My friend Mary recalls when she was a child, seeing her mother leave the house to go and do hospital visits for Mothers’ Union (MU). Years later, when Mary herself was doing the visiting, she gave the MU gift to a new mum and returned to find the woman’s husband reading the copy of Luke’s Gospel from the package. Stories like this are heard frequently among the (mostly) lay women who serve with MU.

She gave the MU gift to a new mum and returned to find the woman’s husband reading the copy of Luke’s Gospel from the package.

MU is a worldwide Christian organisation that is 140 years old, active in 84 countries, and has over 4 million members linked by daily prayer. Most members are from India (1.9 million) and Africa (1.3 million). It is a ministry to help families at their point of need.[1]

In her book about MU, Cordelia Moyse writes, “The MU is a mass organisation which has its roots deep in local parish life and in the lives of ordinary women.”[2] And most of us are ordinary, aren’t we? But God often works through ordinary women (and men) doing ordinary things to bring about his extraordinary results. Profound things happen in the ordinary.

A Ministry to Mothers

Englishwoman Mary Sumner founded MU. She grew up in a happy home where her father ensured she was well-educated—and Mary was very grateful for that—but, as she often said later, the house revolved around her mother.[3]

In 1848, then aged nineteen, Mary married a clergyman by the name of George Sumner. When her first child was born, she felt inadequate for the spiritual and moral responsibility of bringing up the child. She also reasoned that, if she thought that, other mothers must feel that too. Later, when she was in her fifties, that conviction prompted her to begin a small, local ministry to meet the need.

It didn’t stay small, however. MU soon spread across social, economic, national and ethnic boundaries.[4] It helped encourage some women to be less private and more public about their Christian faith, e.g., praying with other women for their children.[5]

Today, the ministries of MU vary around the world. In Australia, its activities have included: Christian seminars, parenting courses; evangelism; financial and ministry partnerships with other bodies in Australia and overseas. MU has supported prison chaplains, missionaries, a literacy program for Ethiopian Women, Karen refugee children, education for Syrian and Iraqi refugee children, and a creche at Nungalinya College, Darwin.

Another MU ministry, begun by Joyce Hayman in Sydney, serves tea and biscuits to families and defendants in the law courts. This ministry began as a three-day-a-week concession by the Justice Department, but soon expanded to five days as Magistrates noticed the calming effect fostered by the presence of the MU women. In July 1973, The Sun Herald reported, “It took a quiet homemaker to go and look at the place with the intention of trying to improve the situation.” MU members who heard about the ministry in England were soon at work to replicate the ministry in their own country.

Magistrates noticed the calming effect fostered by the presence of the MU women.

Reading through the MU archives, I was so moved by the variety of ministries the women did and their deep love for people and our Lord. But the number one ministry that stood out was prayer. It continually came up. One example was when former CMS missionary Mary Andrews wrote to MU six months before she died:

May I express my deep appreciation to MU members for all your prayerful support and encouragement. […] I thank God for the wonderful support MU gave me while I was in China and it is thrilling to hear the Christian church in China is growing […]. Pray for the church in China at this time, when it’s bursting at the seams […].”

The MU prayers showed they were partners in the work of the gospel with Mary Andrews, her ministry in China, and the Chinese church more broadly.

A Ministry of Mothers

The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Cor 15:58 that all Christians (not just clergy or elders) are to be involved in the work of the Lord. We also see in Romans 12, 1 Cor 12, 1 Peter 4 and Eph 4 that all Christians have been gifted to serve the church. God’s Spirit has equipped all Christians to build the church and reach the lost. We exercise these gifts in our homes and other family and friendship groups. But of course, we also exercise these gifts in our local churches and parachurch ministries like MU.

With so much professionalisation in ministry, I found it helpful to read of a ministry that is entirely volunteer and lay-led; whose members are unpaid, female, and generally older.

I also found MU a helpful context in which to think about the relationship between the local church and parachurch ministries. The questions that occurred to me might also be profitable for those in Christian leadership to consider too:

  • How is our church actively encouraging and resourcing lay ministry?
  • How is our church actively encouraging and resourcing volunteer ministry? How is our church encouraging older members in various ministries?
  • How is our church encouraging women in various ministries?
  • How is our church leadership encouraging congregation members to develop ministry ideas to build Christ’s church and reach the lost?
  • How aware is our church of parachurch ministries that congregation members are involved in?

[1] https://www.musydney.org.au/who-we-are

[2] Cordelia Moyse, A History of the Mothers’ Union: Women, Anglicanism and Globalisation, 1876-2008 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press) 2009, 4.

[3] Violet B. Lancaster, A Short History of the Mothers’ Union (London: The Mothers’ Union) 1958, 2.

[4] Lancaster, 5-7.

[5] Lancaster, 5-7.