are more midwife theologians in the church, I pray that they are able to recognize the “stuff that we have to let go of” before the birth can happen.


  6. When they see riots chances are they’ll tend to be more willing to start or engage in one.
    This most of the time ends the prospects to get a career and they also decrease in a freefall with things going from bad to worse.
    Naturally, you’ll have people who will express the
    belief that playing any type of game could be a
    not worth a effort period.

  7. A stimulatec by what both of you are saying…and feel frustrated that I can only admire the thought processes witnout adding meaningful dissent or assent. Have read stuff on the Emergent church and wonder if that is the direction we ought/should be moving. Oh well!

  8. I’m stimulated by…is how it should read.

Leave a Reply to Randall Westfall Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s