Becoming A Church Lady


I have arrived. No, not at heaven’s gate. And not at some new success level, but yes, to a special status: a church lady, the kind of woman who cooks for, cries with, and cradles her church.

The church ladies of my youth held tea parties and decorated the sanctuary for different seasons. In modest dresses and sometimes gloved, almost all of them had children I knew, or they were familiar like aunts, lovingly patting my head or leading our youth choir. These women doubled as friends as I grew older. One of them, Lesey Russell, became my landlord and a dear friend when I was a young single woman in need of a healing home. 

Marianne Wood

These church ladies seemed to know how to cook even if their repertoires included mostly cookies and pies. At least one of them could bake trays of rolls in our church’s basement kitchen. Responding to the delicious aroma, I recall bounding downstairs with church pals and families to potluck meals. This reminiscence lives among my most cherished pre-adolescent memories. With this same thundering herd, I attended youth group meetings, confirmation classes, and during Christmastime, met some of the older church ladies in their homes when our youth group gathered to sing carols and deliver poinsettias. Our church ladies’ most senior members met for Sunday School close to the sanctuary in high-backed chairs with purple cushions. We treated our elders with care and respect. They had served us; we now served them.

In my later teens, our church moved to a building with a kitchen maintained by a host of women in skirts, some now wearing pants. They, like the church ladies before, were always cheerful and very organized. I began to notice that these were some of the same women who taught Sunday School and much more. There can be a lot to being a church lady.

As I moved into my parenting years, I discovered that church ladies were a little like me: available to rock babies and almost always available to deliver a meal to someone “shut-in”–a person stuck at home due to illness or disability. But these women did more than I, often serving as the first person on a “prayer chain,” a list of people willing to take a call most any time of the day to offer supplication for a brother or sister in need. I quickly memorized the number of the person after me to continue fixing dinner or wiping a child’s face while completing my duty to the church and not letting down a church lady. These church ladies also hosted Bible studies and organized women’s retreats held at a lodge in the country. They showed their young and fun side by participating in silly skits like the toilet paper dress contest held during one sleepover.

On one of those retreats, we had a speaker who knew the former missionary and writer Elisabeth Elliot. It just so happened that Elisabeth Elliot Gren and her husband Lars were passing through our area from a conference and were convinced to drop by, ostensibly to sell remaining books. You can imagine our excitement even though Mrs. Gren’s dementia prevented her from much interaction. Better known for her suffering, sacrifice, and helpful prose, Elisabeth Elliot Gren was less known for the typical traits of cooking, crying, and cradling. Still, she was indeed the ultimate church lady. 

Today, dropping off a gift of food, I told the recipients my excuse for coming: church ladies cook, and they cry. I have wept for this couple who have taken on a profound loss. And it led me to prepare food for them. But I also realize that I have cradled, too. While missing my grandchildren who live far away will never be replaced by caring for other children, I enjoyed the gift of holding a church staff couple’s baby girl last week while we readied our building for a new beginning. Because I am a church lady now, and needy, too, I asked for a second turn to hold little Lucy. 

I have arrived. I am a church lady. Maybe you are, too?

Marianne Wood works as an editorial assistant and researcher for Bill Wright

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